This summer’s religion course in Bhutan with my HKIS students prompted this reflection on how all of us can take what we consider our lower selves and work with these energies to become better human beings. Our group is pictured here in Phobjikha, the most beautiful valley in Bhutan, walking from a 17th century Buddhist temple down to a 14th century one where we had the honor of observing and participating in a vestment consecration ceremony.
“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself… When you are able to say, ‘I am … my shadow as well as my light,’ the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.”
“If we are to speak of miracles, the most miraculous thing of all is that God uses the very thing that would normally destroy you—the tragic, the sorrowful, the painful, the unjust—to transform and enlighten you.”
– Richard Rohr, “Transformation,” Tuesday, July 5, 2016.
“A whole person is one who has walked with God and wrestled with the devil.”
— Carl Jung
Religion at its best brings to the fore unconventional wisdom that lightens our load, that tells us that life is unexpectedly better than we could have imagined. What if what we had considered our foremost weaknesses, our vices, the dark recesses of our hearts were in fact precisely the necessary catalysts for growth? Rainer Marie Rilke’s rich metaphors are especially poignant in this regard, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are really princesses who are 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” (123).
Teaching religion, as I have been doing in a study-travel course about Buddhist spiritual practices in Hong Kong and Bhutan this summer, should bring such wisdom to light. Too often, however, it seems as if the essence of religion teaching can be boiled down to a simple admonition: be good. Can such a l0w-bar aim justify my students’ time? Put more positively, what benefit beyond conventional morality can studying and practicing religion offer my students?
On day 1 of the course in Hong Kong I asked students to list on the board five successes and five failures that they have had in their lives. Of course, students were pleased with those events that were deemed positive and embarrassed or ashamed of those judged as failures. Following this discussion, I pointed them to the “Eight Worldly Concerns,” which can be summarized in this way (Bond, 2005).
Do not be attached to:
- Getting and keeping material objects
- Praise and encouragement.
- A good reputation.
- Pleasures of the senses
Do not fear:
- Losing or being separated from material objects.
- Being blamed, ridiculed, and criticized.
- Gaining a bad reputation.
- Unpleasant experiences.
The uncommon wisdom in this teaching is that the conventional markers of acceptance in society mask our deep-seated fears, preventing spiritual growth. The Eight Worldly Concerns teaches us that the real dangers of the spiritual life are our attachment to, or avoidance of, common life events we all encounter regularly. An attach/avoid posture towards the external dimension implies that a similar dualism can be applied within: I accept the attractive parts of myself and reject those areas considered unbecoming. How does one escape this unhealthy situation?
Know Thyself in “Strictly Ballroom”
As we prepared to travel to Bhutan, I showed the class the charming, oddball Bazz Luhrman film, “Strictly Ballroom” (1992). In this story, conventional morality is represented by the world of Australian ballroom dancing. The goal in this hierarchical substratum of white Australia society is simply to win, gaining the advantages of prestige afforded to those who triumph. The story’s tension resides, then, in the young and talented protagonist, Scott Hastings, who wants to dance his own routines, creating “non-federation steps,” to which the reigning commissar of ballroom dancing, Barney Fife, pronounces in headline news, “No new steps!”
Despite being stymied by the new ruling, Scott continues practicing his new moves by himself, or so he thinks, in the dance school at night. Unbeknownst to him, a young woman named Fran, who has only danced alone or with other women at the school, spies him out, and then asks if she could be his partner – in order to dance his steps – at the upcoming Pan-Pacific championships. Scott demures, arrogantly dismissing her, to which Fran upbraids him, “I know what you are. You are nothing but a gutless wonder.” Taken aback by her temerity, Scott relents, and an uncommon partnership is born.
Fran, a second-generation Spanish immigrant, initiates Scott into pasodoble dancing where he learns many things in this sub-culture “across the tracks.” He gains mastery in rumba, the dance of love, which at the same time blossoms into his relationship with Fran. More importantly, one night during a practice session at the shabby family home Fran’s strict and stout mother rips open Scott’s shirt and beats on his chest until he can “feel the rhythm of your heart.” This passionate and gifted dancer has to learn that dancing to win will not only limit his own potential, but prevent him from realizing his true contribution of re-enlivening the staid and corrupt Australian ballroom culture. Over time, Scott comes to purify his “dance to win” mentality, accepting the Spanish proverb, “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” At the Pan-Pacific championships, love for creative expression, inspired by dancing with his spiritual companion Fran, allows Scott to overcome his fear of failure and social ostracism, leading to a recognition of his innate talent and, at the same time, improving white-immigrant relations within Australian ballroom culture. In the end, the competition ends with no winners . . . or rather all winners.
Know Thyself in Buddhism
The gifts brought by Fran and her mother can be seen by analogy in an intriguing Buddhist belief about reincarnation that we encountered during our Bhutan study tour. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is to reach enlightenment, ending samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. The five dhyana Buddhas of the higher realms use all life events, including death, as opportunities to move those in the human realm towards the desired end state. During the 49 days of the bardo, the time between death and rebirth, the soul is approached by these five Buddhas who appear paradoxically in the form of 31 wrathful deities. If the bardo traveler recognizes these deities, acknowledging that greed, ignorance, and anger lie within, then the frightful apparitions immediately disappear and their positive, higher state energies are absorbed by the soul. On the other hand, if the response is, “I never knew you!”, the demons chase and torment the soul. Becoming acquainted with the true nature of oneself – right understanding, the Buddhists would say – is a non-negotiable on the spiritual path.
In “Strictly Ballfroom,” Scott accepts the unfamiliar, wrathful deity-like voices calling him “gutless” – one unable to connect to the heart – and thereby integrates the Spanish immigrants’ positive energies, which leads to the transformation of his talents.
Know Thyself in Christianity
One of Jesus’ wisdom sayings in the Gospel of Thomas can also be interpreted in this way, “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you; if you don’t bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault (2008) expands on this spiritual teaching, offering it in the form of an equation: A = K x E. Eros (E) represents all of our yearnings, including those from the egoic self, and transmutes them through kenosis, or self-emptying, into the higher state of agape (A), or unconditional love. Baser egoic energies, such as the desire to be successful or to win, need to be purified through letting go of attachments in order to convert them into agape, Christianity’s most divine attribute.
Franciscan Richard Rohr (2015) offers a similar interpretation: “It seems counterintuitive that God uses and finds necessary what we fear, avoid, deny, and deem unworthy. This is what I mean by the ‘integration of the negative.’ I believe this is the core of Jesus’ revolutionary Good News, Paul’s deep experience, and the central insight that guided Francis [of Assisi] and Clare with such simple elegance. They made what most would call negative or disadvantage shimmer and shine by their delight in what we ordinarily oppose, deny, and fear–such as being small, poor, or disparaged; being outside the system of power and status; weakness in any form.”
Writing in his comparison of Buddhism and Christianity, Gus Gordon (2009) comments further on this spiritual principle: “The inner quest is not an attempt to destroy, repress, suppress, or ignore those energies within us that might appear dangerous or even potentially destructive and then take a ‘flight into the light’ in search of a ‘pure energy’ or ‘pure consciousness’ . . . . The danger, the spiritual delusion, is an attempt to leap over the real energies, the real ‘stuff’ of our realization . . . . We become so alien, distant, or separate from our true energies that we literally have nothing left to work with except our constructed angelic fiction . . . . If we do not deal with our seemingly baser energies, no metamorphosis is possible” (55-56). Gordon goes on to quote Aldo Carotenuto, “One must be audacious enough to continually live one’s shadow side, otherwise one really and truly sins against oneself. The basic question we must ask ourselves as we draw up the balance sheet of our lives is this, ‘Did I live as I really was?’ If I cannot answer yes, I have not truly lived” (57).
The profound and unexpected truth captured by these examples from Buddhism and Christianity, and entertainingly illustrated in the movie “Strictly Ballroom,” is that the key to spiritual growth is coming to know all aspects of the self, including what is often considered its dark underbelly. Most prefer to remain caught in the fearful samsara of “being good,” which, while maintaining the status quo, enslaves people in the conventional goals of comparative morality. What the wisdom tradition advocates instead is accepting the truth of the whole self, which surprisingly leads to transformation. The journey to the higher self accepts what lies inside; faces the demons accusing us of living half-lived, fearful existences; and apprehends that beneath the antagonists’ masks are spiritual realities working on our behalf. This unconventional wisdom gives us courage to dance our own steps, transmuting our dragon selves into the princesses we were always meant to be. This is the uncommon good news that needs to be explored in the religion classroom.
Bond, A. (2005). “HH the Dalai Lama on the 8 worldly concerns. Accesed on June 24, 2015 at http://www.care2.com/greenliving/dalai-lama-8-worldly-concerns.html
Bourgeault, C. (2008). The wisdom Jesus: Transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and His message. Boston: Shambhala.
Gordon, G. (2009). Solitude and compassion: The path to the heart of the gospel. Mary Knoll, New York: Orbis.
Rohr, R. (2015). “The Franciscan Genius: Integrating the Negative.” Richard Rohr’s daily meditation (online June 14).
- Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict by Tsultrium Allione.
“Strictly Ballroom” (full movie)