My mother was a brilliant artist. From her, I learned about the importance of shadow and light. With just a few carefully placed strokes of charcoal pencil, she could magically transform a flat, boring drawing into a rich, nuanced piece of art, full of depth and interest. It never ceased to amaze me how the simple addition of darkness could immediately animate a picture into life.
And so it is with us.
I am a yoga teacher, but I am no pollyanna. I don’t live under any illusion that thinking “good thoughts” will automatically bring good results. Living and working in the yoga world where creating a “vision board” (basically your standard elementary school collage of photos from magazines of stuff you want in your life) is thought to bring you closer to your “highest intention” makes me somewhat of an outcast. However tempting it may seem, I do not engage in magical thinking.
Shadows are important. They are the dark, shady, sometimes shameful stuff of our existence. Heartbreak, addiction, abuse, betrayal, abandonment—just to name a few. We like to bury our shadows away and keep them hidden in fear that giving them the light of day might very well make them real. At first glance, this makes sense. But the funny thing about shadows is that once we begin to shine a little light on them, their power over us begins to diminish. Shame subsides.
A dear friend of mine recently pooled together a group of her closest girlfriends and formed an intimate online forum of women with the intent to create a soft, safe, honest space in which we can fall, warts and all. She asked each of us to submit a short bio to the group as an introduction. One by one, the bios showed up, some of them brutally honest in their recalling of life experiences. Worries that “saying it aloud” or writing it down will make “it” real as they told of rape, abuse and heartache. One by one, each of these women became more human to me and etched themselves on to my heart. Their shadows gave them depth, complexity and a beautifully human quality. Contrasting joy and pain, light and darkness, and in the end creating a magnificently original piece of art that is uniquely their own.
I am no pollyanna, but I am eternally optimistic. When it rains continuously for forty days and forty nights, I still believe the sun will shine again. When I spend an entire day with my brow knitted into a perpetual scowl, immersed in a deep and bleak mood, I know that it’s temporary. I may be an optimist, but not artificially so. Artificial optimism is like the huge, powerful lights movie sets use to turn nighttime into day. It’s fake and pretend. I am a positive person and a yoga teacher, but I still curse out loud at the stupidity of other drivers while in the perceived autonomy of my Prius. I still swear at and about people who drive me crazy. I once knew a fellow yoga teacher who would tell me that when she encountered difficult people in her life (a-holes, basically) she would “send them psychic love and light” and gratitude for being in her life because they challenged her. All I wanted was to hear her swear at someone and get angry. Outwardly, she portrayed a perfect (flat, boring, fake) picture of goodness and light, but behind the scenes her actions were anything but. My gut told me not to trust her.
In my work with cancer survivors, they have taught me the importance of staying positive when faced with challenges. But not in an artificial, magically-thinking-kind-of-way. One of these survivors I worked with once told me that it drove her crazy when her friends would say “I’m sure it will be okay” whenever she spoke of her fears about her disease. She already knew that things weren’t always “okay.” She got sick. Bad things happened to good people. What she wanted most of all was to have her friends simply sit with her and listen. Hear her darkest fears, her shadowy thoughts and maybe even cry with her. What she didn’t need was someone telling her everything was going to be fine. Getting cancer isn’t fine and sometimes even the most positive people die.
I am always attracted to people who show me both shadow and light. When someone shares with me their messy, complicated story they become a perfectly imperfect piece of original art on a human canvas. I like a bit of sarcasm, a bit of cynicism and perhaps even an ounce or two (or three) of anarchy in their veins. We are all human and flawed, we have scars on our heart just as we have scars on our flesh. Just as you see the physical scars on my face, my belly, and my ankle and ask me to tell you what happened, know that the rough, thick scar tissue on my heart has a story to be told as well. It is important to share our shadow stories.
My mother was a brilliant artist and she taught me much about shadow. Ironically, she kept most of her shadow stories deeply embedded within her heart. She felt shame, guilt and responsibility for much of the pain she suffered in her life. Try as she might to push the shadows down and pretend they didn’t exist, the darkness always found a way to grow and make itself known through outbursts of misplaced anger, resentment, and tears. My mother would cloister herself away in her bedroom and cry, emerging later with eyes reddened and swollen, without explanation. As a child, this frightened me. I wondered why it was impossible for her to tell me what made her so sad. I hoped I would have listened and given her a hug.
We all have shadow stories and shadow thoughts. Dark events that perhaps happened to us or even shady thoughts that bring us shame. Without them, we would be dull, lifeless and flat. With them, we are a vibrant, colorful painting, full of contrast, complexity and depth. Take a good look at your shadows and write them down. Name them out loud. Give them the light of day, but don’t pretend they never existed and don’t wish them away. Each one is a part of you–an important, vital, stunning piece that ultimately knits together the magnificent, marvelous masterpiece of YOU.