Many seekers are put off by the idea of confronting their darkness. We like to imagine spiritual life as sweetness, kindness, the loving parent we never had. Our own darkness is like a guardian of the threshold, separating those who have the courage and conviction to make this journey from those who are spiritual window-shoppers, or seekers looking for a “quick fix.” Once I was giving a dream workshop and a woman asked me why she never dreamed. I said, “Maybe you are so balanced and so much in touch with your inner nature that you don’t need to dream?” “No,” she honestly replied. “Then maybe you don’t want to deal with what your dreams will tell you?” She protested that she wanted to know what her dreams could reveal. “Well then, are you prepared to spend the next three to five years discovering what an unpleasant person you are?” I will always admire the honesty with which she replied, “Oh no!”
Our shadow contains the secret of our transformation. It is the lead that will be turned into gold. But the process of “polishing the mirror of the heart” is hard, warrior’s work, requiring honesty, integrity, and courage. As W. B. Yeats remarked, “Why should we honour those who die on the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” And the Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses the same feeling in the lines,
I am gall. I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste; my taste was me.
Working on the shadow takes commitment, time, and energy, and often there seems to be very little change, just the uncovering of more problems, deeper pain, more intense feelings of isolation, rejection, abandonment—whatever are the feelings hidden behind the doors of the unconscious. One friend was really astonished, saying that she had read about the conflicts and struggles of the path, but never expected work on the shadow to be so real, so intense. Cruelty, jealousy, anger, resentment, bitterness, and other shadow qualities may surface without warning. Seeking a greater wholeness, we are confronted with the opposites of what we think we are and what we discover we are. Trying to reconcile these opposites within us, we find ourself caught in conflicts painful and bitter. Outer arguments pale beside these inner struggles that can be violent and tormenting. And the greater the aspiration, the greater the devotion, the quicker the darkness comes to the surface.
This intense inner work demands much of our attention and energy, and yet we have to continue our everyday life, with all its outer demands. Added to the stress is the fact that we live in an extrovert culture that does not value inner work, and our friends and colleagues may be disturbed by the fact that we are no longer so outgoing or interested in surface activities. Here lies the value of a spiritual group, a community of friends who support and encourage your efforts. Usually this support is a silent inner confirmation of the importance of the inner journey, but it can also be helpful at times to share a little of the struggles and dramas that unfold. In our Sufi tradition we share and discuss dreams, and in this process offer a container and an understanding of the individual work of uncovering the darkness and polishing the mirror of the heart.This is a journey we all have to make alone; no one can do this work for us. And yet, as Rûmî writes,
You may be happy enough going alone,
but with others you’ll get farther and faster.
Someone who goes cheerfully by himself
to the customs house to pay his traveler’s tax
will go even more lightheartedly
when friends are with him.
Every prophet sought out companions.
A wall standing alone is useless,
but put three or four walls together,
and they’ll support a roof and keep
the grain dry and safe.