Lately I've been reflecting on my choice to engage ever more deeply into the lifelong practice of personal growth, and how that it is also in service to the world around me and the relationships in my life. I'm increasingly recognizing, among many other things, that a key part of this work is differentiating and understanding what's mine, what what belongs to others and what are the things we share amongst us. The need for the differentiation of self and other and the complementary integration of the same is the first interdependent paradox* that comes up in this post.
The choice to engage in a lifelong practice of personal development includes a second interdependent paradox: On one hand, this is a choice that commits me to deep unending effort. There is no destination, so I am faced with the need to constantly start anew. On the other hand, it is a journey that I get to release into. I simply need to allow it to unfold. The arc of growth and evolution is not optional. The choice here invites me to be open-eyed, trusting and to let go of outcomes.
I think that it's useful imagine what the inverse of this path might entail. The opposite of opening to a journey of personal growth would be an assertion that I am already fine and that I already know what I need to know. I could entrench myself into my fixed identity, I could back that with a demand for safety and protection of that self. The path of self-protection, however, is a path towards suffering, isolation and victimhood.
There are some interesting things to notice about the choice to not grow. To begin with, it is impossible to be protected from the rest of the world. Resistance of this sort is futile and can only lead to frustration and further isolation. Furthermore, it is worth noting that this path is championed in current mainstream culture. There are lots of forces today that encourage us to identify our unique qualities, assert our capacities and to insulate ourselves from any triggers or challenges to our precious selves. There are facebook algorithms, specialized radio and television programs, and created safe spaces that all work to only expose us to those who we agree with and insulate us from others and others' perspectives. This cultural trend towards isolation from those who challenge us cuts across all scales and sectors. I believe that this explains many of our modern social ills.
So, what can we do? We can't protect ourselves from differences. We can't get rid of everyone or everything we don't like. We can't gloss over the work with positivity and lip service. As I've said before in this blog, the only choice is to work on ourselves. The problem is that we often don't feel safe in ourselves either. I sure don't a lot of the time.
Safety may not be something that we can demand from others, but it is something that we can cultivate in ourselves. When we ask what part of ourselves doesn't feel safe, we can discover a community of shadow friends or beautiful monsters** within us. The darkest parts of ourselves are the potential allies that we are afraid to look at. They scare us, because they are defending our deepest wounds and most intimate fears. So, a key part of the practice is to allow, embrace and acknowledge their role in our lives. We must recognize that they won't go away on their own, so we must take on the responsibility and freedom (another paradox) to cultivate our own deeply felt sense of internal safety. We need to connect with the basic and unconditional human goodness that's in all of us.
I've been engaging in the intentional practice of working with my shadow friends lately and it has been very fruitful. As part of this I've also begun carrying around a notebook with me so that I can write them down when they pop up in my mind. Here are some examples of shadow voices I've heard: "You're not good enough." "They're all looking at you and judging you." "Your belly is too big." "As a white man you can't be a leader." "Don't let them tell you what you can't be." As I've engaged with these voices I've learned that they often have some wisdom they want to tell me and that I've been ignoring them. As I've engaged, I've found myself negotiating with them, promising to give them a voice if they can chill out or change their tune. I'm also learning to recognize them as my voices, as part of my rich inner landscape. They're slowly becoming things like: "I should be thoughtful about what I'm committing myself to and not overextend myself." "Pay attention to what's happening right now." "I really want to be loved." "I ought to be mindful about the space I'm taking, and be supportive of the leadership around me." "Yes, I do have something to offer." Even if they can't be transformed I need to see they aren't going away. I've personally found that meditation and therapy can be very helpful in this work, and I've also enjoying doing shadow exercises similar to the one's on this page. As I get to know myself, warts and all, I naturally develop the capacity to find safety in my own interior.
Fun right!!! Why would I care about doing all this work? Because the people around me and the world as a whole need me to show up. This is the third paradox: When I finally stop protecting my identity from change, I create space for my truer self to develop. The world needs thoughtful and self-aware people. By being more secure in my own self, I become increasingly able to be present for the people who I care about. I create more space for others to feel safe and for them to show up. The very thing that I wanted to, yet couldn't, ask of others in the beginning becomes the very thing that I'm able to offer. This process then becomes generative. The more I grow, the more secure I am, the more that I can make space for you to feel secure and to grow. We all get to show up more and more.
Before closing, I feel like it's important to flag here that as someone with privilege (race, gender, nationality, etc.) I feel especially called to do this work. Due to the trajectory of history, the global culture of deep inequality and oppression, I must recognize that I'm part of the group that has the capacity to be the most destructive. I must admit that I have the furthest to travel in the process of taming my ego, so that I can get to a place where I can humbly offer my highest self. Facing the crushing humility of this reality and my shadows' tendency to resist the need for me to face my own privilege, I return to the reality that I need to do the work on myself. The regenerative nature of the interdependent paradox continues. Yes, I need to be aware of how I impact and support others, and the direction of path to seeing how I affect others is inwards.
* Interdependent paradoxes are polarities that define themselves in relation to the other. When taken together they are generative, giving each other meaning. When we try to separate them or favor one over the other they are destructive. Physicist Neils Bohr said, "The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth."
** I offer gratitude to my teachers Alan Sloan, Jerry Granelli and Margaret Wheatley and their teachers Pema Chödron, Sogyal Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for being vectors of much of the wisdom contained in this post.