Eating your shadow for breakfast is nowhere near as weird as it sounds. This morning, it looked like this: I had a dream about being at a workshop or conference where breakfast was being served family-style. Servers would appear with big oval platters covered in triangular, open-face bean-quesadilla things, and place them in the middle of round tables. Then, people would lunge for them from the various sides of the tables, plus hungry onlookers who wanted some of what they hadn’t got. In this situation, the faculty/presenters/teachers were being offered slightly tastier food than the students. They got goat cheese chunks and white cannellini beans, while the students got American cheese and refried beans. Anyway, some of the more enterprising students were like, Fuck that shit, and so the faculty tables were pretty crowded and jostly. In the dream, I felt, Ugh! What a stupid scrum! Get me out of here. Give me some peace.
I wrote the dream down as I ran the bath.
Then, in the half-lit bath, sort of spontaneously, the thought came, I don't have to think of it that way. The scrum is only a scrum if I am trying to get something for me – if I'm a grumpy teacher, a striving student, or a numbed-out anybody. But if I'm a server, things can more interesting. I can make a point of bringing food where it’s needed. I can find a corner in the kitchen and have breakfast, so that I’m able to go back in to the dining room resourced and connected. I can eat my shadow of world-fleeing, and come into a whole new space of surrender, play, and service. All of this is possible. I felt the anxious quality of the dream dissolve, as the warmth of the bathwater cradled my body and soaked into my scalp.
Eating the shadow of world-fearing and eating the shadow of world-sticking may seem like different projects, but they're closely related. With world-aversion, there's mother-fear, body-fear, and pleasure-fear. No! I do not want to be embodied. I will operate as though my mind, my spirit, my Deathless Me were some kind of unearthly visitor to this unfortunate realm. I will be, essentially, David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. My shadow will be in refusing to incarnate fully. I’ll keep a distance between me and everything, a slick, transcendent coating that claims all experiences of peace as victories for its savvy plan of control and non-committal.
I will say things like, “All experience is an illusion.” People will feel a little put off and confused, but because it sounds wise, and I’m wearing this awesome spiritual outfit, they will nod. Actually, a more correct answer would be, “Oh, honey, get over yourself, and come give me a big kiss!” Mostly that’s unlikely to happen, because David Bowie and the Blessed Virgin Mary bring up such a queasy feeling in the pit of people’s stomachs.
The shadow of world-fearing is fear of death. I won't allow myself to be a being that is subject to illness, old age, loss, and death. So I’ll identify with a deathless self, and in so doing, I’ll lose the opportunity to live fully.
The shadow of world-sticking is also a fear of death, but it shows up through a different door. In this case, there's a refusal to think at all about death, loss, illness, or old age, and so anything that arises in felt experience as a reminder of these things is pushed down. Don’t look at the severed lizard head at the foot of that hibiscus bush – look at the hibiscus blossom floating in your mai tai. Look to delight, and more delight. Flee your endings, into the arms of new beginnings. Eating the shadow of world-sticking looks like agreeing to feel the endings of things, and acknowledging the deathly in the beautiful. It means letting yourself off the hook of constantly engineering peak experience.
There is a Shadow Diner, where you can order the Incarnation Special, or the Renunciation Special, depending on what you need that morning. Actually, scratch that: the waitstaff take your pulse, listen to your dreams from the night before, and then bring you exactly what you need. Could be a little of each. Could be, that morning, you’re feeling shaky enough that you just need a metaphor-free meal. A croissant. An egg. Some sweet tea (just enough), and a warm hand on your shoulder.
At the end of the four-day trauma training I just completed, my new friend put his hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You’re so loved, kid! You’re going to be just fine.” It was extravagantly kind, exactly the right thing for the Shadow Diner to send my way at that moment of groundless ending. Around me, the room dissolved, which is to say, our improvised healing community disbanded. Plans here, there, cards here, there, shadows, and light. I focused on pulling together my little box of leftover Turkish food, my pen, my shoes, my goodbyes, my signatures on the sign-in sheets, and an exit.
The sky was shadowy with storm.
I felt emptied, ill, deathly.
I went home.
Deadheaded the roses on the front of the house.
Made a drawing of souls, ground, and sky.
Went to bed, and slept as the first rain fell.
Sometimes eating your shadow feels like, Aha! And sometimes it feels like agreeing to be ill, empty, and sad. I didn’t make myself cheer up. I didn’t make myself attend to five days’ worth of emails. I went to bed, and lay down.
Have you ever had the experience of casting two shadows in daylight? I was walking back-and-forth in front of the retreat center where I often go, splashing my bare feet in a delightfully piss-warm puddle, when something alerted me to the weird. Something at the edge of consciousness. My shadow, and… my other shadow. I slowed down the walking to detect where this arose – the limit between what I knew and what was. There. Diagonally opposite, another shadow. But still only one sun, so… Stay with it. The windows on the house, bouncing back the morning sun. The next minute, the light rose to a new angle, eating my temporary second shadow.
Eating your shadow happens in layers. You can’t do too much of it at one time, or you’ll get sick. Also, you can’t set out to eat only shadow, though it will find you when you need it. Have a mango. Have a croissant. Look into them, and there is shadow, too.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.