This question came up through a conversation with a friend of mine. He shared an article with me that talks about the dangers of meditation from the perspective of someone suffering from PTSD. The article outlined what the author thought was damaging about a meditation practice.
If you want to read the article you can find it here: http://www.new-synapse.com/aps/wordpress/?p=350
There are a few good points in the article, but the biggest thing it brought to mind for me was whether or not meditation is a path to comfort and ultimately to bliss. This brings up a major point in terms of spiritual practices and deep psychology in general: there are no easy fixes. In my experience, there is a general expectation among Americans (though we could extend that to many people in modern society worldwide) that “spiritual” practices are benign and lead to states of peace and serenity.
Furthermore, there is a misguided belief that anyone that has experience of these things is a benign and benevolent person. This is simply not true. Just like the people that practice them, practices such as meditation, depth psychology, shamanic experiences, psychedelic therapy, among others all have their shadow side. This is as important as the experience of the light, beautiful, and loving aspects of these practices. However, few people in our society are interested or even prepared to deal with what emerges from the shadow side of their experience.
Carl Jung coined the use of the term shadow to define the part of us where the shunned, abandoned, neglected, and shamed parts of our psyche come together. The shadow, it can be said, has a consciousness of its own that causes it to arise in our life, usually through the ideas and expectations that we project onto other people. This means that the things that we see in the world that most upset us, which we most revile, are aspects of who we are as well. Which is why doing this type of deep inner work is extremely challenging.
The confrontation with the shadow is one of the oldest archetypes in human history. It can be said that it was born alongside humanity. We see this battle with the shadow over and over again in our stories, myths, and popular media. Just pick up any movie that has a hero story and you’ll see it. In terms of religion, it is Satan to the Christian Jesus, Mara to the Awakened Buddha, Tiamat to Marduk, the list can go on and on. In popular media, it is Sauron to Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, Voldemort to Harry Potter, Joker to Batman, Darth Vader to Anakin Skywalker (and later Luke). You get the drift.
This is to say that the confrontation with the shadow permeates the human psyche. It is one of the oldest threads weaving through our existence, and it will continue to be. It is easy for people to deal with these shadow sides of humanity when they externalize them, when they project them onto someone else. It makes people feel comfortable, in an odd sense, to be able to point the finger at another person and group of people and say they are the reasons for all of the wickedness and suffering in the world. However, as a person progresses with a practice like meditation there comes a point where they come face to face with the shadow, and it looks an awful lot like them.
This is where the real work begins. This is a process that Robert Bly calls “eating the shadow.” It takes immense humility and a brutal honesty to realize that we are the source of our own suffering. Furthermore, in our attempts to alleviate that suffering we have been complicit in projecting it out onto others and vomiting our own suffering onto the world. There is no blame in this, but there is a great deal of personal responsibility required.
The landscape of the shadow is vast. It doesn’t show up in easily digestible bite-sized morsels. It can feel like moving through an endless desert without a drop of water or anyone to support you. Again, this is an integral part in the stories of the enlightened spiritual leaders: Jesus faces Satan during his 40 days in the desert, Buddha faces Mara under the Bodhi tree. It is only after they face their shadows that they reach a level of awareness that allows them to become powerful teachers. In neither case was this easy.
And so following a spiritual path must be understood to be rife with demons. Namely, our own. It is when we pull back the masks they wear that we find the battered, bruised, and broken parts of ourselves. We cannot defeat them through violence, rejection or destruction, but through learning how to embrace them and demonstrate true compassion and equanimity. This, in turn, allows us to understand the type of suffering that leads others to commit harmful acts. It is a tall order, and not one for just anybody to take on. It is Warrior work, in a very real sense of the word. The world needs more of them.