Deep Shadow Work and the Method of ‘Two-Way Attention’

by Adam J. Pearson

Shadows are those contents of the mind that feel uncomfortable, painful, terrifying, anxiety-inducing, or otherwise disturbing to us. We know them when they arise because they hurt, disturb, or make us feel limited in some way. ‘Shadow work‘ is the process of actively acknowledging, facing, exploring, working through, and allowing our shadows to arise, be present, and subside. Shadow work involves a willingness to be open to our real experience–not our experience as we think it ‘should be’–and explore it fully. The fruit of shadow work is usually a great sense of freedom from parts of our minds that previously limited us and a greater sense of overall peace with the state of our lives.

Sometimes, however, the shadows that arise within us are staggeringly powerful and strike us as being very intimidating. We need not despair when we find ourselves facing even these ‘great dragons’ of our experience, however. There is a subtle point to shadow work that can be helpful when we are facing really challenging shadows, shadows that seem to hold strong emotional charges and almost overwhelming in their power. When these types of shadows come up, they can seem to be like powerful magnets that attract all of our attention to them. But of course, if we put all of our attention into them, we find that we get swept up in them. They pull us along and drag us down and throw us through their extreme ups and downs. We experience this so often that the only reasonable conclusion we can draw seems to be that this method just doesn’t work for these powerful leviathans within us. If we put all of our attention into a deeply entrenched or powerful shadow, it acts like a black hole that sucks us in.

What, then, can we do? What I have found helpful is to be present with the shadow, try to get inside of it and fully explore it, but with a twist. The twist is that while this process of allowing and being-with the shadow goes on, we simultaneously remain aware of the awareness in which the shadow is arising. We engage in ‘two-way attention‘; we look at the shadow and are fully present with it, but we also remain attentive to the clear awareness in which the shadow arises. The experience of using the method of two-way attention is like being aware of the movie popping up on the movie screen while also being aware of the screen itself.

Even if we do not hold any beliefs about awareness at all, when we examine the true nature of this clear, capacious, spacious, awake, attentive field in which all of our experience appears, we find that it is itself free from all problems. Let me repeat this: this awareness that has always been here since our birth and has never changed while our bodies, thoughts, and feelings have constantly changed within us, is ever free from all of our problems. The problems or shadows pop up within it, wreak inward and outward havoc, and subside. But awareness itself is untouched. Even as our bodies change within it, it itself is exactly the same, just as clear, just as untouched. Nothing can leave a single trace in it.

In fact, the Zen Buddhists sometimes call this untouchable awareness ‘Buddha Nature.’ Why? Because it has all three qualities of a Buddha: non-clinging, non-aversion, and non-delusion. It does not cling to anything, it does not push anything away, and it does not have any delusions about what arises within it. Suffering itself arises within it but does not touch it. Awareness is infinitely yielding; it allows everything and rejects nothing. It gives equal space to both monks and serial killers, both acts of generosity and grisly violence. What is important for us in shadow work is seeing that awareness is that space that is always, already free from the shadow. No shadow can tarnish awareness or harm it in anyway. It’s eternally free and nothing can bind it at all.  It is like the sky that remains even when the cloud (shadow) has passed away.

So, you may ask, if awareness is always already free from all shadows, then why bother doing shadow work? There are three main reasons we engage in shadow work. The first is that if we do not, the shadows remain operative and constantly influencing and often limiting our behaviour and causing us suffering even without our knowledge. The second is that shadow work is part of a mindful, engaged way of living that remains deeply honest and open to experience as it is, not as we feel it should be if we are to be “wise enlightened people.” The third is that over time, shadow work works to decondition or recondition our body-minds to work through harmful habits of thinking and seeing so that we can see things more clearly and with less emotional self-sabotage (e.g. giving up on ourselves before we give ourselves the chance to try something, etc.). In short, even though awareness is always already free, shadow work is still worthwhile for these three reasons; it speaks to lived experience and loosens up the contents of the mind on which we would otherwise get stuck.

The thing is, though, that the twin recognitions (1) that this clear awareness that has always been fundamental to who we are, to our true nature, is already free from our shadows and that (2) working through shadows is beneficial for the body-mind and our overall experience of life can be made to work together. How? Through the method of ‘two-way attention.’ Two-way attention means remaining aware of the space that is free from shadows–awareness–and the shadow itself that is arising and causing suffering and disturbance in the body-mind–simultaneously or at the same time. Just as we can be aware of both the television that is unaffected by whatever show it is displaying and the show itself that we are watching, so can we be aware of both the shadow and the awareness in which it is arising.

So, what does this mean practically? How can this realization help us? It means that no matter how powerful a shadow that arises may be, no matter how great a hold it may seem to have, there is part of us–awareness–that is already free from it. Moreover, this part of us cannot ever be touched or affected by the shadow in any way. So even as we do the shadow work process on the shadow, we retain some of our attention on the space of awareness in which it is appearing, this clear, spacious, awake emptiness that is filled with the universe as we encounter it here and now. Some attention on the shadow, some on awareness. This is the method of two-way attention. When we use this method, we can work through even the most powerful, most intimidating, and deeply-entrenched shadows, even if they have decades of conditioning behind them.

The rediscovery of awareness is the rediscovery of a safe space within us that can never be contaminated or harmed in any way. This is not to say that we should ‘escape’ into awareness or cling to it. Escapism and clinging both involve a rejection of reality, of the way things are, and causes of suffering; they resolve nothing and give rise to further problems. What the term ‘safe space’ means is that even as we nakedly face our shadows, we know that there is a secure part of us that the shadow cannot touch. We taste and experience this part directly; it is not a theory, not a matter of faith. Therefore, we can ultimately face the shadow while knowing that however much fear or pain it may give rise to in us, there is a part of us–awareness–that is always, already free from that fear and pain. Two-way attention involves being honest about and attentive to these twin dimensions of our experience: the disturbances and the shadows on one hand and the formless freedom of awareness on the other.

Some Questions and Answers:

Q: I know how to do awareness meditation, but I was taught not to be a spectator and to go into the heart of it if I truly want to be rid of it. As you can tell, though,  when the ‘great dragon’ of a deep shadow comes up, it can thrash you around.  Is this like awareness meditation?

A:   What I’m recommending is not simply ‘awareness meditation;’ I’m not saying “just abide as awareness and ignore everything else.” I consider that to be escapism and a form of attachment to awareness.

I’m also not recommending forgetting awareness altogether; doing that is equivalent to ignoring half of the coin that you are. Part of us has form–the body-mind with all of its amazing systems and contents–and the other is formless (awareness). Some will tell you to focus on one of these two sides of our being and forget the other one. I’m saying ‘look both ways’ at once.

In other words, two-way attention involves pointing the arrow of attention in two directions at once: one at the shadow you’re working with (or any thought or feeling or anything at all coming up within you) and the other at the awareness in which that shadow is seen. Awareness is that part of you that is vibrantly awake and alive and knows and attends to things. Whatever you are seeing right now with your eyes open has form. Each form you are looking at–even this computer screen–is seen in awareness. That is the part of you that is aware, for instance, of the computer screen. This is true for what we call ‘outward things’ — things outside the body — but also for ‘inward things’ (thoughts, feelings, memories, imaginings, fantasies, etc.).

Just as you can look at the computer screen and be aware of all of its qualities while still being aware of how it appears in awareness, so can you be aware of a shadow you are working through while still being aware of how it is present only in awareness. This way, you have one ‘foot’ of your attention planted in the shadow and the other in the awareness that the shadow is popping up in. This takes some practice.

Q: Is two-way attention supposed to be a natural and easy process? Sometimes, I don’t feel like it works that way.  The dragons come to the surface and every ounce of my attention and energy goes in to it. I can’t think of anything else but it and I do get swept away. Once you are in, it is hard to get space back.

A: Let’s be honest; tw0-way attention isn’t always easy at first.  It’s a new way of seeing, a new way of focusing attention, and it takes some getting used to.  Our ordinary tendency is to jump between one form and the next and either jump from all the forms and focus on awareness to the exclusion of all else, or else forget about awareness altogether. Two-way attention is not like any of these habitual ways of relating to the world and to our experience. These complex jumpings from one object of attention to another are complicated and exhausting. Two-way attention is simple and easy. It plants one part of our attention in the deepest core and heart of the shadow we’re working with and another in the clear awareness that is awake to that shadow here and now. Just this, nothing more. Aware of the shadow, aware of awareness. That’s all.

If the shadow sucks us up again, we simply recognize this fact and restart the two-way attention practice anew. It’s like riding a bike; even if you fall off, you get back up again and eventually, you start to fall less often. Two-way attention is like this too. You may fall off of the two-way attention point and be totally caught up in the shadow for a while. That’s okay. Just climb back ‘on the bike’ and set up the two-way attention again. There’s no penalty for falling off; it’s not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ Just get up again and continue without blaming yourself or feeling bad about it. This is a practice; you’re practicing. Keep it up and both the attention, and your life, will get smoother, just as the bike ride punctuated by falls eventually gives way into a smooth-flowing course through the forest.

***

For more explanations and tips about doing shadow work see “Reflections on Shadow Work.”

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