Matt Licata on befriending what is going on inside ourselves
“As a therapist who has been involved in and passionate about the rich dialogue between contemplative practice and psychological inquiry for a few decades now, I’ve found myself in touch with many yogis and meditators and others who are deeply interested in the spiritual path. And for a number of years, my clinical practice was in large part made up of men and women with a really authentic commitment to their spiritual lives.
They would tell me about the depths they had reached in their yoga and meditation practice, in their prayer life or with their teachers, in their shamanic or plant medicine journeys, which they really were grateful for. But often, they would also share that despite some genuine experience, their realizations were not fully filtering down into their intimate relationships, their creativity, their bodies and sexuality, and how they were interacting with the conventional world, of money, parenting, family, and having meaningful work, being able to really take care of themselves in a very basic way.
And for many of them, they were also struggling with psychological and emotional difficulties, things like anxiety, panic, depression, loneliness, meaninglessness, and were surprised and confused by this. And of course this is why they ended up in my consulting room.
There had been an unconscious assumption that their spiritual practice, the time with their teacher, their prayer and meditation, their retreats, their inquiry, their devotion, their commitment, would not only open them to deeper states of consciousness, of oneness, of union, of clarity, of love, but that it would simultaneously clean up their trauma and attachment wounding; remedy an underlying sense of shame and low self worth; heal the narcissistic injury they had experienced; transform the fear they had of abandonment and true intimacy; eliminate obsessive, compulsive, and addictive behaviors; and automatically help them to enact healthy boundaries and assert their needs.
This assumption is one that was very much alive in me, for many years, and was a lens through which I was navigating my life and my relationships. As someone who had a lot of time in meditation and looking everywhere for God – including many years, like any good yogi and meditator, in India and Nepal. But what happened, over some time – and this was really quite painful and also very shattering and humbling – was that I began to see that there was a dimension of my psyche, my soul, a whole region of my experience, that wasn’t being addressed through more meditation, more resting in open awareness, more silence, more devotion, more stabilization in the Self, even more feelings of unity, spaciousness, and love.
I was angry, lonely, and ashamed, and I felt abandoned at a core level. I realized that my sense of self, which I was able to dissolve into open awareness and see through on meditation, was shaky, fragmented, and undeveloped in certain essential ways. In short, my wounding was alive and well, influencing and shaping my perception and behavior underneath the surface of whatever spiritual realization there had been.
And I started to see how I was acting all of this out, in subtle and also not so subtle ways, acting out of my own unhealed trauma, in my relationships, with the other people in my life, but also by way of a certain aggression and disconnection, disembodiment, and dissociation toward what we might call the “internal” others, especially those young parts of myself that weren’t fully matured and developed.
Even as part of our spiritual and healing practices, we can make use of these to avoid or “bypass” the (non-negotiable/ required) confrontation with our own shadow, or with our broken heart, with our embodied vulnerability, our unfelt grief, and with those parts of ourselves that we’ve dismissed, rejected, and marginalized, as unworthy, unacceptable, and certainly quite unspiritual.
Things like our anger or selfishness, or jealousy or greed, our codependency, our loneliness, our fears, our melancholy, or our boredom. But it’s important to remember that it’s not only so-called “negative” material and pieces of soul that end up in the shadow, but any part of our personality that is unacceptable and unwanted. We can also disown or split off from our creativity, sexuality, or even our capacity to feel joy, to enjoy a simple moment of being alive and taking a walk and engaging in spontaneous, unstructured play.
The reason this experience – positive or negative – becomes unwanted and is pushed away is usually because at some point in our developmental history, in our families of origin, when our little brains and nervous systems were growing and unfolding, the embodiment and expression of one of these aspects of our experience became associated with something terribly unsafe.
Meaning, if we allowed ourselves to feel, articulate, and express anger or sadness or too much dependency, or unbridled joy or excitement or fear, this led to a rupture in the bond with one of our caretakers or attachment figures. As a young child, our number one priority is keeping that bond intact, because that’s how we stay alive – not only physically, but emotionally, psychically, and spiritually. We learned very quickly which experiences led to rejection, shame, abandonment, and abuse; and which led to connection, affection, acknowledgment, and love. We were masters of attuning to the status quo and structuring our perception and behavior – even what feelings we would allow ourselves to feel – in order to ensure that we would fit in.
If a certain way of being, feeling, or expressing ourselves generated rejection, abandonment, panic, or fear, it was adaptive – necessary, intelligent, and kind – to push that part of ourselves out of awareness. As a little one with a ripening little nervous system and heart, we have no choice but to privilege perception and behavior that are most likely to generate an embodied, felt sense of safety, over everything.
And so any aspect, then, of our personality, that we weren’t able to be in a conscious, embodied relationship with, will end up “in the shadow,” and this of course includes the entirety of our trauma and attachment wounding, which we can’t really process and metabolize as young children.
This discovery in myself led to a 20-year exploration of the shadow and the lost pieces of the soul. This work has been so important to me personally as well as to my clinical and therapeutic work with others.
The poet Robert Bly describes the shadow as an invisible bag that we carry behind us. I find this to be such an evocative and textured image. You can almost feel it. You can almost touch it, taste it, sense those pieces of the soul that have become veiled as we walk toward the light.
Throughout our lives, fragments of psyche are added to this bag; experiences and ways of perceiving that run counter to the image we have of ourselves and what has become marginalized in our families, cultures, therapies, and spiritualities.
But the thing is – and I think that many of us are aware of this at a really deep intuitive level – is that there are pieces of gold, silver, emerald, and ruby in that bag. At first glance, they may appear to be garbage or lead or some other rusty or worthless substance. And so here, we enter into the alchemical imagination and the metaphor of gold making.
What is it that you have put in that bag? Do you have a sense of this? Maybe you could just close your eyes for a moment. Do you hear this one, this piece of soma, of psyche, of soul longing for you, aching to return home? Not to harm you, not to take you down, but as an ally of wholeness.
What is it that you’ve had to push away in order to fit in, to be safe, to be seen, to experience a sense of belonging? Is it your own creativity or your power? Is it your grief? Is it your very native, natural anger? Your sensitivities, your eccentricities, your melancholy, your joy, your contentment, your peace? What is it that has remained untouched for you that makes up this psychic territory, this landscape that we call the unlived life?
From an alchemical perspective, each of the metals long to become gold, a process as imagined to occur naturally over a long period of time. Eventually all of the metals would be converted into gold by nature, organically. But the alchemist wasn’t satisfied with that. Through their processes and vessels and through their deep love affair with the materials, the materials of the soul and also of the earth, which for the alchemist were one thing, they believed that they could hasten or quicken the process, quicken that gold making process.
Perhaps it’s love, really, that’s the agent of that quickening. It’s going to be up to each of us to explore that nature of that love and what it is and how it is mined in us and out in the natural world, what it really means for each one of us in the vessels of our own bodies in a way that’s embodied and experiential and alive, concrete, and specific for us, not in a way that’s dry and conceptual and abstract and disembodied.”