Groundwork: Inviting the Shadow to Tea December 30, 2023 13:21
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I’m currently reading a book by Rob Preece. He’s a Tibetan Buddhist as well as a therapist (with Jungian leanings). Preparing for Tantra focuses on Buddhist preliminary practices, but he frames them through the lens of a Western perspective. I’m enjoying his book very much, and it is helping me prepare for Sravasti Abbey’s Retreat from Afar starting in January.
One of the major points that Preece emphasizes in this book is the importance of shadow work. He defines the term Shadow as “aspects of human nature that are repressed and held in the unconscious.” According to Preece, acknowledging and integrating the Shadow can be synonymous with groundwork.
In Buddhism, groundwork, or preliminary practices, can be connected to (but not limited to) mantra recitations, prostrations, and water bowl offerings. These rituals prepare the body, speech, and mind for more advanced meditation practices and study.
However, this idea of connecting groundwork to facing one’s Shadow fascinates me. For years, I would joke that I must have gotten turned around and lost in the Bardo and wound up with the wrong family in this lifetime. After reading this book, I no longer believe that.
Shadow memories and dark times have been bubbling to the surface for me recently, which is not unusual given the time of year. Winter is often the season for reflection for many people.
I wasn’t a practicing Buddhist as a kid, but I did grow up with challenging circumstances. I grew up in a home with a severely mentally ill parent. My mother had been diagnosed with many labels and had been prescribed many more combinations of psychiatric meds over the course of her adult life, but through the changing diagnoses and medications, she consistently remained incredibly unmotivated and self-absorbed. She often used her illness as an excuse to not do anything or go anywhere. She also milked it for all it was worth to manipulate family members and to garner constant favors and requests. My stepdad was frequently going to the store for her after coming home from work because she was “too sick” to go herself—and she never went with him.
We all walked on eggshells around her. Her depression took the entire family hostage, and each of us handled the fallout in different ways.
My stepdad escaped through work; he worked long hours and took several business trips to Mexico and Japan during this time period. My sister and I both took refuge in music; she played the piano, and I played the violin, but we didn’t play together. I also loved to read and enjoyed escaping to the safety of novels and biographies.
Unfortunately, my mother’s illness didn’t bring us together. Instead, it forced us apart. It also didn’t help that I was the odd duck in the family. I was the oldest, and a child from my mother’s previous marriage, so I never felt like I fit into this new family unit (not fitting in is a big part of my Shadow work).
I was bullied at home. My stepdad was extremely demanding and critical with me, and he could be quite condescending and emotionally cruel, especially when no one was around to witness his cruelty.
My sister and I were four years apart in age. Consequently, we attended different schools and had different circles of friends. When we were together, we often argued. She was my stepdad’s biological child (and darling), and he treated her differently—he was much kinder and more patient with her than he was with me.
Both of my parents were emotionally unavailable for me at this time, and I desperately needed loving, compassionate guidance. Unfortunately, I was often left to fend for myself—and honestly—I was a weird kid—awkward, shy, socially clumsy, and hopelessly insecure.
During this time, when I was attending junior high school, we lived in an apartment complex. Unfortunately, I wasn’t just bullied at home—I was also bullied at school, too, mainly at the bus stop and on the bus.
I loved school—it was my safe space—but I hated the ride there and back.
Every morning, I carried my books and violin to the bus stop at the front of the apartment complex. It was a large shelter framed with dark wooden fencing on three sides and a roof, and it was always packed with kids from the complex. Several kids smoked cigarettes in the crowded shelter, and there were some “stoners” who smoked marijuana. I had enough craziness going on in my life; I didn’t need that, so I waited for the bus by the main road, away from the shelter.
I stood outside, rain or shine, by myself. Several kids hooted and jeered at me every morning when I walked by. Some even made animal noises at me. I ignored them, but it was HARD! On the outside, I may have appeared unfazed by their daily taunts, which carried over on the bus ride to and from school—every day—for three years. On the inside, however, I was a mess—a hollow, confused, traumatized mess.
I stood up (and out) by staying quiet, minding my own business, and enduring the daily barrage of ridiculous taunts.
I didn’t know it at the time, but upon reflection, this was my groundwork. This was a significant preliminary practice for me. I was not in a good place physically or emotionally during these junior high years. I did not feel safe, and I was not understood, adequately cared for, or appreciated. These were very hard times—for me and for my family.
Fortunately, things improved when I attended high school (and we moved out of the apartment complex). I got a job at a nearby Dairy Queen, not far from our new house. Between work and school, I didn’t have much time to spend at home, so the bullying subsided there, too.
These painful experiences helped me tremendously and led me to discover Buddhism. They helped me develop empathy and compassion for others, especially after I graduated from college and started my teaching career.
I knew what it felt like to be excluded, so I went out of my way to ensure that my students’ voices were heard and acknowledged. I never taught a class without including journal writings. It was a great way for them to practice their writing skills, and to express their thoughts and feelings.
Groundwork is the foundation from which everything else grows. It is dark soil, rich with rocky potential that requires hard work, patience, and dedication.
When I think about these early years, I realize how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown, despite how much I suffered. I was traveling on the path before I even knew the path existed.
These dark, awkward times motivated me to continue to read, study, and learn. They taught me the importance of kindness, generosity, empathy, compassion, and joy. They inspired me to embrace connection and understand the importance of interdependence.
This groundwork encouraged me not only to keep going, despite the hardship and loneliness, but it also encouraged me to surround myself with others who were ethical, supportive, and kind.
This groundwork encouraged me to be observant and mindful—to set healthy boundaries—and to communicate clearly about what is OK and what is not.
My life is far from perfect. I continue to falter and make ridiculously stupid mistakes. The good news is, I have a loving family, I feel safe in my home, I have supportive, warm-hearted friends, and I have a meaningful Dharma practice to rely on daily.
I enjoy reading books like Rob Preece’s, I enjoy listening to and attending Dharma talks, I enjoy making time to meditate, recite mantra, make offerings, and do prostrations.
Remembering the dark times helps me to appreciate all that I have now. Those junior high days seem like many lifetimes ago, but I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t endured those challenges and struggles.
I have invited my Shadow to tea with this blog post, and I realize now that I did not get turned around in the Bardo and wind up in the wrong family. I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be, and I worked hard to cultivate a meaningful life for myself and others. I continue to do that work even now.
We are all works in progress, we all suffer in samsara, and we are all on the path helping each other learn, grow, and thrive, whether we realize it or not.
I hope 2024 treats you well. May you continue to learn, grow, practice, and thrive in the coming New Year. Please visit the current Middle Moon Malas online collection of hand-knotted malas. May they support and inspire your own personal practice. Know that you are always welcome to reach out via the Contact Us page for custom design requests as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read or listen to this month’s offering. Happy New Year!
.Photo Credit: Luca N from Unsplash