Consider for yourself the image you present to the world when you:
- · go the family Thanksgiving Dinner
- · mow your lawn
- · go to court to contest a traffic ticket
- · work outside the home
- · work at home
- · go on a first date
- · Go to root for your favorite sports team
The problem comes when we get trapped inside a persona. For example maybe you recognize a persona I will call the dependable friend [put on apron]- you know, the one who is always there when you need her, who hosts parties at her house, and never asks for anything in return. Such a persona can harden into a shell, like that suit batman wears. Maybe you would really like to cancel this week’s dinner, because you are exhausted, but because “dependable friend” wouldn’t cancel, the dinner party goes on, though there is some part inside that feels trapped and stuck.
Jungian Spiritual Director Don Bisson suggests that inside each of us is a whole committee of people. Responsible friend may be one, but she struggles all the time with a “free spirit” part of herself who wants to put her social calendar in a paper shredder, jump on her motorcycle and follow the call of the open road. Yes, inside each one of us there are whole committees of people, some of whom are on the executive team and tend to run things, and others who sit there all day with their hands up and no one ever calls on them.
I realized in middle age that I have a 4 year old princess in me that likes to wear way more ruffles and sparkles than is really seemly for my minister persona, or my responsible adult persona, or even my “adult with good taste” persona. She longs for a big bag of Grandma’s cast offs to play dress up as freely and flamboyantly as I did when I was 4.
Inside me I also have Very Efficient Worker who is constantly at war with Patient Compassionate Listener. Sometimes Very Efficient Worker just needs a quiet day alone with her to-do list or she gets pushy.
Who are the parts of you who are sitting there with their hands up waiting to be called on, whether sitting silently and patiently or jumping up and down and waving their hands in the air? Let’s take a moment silently to consider-
Now some of the people on the committee are scary, so we try to pretend they are not there. We are afraid if we give them any air time bad things will happen. They live in the part of ourselves Jungians call “the shadow”. It is not unlike the shadow your body casts in the sunshine. If the sunshine is the light of our conscious awareness, wherever we point that awareness, there will be a dark spot blocked by what we are focused on. Because it is important to me to be a “responsible friend” I can’t or don’t want to see in myself the slacker who spends all day on the sofa watching a Netflix marathon instead of going to a retirement party. I can’t or don’t want to see that part of myself who feels powerless and small. And I outright reject a part of myself that would say or do something mean to a friend.
As Connie Zweig writes in her book Romancing the Shadow:
… the shadow, is us, yet is not us. Hidden from our awareness, the shadow is not a part of our conscious self-image. So it seems to appear abruptly, out of nowhere, in a range of behaviors from off-color jokes to devastating abuses. When it emerges, it feels like an unwanted visitor, leaving us ashamed, even mortified. For instance ... When a [man] with a health-conscious lifestyle craves ice cream and feels compelled to binge in the dark of night, [his] shadow is acting out. When a normally kind mother belittles her child, her shadow is showing…
In each of these instances, the individual’s persona, the mask show to the world, is split off from the shadow, the face hidden from the world. The deeper this rift and the more unconscious the shadow, the more we experience it as a stranger, … an alien invader. Therefore, we cannot face it in ourselves or tolerate it in others.” [P. 4]Zweig is suggesting that the “deeper this rift” between our persona and our shadow, the more destructive and out of control the shadow may be when it emerges. According to Jung, it is much healthier to deal with the shadow than to keep it locked up. A shadow you are paying attention to and trying to understand and bring to consciousness is much healthier than a shadow we relegate to the unconscious.
Let’s take a moment silently to think of some names for our own shadows. Consider moments when you have done something so out of character that you surprised yourself. Consider things you would never do yourself, but make you really angry when you see them in other people…
Everyone has a shadow, just as each of us has a shadow in the physical world. And if we are not paying attention to and trying to learn from our shadow, it will stop raising its hand to be called on in the committee meeting of our psyche, and will try to get our attention in much less healthy ways. In this light, our weird habit of dressing up as the scariest thing we can think of seems like a smart idea. Each Halloween we get to take a little peak at the shadow and we have society’s permission to do it!
This holiday offers us a great tool to call forth our shadow in a playful and low-risk way. Educational experts agree that playing is one of the best ways to learn new things- “Play is nature's great tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties. When we play, dilemmas and challenges naturally filter through the unconscious mind and work themselves out.”[ii]
Imagine how you would dress up as your shadow.- whether that’s Dracula or the woman who takes too long writing checks in front of you at the super market.
As a lifelong UU I believe that every human life has value. I don’t like competition that pits people against one another; I think we should all work together to find a consensus solution in a non-violent way that serves everyone. Perhaps this is why, many Sunday afternoons in the fall, I come home from church and put on my Eagles Jersey, and spend the afternoon exploring a unapologetically patriarchal world where people use physical force to determine who are winners and who are losers for the profit of the wealthy. While I respect the inherent worth and dignity of every player in the NFL, I’m exploring hating the Cowboys and feeling glad when they lose. It’s cheaper and more fun than Therapy.
Now here’s where the sermon takes a surprising twist – after encouraging you to listen to all those characters, and to try on all those costumes, the next step in our spiritual journey is to take them off. Because no persona, no matter how polished, no matter how fully integrated into your psyche, is really you. The real goal of this journey is not to find a better, more complete costume to wear for the world, but to figure out who is inside all those layers. When we begin to pay attention to and become conscious of the personas we put on to face the world, It reminds us that we are not our costumes. We are not our personas. Underneath all those layers is what Jung and the Spiritual teachers of the east call the Self - the deepest core of who you are. Underneath all those costumes is the true you- the one who is there when you are naked.
If we mistake our persona for our own skin, any threat to that persona would be terrifying. But when we realize it is just a useful costume we wear, we can wear it loosely; we can take them off and put them on as we need them.
At Satsang many years ago, Kenny Johnson[iii] said that what we think of as our self is more like a coat we wear that “we must take it off and burn it in the fire. And take it off and burn it in the fire.” This is the spiritual journey, the journey to the true Self.
But just as we can’t go to work without any clothing at all, we do need some persona to interact with the world. Not a thick impenetrable veneer, but a thin breathable cloth. A useful tool that helps us communicate our roles to one another, but lets the Self shine through.
So I encourage you, today and throughout this holiday season, to play a little with your personas, your hidden selves, your shadow. We have a few tubs of costumes in the social hall, and I encourage you to try on anything that catches your eye. Try on something familiar, something that excites you, something that scares you. Try them all on at once if you like. Always with the goal of discovering the true self that lives within.