I admit it: these kids are pushing my buttons.

Photo of annoyed monkey in Costa Rica

The summer is getting long, and for me, summer is never long. It’s always too short. But this year, the fighting and button pushing between my kids is making it hard for me to concentrate. I want them to go back to school so they can interact with people their own age. And so that their fighting can stop pushing my buttons.

They fight. They say mean things. They hurt each other. They cry. I feel frustrated. I can’t concentrate. I am annoyed that I can’t focus and get my work done. I lack compassion and am annoyed that they have drained my compassion (as though they have the power to do that).

We’re lonelier this summer than last, somehow. People went in different directions as things opened up, or made more plans that kept them out of town and tied up. The always-availables of last year aren’t available this year. So if they aren’t in camp, they fight. And if they fight and feel bad, I feel bad. And then I make my reaction their fault, which doesn’t make my response very compassionate.

This is the spiral I’m in today, that we’re in today. So this reading from Father Clay was helpful, calling on me to reflect on my reactions, and when they’re driving me up a wall, to see what part of me actually needs tending rather than dwelling in annoyance. I mean, I got pretty much no work done today, but I wrote this post, and I did some yoga, and I feel better now than I did three hours ago, and I will get the work done. Just not right now.

Shadow Self and What We Disown

When we have any feeling, emotion, or impulse that is not acceptable to us, we will work (consciously at first) to tell ourselves that we don’t have it. We believe that it is unacceptable because we learned that from our family, our church, our group, or our society. My self-image is that I am not like that.

I will use anger as an example. if I think that it is bad to be angry, I will begin by suppressing it. We are still aware that w are angry, but less aware than before. But then something deeper happens. I repress it. That is not a conscious process. We really don’t know that we are angry. We don’t own our anger. Our angry feelings have been split off from us. We have disowned them. I really believe that I am not angry. We now have the pathological condition of a shadow self, or a disowned self. We are emotionally sick and don’t know it; but it may show itself, for example, in depression, irritability, or obsession.

We now turn to how we project onto others this disowned self, these disowned parts of ourselves that we no longer see as part of us. Then we will see what needs to be done for healing.

To use anger as an example again: When our anger has been put into our shadow (which means we aren’t aware that we are angry), we see others as angry. Why is this? At some level, we know that anger is present, but since it’ s not in me, it must be in you. Maybe the other person is angry, but we don’t see it in ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we should not see things in others. It is good to do so, as this gives us information about them that helps us understand them better or, on occasion, to protect ourselves from them. If their behavior “drives us up a wall” and is really not threatening us personally, it is a good sign that they are touching our shadow.

Again, let’s use anger as an example: At the beginning of our spiritual growth, we all have anger. We continue to have it, but there are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with it.

At this early stage, we identify with the anger. I am the anger. At some point we realize that we are not our anger. In other words, the anger isn’t who I am.

When I recognize that the anger isn’t me, that I am not my anger, I can go in either of two directions. The healthy direction is to recognize that I am not my anger and, at the same time, to acknowledge that I am not angry. I own the anger. The anger is mine. This means that the anger doesn’t go in my shadow.

If I go in the unhealthy direction, I do not identify with the anger, I disown it. That means that I don’t see anger in me. There is anger, but I perceive it as “you” or “it.” This means that I either see someone else as angry, or anger is just out there somewhere.

The reason I do this is because I think that it is not safe or okay to be angry. I think this way because of what I have experienced. Perhaps I was taught by my family or my religion that it is wrong or a sin to be angry. Perhaps my anger has gotten me into big trouble. Whatever the reason, the anger is now in my shadow. The anger is no longer mine. It is out there.

Now, how does meditation fit in all of this? When we meditate, we just let ourselves me aware of any thoughts, feelings, emotions, or impulses. We don’t judge them. We just let ourselves be aware of them. They are just there.

Now, what is wrong with that. Nothing. What is crucial is whether I have owned my anger or have disowned my anger. In other words, do I recognize that I am angry, or is the anger outside of me?

If I have owned my anger, meditation will help me grow in the process of integrating my anger in a healthy, productive way. If I have disowned my anger, then when I meditate, the anger is seen as outside of me. I am aware, but I am aware of anger that is outside of me. No matter how much I am meditating and am aware, my anger doesn’t get integrated. Anger is still in my shadow. Only when I acknowledge I am angry can the healing begin.

Meditation may help in other lines of spiritual growth, but it won’t help me with what is in my shadow. The problem is that we don’t recognize what is in our shadow. That is why it is valuable to look at persons or situations that deeply upset us, make us angry, repulse us, cause us to hate.

When we notice these strong reactions inside of ourselves, it usually points to something in our shadow. I find it helpful to notice prominent people in politics, or in religion, who I can’t stand, people who drive me up a wall, They teach me a lot about myself. What is instructive is not whether they are right or wrong, or whether I agree or disagree with them. What is instructive is my reaction to them. That is hard for me to look at.

From the letter Spiritual Growth in Awesome Love by Father John Clay (c) 2013

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