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Shadow Work, Perception, and Alchemy

One of the things that most surprised me when I was plodding my way out of depression was the realization that we can actually choose what we believe, and that what we believe changes how we perceive the entire world. I had sort of assumed that beliefs and perception were outside of our control. Even though I'd been to a liberal arts college whose motto was, quite literally, "a place to think", I had yet to experience something that truly shook my belief system. To be fair, my framework was airtight: everything sucks, and if it doesn't suck then it will abandon you. Pretty tough to argue with that, and the proof was in the pudding - as far as I could tell, I hadn't been wrong yet. I was often concerned with "proof" at the time - "rationality" appeared to be an important trait in the world, and I was determined to embody it whenever possible.

I can't remember all of the steps that led me towards shifting my perceptions, but there are a couple of moments that stood out:

The first: It's nearing the end of 2017. I'm at my first clinical job after graduating social work school. I'd spent a year after graduation trying to muster the energy to pursue my clinical hours, while also trying to afford living in Brooklyn, while also wanting to have health insurance and financial stability. I'd decided to work full time at a non-clinical job that I hated but gave me health insurance and a salary, and part time seeing clients. Trump had been president for almost a year. Two years of social work school and a year of Trump presidency had forced my frozen, numb body into intense waves of fiery, impotent rage, matched only by the dissociative waves that followed. I was deeply depressed, and I wasn't constantly numb anymore, which created a ripe opportunity for change.

I was hired by a practice that trained therapists to utilize a particular form of CBT (TEAM-CBT). This modality mostly didn't resonate with me, but there was one part of it that I found intriguing and effective. Essentially, the therapist is trained to explore with clients why they might not want to change, by asking clients to explore how their depression/anxiety/habits might actually be serving them. (Yep, basically formalized reverse psychology.) On one of their worksheets - a list of possible responses to this question - a line stood out to me: clients might cling to the status quo of depression because it feels true: "life really is awful, and people who feel happy are stupid and naïve".

I felt personally attacked. By which I mean, I felt seen. It dawned on me that this was the thing about depression that most appealed to me: I felt right. And I'll admit it: righteousness feels fucking great. I actually loved feeling like everyone who wasn't depressed was foolish and "unrealistic" and I was the one with the inside scoop. Just think about it for a second. Doesn't it feel really fucking good to be right? If we let ourselves actually receive the sensation of righteousness, without piling all sorts of moral judgment on top of it, it feels fucking pleasurable!

I later understood that by accepting this part of me that I'd previously been denying, by allowing myself to just enjoy feeling "right", even if it was just for a brief moment before spinning back into shame and denial, I was doing "shadow work". This alone didn't eradicate my depression, but it did pique my curiosity which is a key to change (I find curiosity is most helpful when I stop asking exasperatedly, "why is this here?!" and start asking "what assumptions am I making about why this is here and are those really accurate?"). Was I really clinging onto depression because a part of me just wants to feel right all the time? What would happen to my sense of self if I dropped this perception of the world? Who would I be?

The second: It's 2018, I'm about a year into my clinical hours, still depressed and very busy. It was the kind of busy that gave me an excuse to get out of everything I didn't want to do, aside from work. I was especially too busy to see a therapist, or to commit to any relationship, for that matter. I'd made it a habit to smoke weed during whatever chunks of time I could find. And I used those chunks of time, sometimes to lose myself in a show or a movie, and sometimes to dive into my own mental wormholes and try to find my way out of them. (Yes, this is the kind of thing I find fun and rewarding!)

During one of these nights, I began to contemplate death (as one does). At the time, I believed that death was just nothingness - we become worm food and that's that. This seemed so obviously right to me, and as discussed above, I love being right. But because I was a little high, my curiosity was more available to me, so I found myself exploring this more deeply. Sure, it's entirely possible that death is nothingness. But also, no one actually knows what death feels like. Like, we can't definitively prove anything. People that have been medically dead and are brought back to life describe a myriad of sensations. In fact, many people report feeling bliss.

So, I concluded, here's a topic in which I can choose to believe absolutely anything. You might be thinking, "no shit, Sasha, that's like the whole point of religion, go to sleep and sober up", but in the moment, this blew my mind. I could choose to believe that death is nothingness, sure. But I could also choose just about anything else, if I found it to be more useful to do so! I had a choice?! Along with this realization, my body moved with ecstatic waves of pleasure and excitement - the felt sense that I'd stumbled upon a truth that was worth pursuing. A box had been shattered.

I decided that if this were true about death, it could also be true about everything else that has yet to be "proven". Like, say, the meaning of life. We don't know what any of this means, and there doesn't appear to be any way to definitively prove it. Humanity has been seeking answers to this question for as long as we've been around, and we've developed all sorts of nifty theories about it. So why not just choose one, try it on, and see if it works?

As it turns out, it is entirely within my power to choose to believe that life is a deliciously meaningless, deeply twisted comedy. I am allowed to choose to believe that we are each a wave in the ocean of the Animate Everything, and everything we experience is just the universe playing with itself. And when I try these beliefs on, they just happen to work really well for me. And if you should say: "But what about all the suffering in the world?! There's nothing funny about that! There's a loophole in your belief!" I'd offer: "It sure seems like the universe is into some kinky shit."*

Over and over again, in our spiritual traditions and our psychological research, we discover that humans have repressed "shadow" desires for things that our conscious ego does not approve of. These shadow desires are pushed down, but they always find a way to get what they want - usually in ways that are labeled "self-destructive". Ultimately, it seems, we are beings that crave all sensation - not just the "good" ones. If you need evidence for this, just look around at the world we've collectively created for ourselves: a world of infinite tortures, great and small.

But I'm not interested in trying to convince you. If there's anything I've learned through the process of changing my beliefs it's that, while it's helpful to hear how other people have navigated the world, no one else can convince me of anything. I have to feel how it works for me. So try it on. Or don't. Your call.

So. How might this belief help me to more easily navigate the world? Here's an example:

Through some self-reflection and shadow work, I've come to understand that I often find myself in situations where I feel constrained and dissociated. This appears to be a habit of mine in many aspects of my life: work, food, relationships, sex, exercise. When I feel this, I get very irritable and I complain a lot (I truly love to complain) - I struggle against it, but it takes me a ridiculously long time to actually do anything about it - and usually I don't take any action at all. Why is that?

Well, I could choose to believe that I do this because I'm lazy, or that I'm too tired to make any changes, or that it's someone else's fault, or because I need to set better boundaries, and so on. This approach often comes with heavy doses of shame, guilt, helplessness, and prolonged suffering.

Or I could choose to believe that my unconscious is choosing the sensations of constraint and dissociation because there are parts of me that actually enjoy this.**

Sensation is qualitatively neutral. Sensations and emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They vary in intensity, and we might have different capacities to be with some sensations more than others. But it's just not useful or accurate to apply morality to sensations (don't get me started on how insidious this truly is). It is not wrong to enjoy feeling constrained - in fact, constraint can feel fun and sexy when it's a choice. Dissociation can be deliciously disorienting when we choose it. If my life is just an expression of the universe playing with itself, why not get on the side of my unconscious and make it my choice?

It turns out that I enjoy edging myself with sensation deprivation: I like to see how long I can bear the delightfully infuriating experience of feeling tied down and then entirely outside of myself, how long I can enjoy the struggle of fighting with it only to feel the constraints get tighter, before finally yielding to its seductive embrace, which paradoxically releases its hold and sends waves of spacious relief through my body. If I choose to believe that this is a game that I like to play with myself, simply because it's fun and it satisfies my shadowy parts, then I can let myself just be turned on by the sheer sensation-rollercoaster I'm creating for myself.

This is not to say that emotions are meaningless - far from it. They often hold important messages about what we're experiencing and how we're experiencing it. But the messages are generally not what they seem, and when we approach our emotions with curiosity, playfulness, and compassion, the underlying messages become clearer.

I like this framework for a lot of reasons: it's rooted in pleasure and humor, it's got an anti-authoritarian energy, it closely parallels my knowledge of somatics and parts work, it hands my sense of agency back to me, and, well,... it just works for me. When I apply this framework, I feel more satisfied with my life, my emotions flow more easily, I feel lighter, and I have far more capacity to be connected and present.

This also isn't to say that life isn't difficult anymore - it is. But I don't feel like a victim to the difficulty. I don't feel like the world is conspiring to make everyone miserable. Instead, I am choosing to believe that the pain, the misery, the grief, the fear, the rage are all experiences that are worth having because they make me human, because they connect me to the world, because they are sadistically and/or masochistically delicious.

Over and over, in my somatic practices, I am reminded that we have the ability to alchemize pain into pleasure. This is not just a theory. This is something I and many others have practiced, embodied, felt, witnessed, and learned over and over again. And this process of alchemy is so utterly fulfilling, it's no wonder we seek the struggle.

But why bother? Why bother alchemizing our small, daily struggles, while we are witnessing a genocide, while our systems careen into collapse? Well, you don't have to bother, if you've found other approaches that work for you and the collective. But I've found it helpful to believe that our small worlds create ripples, seen and unseen.

Or, if you prefer, "As above, so below. As within, so without". Tiny changes we make within ourselves have an effect on the external world because we are not truly separate, we are a wave in the ocean, a strand in the fabric.

And if you need proof, it's in the pudding - if you remember how to taste it.


*There are elements of this framework that can seem dismissive, bypass-y, insensitive, and apathetic. Like, sure, it's nice to be able to "get off" on my unconscious' desires to torture me, but what about the real atrocities that are happening out in the world? How can we claim that anyone, unconsciously or otherwise, wants to experience that? I could certainly take this theory and run with it, and probably land somewhere that makes some semblance of sense. But ultimately, this framework may not satisfyingly explain to you why we do the horrible things we do to each other. And. It is still a useful tool for understanding aspects of ourselves and the collective.

**This post was inspired by Existential Kink, which outlines the axioms and steps to do this kind of shadow work. I would not necessarily recommend this book to everyone, especially not if you're swimming in the depths of depression and/or grief, but it is worth a read if you feel drawn to this idea. Even if you hate the book, you'll get the pleasure of hating it!

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