Consider the simple act of unscrewing the cap of a pen. This may seem like an extremely basic and mundane task. Yet, this seemingly insignificant action holds valuable clues to understanding the dynamics of existence: both within the material Universe and within Consciousness.
To begin unscrewing the cap, requires you to grip it at two diametrically opposing points on its surface. Typically, you would use your thumb and index finger to do this. The thumb and the index finger apply an equal amount of force in a direction opposite to each other. In mechanics, this is known as a force couple. Even though, they are in opposing directions, they don’t negate each other. Rather they complement, with the thumb prompting the index finger and the index finger prompting the thumb. These opposing forces applied repeatedly cause the pen cap to rotate upwards and finally out. Simple enough.
Now, let’s think of ways in which we could complicate this seemingly straightforward scenario. Imagine, instead of using both fingers in a co-operative manner, you decide to keep your thumb fixed and allow your index finger to do all the work. You may still be able to unscrew the pen cap, but you will end up expending more than twice the amount of effort, because not only to you have to overcome the inertia of the pen cap, you also have to overcome the friction of your thumb. A simple task becomes a struggle. And vice versa the same is true, if you were to keep your index finger fixed and only the thumb doing all the work.
Another side effect, you may notice if you were to place a bias on only one finger, is that there is a tendency for the pen to shift off its axis. This is because when the coupling forces acting on a object are unequal, this inequality translates to a shift in the body’s center of gravity. The pen gets ‘thrown off its center’. On the other hand when the two forces are equal and in harmony, the integrity of the pen’s center of balance is always maintained.
The Two Natures of the Self
Each one of us is a Conscious being. And all conscious beings have two inherent natures. These natures have been referred to by varying terms in different esoteric traditions: yin-yang, the masculine-feminine principles, light nature-dark nature etc. These are traditions that tend to see these dynamics without moral bias. Other traditions that have heavy moral undertones tend use terms such as good-evil, virtue-vice, sin-redemption etc. and in using these terms the underlying bias is clearly evident.
I prefer to use the terms light-self and shadow-self. Just like when the sun rises on one half of the globe, a shadow is cast on the other half, the two aspects of yourself are deeply interconnected and utterly inseparable. And yet the sun cannot shine on the whole globe at once. Those are the laws by which the movement of light is governed. Similarly, your being is much like a globe. And the light of your awareness cannot shine on all places at once. There must always be aspects of your being that live in the light and other aspects that thrive in the dark. In order to develop a holistic understanding of yourself it is necessary to acknowledge both natures of the self.
The art of living a balanced life free from struggle then is to unify these two forces within and to express them in a manner in which they complement and cooperate with one another. When I say ‘free of struggle’ I do not mean that you will never encounter any challenges in your life. Struggle is inherent in the makeup of the universe to some extent. For example, when unscrewing the pen cap you have to first overcome the inertia of the pen cap. If it has been screwed especially tightly, it may take some straining to free it initially. So that kind of struggle is unavoidable. However, the effort is still a balanced one because both coupling forces are working in tandem to free the pen cap. There is no additional layer of struggle which might have been caused if they were instead in conflict with one another.
When the light-self and the shadow-self are equally acknowledged and expressed, the result is one of harmony and authenticity of expression. However, this is rarely the case for most people. Our society, being a moralistic one, has moral biases programmed into its very foundation. And those biases set people up to skew their preferences from a very young age. By using the terms “good” and “evil” we are taught to identify with one self and are taught to suppress the other self. When a toddler is applauded with a smile for being a “good boy!” or chastised with a frown for being a “naughty boy!” his brain immediately begins to learn that one self is met with love and approval and the other self is the one that is met by punishment.
Identification and Suppression are analogous with the example of one finger moving while the other finger holds its ground. Whatever we suppress within ourselves ends up acting as a ‘drag force’ and becomes counter-productive. This is the cause of the inner resistance you feel. It causes an unnecessary amount of energy to be expended, eventually leading to states of stress, exhaustion and finally burnout.
Light-self bias and Shadow-self bias
Previously, I had mentioned that we are encouraged from a young age to develop a bias within our selves. This bias is reinforced by the terms “good” and “bad”. To be good does not necessarily mean to identify with only the light-self. Each parent sets up their own version of what “good” means and what “bad” means. The terms good may encapsulate certain light-self behaviors and certain shadow-self behaviors, while the term “bad” may encapsulate other light-self and shadow-self behaviors.
Consider three examples: the first two are examples of extremes and are archetypal whereas the third is a more realistic category into which most people fall.
The first example is that of a priest who instructs a child that kindness, generosity, fairness, being of service to others, respecting elders and above all worshiping god (all light-self attributes) are “good”. On the other hand, selfishness, being opportunistic, disobedience, disrespect, being self-centered and lustful (all shadow-self attributes) are signs of being tempted by the devil and are “bad”.
The second example is that of a mafia boss who instructs a child that ruthlessness, mistrust of the motives of others, greed, being sexually aggressive and surviving at all costs ( all shadow-self attributes) are “good”. Whereas being kind and accommodating of others, sharing wealth, adhering to the law and being self-sacrificing (all light-self attributes) is a sign of foolishness and naivete and hence is “bad”.
These two examples are archetypal because they clearly demarcate light-self and shadow-self as being either good or bad. In reality, no one is that black and white. All our notions of good tend to have some flavors of light/shadow and bad the remaining flavors of light/shadow.
For example, a parent may instruct a child that it is “good” to be obedient, generous to the poor and polite (attributes of the light-self) and at the same time that it is also good to be secretive, mistrusting of the motives of others and opportunistic in ones career (attributes of the shadow-self). This same child is also taught that it is “bad” to express ones individuality, to be sexually open-minded and to collaborate with others in order to be successful (light-self attributes) and at the same time that it is also bad to be impolite, disrespecting of elders and disobedient of authority (aspects of shadow-self).
And so when it comes to identification and suppression, most of us are identifying with certain attributes of the light-self and the shadow-self while suppressing other attributes of each self, depending upon how our biases were set up.
Therefore, to return to our pen analogy: it is not simply the case of one finger attempting to do all the turning and the other being purely resistant. Rather there is some amount of effort by both fingers and also some amount of resistance in both. Neither is entirely inert and yet neither is entirely committed. And so the experience of struggle occurs on both ends. And the overall experience is a kind of stuttering, jerking sort of tug-of-war movement rather than a smooth effortless flow.
As a result, we end up achieving only a fraction of the progress we are inherently capable of while exerting several times more energy than we need to.
A Glimpse of Inner Harmony
It is a common theme of every spiritual quest – That intense inner turmoil, followed by a period of severe exhaustion and eventually a collapsing or a giving up of the will. What follows is what has been termed by different traditions as a spiritual awakening, a resurrection, being born again, satori, rejuvenation, reinvention and renewal depending upon your religious/spiritual background or lack thereof. But in essence they all point to the same one experience. The experience of total surrender.
Imagine that you have been struggling to unscrew this pen cap for as long as you remember: obsessively and compulsively struggling. And yet you are unaware of the simple dynamics of harmony that are necessary in order for you to achieve it. Or maybe you are aware of these dynamics but are simply unable to put them into effect because your thumb and index finger, having repeated their dysfunctional and counter-productive movements for so long, now seem to have a mind of their own.
At one point, the struggle becomes so tiring that the thumb and index finger suddenly stop. And in that moment, you suddenly realize for the first time that you are no longer struggling. This experience can give you an intense feeling of liberation. To be free of struggle comes as a surprise and a huge wave of relief. Because you had perhaps never even considered before that that a struggle-free existence was even possible.
This sudden ceasing of effort now frees you up to become aware of another aspect of yourself : pure awareness. Pure Awareness is the condition that becomes apparent when the movement of both the light-self and the shadow-self subside for a moment. When there is no sense of movement in either direction your awareness has nothing to focus on: no self to try and be. This experience of no-self is also called the Original Self or the Higher-self. Yet all it really points to is the pre-existing condition of your awareness prior to it manifesting itself within the dynamics of living a life. And in that sense, this state of no-self always exists as the backdrop regardless of whether there is any movement happening on the surface.
To glimpse this is significant, because it suddenly shifts your whole perspective of the game. Whereas, you may previously have viewed yourself as a chess-piece on the board of life capable of only lateral movement, you are suddenly sucked back to the vantage point of the chess player with the choice to assume the role of any chess piece in each moment.
This experience of no-self is liberating but can also induce a state of inertia. After all, if its so peaceful outside of the dynamics of the light and shadow self why engage in life at all? And so the thumb and the fore finger may choose to take a break for a while from attempting to unscrew the pen cap and just enjoy the rest.
And yet, remaining stuck in this state of inert harmony doesn’t serve you for too long. Because the impetus towards movement is unavoidable. This is one of the shadow-aspects of Consciousness, this need for continuous flux and growth. You may try to resist it and many do, preferring not to relinquish their new found bliss but try as you might you cannot hold on. Just like you may try to preserve the beauty of a flower by freezing it but you will eventually lose the essence of it even if you do manage to preserve its structure. So too will your peaceful state become eventually arid and devoid of any vibrancy even though you may manage to preserve some sort of outward facade of harmony.
The nature of life is one of constant movement and the essence of your purpose in this lifetime is how to express that inner, static harmony of the no-self perspective into a balanced and dynamic harmony of the light and shadow-self. In other words, having experienced what relaxed and harmonious effortlessness feels like when your fingers stop unscrewing the pen cap, you then seek to replicate that experience of harmony by bringing a balance in the effort expressed by the two fingers once you begin unscrewing again.
An Attitude of Openness
Even after an awakening experience, bringing that knowledge of harmony and translating it into the dynamics of your life can be very challenging. Intentions alone are insufficient. Effort is required to debug your previous programming and to rewrite those parts of the program. In order to identify all those bugs, an attitude of complete openness and willingness to discover is imperative. To find a bug you need to know where to look and more importantly have to be willing to look everywhere. In other words, there is no nook or corner of your mind that can be sheltered from the light of your own awareness.
Even identifying the bug is not nearly enough. The final step is to correct it. That means altering your perspective in relation to that hang up. Maybe you were taught as a child to repress your sexual urges, maybe you were taught that generosity is folly, maybe you were taught that people are inherently mistrustful. Becoming aware that these hang ups exist within you is one part of the work. The other is to evaluate whether their presence serves you in any way or hinders you and to adapt your attitude accordingly.
Releasing a suppressed aspect of either your light or shadow self doesn’t imply swinging to the other extreme by becoming fixated on expressing it. For example, you may have been taught to be mistrusting of others but that does not mean you must now go around blindly trusting everyone you meet. That would just lead to a suppression over time of that shadow-self aspect within you that seeks self-preservation.
In truth, every light-self aspect has a shadow-self counterpart and vice versa. The suppression of one aspect usually cascades into an over-identification of the counterpart aspect. And so releasing a suppression means bringing a balance between the two aspects rather than swinging in allegiance from one to the other.
Hence, having an attitude of openness to whatever experience is arising within your awareness is crucial to releasing your biases. You cannot release a bias while adopting a biased attitude. Openness is the unbiased approach through which each hang-up is identified, evaluated and eventually calibrated.
Finding your Center of Gravity
What do the static state of no-self and the dynamic state of light-self/shadow-self balance have in common? The center of gravity in both cases is identical.
Take the examples of an expert gymnast and an amateur. It is hard to tell the difference between the two when both their bodies are at rest in a seated position. But as soon as the two are instructed to jump onto a balance beam, the differences become immediately apparent. What is different? The expert gymnast is aware of their own center of gravity and is guided by that awareness in every move they make. Staying true to that center of gravity expresses itself as the body balancing on the beam.The amateur on the other hand, having no such awareness is unconsciously guided to react to every force acting upon them. And one imbalance causes them to react with an opposite reaction expressing itself as a desperate back and forth yo-yo motion before finally falling off.
The path of self-mastery involves first becoming aware of that center of gravity and then learning how to adapt and adjust from moment to moment in accordance with it. Perfection isn’t the goal here, since there is no such thing as a perfect balance. And falling off repeatedly is a necessary pre-requisite to refining your own balance. Yet, becoming aware of your own center of gravity is essential.
Similarly, you have an inner center of gravity that is unique to you. No two people share the same center point because no two people are constructed alike. Each one of us is subtly different. And in order to express harmony it is important to recognize that. Which is why attempting to uphold some universally accepted, externally imposed standard of thought or behavior is absurd. Because it implies trying to conform your expression to some arbitrary point of gravity that may or may not be in sync with your own. It is ultimately counter-productive. Which is why religious and spiritual dogma are ultimately ineffectual in releasing our inner suffering.
Another term for this inner center of gravity is the term Integrity. To act with integrity is to act in accordance with your own innate nature. The old conditioned mind believes that integrity is some moral standard that all people must adhere to but that is just based on hundreds of years of cultural conditioning and has little, if any, rational basis. At best, that sort of externally imposed standard can is a means the powerful use to control the masses and to predict their behavior.
Integrity is something highly personal to you. It is the balance point of the light-self and the shadow-self within the individual: where there is neither over-identification nor suppression of either self. That balance point varies from person to person. And it is up to you to discover what that is. To act with integrity is to act in a manner which serves the needs of the greater collective while remaining true to the expression of the individual.
The human being is simply a microcosm of of this vast and complex Universe. Yet the dual movements of light and shadow that operate within our Consciousness are universally applicable at every substrate of existence. It is this principle that allows us to embark on journeys of both scientific and spiritual discovery. And it is this principle, which when understood and mastered, can guide us into a deeper realization of ourselves.