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Namah Journal

Consciousness and health

Out of the shadows

James Anderson


Everyone has shadows: they contradict the noblest parts of human nature. They retard man’s psychological and physical well-being. But when one proceeds along a path of personal growth, the Light somehow makes these shadows appear more distinct. The Light will also sharpen the sense of suffering but the solution is to learn to integrate the ‘personality’ and the Light provides indispensable tools for this process. The surface nature lacks the necessary equipment to deal with this affliction. It is the Light that provides the answer to shadows on every level: individual, collective and even the Light of Love on the terrestrial.

Light and shadow

Human nature casts many shadows. Although pure and transparent at the source, it is far from being a clear homogenous whole. Its numerous parts jar and collide with one another, seeking dominion over the rest. Each fragment has its own proclivity and will which only compete and spar with the other parts of the nature. To differing degrees, these frictions create shadows, as I call them, which retard our health and well-being.

These shadows come in many shades. They also come from outside. The origin of falsehood, for instance, is not inside us but we respond to its vibrations passing across us. Forces rush in to find resonance amongst the confused tangles of our nature. In truth there is often an interplay of movements, both inside and out, that create these shadows.

The very word ‘shadow’ summons up an image of something opposite to normalcy and light. They leave a trail of disharmony, splitting and dividing our being; they widen the gulf of duality. The darkest shadows can leave a person hopelessly divided and a prey to the most harmful forces. These shadows snatch away any sense of wholeness and make us shrink and feel narrow; they impair our freedom. Above all, they make us lose sight of the truest part of our nature. Shadows are inimical to the Truth.

As every part of the nature is interconnected, each has the capacity to boost or impair the rest. If a connection is distorted, it leaves an imprint which can become very difficult to efface and remove. It becomes a shadow which warps and twists our psychology. These shadows contradict the more noble aspects of our character. It is not surprising that they also can have an insidious effect on the body; everything, after all, surfaces there. Finding an answer to them is a necessary part of personal growth; confronting them is an aspect of sādhanā. They are simply part of the process. No one is exempt; everyone must go through this difficult passage. Moreover, as one grows in consciousness these shadows tend to become more vivid to our inner eye. This necessary development can make the upward journey particularly uncomfortable. That is the way of the Light and so to an extent, the awakening awareness aggravates the accompanying tension and pain. Once the choice and resolution are made however, the light gradually assumes mastery over the dark. But it is rarely a linear process.

The emerging consciousness has a problem responding to these shadows. It might feel and see them, often intensely, but cannot easily put a precise finger on why they have appeared in the first place. This is critical because finding the cause will eventually provide the solution. Before the new phase begins, the shadows are certainly present but the drowse of ignorance has a way of keeping them stifled from view. Perhaps this dormant state even keeps the anxiety and suffering bound to manageable proportions. The choice to embark on a passage of personal growth, to join in yoga, certainly brings these shadows to the fore. That is one reason why this decision should never be taken lightly. Shadows bring a sense of malaise and discontent. Long back, I had often experienced such a feeling of unease. It was usually put to one side or taken for granted; I even looked upon it as an inevitable part of living. But there was a consistent feeling of dissatisfaction gnawing away in the background. It was really only when I came here1 that I started earnestly searching for the hidden reasons for this affliction. Initially I couldn’t articulate it and it’s taken quite a while to understand and begin to trace the hidden causes of it. The Light will initially sharpen one’s sense of suffering but it also provides indispensable tools for resolution.


The stronger the light placed on an object, the darker the shadow cast from it. At least, that’s how it appears to our inner vision. Shadows are invariably present; it’s just that the Light makes them more distinct. Because our human nature is unable to fully open to the Light, a contrast arises between two states, causing a conflict in the surface nature that produces inverse characteristics. Virtues get mixed up with vices. This duality may become more marked as one pursues a path of growth. It’s like the haziness that once characterised our being is being replaced by two opposing states. The growing self-awareness that results from taking this path makes the contrast appear even more evident and distinct.

Everyone is comprised of differing vices and virtues. Collectively these attributes make up a personality. This personality is the frontal aspect of human nature. Within the same individual, there may be a myriad of opposing personalities. So virtues can become vices within a minute; it just requires that secret trigger switch. This explains how someone of outstanding generosity can gravitate down to something like a miser in an instant. It is so important for our well-being that this frontal nature be unified and made one:

“Everybody is an amalgamation not of two, but of many personalities. It is part of the yogic perfection in this yoga to accord and transmute them so as to ‘integrate’ the personality (1).”

Shadows stand in the way of human progress. They can be the result of adverse forces which create a sharp sense of opposition in an individual. Sri Aurobindo (2) writes interestingly about the ‘Evil Persona’ that “a person greatly endowed for the work has, always or almost always, — perhaps one ought not to make a too rigid universal rule about these things — a being attached to him, sometimes appearing like a part of him, which is just the contradiction of the thing he centrally represents in the work to be done. Or, if it is not there at first, not bound to his personality, a force of this kind enters into his environment as soon as he begins his movement to realise. Its business seems to be to oppose, to create stumblings and wrong conditions, in a word, to set before him the whole problem of the work he has started to do.” (p. 1660)

There is also the common conflict between the internal and external being. Sri Aurobindo (3) refers to this division in a letter:

“Your inner being wants and has always wanted the Truth and the Divine — when the peace and power are felt it comes forward and you feel it as yourself and understand things and grow in knowledge and happiness and true feeling. The external nature is being changed by the influence of the inner being, but what is pushed out returns constantly from old habit — and then you feel this old nature as if it were yourself.” (p. 1651)

Sri Aurobindo (4) writes that “at a certain stage in sadhana there is almost always a disparity or opposition between the parts that are already turned towards the Truth and are capable of experience and others that are not and pull one down to a lower level. The opposition is not equally acute in all cases, but in one degree or another it is almost universal. Co-ordination and organisation can be satisfactorily done only when this is overcome. Till then oscillations are inevitable….(4)” (p. 1650)

I have found these ‘oscillations’ very frequent in my efforts to expand and grow. Like a tide there is a continual onrush and reversal from the surface nature. Whenever the surface nature interferes, it’s like a shadow is cast over my entire being. Something unpleasant jars inside. I feel uneasy, restricted and narrow.

Our true nature

Each one of us has a facet in our nature which reflects a ‘divine possibility’. This aspect in us is our gateway to the soul and the hidden key to realisation. It is our ‘truth’ and the principal foundation to our health and well-being.

“The inner life is always possible if there is present in the nature, however much covered over by other things, a divine possibility through which the soul can manifest itself and build up its own true form in the mind and life, — a portion of the Divine.….

“It very often happens that when there is an exceptional power like this in the nature, there is found in the exterior being some contrary element which opens it to a quite opposite influence. It is this that makes the endeavour after a spiritual life so often a difficult struggle: but the existence of this kind of contradiction even in an intense form does not make that life impossible. Doubt, struggle, efforts and failures, lapses, alternations of happy and unhappy or good and bad conditions, states of light and states of darkness are the common lot of human beings. They are not created by yoga or by the effort after perfection; only, in yoga one becomes conscious of their movements and their causes instead of feeling them blindly, and in the end one makes one’s way out of them into a clearer and happier consciousness. The ordinary life remains to the last a series of troubles and struggles, but the sadhak of the yoga comes out of the trouble and the struggle to a ground of fundamental serenity which superficial disturbances may still touch but cannot destroy, and, finally, all disturbance ceases altogether (5).”

Every time I forget my true home, whenever this ‘contrary element’ intervenes, a shadow appears. Whenever there is a lack of love, the mind intervenes and twists and narrows the being. Everything gets very cold and grey inside. I shrink and feel very small. Only with the heart can I expand: truly the heart has wings! 2

Shadows from outside

Shadows also come from outside. They leave a considerable imprint when one is on the path of growth. They often offend our sense of ‘right and wrong’. They often come to test any insincerity inside, a weakness or over-sensitivity. In truth, they are only a mirror for whatever darkness persists inside. They puncture our sense of pride and self-importance. They rub fiercely against our internal programming, continually evoking a reactive and negative pattern in our brain with almost monotonous frequency. Once the shadow is cast and enters the being, the mind will endlessly ruminate, going around and around in futile circles. They can bring us to a state of psychological dead-end. The smallest shadow can preoccupy and distort one’s thinking to a disproportionate degree. All these shadows are enormous tests on the passage home to our truest nature. They ultimately remind us of a truer poise of disinterested detachment. Their lessons must be absorbed and learned: until we pass the examination we are obliged to sit it again and again.

Shadows from the past

As one advances along the path, one might become aware of dark ominous shadows rising to the surface and casting a spell of doom over one’s nature. It can almost put the being in self-destruct mode. These patterns often come from far, far back, perhaps even before we were born. They can persist for such a long time as to seem almost endless. What creates the suffering is the inability of the surface consciousness to deal with the process. It simply lacks the necessary equipment. It cannot comprehend the motive behind the movement. It just shrinks in a bewildered way in face of the onslaught. One seems to be interminably sinking; everything is sliding out of control. They can gnaw and leave scars on the body. They drain all energy; they dry up every drop of love. Occasionally glints of light reappear from behind the darkness to remind one of our truest state. These moments are priceless: they should be nurtured and realised as our true Self.

However the more one advances, the further back the consciousness trawls to awaken these dormant memories. Their presence points a dubious finger at the futility of existence. They might create a deep-rooted despair. Frequently, forces and circumstances rush in from outside to trigger this deep-seated malaise. The only thing to do is recognise that these patterns are actually rising to the surface and coming out; they are actually a sign of progress. The shadows of the past must disappear for a new being to be born. For that is what it truly brings: a new birth. The force of the yoga is pushing these shadows out into the open, into the front of our awareness. Every one of them has to be shown the light of day.

One needs to keep one’s station above these movements and observe them as disinterestedly as possible. Detachment from the self and detachment from the outcome are critical. One is in the midst of a process which one cannot really control. It is out of one’s hands. The truest result will surely evolve if everything is left in the Divine’s hands. One needs to be grounded to feel them fully in because their shadow is most deeply felt in the body. One needs to get ‘inside’ them to dissolve them but at the same time remain intact and separate. It helps to look at them as passing clouds, shadows to aid our understanding. They have to be faced squarely. One can summon all the light and love to melt them away. One can invoke the presence of the Mother3 to transform them.

Facing our shadows

I often find myself playing ‘hide and seek’ with what is true inside and there is a Light which always assists my search. Light is the key to dissolving every shadow; it is the light of knowledge which achieves this. When it comes down to “the ordinary action of the lower nature…. it can be treated as a machinery that has to be set right and with the aid of the higher Light and Power can be set right (7).”

So whenever I feel myself engulfed by the enigmatic darkness I try to stand back from the process, call the Mother and disinterestedly enquire into what is taking place. I try to face the shadow in its entirety, get inside it, experience and feel it but there is a part of me which just observes and remains entirely intact and detached. This part of me is my truth, the ‘divine possibility’ as Sri Aurobindo has called it. It is the secret link to the psychic being 4 which is the fount of all Light and Knowledge. If this connection is established all will be well; every question is answered and the cause of the shadow is revealed. But the field of activity is always the body. This is where the shadows are perceived and this is where the answers eventually surface. In place of the disharmony comes a light and inimitable peace. The shadows of pain instantaneously dissolve under the scrutiny of an attentive gaze.

Sometimes a simple collaboration from the body assists and completes the process. There may be a few remaining shadows remaining in the background, waiting to come forward and cloud the being once more. The body, when in an aligned and centred state, can be a very important ally in this respect. A simple exercise suffices. At the end of the practice, I stretch my arms upright as high as possible, as if I’m reaching up to the heavens. Once fully stretched, I extend them downwards in a circular arc and as the arc rotates lower and lower a new clarity emerges.

Apart from generating a surge of life-energy, the movement often dispels the last patches that lurk inside. These shadows cannot hide any more. It corrects the posture and aligns and expands the physical frame. A lightness returns and the body feels so much stronger and unencumbered. It is a simple exercise in freedom!

Collective shadows

Sometimes enormous shadows are cast from and over the collectivity. The more integrated and close-knit the organisation, the more deeply felt is the malaise by the individuals within it. There arises a feeling of aching unease which is compounded by the fact that its source is usually so difficult to identify. The truth is, everything is connected; it spreads by contagion. The whole affects the individual and the individual affects the whole. The more radical the aim of the organisation, the more sharply are these pangs felt and, sometimes, the more divisive the effect of these disruptions. The Force and Light increasingly pour down but the collectivity is often insufficiently open and receptive to receive it. It is still stuck in familiar tramlines and, whatever it might claim, unwilling to follow the momentum itself. As time passes, the Force and Light dives down lower and lower piercing the very realms of Ignorance. Ordinarily, this will raise a lot of obscurity and cloud. At times, this can manifest in severe eruptions and divisions as the tension becomes too much to withstand and bear. The evolutionary thrust will not stop and the collectivity needs to be sufficiently plastic to follow its lead.

The earth-consciousness

Shadows persist on many levels. In the macrocosm, huge swathes of darkness presently enshroud the earth atmosphere. What humanity is doing to the earth! How will this ever be resolved? How can those pangs of agony be reconciled with its luminous future? Only one Force has the capacity to dissolve them: “It is the force of Love. Love is truly all-victorious — but true Love, not what men call ‘love’, not that: true, divine Love.

“You see one drop of ‘That’ in its perfection, and all shadows disappear — all dishar-monies disappear. Only in its perfection, in its essential purity.

“It truly is all-powerfulness.

“And without… without the sense of victory, that’s what is so, so wonderful! It is the All-Victorious which doesn’t at all have the sense of being victorious — not at all, not at all (8).”


1. Sri Aurobindo. Birth Centenary Library, Volume 24. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1970, p. 1650.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., pp. 1652-3.

6. The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 14, 2nd ed. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 2004, p. 351.

7. Sri Aurobindo. SABCL, Volume 24, p. 1744.

8. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 8. Paris: Institut de Recherches Évolutives; English Translation, 1993, p. 285.

1 To Pondicherry, India in the year 2000. 

2 “It is the heart that has wings, not the head (6).”  

3 Mirra Alfassa, born in Paris in 1878 and later known as the Mother, came to Pondicherry and developed the Integral Yoga with Sri Aurobindo.   

4 The evolving soul.   

James Anderson is a member of SAIIIHR and coordinating editor of NAMAH.

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Messure of the shadow


Dealing with the shadow


Out true self hidden within the shadows


Shadows from the past


Facing the shadow


Collective shadow


A drop of light dispels much darkness