“Sponsoring your shadow” is a term coined by the psychologist Stephen Gilligan. With luck, you learned to do this somewhat in childhood.
My grandson couldn’t sit still when first in school. And as with all children of that age, he had no language or other sponsorship skills for feeling states (such as being tired, hungry, lonely, or angry). Over time he learned to recognize and "sponsor" his own feeling states, and he became "re-spons-ible." And he became even more re-spons-ible when he was able to understand, with his teachers and parents help, what “dysgraphia” meant and talk openly about it after 2 or 3 years of frustration about not being able to keep up with his reading.
All of us have experiences or behaviors that arise that are neglected, ignored, or put down. These pre-sponsored or hidden parts repetitively assert themselves, whether we like it or not. The smoker who I talked about before yearned for support of a non-judgmental presence to sponsor her. I modeled this for her so she could sponsor her hidden part. She had a surprising insight into the sense of deep release she had been feeling when she let go of everything and just smoked.
Each time our hidden parts are rejected, they manifest themselves in increasingly troublesome and disruptive ways. We have a tendency to use whatever means necessary to defeat or destroy those habits or behaviors which we seem so negative. On the other hand, when we sponsor our hidden parts, we are able to let go of fake smiles, impulses to harm, fears, numbness, and even addictions.
“Negative” parts of us have been dammed up. As we learn to release the dam, we experience a vitality and authenticity which is free of pretense or posturing; what I referred to in my last piece using Dogen’s term “whole being Buddha Nature.” But this is easier said than done. My student, who was a secret smoker, said that for her first two years at Zen Center, she felt she needed to hide her smoking or leave.
The more you try to get rid of any repetitive experience or behavior beyond your control, the deeper it becomes entrenched. All this means is that it has not yet been sponsored. Instead of dissociating from that part of ourselves we don’t like or trying to get rid of it, we have the opportunity to sponsor it with gentleness and kind attention. Some of our parts may be contradictory, but all have a place within “whole being Buddha nature.” All this term means is that when we tap into the connectedness between all of our parts, including those we have hidden or dismissed we live as a Buddha, someone who is awake to the interconnectedness of everything internal and external.
I encourage my students to be curious about unsponsored energies, disturbing experiences, and behaviors that they find overwhelming. This often catalyzes a process of radical acceptance of even our darkest energies. As Stephen Gillgan suggests, the fierceness that reveals itself as temper tantrums in a toddler can, if sponsored, turn into fierceness in righting wrongs or sticking up for ourselves or others. Without sponsoring, these same tantrums are likely to manifest themselves as rage, passive aggressiveness, or violent impulses throughout our lives.
Recently, I led a study group at Zen Center on creativity. We looked at how artists are able to tap into creative energies that come from some place deeper than their cognitive self. They receive those energies and cultivate a relationship with them, not “controlling”, but midwifing them into creative form by sponsoring them. But many artists do not learn how to pay attention to the parts under the surface in a meditative way so they can integrate them into their daily lives.
In my “Zen and Creativity” class, I aided participants in both sponsoring their shadows in whatever form they took and using the tetralemma to return to their original wholeness. This process is somewhat different than the focus on “positive” thinking present in so much religion and modern psychology. Obsessive “positive thinking” makes us more agitated, self-absorbed, and ineffective. Instead, maybe the problem, itself, is the only real doorway to the solution. What seems to be a terrible experience, with effective sponsorship, can be a springboard into genuine happiness.
Jack had “nagging doubts” that he could ever go deeper than chatter, chatter, when he first began practicing meditation at our Zen center. Over a two- or three-year period, I helped him to welcome both his doubts about and his chatter within his meditative experience and learn to look at them with innocent curiosity. At some point Jack noticed a tender presence within his heart that had been ignored for his entire life---a presence that was calm, centered, joyfully alive.
If we are doing “bare awareness” meditation on a consistent basis, opportunities will continually arise to do this. And as we explore and embrace our parts with increasing depth, we sense the connections between each of our parts, whether they have been hidden or in full view. As you open up to Whole Being Buddha Nature, you may be surprised to feel a deep sense of equanimity, regardless of what is happening in the external world. Through thoroughly sponsoring your shadow, you may even settle into a lightness of being wherever you are... so called "enlightenment."
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher