Enlightening the Shadow and Chakras
Enlightening the Shadow and Chakras
by Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat
What does the path of spiritual awakening consist of?
Fundamentally, spiritual practice gives birth to an ever-growing realization: there is a greater truth than the self.
In realizing this truth, we do not deny the self, or the ego, its necessary role. Besides being the place from which we awaken, the ego is needed to interface with the outer world and help us function effectively therein. Its job is to organize, plan, make decisions, and problem solve.
Yet, for most of us, the ego dominates our being rather than serving as a tool of consciousness. Meanwhile, what remains hidden is the more noble aspect of who we are: the transcendent consciousness of bliss, clarity, and non-clinging.
Fortunately, we can successfully work with both at the same time. When well-cultivated, the transcendent consciousness can embrace the ego without being dominated by it. As we engage in the process of spiritual awakening, we learn and practice how to keep this transcendence as the focus of our awareness, while engaging the ego as a tool in the service of doing so. This means reversing the usual human situation, where the ego is in charge and spirituality its addendum.
After all, it is to the transcendent consciousness that we owe our freedom and our greatest feelings of love. When drawing on transcendence we communicate well, feel like we belong, and love without clinging. As we endeavour to heal ourselves, one another, and the planet, we do so most successfully from this perspective.
The Horse and the Cart
However, we’re subject to familial, tribal, and societal conditioning. All these influences lead most of us to put the cart before the horse. We tend to lead with the ego, in other words, putting worldly needs and our basic preferences first.
As mentioned, the spiritual life involves reversing this order. This is a tumultuous undertaking, to turn 180 degrees from how we’ve been brought up. To do so, we must meet hidden forces in the psyche.
If we see the awakened consciousness as the metaphorical horse, then, the ego becomes the cart and its rightful place is behind the horse. Having them in the right order (horse first, cart second!) is essential, or neither can get very far.
What happens to the ego when we do this? Contrary to what many think, it flourishes in its rightful and appropriate place: as a tool to help put our core welfare, as represented by awakening, first. The other aspects of our life are put in balance and we fare much much better.
How do we go about putting and keeping the horse before the cart? We need to work it from every angle – with our actions as well as our views. That is, we work from both the practical side and from a philosophical or psychological aspect.
As an example of how this works, from a practical point of view we use our organizations Planet Dharma (our teachings) and Clear Sky (our retreat center) as vehicles to learn to share, love, and collaborate more fully. We live and work together, using all aspects of our lives as tools for awakening, communicating consciously and addressing the issues and conflicts (and loves and joys) that arise.
In this way, our lives also serve to help us explore the inner: the plethora of views, feelings, and drives (both acknowledged and emerging) that arise – particularly around the potent issues of money, sex, and power/control.
Only the Shadow Knows
When our parental and social conditioning leads, setting the ego-centered cart in front of the horse, there is an unintended consequence that many aspects of our inherent power get squelched – really squelched, even to the point of being pushed into the unconscious. When this happens, we see the power and vitality naturally embodied by us and every human fall into the shadows of our unconscious.
This is the psychological shadow, a phrase coined by Carl Jung, and it refers to drives and desires that are labelled taboo by our society or families.
Because desires propel our existence––I want to play, I want a new car, I want to be an astronaut––having some of them hidden away in darkness impedes our growth and well-being.
These shadow forces are not evil in and of themselves, yet they can appear as uncomfortable or distressing images and feelings that represent our blocked energies. Uncovering, retrieving, and reintegrating these desires is part of the spiritual path, so that their energies can once more add “the spice of life” to our lives, making for a richer experience of the full spectrum of human experience.
For any being that is awakening its consciousness, then, meeting the shadow is a fundamental and necessary part of the ongoing spiritual path. What’s more, it’s an indispensable resource for healing ourselves, our relationships, our society, and our planet.
Since shadow work can feel intimidating, it’s natural to wonder: is there a way to do this safely and methodically?
The Chakras from the Bottom Up
One way to shine a light on these energies is a tried and tested method utilizing the chakra system. Chakras are metaphorical energy centers in the body that manage various aspects of our lives. While each chakra is typically associated with a different area of the body, it’s important to note that chakras are not physical objects. Rather, they are focus-points of energy blockage or flow.
Again, we’re faced with the conundrum of having been conditioned to try to move around with the cart in front of the horse (a frustrating endeavour if there ever was one). As a result, the first thing we usually have to meet is the aspect of the blockage of the energy. Blockages will manifest as resistance, deadness, strong emotions, or not even being able to hear it.
Then, once the chakra energies have been cleared or “purified,” we can experience and work with their flowing aspect. This is one of the main undertakings of the spiritual life, and a tremendous source of bliss or joy. The chakras are one way spiritual traditions describe retrieving or reconnecting with our natural energy.
Traditionally, there are seven chakras. Just as each chakra is focused within a particular part of the body, each one also tends to pertain to a gland or organ. These are summarized below, and later we’ll address which other aspects of our lives the chakras relate to.
The Chakras Defined
Our shadow material affects the functioning of these chakras, manifesting in blocked ways as well as overactive ways. Once these shadow energies are cleared, the energies in the chakras have a balanced manifestation. The energy then unfolds as it should, leading us to ever-increasing awakening, and the life that we have always wanted to live.
- 1st chakra: The root center, in and around the perineum is associated with the adrenal gland (although the adrenal glands are located higher in the body).
- 2nd chakra: The sexual center, in and around the genitals (associated with the ovaries/testicles).
- 3rd chakra: The solar plexus, in and around the lower chest and upper abdomen (associated with the pancreas).
- 4th chakra: The heart center (associated with the thymus gland).
- 5th chakra: The throat center (associated with the thyroid gland).
- 6th chakra: The divine eye, in the middle of the forehead (associated with the pituitary gland).
- 7th chakra: The crown, the top of the head (associated with the pineal gland).
Obviously, then, our glands and areas of our body are affected by how much the energies are blocked, or how they are flowing or overflowing through the chakras. Clearly, this influences our entire organism and thus how we feel, function, and generally experience life.
Equally, as we balance the energies trapped in the shadow aspects of these chakras we also heal the body and our entire selves. And this healthy energy radiates, benefiting others. (Extra material: our podcast episode on money, sex, power and the chakras.)
Blocks and Flow in the First Three Chakras
When the Root or first chakra is blocked, it can manifest as depression. When overactive, it shows up as dogmatism or tyranny. And when in flow, the first chakra’s energy manifests as faith.
The first chakra pertains to issues around survival. In modern terms, this survival is really about resources, of which our universal measure is money. When we freak out about money, then, it’s an issue of trust, of trusting that we have enough and that there’s enough to go around.
Typically, when a person feels that their money is at risk they feel that their survival is, too. If energy is not flowing through the first chakra and we have an ego/cart first approach, we’ll lack faith – we’ll find trusting in the universe to be a shady wager. We’ll likely hoard our resources and be leery of anyone broaching the topic.
We may struggle with depression, for example, and surprise even ourselves at our extreme reactions around the subject of money. We can get so used to this state that we don’t even realize we’re depressed or reactive. We may believe it’s simply normal.
The good news is that, as our faith that the universe is always supporting us grows greater and more pervasive, then the horse moves to first place. Then truly huge amounts of energy––after all, the universe is behind us!––can be applied towards our goals. Which takes us to the second chakra.
The Sexual Center or second chakra relates to identity, as well as to creativity. After all, sex is one of life’s most creative acts, and our sense of self is shaped by those around us. So, when we go to bed with someone––typically our most intimate act––this tells us and others who we are. Consequently, much of society functions with some kind of orientation towards this subject.
When we explore the boundaries of our (or another’s) sexual self-image, we’re likely to disturb some very sensitive issues around who we think we are. We may react when someone suggests we are Mr. Nice Guy, if we see ourselves as the Sexy but Forbidden Guy from the Wrong Side of the Tracks. Or if our self-image is that of the Girl Next Door, we may feel very upset if someone treats us like a Temple Harlot. And vice versa.
It’s all about self-image here. Essentially, we do anything and everything to protect it. This is why there is such a strong link between sex and violence. It is also why so many divorces are really messy: our self-image gets seriously threatened by the separation.
When the energy in the second chakra is blocked, we use poor judgment. We sleep with the wrong people, ones who don’t support our aspirations or ambitions. We also tend to make decisions based on our worries more than our desires. When this chakra is overactive, we live in a bubble filled with delusions and fantasies that have little to do with our actual situation.
In contrast, when these energies are in flow, we can enjoy being imaginative and experimental with our own and others’ sense of self. We can appreciate the freshness of trying new things or doing old things in new ways.
Moving up, the third chakra at the solar plexus is about power and control, and therefore our sense of independence and self-direction. We meet its shadow aspect every time we say something along the lines of, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
We all want to feel in control of our own life. Yet, doing what someone else wants doesn’t inherently mean loss of independence. At the center of our being, we are always free. However, our ego has a chronic fear of being enslaved, and it’s this fear itself that is the problem.
In fact, as my (Doug’s) root teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, once said, “The greatest spiritual hindrance you face is doing your own thing.” Our attachment to our preferences is a kind of slavery to our own harsh master, the ego.
When the third chakra is blocked, our self-expression is fearful and uncomfortable. When the third chakra is overactive, we express ourselves in critical and insensitive ways.
However, when energies are flowing naturally through this chakra, we are confident, helpful, and supportive. We feel powerful and effective. Consequently, we feel both independent and connected.
Lower Chakra Issues – Monsters in the House
By default, these lower three chakras operate in the realm of the ego, conditioned by our lives in the contemporary developed world. As a result, our decisions, hopes, and fears are often coloured by the shadow material that’s locked away in these chakras. As previously described, this shadow material typically consists of desires we perceive to be impermissible, or taboo. They therefore get suppressed, remaining unrecognized and unresolved.
In terms of progressing on the spiritual path, the shadow skews our direction. It tilts us off balance, causing the cart of our ego to veer off our optimal path. This is why our lives seem to never quite be as we want them.
Since this is so fundamental, a good part of our early spiritual work is to bring this shadow material out of the dark and into the light. When a large portion of that has been done, it’s time to move on to meditation. Here we can probe much deeper into the illusion we call “me,” and other erroneous views about this malleable phenomenon we call “reality.”
As previously mentioned, we offer the vehicles of Planet Dharma (our teachings) and Clear Sky (our retreat center) so that highly motivated practitioners may directly explore shadow material. It’s very much a kind of Hero’s Journey. And, as with the Hero’s Journey, we encounter “monsters” and other challenges. These are mostly creations of our own mind, but can still seem very “real.”
To support our ability to meet and transform these challenges, it’s vital that we have a solid foundation and container to feel secure. We also need something to serve as “lightning rods” to ground the energy. Lightning rods are methods and practices to help us integrate the energy contained in the monsters that represent our fears and neuroses. This is another aspect of what we do at Planet Dharma and Clear Sky: we provide this safe container and lightning rods. (Tantric meditation practice is an example.)
Make no mistake, it can be a rough ride. But eventually we transform our fears and discover that the monsters’ true function is to protect and support us. Such insights help us become far more compassionate and effective in all aspects of our lives.
The Higher Chakras
The three lower chakras are the doorway to the upper four. While we are born with ongoing access to the energies of the lower three chakras, to unlock the higher chakras we need to step over ego limitations, represented by our hopes and fears. For this, will and aspiration are essential.
We’ve all had moments when we felt, “There has to be more to life than this!” Whatever “this” is for each individual, it’s generally the ego’s programming to just eat, fornicate, generate a family, work, seek entertainment, retire, and die.
Yes, there is more. But we have to earn it, and we have to work to get access to the higher chakras.
Next, then, is the fourth or heart chakra, which is about love. This is not love in the conventional sense, as in our love for a significant other or our children, which are actually rooted in the second chakra and relate to identity and sexuality. In the heart chakra, this love is universal. We love all sentient beings equally, even while we behave differently with each being.
When the heart chakra is blocked, the energy manifests as a lack of empathy. When overactive, there’s jealousy. But when energy in the heart chakra flows, compassion arises as love in action. This compassionate love may appear as receptive (understanding), neutral (equanimous), or active (challenging).
Next, the throat chakra pertains to self-expression and communication. How and what we speak about and to whom are a measure of our awareness and our intentions. If we’re motivated by ego concerns, our communication will be driven by greed, anger, or confusion. When motivated by interest and exploration, we may be communicating love, compassion, excitement, and learning.
When blocked, the throat chakra energy manifests with poor self-esteem, and when overactive it presents as domineering. And when the energies in the throat chakra are in a state of flow, we express ourselves with a healthy self-image and a willingness to be of service.
Moving up the body to between the eyebrows, the divine or third eye (sixth chakra) relates to awareness. Awareness ranges on a spectrum from simple mindfulness to a more active attentiveness, an awareness of being aware.
Awareness from this divine eye chakra drives inquiry and investigation. Here, we take on challenges to broaden our understanding and develop the lacks in our persona, in order to be of more service to ourselves, others, and our communities.
When energies in this chakra are blocked, we fear intimacy; when hyperactive, we become hedonistic. With energies in the sixth chakra in flow, we feel passionate, experiencing life’s desires as a bountiful gift of nature. This desire is different from the ego’s desire for comfort, as manifested when our lower chakras are less developed. Instead, desire in the third eye is experienced without clinging and without rejection, even when something is unpleasant: from this perspective, even a headache can be appreciated, if not cherished, simply for the miracle of its existence.
At the top of our head is the crown chakra, where spiritual awakening first dawns. This is the culmination of the spiritual path and the fulfillment of our deepest desires. We may call the experience love, freedom, or peace. But in essence, it is a blissful feeling of union, of one with the totality. Some call it god consciousness and others spacious emptiness, experienced as fullness and completeness.
When energies in this chakra are blocked, we feel unstable as if the ground is forever moving under our feet. When energies here are overactive, we feel cynical, as though life has no meaning. But when the energies in the crown chakra are in flow, we feel a confidence and security that can’t be interrupted or distracted by the ego’s insecurities or fears.
How does that sound?
Why Integrate the Shadow?
In order for consciousness to progress speedily and safely towards its birthright of spiritual awakening, the shadow must be brought into the light, seen, and liberated. The ego does not like this part of the journey and finds many cunning ways to avoid it.
But the cost of such avoidance is extremely high. We may still be able to cultivate beautiful states of mind, but our actions in the world will be permeated by neuroses rooted in that shadow material. Accomplished meditators can contact a good state and remain there, but integrated shadows are indispensable for healing ourselves, societies, and our planet.
Choosing whether or not to undertake this challenge is no longer an option. The planet is in trouble, and all of us with it. Moreover, we are the ones causing the trouble. Liberating our collective shadows is the only thing that gives us the wholesome, integrated, and compassionate perspective we need to turn this perilous situation around and ensure a healthy planet for seven generations to come.
At Planet Dharma and Clear Sky Retreat Centre, we embrace many approaches to such awakening; therapy, meditation, karma yoga (meditation in action), and living, practicing, and working in conscious community. We embrace integrating the shadow aspects of the three lower chakras as a fundamental kind of therapy, essential for real spiritual unfoldment.