Sponsoring Your Shadow
The goal of meditation practice is to see beyond so-called “conventional reality” which we create through filters. Filters are necessary and important to living a meaningful, well-balanced life. However, the memories and beliefs which make up these filters cloud our ability to see and act from a spaciousness and freedom far beyond their limitations.
We develop constellations of memories and beliefs over time which create and solidify certain sub-personalities. Through our meditation practice we learn to open and close each filter, so we no longer experience constipation of thought, feeling, and emotion and are no longer captured by any of our sub-personalities.
As we become adept at doing this, so we can experience what Dogen calls “Whole Being Buddha Nature,” the feeling of being joined to all life. We do this by shining our flashlight in the dark recesses beyond the boundaries of our conscious mind and any of its filters. It’s a simple, really. All it requires is persistent effort, without a hint of evaluation or criticism. If we are at all judgmental, our evaluation filter impedes the natural deepening of the process.
Some practitioners have been asking me what I mean by “sub-personalities.” Through our sub-personalities we identify with a certain way of being and feel inadequate when the situation radically changes. One of my distinct sub-personalities is defined by being in a position of leadership. What happens when I step down, as I did almost 2 years ago from a leadership position, which has defined me for almost 60 years? Can I experience this as an opportunity to move beyond the confines of that role?
Two of the sub-personalities most of us have is the good self and the bad self. I worked with a student a while ago, who, after she began to trust me, admitted that she was a somewhat secretive smoker (her bad self), but was able to do all of our Zen center activities without smoking (her good self). I supported her in bringing both sides into full awareness. I encouraged her to fully embrace her bad side, including its various features, including the shame that she felt about her addictive habit. She was able to acknowledge that smoking gave her great pleasure, gave her a break from whatever she was doing and had a calming, relaxing effect, which was quite delightful. She then moved through one side to the other, including the underlying sensations of both, exclaiming, “if I just pay attention to my sensations, there’s no good side and no bad side.”
We might look at problems or disturbances as evidence that "something is waking up." On the one hand, they can be very destructive and result in depression, acting out, or other problematic behaviors. On the other hand, they may offer us hidden opportunities for major growth. Most of us have known someone who was able to experience significant positive change only after dealing with death, divorce, illness, or addiction. The psychologist Stephen Gilligan refers to this as “sponsoring” the difficulty.
A good spiritual teacher is someone who is able to sponsor his or her student (from the root “spon,” “to pledge solemnly”) whatever difficulty they are having so that they can learn to sponsor themselves. Helen Keller wrote more than a hundred years ago about a mentor who came into her life after she had been without sight or hearing from birth. Her first seven years were ones of anger, self-absorption, and frustration. In her autobiography she writes, "The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects." She transformed her life and went on to distinguish herself as one of the most intelligent, inspirational, and humanitarian persons of her time.
During my own first 21 years, I had periods of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. But then I met my root Zen teacher and he supported me for several years until I developed the ability to sponsor myself.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher