Dark Shadows

Dark-ShadowsBefore I get started I want to mention that I’m really excited about my event in Manchester England on this coming Thursday. I will be sharing the stage with John Robb, punk rock musician, producer of records by Cornershop (one of my favourites), author of the definitive biography of The Stone Roses and interviewer of authors of dodgy Zen books. It should be a pretty fab evening!

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When I was in Germany someone asked me why enlightened masters have “dark spots.” What she meant was what people into the trendy newspeak current in American spiritual circles like to call “shadows.” Hence the name of today’s article.

Shadows is apparently a Jungian term. It refers, says Wikipedia, to, “an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself.” They add that, “because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative.” More specifically, the way it’s used a lot in spiritual circles these days tends mostly to refer to the way some seemingly otherwise “enlightened” people often behave very badly and appear to be unaware of how this bad behavior affects others. They may even appear not to know that obviously bad behavior is bad. It’s hard to imagine that Joshu Sasaki, for example, would have continued groping his female students as he is alleged to have done, if he understood how badly it was affecting so many people.

In the past the preferred explanation when things like this happened was that the master in question was simply a big fat phony. He was just stringing people along pretending to be enlightened when really he wasn’t. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done those things.

In the early days of Eastern spirituality in the West, there was a widespread belief that the gurus, Zen Masters and other Eastern mystics washing up on our shores were beyond all things human. In the movie Annie Hall, Shelly Duvall plays a woman on a date with Woody Allen (as Alvy Singer) who is devoted to a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-like guru. She gushes, “He’s God! This man is God!”

Woody Allen sees the guru coming out of the toilet and quips, “There’s God coming out of the men’s room!” In the context of the time the movie was released (1977) this was a funny and astute observation. To be enlightened meant to be God, and to be God meant never having to use the toilet or do any of the things one associates with the mundane, profane or just plain human.

I’d like to believe we’ve moved a bit beyond that by now. Although it’s pretty obvious there are plenty of people who still believe in God-like gurus and masters. I had a conversation not that long ago with some people who seriously believed they felt some kind of magical aura or some such thing when the Dalia Lama passed withing a few meters of them. Of course, the Dalai Lama exudes no such magical aura. What happened to them would have happened if any celebrity they admired came that close to them. It’s just the excitement one feels when meeting one’s idols. I felt it when I met Gene Simmons of KISS but did not attribute it to any sort of cosmic with-it-ness rays being beamed from within his body.

But let’s say you’re not one of those who believes teachers of Eastern mystical traditions are God-like supermen and superwomen. Still, you have to wonder when you see stuff as glaringly obvious as what we’ve been seeing with Joshu Sasaki, Eido Shimano, Genpo Roshi and a number of others. These guys had to have known that what they were doing was causing trouble. Right? Even the most un-enlightened among us could have seen that much!

What is “enlightenment” if it doesn’t at the very least mean that you stop behaving like a complete asshole? You might be able to forgive your teacher for one lurid affair with a student, maybe even two. But if he’s doing it again and again and again what does that say about him as a person?What does it say about the “enlightenment” he claims to have achieved? Is it worth working for at all?

What if it’s not a sex scandal? What if the teacher in question is just an obstinate jerk who constantly stands in the way of what the sangha wants to do? What if he’s rude, cutting, even sarcastic and mean-spirited sometimes? How could someone be “enlightened” and still retain such negative qualities?

The way Buddha’s life story gets told these days, he’s sitting under the Bodhi tree about to achieve enlightenment when Mara, the nearest equivalent in Indian cosmology of the time to Satan, appears and tries to tempt him away from meditation by promising sex, power and riches if he just gives up his quest. Buddha touches the ground to symbolize his grounding in reality and Mara goes away, never to return.

But in older versions of Buddha’s life story, Mara doesn’t appear just that one time. Instead, Mara appears again and again to Buddha, throughout his life. It’s not that Buddha was subject to hallucinations or was being visited by supernatural entities. Rather, these stories are a poetic way of letting us know that even the greatest of teachers still had his own stuff to deal with. Even after his experience of complete, perfect and unsurpassed enlightenment.

Dogen said, “Realization does not break a person even as the refection of the moon does not break a dewdrop. The entire sky can be reflected in a dewdrop on a blade of grass.”

Realization does not suddenly turn you into the Hollywood stereotype of an “enlightened being.” It can’t. That stereotype is false. It doesn’t exist anywhere. But still, one ought to be able to expect at least decent behavior from someone in the position of a so-called “spiritual master.”

I think the bottom line is honesty. Someone once asked me my opinion as to why Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was never the subject of any sort of major scandal when his behavior was worse than some of the guys who find themselves the subject of headlines in the Huffington Post. The reason is simple, if you ask me. It’s because Trungpa, as bad as he often was, was always perfectly open about his behavior. He never claimed not to be an alcoholic sex maniac. Everyone around him knew what was going on because none of it was hidden. And while I have some serious qualms with much of Trungpa’s behavior, you can’t call him deceptive. And this is why, I think, that he was never the subject of any scandals.

But to return to the question I started off with, spiritual masters have shadows because human beings always have shadows. Even Buddha himself had them. I think it’s right to expect at least better than average behavior from such a person. But it’s unreasonable to expect perfection from anyone. Besides, perfection is always just an idea.

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I’m in the UK now. Here’s the line up of events yet to come:

– Thursday 17th October
In Conversation with Brad Warner and Jon Robb — The Punk meets the Monk
Manchester, UK

– 18-19 October Zen Retreat    /    20th October  Public Talk in Hebden Bridge, England


–  23 October 7pm, I’ll be speaking in London.
Caledonian Road Centre
486 Caledonian Road
London N7 9RP

– 24 October, 8pm, I’ll be speaking in Oxford

Merton College, Oxford
Hosted the Neave Society (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2203213006/)

**Oxford University students only**

– 25 Oct In Conversation 7pm-9pm  / 26 October Zazen Day

Merchant City Yoga Centre Glasgow, Scotland


– November 8-10 Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California (1 & 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles)

*   *   *

I am self-financing my current tour. Your donations help a lot. Thank you!

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25 Responses

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  1. blake
    blake October 15, 2013 at 7:14 am |

    Great post and all but CORNERSHOP!?

  2. blake
    blake October 15, 2013 at 7:15 am |

    [accidentally posted comment before finishing]

    I thought *I* was the only person who liked Cornershop! It’s always on my iPhone.

  3. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel October 15, 2013 at 9:11 am |

    A girl friend told me the other day, “You’re an arsehole, but at least you’re one to whom one may say it!”
    I deeply believe that we all need the honesty to acknowledge our weak points and failures, and be honest with it (sorry for the pleonasm), because it’s much easier to avoid being an arse when you know you can easily be one than if you do believe that you can in no way be one.
    If you know that you are likely to become authoritarian in some circumstances (that’s my case), despite all your big talk against authoritarianism, then whether you see it coming or someone tells you about it, then you may refrain. Not an easy thing, but still. But if you are in sheer denial of that potentiality, no one, not even your mother, will be able to warn you of what’s coming.

  4. sri_barence
    sri_barence October 15, 2013 at 10:05 am |

    Hope you have a great time in Manchester. I liked this post (although you’ve said much the same things before). I think it bears repeating. Although I’ve never had an “enlightenment experience,” I find it hard to believe that having any kind of dramatic experience would permanently change a person’s character, although someone might use such an experience as an inspiration to do better.
    I also find it hard to believe in the “shadow” theory. I think people are aware of what they do, and how their actions affect others, even if they pretend not to know. Unless someone is suffering from genuine mental illness, in which case I’m not even qualified to speculate.

  5. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel October 15, 2013 at 1:59 pm |

    I’m not sure that “people are aware of what they do”, as it’s horribly easy for any individual to lie to oneself, despite what common sense would tell you it is. Of course, a part of us “knows”, but we lie to ourselves and get away (think we are getting away) with it.

  6. Rich
    Rich October 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm |

    Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

    yea, we lie to ourselves and others.

    I’m. Sure Mara visited Buddha more than once.

  7. Fred
    Fred October 15, 2013 at 4:46 pm |

    The purpose of a defense mechanism is to keep some of the unacceptable parts
    of the self in the dark.

    Yet, without owning and acknowledging our ” asshole self ” how can it escape
    from the shadow.

    Dogen says that ” to understand a greatly enlightened person is ‘nevertheless
    deluded’ is the quintessence of practice. “

  8. Fred
    Fred October 15, 2013 at 4:58 pm |

    Two exciting guys. One is thinking ” God I need a drink, and a piece of ass. ”


  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 15, 2013 at 10:05 pm |

    The walk tonight, somewhere on the way back I was transmogrified into stone. Stone walked the PC’s as breath, home. Stone rolled up the driveway, pitching, yawing, and rolling free as can be. I only had the one place, and I didn’t have that.

    That’s what it means to me, “It only falls on one spot”.

    Best I could do, zucchinipants. Am I making sense, simeonjin.

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm |

    Remember – Lee Darrow pioneered this field of stage hypnosis safety. Come and learn from the man who INVENTED the study!


    ishinashini done right, for those who need a safety on their pistol, or a Chinese handcuff on their tongue (Brad).

  11. Tuomo
    Tuomo October 15, 2013 at 10:40 pm |

    Dark shadows… I really like the idea that you (Brad) have previously talked about, the idea of saving all sentient beings from yourself. Instead of trying to drown in everlasting sea of perfection, we propably should remember to endorse our humanity by accepting our lurking shadows and saving the world from their bad influences, not by trying to cover them with glitterdust. Little by little, each moment might begin to look more genuine and more present – or something like that.

    Thank you Brad for inspiring post (hope to see you in Finland, hehe).

  12. Andy
    Andy October 16, 2013 at 9:08 am |

    Sri-Barence wrote:

    I also find it hard to believe in the “shadow” theory. I think people are aware of what they do, and how their actions affect others, even if they pretend not to know. Unless someone is suffering from genuine mental illness, in which case I’m not even qualified to speculate. .

    To my dusky mind, the difficulty with this subject is that what might be categorized as a genuine mental illness, or pathological, could be applied to anyone’s inter/intra personal behaviour, and often when experiencing particular conditions or types of situation.

    I remember, for example, a time when I was under great domestic and professional stresses. A family member lied- very badly! – about something crucial to our welfare and of a persistently distressing nature. It took me a week for something to trigger the realization that I’d known that that person had lied and what the consequences were for our family. Something had shut down in me as a way to cope. What if this had happened regularly? As a child?

    But I’d shut down for a good reason: the distress, anger and fear was overwhelming. And I had to leave the house for a whole day just to safely process the mess in my head. A mess which importantly thrived upon tendencies, flaws and weakness of my own – the recognition of which is a tough call when the impact of the behaviour of others could so easily have remained the sole focus of my coping.

    When the parts of our psyches that function to protect us engage, they are necessarily powerful and sudden – ‘flight or fight’ (or lie down and bare the belly) for instance. Has anyone ever dreaded a phone-call and felt the surge of reactivity when it rings? And what about when said phone-call is done and dusted – ever experienced the after effects each time the phone rings?

    When these powerful and sudden impulses, which evolved for survival reactivity, become wired excessively to certain types of situation and mental formations where there is in fact no danger, healthy behaviour (and by that I mean behaviour that the individual acknowledges he/she would have taken and do take when they’re outside the trigger zone/time) can be suddenly diverted into the less healthy response.

    This sudden and highly charged diverting can become embedded and automatic. It can become a feed-back loop which not only ring-fences the unhealthy behaviour, but which, if unchecked can feed off repeated experiences in which the feed-back loop is triggered. And in doing so it can also draw in other psychological functions into its ‘protective’ sphere.

    For this reason I think it is important not to think of such behaviour only in terms of a person lying to themselves or even to others about what they are doing – what is going on – and the effect it has on themselves and others. In my experience, what might be called out-right lying (to oneself or others) in this case is part of what is drawn in as associated supporting responses to the core, embedded behaviour.

    I’ve experienced a person who would, when the process became triggered, seem fine until something revealed a seemingly low level of agitation that might manifest as slightly odd behaviour. Just asking if they were okay might end up with responses that were evasive, non-specific, involve claims of memory loss about something done or said seconds before, and even jollity. Five minutes later they could be behaving very strangely, and a further ‘what’s up’ induce the same but to a higher degree.

    Sitting calmly with a person with this difficulty and going through things step by step – even when the person is ostensibly okay with the process and is aware that they have a difficulty – would reveal the very embedded nature of the problem. The process would involve the person identifying and labeling an event, and then the simple effects they felt and the thoughts, images and memories that would arise. There would often be a point in this step by step recall where they would get stuck and start confusing the process in similar patterns of agitation and evasion – seemingly unable to answer very simple questions.

    With patience and calmness the person would suddenly reveal a passage of thoughts, feelings and memories with genuine surprise and distress, and then move towards the secondary often distorted and irrational judgements and responses that grew out of that missing-link experience, that revelatory passage. Having revealed that passage, the next difficulty would be the level of guilt and self-reproach that would, if not treated sensitively but objectively, drag the person back into the same pattern.

    Rather than merely lying, what could be called lies where only able to be admitted to by that person when the missing-link passage was revealed and tolerated.

    What seemed to be happening was that that core feed-back loop presented that person with a different reality which excluded the memory of the thought processes, and at some point where it triggered its protective systems/structures. That different reality had an urgency and logic of its own that also entailed the immediate acceptability of a number of secondary responses and reactions such as lying.

    Indeed, confronting such a person about their lies is likely to trigger that core behaviour, and in doing so reinforce it, and reinforce the lying, and mark you out as a trigger. That person might withdraw from you or act aggressively towards you. And in an intimate relationship this can be devastating, creating circumstances that can spiral out of control and even begin to shape the behaviour of the putatively ‘healthy’ person – because I think we’re all susceptible to this kind of process becoming chronic. Because I think in some way, at some level we all have something like it going on.

    The person I mentioned with extreme difficulties in intimate, familial relationships, behaved largely as a well-adjusted person in the work place and amongst friends. But it still limited their ability to cope and to succeed where and when the spheres of home and work crossed over – when and where one was dependent on the other, or when and where interpersonal relationships at work shadowed familial dynamics.

    The question for me is not if, but how am I doing that/that is going on and doing me. I don’t expect to be able to always notice these things under my own steam – others may do so first. In fact one person might see it as unhealthy and another person acting similarly might defend it as healthy. Some people might exploit it unconsciously or consciously. Kids are very good at that!

    Which makes me wonder about how this works for individuals within families, sanghas and societies. It seems to me that at every level we need others to help us see ourselves and not only rely on whatever individual strategies and practices we determine will and are helping us to ‘see’ ourselves, and that the group matrices we’re embedded within also need that dynamic to remain healthy.

  13. MuChak
    MuChak October 16, 2013 at 10:06 am |

    One of the challenges I face in my practice is the vacillation between extremes: all “spiritual” and no mundane and vise-versa. When this happens, Mara tends to have a field day, giving rise to the Five Hindrances (lust, ill-will, laziness, worry and doubt). From my own experience, when I indulge in either extreme, the “Shadow” (Mara) appears with fervor. In truth, “Shadow” is not good not bad–just an idea or concept. Yet, any onset of the Hindrances usually is a result of tension due to an extreme state of mind/being. The end result is for the body to restore/seek balance. This is why Buddha suggests the Middle Way: cutting the Hindrances at the root. It’s easy to write about this stuff and theorize about it, but when the mind is in the throes of any of the Hindrances it can be tough going. This is why having a spiritual friend or access to a master is indispensable; or at least having a book from the Warner Canon at hand (kudos Brad!) to help one get through.

    Perhaps enlightenment is an ongoing process of discovery–learning and unlearning our personal limitations, habitations and old concepts and opening up to a new perspective on reality…Maybe, through our practice, we learn what works best for us and what doesn’t. Eventually, we may reach a point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired from the influence of the Five Hindrances and change our actions…Yet, without being under the influence of the Five Hindrances, how would we ever gain wisdom and compassion?

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 16, 2013 at 2:39 pm |

    Lots of profound thoughts about practice here, thank you Sri-Barence, MuChak, and Proulx Michel (did I mention Brad Warner?).

    Sri-Barence, have you seen “Emotional Intelligence”, by Daniel Goleman? The theme of his work is that events are stored by the amygdala in memory along with an adrenalin marker, from before an individual has language. It’s a kind of early survival mechanism. Later events can trigger these memories along with the adrenalin they were stored with. For the individual, circumstances suddenly cause a rush of adrenalin and emotion and they are really without a clue about why, so they invent one. Sound like what you’re talking about?

    The part about the memories stored before an individual has language, that’s why it’s so hard to get at these memories; they can’t really be unprogrammed, but recognizing they are there helps in accepting and coping with adult behaviour that seems totally irrational.

    The five hindrances, there were specific meditations for each in the sermon volumes.

    “In (one) who pays systematic attention to the feature of beauty, sensual lust, if not already arisen, arises: or, if already arisen, is liable to more-becoming and increase.

    … I know not of any other single thing of such power to prevent the arising of sensual lust, if not already arisen: or, if arisen, to cause its abandonment, as the feature of ugliness (in things). In (one) who gives systematic attention to the feature of ugliness (in things) sensual lust… is abandoned.” (AN I 3, Pali Canon volume 1 pg 2-4).

    Similarly, the feature for anger was “the repulsive feature (of things)”, and the best cure he had was systematic attention to “the heart’s release through amity.”

    Gautama recommended stirring up energy to combat sloth and torpor (“I’m feeling sloth today”), and exercising calm to overcome “flurry and worry” (if I recall correctly).

    With regard to doubt and wavering, the thing most likely to give rise to doubt and wavering was unsystematic attention, while the thing most likely to lessen or dispense with doubt and wavering altogether was systematic attention.

    “There are… things good and things bad, things blameworthy and things not blameworthy, things mean and exalted, things that are constituent parts of darkness and light. Systematic attention thereto, if made much of, is no food for the arising of doubt and wavering not yet arisen, or for the more becoming and growth thereof, if already arisen. (SN V 105-106, PTS pg 89)

    Also in AN, Gautama advised practitioners to be “unperplexed as to the states that are skilled” in order to abandon doubt and wavering. On the side of skill were the elements of the ten-fold path (ten for adepts), although the states that were skilled were not specifically named.

    Getting rid of the hindrances meant that mindfulness was set up. At least that’s how I read it, at MN III 134-136 (PTS volume 3 pgs 180-182).

  15. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 16, 2013 at 2:57 pm |

    The relationship between reason, understanding, belief, and action I think has taken me a long time to appreciate.

    I have watched a vacillation in what I believe I must now do raise my hand, and lower it again. Like the folks in the picture I posted earlier, I did not will my hand to rise, but when I looked to find what it was about this place that breathed with my belief about what I must do in mind, my hand rose.

    Nobody here but us knot-holes.

  16. Fred
    Fred October 16, 2013 at 5:30 pm |

    -The relationship between reason, understanding, belief, and action-

    Reason is a type of thinking that attempts to rationalize what is observed.

    Understanding at the deepest level just sees what is although there is no see-er.

    Belief is adhering to thought patterns outside the observance of what is.

    Action is the actualizing of the fundamental point through ( human )
    awareness without the impingement of conditioning.

  17. Harlan
    Harlan October 17, 2013 at 8:06 am |

    “Trungpa, as bad as he often was, was always perfectly open about his behavior. ”

    I don’t know if I buy your conjecture about his openness.. I guess he might have been more open than most addicts. But I think he too benefited from his followers seeing multicolored orgasmic cosmic auras and other imaginary embellishments surrounding him. Today he would be under much more scrutiny. We have no real insight into which parts of his behavior he was able to hide. But we’ve all heard the stories..


  18. Andy
    Andy October 17, 2013 at 11:51 am |

    Mark, was this

    “Sri-Barence, have you seen “Emotional Intelligence”, by Daniel Goleman? […] Sound like what you’re talking about?”

    addressed to me, re my long post, rather than Sri?

  19. Fred
    Fred October 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm |

    Wikipedia – Goleman’s Amygdala Hijack

    “From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus goes directly to the amygdala while another part is sent to the neocortex (the “thinking brain”). If the amygdala perceives a match to the stimulus, i.e., if the record of experiences in the hippocampus tells the amygdala that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received. If, however, the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neo-cortex. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively”

  20. Fred
    Fred October 17, 2013 at 4:14 pm |

    “I find it hard to believe that having any kind of dramatic experience would permanently change a person’s character, although someone might use such an experience as an inspiration to do better.”

    “The last time I tried mushrooms, I had a very interesting experience. I was trying to let go, and not control the experience. I decided the best way to do that would be do do zazen. During zazen, I tried to let go of my sense of self, and just let the experience happen. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to find any self to let go of! I described this experience with my wife, and she said that maybe I was trying to hard, or that maybe I misunderstood what was meant by letting go of self. I thought about this, and realized that I always thought I understood Zen practice, but that this understanding was actually getting in my way.”

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 17, 2013 at 5:07 pm |

    Yes indeed, Andy; thanks for that careful analysis, and for the mutilation of the poem on the last thread (and to Fred for letting me know it was actually a send-up, as always, thank you Fred). Fred found the better summary than what I gave.

    On that last post, Fred, my experience is that there is a place where the understanding is the practice, and that curiously dovetails exactly with the conversation I’m having with myself on these threads about belief translating into action without volition as the movement of breath relaxes.

    The aspect of practice I’m concerned with now is Chen Man-ching’s assertion that relaxation takes place along the spine from the tailbone to the crown of the head. If I look for three directions right where I am in space, and free right where I am in space to shift and move, sometimes right where I am stays in the lower abdomen and stretches under the pelvis and up the spine, inhaling and exhaling. The hard part is not getting on the mule, letting the sense of location and the activity develop out of necessity in the movement of breath. Or you could say that’s the easy part, because it’s just the exercise of the senses that comes naturally in the movement of breath.

    To believe in an understanding of practice is not practice, the fundamental is the grace of self-surrender in the movement of breath.

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm |

    And yet, the belief is a part of practice, the belief causes me to act and carries the process of understanding forward, as I experience the result of my belief in the absence of volition.

  23. Fred
    Fred October 17, 2013 at 5:22 pm |

    Mark said “On that last post, Fred, my experience is that there is a place where the understanding is the practice, and that curiously dovetails exactly with the conversation I’m having with myself on these threads about belief translating into action without volition as the movement of breath relaxes. ”

    I can see that if I don’t look at your words directly.

    *understanding is the practice and belief translating into action without volition as the movement of breath relaxes*

  24. Fred
    Fred October 17, 2013 at 5:33 pm |

    seeing the nature
    of the practice of nothing
    the wind in the leaves

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm |

    the wind in the leaves
    rustles and stirs, then settles
    the sky opens wide

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