Discovering the Divinity In Dragons: Shadow Work and Spirituality
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve had a lot of dragons in my life: rage, envy, desire, and passion, to name a few.
These dragons, or what I like to think of as parts of myself, were parts I learned to carefully tuck away through the practice of yoga. I never judged this abandonment or thought twice about the actions I judged as right efforts on the spiritual path. It seemed quite logical. If I wanted peace, I couldn’t raise my voice, break objects, or verbally assault my loved ones. I could not express anger and simultaneously experience calm. The trade-off was clear, and the results were worth the intense tapas, or purification, I employed the first few years of yogic practice, which coincided with newfound sobriety and immersion in 12-step rooms.
There is a story I heard often in 12-step rooms that assisted me with this process of transformation: I was told to imagine sobriety and addiction as two wolves that lived inside of me. To ensure sobriety, I had to feed my sobriety. To safeguard against addiction, I had to starve my addiction. The message was simple, clear, and what I needed to internalize at that chapter of my life: there are two parts of myself, and for one to survive, the other must die.
Today, I like to think of these negative parts as dragons, rather than wolves, because they possess an element of danger, mythic wildness, and mystery. Dragons inspire terror and wonder. A show that captures this tension well is Game of Thrones. Its main darling heroine, protagonist, and anti-hero is the Mother of Dragons. Daenerys Targareyn hatches and rears three dragons who she refers to as “her children.” As her children grow up, she encounters their untamable force and locks two of them up to protect the people she rules, setting the other one three.
What happens to the caged dragons? They weaken and starve, while their mother begins to lose her power, too. Eventually, Daenerys is forced to free her children as her character travels further into her character arc. Daenerys longs to reconcile this tension between violence and justice, power and compassion, but never completely does, despite her desire to do so. And why not?
The might, power, and strength of the Mother of Dragons is predicated on dragons. No dragons, no Mother of Dragons.
Considering my early stages in yogic practice with this awareness, I can see that I regarded my own metaphorical dragons as liabilities. And in fairness, they were. Anger terrorized my loved ones. Passion dominated my thoughts. Jealousy threatened any good I tried to cultivate. Like Daenerys, to survive these realities I had to forsake my biggest offenders.
Abandoning these parts gave me the opportunity to engage other parts that my tradition, which was steeped heavily in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and The Bhagavad Gita, promoted. Qualities like non-attachment, sustained effort, contentment, and nonviolence became the watchwords and guiding lights of the path toward transcendence of my darker parts.
But can you transcend what you don’t encounter? Can you renounce what you don’t embody?
In a recent talk given in the master class Wealth, author and coach Dr. Carolyn Elliott discussed how transcendence in spiritual traditions is often misperceived and falsely enacted as spiritual bypassing. She emphasized the necessity of the left-hand path and practices of embodiment, descent, or shadow work to effectively work, heal, transform, and integrate the negative parts spiritual doers seek to transcend. If there is shame, rejection, or disgust around any quality within yourself, according to Dr. Elliot, there is an automatic indication that work has not been fully done with that quality. And if work hasn’t been fully done, you can’t transcend.
I noticed this awareness opening a few years ago. I thought I dealt with my banished parts through committed prayer, my daily ashtanga practice, and rigorous moral inventory. And on the surface, it appeared as though I had. I practiced restraint of harsh speech with loved ones who frustrated me; I exercised patience with difficult children, clients, and students; I showed up to meetings and class with an air of discipline. I was evolving. I was transforming. I was no longer that angry, immature adolescent. Right?
Something was itching at me from the inside, clawing for attention, to be let out. Robert Bly, in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, writes “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” He discusses projections as the efforts of the shadow to manifest, writing, “But sooner or later one of the projections starts to rattle.” That rattling possessed me. There were several key events that drove this rattling louder: I experienced several losses in 12-step rooms. A loved one’s perils escaping domestic violence kept me up at night. I experienced a re-traumatization of an event that occurred during my adolescence. Loss, grief, and trauma caused the qualities I had tucked away to resurface. The suggestion to feed the good wolf couldn’t stand on the ground around me anymore.
The work I had engaged for the first several years on the yogic path was almost exclusively the work of feeding the good wolf, or cultivating positive qualities within myself. This work failed to hold up as the negative qualities were never actually reconciled — they were just shut away. But these qualities, my own mythic dragons, didn’t stay shut. They learned how to scream in starvation, fight for attention, and wail in forgotten fury. With the best of intentions, I had actually made these parts stronger by banishing them. Furthermore, I had engaged the work of abandonment, self-rejection, and shadow-making in my pursuit of transcendence.
What is the shadow? In episode 55 of a podcast called This Jungian Life, Jungian analysts Deborah Stewart, Lisa Marchiano, and Joseph Lee, describe the shadow as the “underbelly of the ego,” or those parts of the self that are loaded with disgust and shame. They explain that shadow-making begins in early youth, as potential parts of our personality are banished into the unconscious. Even with the most idyllic childhoods and perfect parents shadow-making occurs. It’s a necessary functioning, as it allows the young child to accommodate his or her culture and form a functional personality.
Stewart, Marchiano, and Lee explain that these parts remain in a highly instinctive state that are charged with emotion because they were relegated to the unconscious at such an early age. This makes these parts feel incredibly dangerous, or dragon-like, for the adult who begins to experience them rear their heads.
A magnetic quality exists with these qualities, even as they were consciously disallowed and exist in largely unconscious realms. Stewart, Marchiano, and Lee explain that no matter how severe the process of shadow-making, the Self still holds within itself the memory of wholeness, of a state of being in which all parts existed in harmony. This memory compels the psyche to lead the self to the shadow through the process of projection.
Thus, to encounter the shadow, one might look at where, and with whom, one experiences irritation, frustration, and disgust. Charged emotions and provocative qualities are the trail the shadow leaves behind and the psyche urges us to follow. As I got curious about my own trail of breadcrumbs, new traditions, paths, and teachers presented themselves. One such teaching was Shakta Tantra.
Tantra is an esoteric philosophy that is difficult to properly codify, define, or organize. In Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli writes, “Practically everybody who writes anything about tantra usually begins by explaining that nobody can really define what it is. The term has a long and complex history that is not confined to a specific single sect or religion.” Though difficult to explain, through my initiation in the Satyananda lineage and study of various tantric texts such as The Saundarya Lahari and Shiva Sutras, my understanding of tantra was synthesized as follows: there are two main forces at the core of Existence. Shiva, or consciousness, the masculine principle, is the energy of ascent, and Shakti, or creation, the feminine principle, is the energy of descent. Shakti compels Shiva to be conscious of Himself, and Shiva compels Shakti to create through his awareness.
In other words, in tantric philosophy, existence is a dream that is dreamt by the Dreamer so that he can experience Himself, a dream so magical, so provocative, that it compels the Dreamer to dream.
The proposition is a bit like the chicken or the egg dilemma (which came first, consciousness, or creation?). At its essence, tantra proposes that existence is the product of these two tensions. There is the field of consciousness, and the beautiful, messy, wild dance that occurs within the field, which is creation. Without duality, the dream does not exist, and the dreamer’s dreaming powers reside in a state of dormancy, as an amoeba in the placenta of Oneness, Being, and Non-Duality.
Thus, what occurs in the field of consciousness, what interesting forms and captivating nuances the dream takes, is the work of Shakti. By encountering these shapes and turns, one is actually celebrating Shakti’s handiwork, engaging a relationship with the divine.
If we are just Shakti’s dream, and Shakti is divine, then we are divine, too, and She exists inside of us. Tantra Darshan, a book written by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati in the Satyanana tradition, says that manifestations of Shakti live inside of us as devatas, or gods, residing in the heart. He writes,
“The role of the devatas is twofold: one is to bind and limit one to the material dimension, and the other is to liberate and uplift one from this dimension. In order to experience the uplifting aspect of the devata, the purification of the devata must be achieved. This purification is achieved through mantra, and also through the practice of nyasa, which is included in the tantric shatkarmas. Through this practice, a positive shield of prana shakti is created around the body so that the negative, binding aspects of the devatas are pacified and instead become the source of upliftment, growth and evolution.”
This “twofold dimension” is the essence of existence. To experience existence, we must enter the twofold dimension. But a path to oneness, to wholeness, to the state of Being that is Shakti and Shiva consummate, exists. Just as the shadow leaves breadcrumbs for the psyche, divinity leaves a trail of evidence for the devotee to follow.
This evidence takes the form of attraction and repulsion. In tantra, we work with the charged emotions and provocative qualities that Jungian analysts Stewart, Marchiano, and Lee assert are essential forces in encountering the shadow and engaging shadow-work. We move into these feelings, experiences, and sensations by engaging embodiment practices and setting up safe containers for these practices. In tantra, these practices include yoga nidra, nyasa, mantra, tratag, puja, and certain types of asana, mudra, and pranayama. In the book Existential Kink, Dr. Elliott proposes a practice called Existential Kink, which involves identifying the quality or feeling that is charged with frustration, hatred, or shame and moving toward it, getting curious about it, and allowing yourself to experience the pleasure and sensation of that disallowed feeling — quite literally, getting off on it. Stewart, Marchiano, and Lee identify shadow work practices such as dream work, intensive journaling, interviewing shadow parts, honestly confronting the self, and taking imaginal journeys.
Working with the shadow is an ever-unfolding process. As Stewart, Marchiano, and Lee say, it is not a formulaic, linear process, but a wild, circular process that requires instinct, subtlety, and the willingness to sense into experience, to be moved and led by it. For me, this process is facilitated by tantric, Existential Kink, and Jungian practices, but it is also informed by the basic awareness that the spiritual process is just the process of being human, and to be human I have to actually allow myself to be human — I have to be willing to feel, observe, allow, and move into everything, including pleasure, rage, lust, grief, terror, and violence.
The fear for me was always that if I actually allowed certain parts of myself to express themselves, they would both dominate my life and curtail the work of other spiritually-minded parts. If I fed my dragons, they would wreak havoc, which is why I shut them away in the first place.
What I have learned in the last few years of engaging embodiment practices and getting comfortable with the idea that being human is the point, or the actual spiritual process, is that first, the dragons rear their heads whether I allow or forbid them. The closer I get to my spiritual ideals, which include compassion, patience, and faith, is the more they growl and prepare for flight. Through therapy, tantric and embodiment practices, Existential Kink work, journaling, and writing I have become more comfortable with the idea that these dragons aren’t going anywhere. Now if I attend to them consciously, with affection, food, and supervised flights, I have a say in how they express themselves.
Second, feeding my dragons, or working with my shadow, is not just a trade-off proposition. There actually is real gold in working with the disallowed parts of myself, such as my anger. Allowing these parts is not just a stepstone to spiritual enlightenment — it is an integral aspect of the process of self-realization and integration. Stewart, Marchiano, and Lee describe it as “enlivening, worthwhile, and whole-making.”
Dr. Carolyn Elliott says the following about the gold in shadow work:
“The recognition and acceptance of our role as artist of the shadows on the film is a tad bit more exciting than spiritual illumination. Accepting our power as world-making artists and learning to consciously engage it is…drumroll, please… magic.”
The magic, for me, is both the experience of wholeness and the knowledge that there is nothing inherently defective about me: I am human, gifted with the task of cosmic artistry. I get to experience every facet of the dream of consciousness. These facets all touch edges, and my desired qualities ride the backs of my dragons. My compassion, for instance, is tied to my anger. This link is not just cause-and-effect; they quite literally embody the same place. I know empathy because I know violence intimately. I know that I am capable of great compassion because I know what it is to feel hate, rage, and the desire to inflict pain. The more I can get in touch with this dragon, while quite terrifying, is the more I can cultivate compassion, prevent unconscious violent acts, and wield my violence when appropriate. This knowledge is magic, artistry, and alchemy.
In Freedom From the Known, spiritual thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti writes,
“But to be beyond violence I cannot suppress it, I cannot deny it… I have to look at it, I have to study it, I must become very intimate with it and I cannot become intimate with it if I condemn it or justify it.”
To transcend anything, we must become intimate with it. To engage shadow work is to become intimate with the Self, including her dragons and divinity.