The Re-Enchantment of Nonduality: Spirituality & The Shadow

Matt Licata, PhD, is a psychotherapist and teacher based out of Boulder, Colorado, with students and clients worldwide. He is author of The Path is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You, and has spent the last 25 years on the forefront of the integration of Western, developmental and depth-psychology with contemplative approaches to psychological growth, emotional healing, and spiritual transformation. Matt’s doctoral dissertation involved an in-depth study of how spiritual beliefs and practice can serve a defensive function, in the avoidance of unresolved somatic, emotional, and developmental wounding. Most recently, in addition to teaching, mentoring, and clinical practice, Matt served as Director of Professional Studies for Sounds True, where he designed and organized learning programs for clinicians seeking additional training in neuroscience, attachment, mindfulness, and working with trauma.

As a psychotherapist who works with clients committed to spiritual growth and transformation, I have discovered with my fellow travelers just how natural it is for us, at times, to use spirituality to hide from life: from intimacy, from feelings, from vulnerability, from unresolved emotional wounding, as well as from intense, exposing, naked experience of all kinds.

Despite our noblest intentions to live a life of authenticity and integrity, we can engage with spiritual experiences, teachings, and practices in a way in which we deny, stuff, shut out, and abandon real feelings of hurt, anger, anxiety, disappointment, and despair as if they are “unspiritual,” unacceptable, and further evidence of … our own ignorance, unworthiness, and the untamed functioning of our “ego.”

Alternatively, we may find ourselves acting out this un-metabolized material in our relationships through subtle manipulation and blame, or “acting in” toward ourselves with aggressive self-loathing and shame. The intensity of those feelings can convince us we are making actual contact with the deeper recesses of our being, while in actuality we are orbiting around the surface, doing everything possible to prematurely discharge this disturbing energy that is seething underneath.

Of course, splitting off from this material, acting it out, or hastily “transcending” it does not remove, transform, or heal it but only sequesters it deeper into the unconscious shadow. Here it will inevitably emerge in the relational field as partly processed images and fantasies, hazy figures from the dream world, and even as physical symptoms and conditions.

Depending on the unique configuration of our core vulnerabilities and protective strategies in response to our family dynamics, we learned as children to shut down certain aspects of our personalities as well as particular emotional experiences to avoid disruption in our connection to early caregivers. We discovered very quickly that burying “unacceptable” aspects of ourselves was paramount to our psychic survival in order to maintain the tie to critical attachment figures.

As young children, it was an act of intelligence and creativity to split off, dissociate, and disconnect from material we were not developmentally capable of digesting and metabolizing on our own, including the dysregulating and traumatic feelings and storylines that arose in the face of misattunement, neglect, and empathic failure of all kinds. We were wired to do everything possible to maintain our ties to those critical figures around us even if that connection was misattuned, less than healthy, or even dangerous. A shaky, tentative, and even potentially harmful connection is more regulating than none at all in a little nervous system of the helpless infant.

As adults, we can see the remnants of this need to receive positive mirroring, empathy, and presence from others when we stay in a relationship even when a part of us knows that it no longer truly serves our deepest longings. To allow ourselves to inquire into this ambivalence, in a way that is non-pathologizing and non-shaming, can provide some very important data. And it is usually quite humbling as it reveals the very natural, mammalian aspect of ourselves that is so wired to connect with others and receive their attunement and validation.

The goal of this kind of truthful inquiry is always greater freedom, which is in part reflected in a broader array of choices in how we are able to respond to our lives. In difficult life situations, such as whether to stay in or leave a relationship, we want to have access to the wide range of conscious choices that are available to an adult in the here-and-now rather than have to rely unconsciously on those reactions of a young child in the “there-and-then.”

As we engage over time in various strategies of self-abandonment – for example, turning away from our vulnerability and the emotional landscape altogether – we might find ourselves wondering why we are not feeling alive, why our experience is flat or numb, why we aren’t able to step in and take risks in our relationships or our vocation, and why things just aren’t flowing the way we’d like. There may not be any specific thing we can point to that is “wrong” in our lives, but we are still quite convinced that something is off, something is missing, something important is out of place.

We sense that there is something deeper, something more meaningful, some more intimate way of being, but nevertheless it remains just out of reach. Though usually occurring underneath the radar of conscious awareness, the deeply embedded sense that we are not loved or lovable as we are infuses and colors our perception and interactions with others. This coagulation of energy has a way of perpetuating itself and eating at us from the inside, sure to emerge at some point (usually at the most inopportune times) in behavior that is passive-aggressive, avoidant, critical, or anxious.

Even though all of this is seething underneath the status quo of everything being “okay,” a deeper part of us senses that only in the intimate and direct contact with our vulnerability and unprocessed somatic feelings will we know this aliveness firsthand. And only then will we be able to take a risk, be spontaneous, and embody new levels of wisdom, compassion, and creativity in our lives, especially in our relationships with others.

As long as we use spirituality to avoid intimacy, vulnerability, and the darker depths of our own being – as long as it remains yet another means to avoid full, naked contact with our unlived lives – we will feel lonely at our core, disconnected, and split off from love. As we start to discover, with as much kindness, compassion, and curiosity as possible, the ways we are using spiritual ideas, beliefs, language, teachings, and practices to avoid relationship (with self and other), we can make a commitment to deepening our awareness, caring even more about what is most true, and going on a journey of discovery.

We need not shame ourselves for what is unearthed in our inquiry, or deem it as evidence that we have failed or that something is wrong with us. But we can use what we discover as an opportunity to illuminate the strategies we’ve brought into adulthood to keep us safe from the vastness that we are. We sense that in order to know this wholeness, we must re-embody those aspects of ourselves that we disconnected from at an earlier time in order to fit in and receive attunement from others and from a world that was not able or willing to meet us in this undivided place. It can seem like moving a mountain to take on this work, but here we are. We have somehow come here for this, and can start exactly where we are, one small step at a time.

The spiritual journey is one of the most illuminating vehicles we have available, to discover who and what we are at the most profound levels. The invitation is to engage the journey with eyes wide open, vigilant, and ever discerning the ways that we can co-opt even the sacred path of the spirit to keep us from the confrontation with the unconscious: an encounter that is nonnegotiable at some point on the way of the heart. While we may naturally feel fear and anxiety in the face of such confrontation, it is the doorway to the immense light that is longing to emerge here. But we must remember that this light will at times take the form of the dark and the unexpected.

The Re-Enchantment of Nonduality

While it is perfectly natural to prefer silence over noise, oneness over multiplicity, and harmony over chaos, reality appears not to share this bias. A star appears not to hold this same view.

The natural world and the energies inherent in the human spirit are creative, destructive, and full spectrum in between. Love is equally prepared to make use of the noisy, the multiple, the dual, and the confused to seed the relative with its qualities. It may come at times as unconscious dualistic rage, bewilderment, and disordered wildness, so that it may come fully into being.

The unfolding of form is not always the expression of a clean, non-dual view: untainted, invincible, and safe from reorganization, deflation, and the exposure of tender human vulnerability in all its dimensions. At times, the articulation is of a messy, untamed, ragingly empowered union of ascendant and descendent currents, heaven and earth, sun and moon.

It is common to have a dualistic understanding of “nonduality,” in which it is synonymous with silence, stillness, clarity, and transcendence, in a subtle war with confusion, activity, and the chaotic purity of emotion, imagination, the body, and the heart. Implied is the unexamined belief that the formless is more pure than form, spirit is more pure than matter, and silence is more pure than noise. But this is not nonduality. This is fear. It is not possible for there to be division in that which is nondual.

Let us reclaim the essence of nonduality by seeing that it is not opposed to duality and would never be at war with it, and end the dream of a conceptual spirituality. Let us re-enchant nonduality and infuse it with life, holding it loosely in one moment and discarding it in the next, staying with the magic of now as it erupts in and as our lives as they are.

To learn more about Matt’s mentoring and teaching, find his website at Discover more of the poetic beauty of his writing about awakening at A Healing Space: Reflections on Love, Meaning, and the Aliveness of Immediate Experience.

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