Chapter 7: Shadow and Sunshine
A distinction is readily made between shade and shadow. To sit under the shade of a tree on a hot day is pleasant. On the other hand, as the scriptures say, we walk through the ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ and our days upon earth are a shadow that passeth away. Shadow generally stands for unwelcome and depressing darkness, obscuration, or something that is unsubstantial, unreal or transitory. In contrast, sunshine or light spells hope, good cheer and joy. ‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come.’
Shadow connotes the obscuration of the real, the impermanent nature of all that makes up our normal everyday life—the physical and mental possessions that we strive for and the power that often comes with position whether it be in politics, learning, art or religion and which we desperately try to hold on to. If these things slip away, as they must some day, we become ‘miserable creatures’ indeed. We become attached to persons—to wife, husband, children, friends and foes—in a relationship of attraction or repulsion. We are tied to ideas, traditions and theories, which we hold to be the only right ones and thus we create a difference between ourselves and others who are similarly convinced about their own.
In all this, we are walking through ‘the valley of the shadow,’ because these things are the cause of sorrow and fear, conflict and suffering.
Suffering comes to us, not because God has made this world a place of darkness, but because of our own attitudes. The germ of sorrow is implanted the moment we begin to think and feel in terms of the narrow personal self—of our own separate and exclusive happiness. It does not need a blind belief in God or in any Divine Plan to realize that sorrow lies in self-objectivity, in duality, and in pursuing the shadows projected by our own thoughts. It lies in the identification of the seer with the seen.
That is why so much emphasis has been laid on self-abnegation, on rooting out the giant weed of the self and on reducing it to zero. This stress on self-abnegation is sometimes misunderstood as suppression of the emotions and the mind. In fact, the stress is not on compulsory denial but on right understanding.
Besides the need for self-effacement, stress is laid on the significance, power and glory of each individual human being. ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ The Upanishad says:
This is myself within the heart, greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds.
These two aspects that reduce us to utter insignificance and at the same time proclaim greatness are not, as some may suppose, contradictory to each other. They refer to two sides—to the shadow in our vesture and to the inner light which is yet to shine out. It is we ourselves who have veiled the light and then complain of the darkness. This is referred to in various scriptures. The Bible declares that ‘the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.’ The Vedanta likens it to the sun and its eclipse, or the sun hidden behind the clouds. We, on the earth, see the darkness or the shadow, but in fact the sun continues to shine as resplendently as ever.
The spiritual path leads us from shadow to sunshine. We tread it by shifting the center of our consciousness from kama-manas to buddhi-manas—from a mind that is separative, possessive and dominated by desire and passion to one that is compassionate, peaceful, intuitive and which thinks and feels in terms of the larger life. In this sense, self-effacement is not the slaying of the senses and the mind but their illumination. It leads to a growing refinement of perceptions—a shift from the ego-life and duality to conscious unity. It might be thought of as a change in movement from the centripetal to the centrifugal. It begins with indifference to the desires and cravings of the bodies, but it does not neglect these bodies. It grows by the dissolution of the self-protective, self-projecting, narrow sphere of our limiting thoughts.
If a leaf falls in a small stream, or a river, or a place consecrated to Siva or in a crossing of roads, of what good or evil effect is that to the tree?
What applies to the tree and its leaves should begin to apply to the praise and the blame, the kicks and the caresses that come to us in our daily life.
The thirteenth century Sufi mystic, Rumi, wrote:
“The lamps are different but the Light is the same, it comes from Beyond. If thou keepest looking at the lamp, thou art lost; for thence arises the appearance of number and plurality. Fix thy gaze upon the Light, and thou are delivered from the dualism inherent in the finite body.”
It is this fixing of the gaze upon the Light—the One Life which permeates all—that purifies our perceptions and thus widens our vision. The discipline required is well known—self-purification, study, and deep reflection, with selfless service following naturally. Each one of these steps is important but they are only steps and not ends in themselves as they are sometimes thought to be. For instance, learning and the development of the powers of understanding are necessary and useful but they should not be allowed to be disproportionately important. In this connection, I am reminded of an anecdote in the life of Sankaracharya. Early one fine morning on his way to the Ganga for his daily bath and prayers, he heard a student loudly repeating the rules of Sanskrit grammar. Sankaracharya felt that this learning by heart at that glorious hour was a waste of time that could be better used for contemplation on the truths of life or nature. And so he composed what is called The Hymn of Renunciation, the last stanza of which says that without jnana or wisdom, no study or learning will assure a person of freedom even in a hundred lives. Rules of grammar profit nothing; contemplate Govinda, the Supreme Self that dwells in all.
As wisdom dawns, the Light comes—the light of understanding and of sympathy, of unity, synthesis and love that sees not the individual pieces but the whole picture in which the pieces find their place.
The realization of our divinity—or even glimpses of it—may not come for a long time, but even now as we try to live a purer and therefore a less self-centered life, we can at least begin to understand that abiding happiness lies in a consciousness which no longer revolves around our personal selves but opens out in ever widening circles.
It is individuals who make the world and each one can, if he/she tries consciously, become an agent in shaping a more beautiful world. We are privileged, then, to be leaders in a movement towards that future in which life on this planet is lived in harmony, in cooperation and in peace, within and without.
Everything that is done by us in the visible world is based on or arises from what we do with our feelings and thoughts. That each one of us affects others by our thoughts is no longer just a philosophical notion but appears as a fact in modern science in the domain of particle physics and psychology.
For instance, it has been found experimentally that observation involves participation. The universe begins to be seen as a participatory and interlinked whole in which everything affects everything else. Carl Sagan in his well-known book Cosmos states: ‘Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a large group…We have broadened the circle of those we love…If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further to include the whole human community, the entire planet earth.’
Each one of us can contribute a little to the sunshine of this planet by our positive, loving, helpful thoughts, for thoughts are at the root of speech and action. It is the mind which guides the movement of our lips, our hands and feet.
One may perhaps ask what one person alone can do. The average adult life lasts for perhaps 40 years consisting of 14,600 days. For at least 12 a day, a person is awake and the brain is working and producing thought currents—good, bad and indifferent. This gives a figure of 175,200 hours. It will be seen, then, how much one person can contribute to the thought-atmosphere that influences the actions of mankind. And as one treads the path of purity and of altruism, one’s thoughts, and beneficent radiations at levels higher than thought, become increasingly sharper, stronger, more powerful. How much brightness, then, each one of us can give to the world generally and more particularly to those we come into closer contact within the family, the neighborhood, the office and the social circle!
The important role of an individual has been highlighted by many saints and sages. J. Krishnamurti says:
“If you are completely, wholly secure—in the sense we are talking about—won’t you affect me—I who am insecure, despairing, clinging, attached?…Obviously, you will. If you effect a basic transformation in yourself, then you will affect not only those close to you but the whole consciousness of the world.”
And Ramana Maharshi observed that an atma-jnani, or a self-realized person, need not even do anything in order to benefit the world. His/her powerful spiritual influence by itself does positive good to everyone silently and imperceptibly.
As we have said, all spiritual teachings emphasize that we should reduce ourselves to zero in selflessness and self-denial. And yet zero is a very significant factor and a great power when placed along with any number for it can take a single digit to infinity. The same is true of our lower self—the physical body linked with thoughts and feelings. Misunderstood and misused, the lower self is the abode of darkness; rightly perceived and used, it can take a person to infinite glory and splendour. The relevance—and indeed the vital importance—of our lower self should therefore not be lost sight of. While the teachings say that the bodies should be subjugated, they also say that a human incarnation—a physical life—is a necessary means to salvation. It is the field on which the battle for light must be fought and won.
There is also a mysterious correlation between the physical body and the atman. Therefore shadow is linked with sunlight. Nature is very frugal and does not create anything unnecessarily. Madame Blavatsky says in The Secret Doctrine that in order to become divine, fully conscious gods, the Spiritual primeval Intelligences must pass through the human stage.
In trying to understand this dual nature of man—the shadow and the sunshine—lies our opportunity and also our responsibility.