The Shadow as Non-Self

All of us cast a shadow when a light is shining on us. We tend to forget this metaphor when looking at the shadow side of our psyche, personifying the shadow as the Devil, Mara, or Hitler (or some other wicked figure in human history). We don’t want to be like that, and we have done psychological work and spiritual practices, such as meditation, not to become our shadows. But, following the metaphor, can we shine a light on ourselves and not create a shadow in the process? Is the only way for a shadow not to appear is when there is no light, in total darkness? Or in total light with no form (body) to cast a shadow? To me, the path through our own inner darkness is a growing knowledge of how our experience is non-self.

Is the shadow a self? Or are we just in the habit of conceiving of it as a self? When any of us catches a glimpse of the horrors of our mind, of those thoughts and feelings that are too unacceptable to allow into consciousness, how do we speak about them to ourselves? If we say that those thoughts and feelings belong to the Devil, to Mara, to some malevolent spirit that has taken momentary possession of us, we are probably attributing self to them. They belong to a self, one that we try not to identify ourselves with. If we say to ourselves, those thoughts are me, they’re mine, they are my true thoughts and feelings, then we may over-identify with them to our detriment. Attributing a self to that layer of psychological functioning (or processing) puts order and simplicity into something that is highly complex and chaotic. The view of self works against us here.

So, our darkest urges and dirtiest thoughts are not self. It is dangerous to make them cohere into a self, and scary and overwhelming to experience them as no self, but it is healthy to see them as non-self. That is what Vipassana is for, seeing the unacceptable and horrible thoughts and feelings we have as coming and going, inwardly and outwardly pain-producing, and having no essential selfhood. But there is another type of investigation, and that is the knowledge that all thoughts and emotions have a capacity to distort, corrupt, and taint our way of seeing things. We can’t expose the faulty way of seeing things without being inside the shadowy thinking and the dark emotions — stepping back and trying to note their characteristics is not enough. The shadow becomes integrated from an illumination originating from within it, not a light falling on it from outside.

Working with the shadow, as such, is seeing into the defilements of mind the Buddha sought to liberate human beings from. Our shadows may never really go away, but our minds may be able to explore and see deeply into those areas with a meditation practice that is kind, gentle, and interested in learning more.

A Vignette


A young man in his twenties came to one of my retreats not knowing much about how I teach. He was brought up as a Fundamentalist Christian, which he mentioned as something he had gotten free of a few years back when he left home. It was not a subject he liked to talk about and didn’t see how it might affect his learning a Buddhist meditation practice.

Initially, the meditation sittings were going quite well for him. His mind was getting quiet and tranquil for minutes on end, and, on a couple of occasions, he saw a bright white light that completely engulfed his mind. He interpreted that experience as enlightenment and expressed to me how that had cleansed his mind of all impurities. I tried to explore this experience with him, but he was sure he knew exactly what it was, what it meant.

On the morning of the third day, someone fell asleep in the meditation hall and was snoring loudly. The person was near where he sat. The snoring interrupted another glorious meditation sitting with the bright light that surrounded him. He felt loving and kind to this person at first, but when the snoring increased in volume and continued even stronger than before, he lost patience, the light vanished, and he was plunged into an intense bitter rage. He started cussing, became too agitated to sit, and imagined fire coming out of his nostrils as he breathed. A devil had gotten ahold of him. He knew this demon well, as he would be visited by it whenever things were going too well. This demon was behind the recent breakup with his girlfriend, and had gotten him fired from previous jobs, and, when he was a teenager, it got him to go out looking for trouble, like getting into a fight or vandalizing a stranger’s car.

He had no idea of the psychological deep water he had gotten himself into. For him, this was going to turn into another battle with his demon self. I was glad he talked with me about it. I reassured him that we often do not realize what can get triggered, or pulled to the surface, from apparently peaceful tranquil states.

The shadow comes like an intruder into your home and acts as though he has lived there all along. He has cleverness and guile while lacking morality and integrity, though he is quite persuasive and can get you to believe almost anything. He lures you to his path, turning greed, lust, power, pride, envy, and jealousy into virtues and renunciation, generosity, truth-seeking, and compassion into vices. The self-righteous fight him as their main enemy, while the truly horrible people in the world become some part of him and believe the shadow is their true self, their real nature. But someone on the path to wisdom knows these two extremes from the inside, and through a process by which the worst parts of oneself can prompt the best parts to emerge in the service of the Dharma (the story of the Buddha fending off Mara’s attacks) there arises the formless inner light (prabhasa) and the emptiness of self (sunyata) where no shadow is to be found.

This is what I would call an honest meditator—someone who can see the non-self within the underlying layers of our consciousness, not just on the surface. This is where it counts, and this may be why the Buddha used the word atman (hidden self) instead of puggala (person) when taught that “what is taken as self is really non-self.”

Leave a Reply