Posted: February 7, 2012 in Integral Studies, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris, Religion

I’ve spent a lot of time recently looking at the psychological issue of “Shadow Work”.  The main idea here is that we all bury and disown parts of ourselves that we don’t want to deal with.   It is nicely related to Hal and Sidra Stone’s Voice Dialogue theories and also the Big Mind work directed by Genpo Roshi, but it is a very common feature in a lot of psychological work.

We have a number of separate selves that make up our personality, but some selves are buried and ignored.  Some of our interests and impulses are contrary to strongest interests and become repressed.  For example, if one is a successful business executive, one may have to bury some gentler elements of one’s personality, or even some family concerns and priorities.  When we disowns these parts of a personality then it is like caging an animal in the basement, neglecting feeding it or paying any attention to it.  When the opportunity arises or the cage door is left unlocked it’s either going to cower in fear or lunge out and bite you.

This is most commonly manifested when you have a strong emotional reaction to someone or some event which doesn’t seem entirely based on legitimate reasoning.  When you snap at someone or have a prejudice or an obsession with a particular idea.  These kind of reactions point to the unresolved shadows within yourself and are a good starting point for self examination.  It is often said that the things you hate most in other people are the things in your own personality that you dislike about yourself or that you are repressing.

It is seen very clearly in communities where strict religious beliefs lead to denying the need for any kind of informative sex education.  These religious communities disown and repress their own sexual impulses and feelings.  It is obvious that social conservatives are preoccupied with sexual Puritanism, seeing as most of their crusades have something to do with sex.  You see examples all the time of the fire and brimstone preachers who spout sexual purity from the pulpit, and then are caught with hookers in the evening.  The understandable and unfortunate consequence is that this denial gets transferred to education.  Abstinence becomes the only acceptable form of sex education, -abstinence being just another word for denial.  Even though it hasn’t worked well for many of the adults, the assumption is that burying sexual impulses in youth will be effective.  Sometimes it is buried by just ignoring it and sometimes it is buried by piling on other activities (such as athletics) in hopes that it will be sublimated.

It doesn’t work.  The states in the U.S. which have the most rigid restrictions around sex education and mandate abstinence as the only form of birth control which gets any attention, also seem to have the highest levels of teen pregnancy.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they also had the highest incidence of access to pornography.  That would be an interesting study, and in fact there are a few out there.  They fall into two categories.  The first says that religious teens are less likely to visit porn sites and more likely to visit religious sites.  I have a problem with this one as it depends entirely on what the teens were willing to report to the researcher.  The other category of studies suggests strongly that use of porn sites plus the urge to use porn sites are strongly magnified by a sense of need to control sexual impulses.  That fits the model.  Certainly we know from historical evidence that periods which exhibited the strictest social morals overtly often had the most debauchery behind closed doors.  The Victorian period is notorious for this , with everyone prim and proper in public, but lecherous in private.

Anyway, the bottom line seems to be that burying sexuality by only allowing the discussion of abstinence only leads to repressed urges which are going to be expressed somehow.  Owning and acknowledging the problem more openly would relieve that repression and help youth better come to terms with sexuality.  The end result would be a more healthy attitude in which abstinence may actually be a more frequent choice for many.

I feel that the same thing is true about drug use.  I have seen many examples in my days as a teacher of teens who are the product of very controlling and restricting parents, who, at the first opportunity, burst free into excessive indulgence and end up with problems.  Youth that is constantly told that they have to be the epitome of goodness bury the impulses that most kids have to experiment in their lives.  Especially in today’s world where media has demystified the world of drugs and sex, urges to be a little wild are natural in teens.  (And I don’t believe that media has exacerbated the situation as much as we may think, as I feel that there have always been social taboos flaunted and compromised.  Take for example old Christian monasteries or modern Catholic churches where doctrine demands the repression of sexuality but it still finds outlets in whatever opportunities and forms, twisted or otherwise, that may present themselves.)  Whether it be alcohol or drugs, the urge to be a little wild and to risk experimentation exists inside a vast majority of youth.  I remember well.  To deny it and disown it is to risk volatility.  But to own it does not mean to embrace it.  One can acknowledge an impulse or a side of one’s personality without acting it out or repressing it.

If teens have a “wild child” inside them, it can be acknowledged and owned without giving it reign.  As I pass the convertible sports car with the keys still in the ignition, I can acknowledge the impulse to hop in an take it for a joy ride.  I don’t have to do it.  I’ve read lots of studies about LSD which have made me think that it would be an exciting and perhaps even consciousness expanding experience.  That doesn’t mean that I indulge.  In the case of the car, I can recognize that there is a part of me that is looking for a little excitement, and maybe I’ll go to a car dealer and take a sports car for a test drive, dream about buying one, and perhaps even indulge myself by making an actual purchase.  With the LSD, I can acknowledge that I have an interest in consciousness expansion and maybe look into a variety of avenues to fulfill that need.

For the teen who sees his friends drinking or doing drugs and feels a tug towards more risky choices, acknowledging the feeling may lead them to ways of having more fun or engaging in more risky social activities that still allows them to remain within their values.  Having considered all sides is always going to  result in better results.

I always used to say to my students during Health classes that there was one big reason why people did drugs.  It was a fun experience!  Taking heroin, for example, is reportedly (as I’ve never done it) a huge, positive rush.  If they made you sick or feel bad, drugs wouldn’t get much traction or attention.  The problem is that, like many short term rewards, the long term consequences are far worse than the short term benefits.  To ignore the short term benefits is also to ignore the long term benefits.  A proper evaluation of the whole situation is not possible without both.

I have seen many cases of “good boys” who are the ideal sons, the devout deciple, the helpful,  considerate and polite child, who has clearly buried any thoughts of wildness, disowned them and shut them away in a dark cage within their sub-conscious, only to have them explode, -usually when they hit college and move away from home.  I can think of at least four, identical, classic cases of exactly this happening which I’ve encountered in my career as a teacher and youth worker.  I’m sure there are many more.

The concept of Shadow is very important, and is ignored by those who strive to “protect” youth, -usually from the things that the adults themselves are afraid of.  Sexuality, when disowned and buried, is far more likely to rear an ugly head.  The desire to cut loose and have fun is a strong need for youth, and comes bundled with desires to experiment with new experiences.  When disowned, this leads to desperate and uncontrolled experimentation rather than reasoned or balanced decisions.


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