Enlightenment - the conquest of wisdom over ignorance. Light pummeling the shit out of the darkness and planting its flag on darkness' skull to proclaim eternal victory. Something that, hell, we may not achieve in this lifetime, but wouldn't it be worth it if we could just squelch out all of those toxic emotions, and just be loving 100% of the time?
When people talk about enlightenment, it feels like there's no room for the 'darkness' - those shadowy parts of myself that I wish weren't me, the parts that want to hurl expletives at authority, lust for strange fetishes, the jealousy of those who make it on the Forbes 30 under 30. Let's be clear - I don't find any of these feelings as desirable. But how else is one to deal with what Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, called 'the Shadow'?
This is a (semi-autobiographical) story of a child - and the shadow that followed him. Maybe a little more than semi, come to think of it...
From the moment he began walking, he was a little ball of energy - the kind of energy that’s untethered, like a sudden flash of the sun when it increases its brightness.
He lived next to a giant redwood tree that he always wanted to climb, because the tree towered over everyone and everything around him, casting its shadow over his entire home. 'What might the view be like up there?'
The world was this giant, mysterious playground that invited - and rewarded - all of his curiosity. He had so many friends. All the animals that he encountered - mostly cats - were potential friends. Every object was a toy in waiting. He liked to puff cigarettes stubs on his lawn and pretend he was Popeye the Sailor Man.
But then it doesn’t reward him. He falls. His toy breaks. Those friends - the cats he met earlier - aren't there when he needs them. Scared, he gets jittery, cries his heart out because the pain takes over his entire being and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He can’t ‘think it’ away. He doesn’t really have the tools for that yet.
And his parents - well, they don’t like that. They bark at him, ‘Just be still!’ ‘Stop crying!’ ‘Because I said so.’ They don’t do it because they don’t love him - they love him more than anything else and they’re just doing the best they can with what they know. ‘He needs to be tamed,’ they think, ‘just like they were.’
But what he ends up hearing is that, to remain loved, he has to act a certain way.
So, he ends up putting all of these parts of himself - the parts that might threaten his parents’ love for him - in a bottle.
The bottle’s not really visible (it's a metaphor - you get it, right?). It’s hard to really describe ‘where’ it is, actually. Maybe it’s in his throat, every time he swallows in something he’s ‘not supposed to’ feel. His chest pulses. Maybe that’s too tame a word. Explosion, yes, that’s better - the kind of explosion that’s contained in one of those metallic domes that then sends shockwaves through the earth - shockwaves that never. No one gets hurt - he thinks.
So swallowing becomes a habit. Every time he's scolded by teachers, bullied by those around him, he just keeps depositing parts of himself the bottle. And he sees that yes, there is a payoff - the people around him ‘like him’. They praise him, saying things like ‘good boy’, the same things he hears people tell dogs when they obey their master’s commands.
And what he's storing in the bottle is energy - energy that he's deemed unacceptable. Not who he should be. Certainly not if he wants to remain loved. It's too ugly, too difficult to bear.
Especially that anger. Can’t show that - otherwise people will see him as a fraud. Not the nice person who people like and praises. He hates that part of himself the most. He needs to exert a lot of energy just keeping that side at a distance.
By the time he's 29 (going on 30), he has become a shell of that little ball. He can see it every time he looks in the mirror - a diminished self, carrying a bottle that’s become so heavy, contents all twisted and coiled together that it’s no longer clear what’s inside. It’s actually pretty frightening, now that he thinks about it - better just keep it aside. He’s been able to get by fine until now - what a dumb thing that would be to waste time in doing therapy or something.
But he feels exhausted from years of shoving all this energy in the bottle. Have a crazy idea to write a novel? 'Don’t be an idiot.' Want to be a dancer? 'Everyone will laugh at you.’ Searching for a spiritual path? ‘Religion is for the weak.’
The voice is so strong that it’s now automatic. Not storing it in the bottle, he knows, would mean being cast out like a leper. He knows it for sure - he’s seen it in others.
Then he sees people like David Bowie, dressing up like omnisexual alien rock star to save the world.
Bowie is wild and hedonistic - I mean just look at that snow-white tan. Bowie's so bold, so unbound by convention. Bowie's probably emptied his bottle years ago. Maybe Bowie even smashed it to the fucking ground while cackling like a madman.
'What an asshole,’ he thinks, boiling with bitterness. 'How can he be so free, have so much energy, when here I am, stuck with this bottle? What gives him that right to just flout all convention?’
It’s almost as though he recognises a part of himself in Bowie - a part that he has long ago banished deep into the bottle and sealed with an airtight cap.
He remembers who he was - and who he could be. But it’s too late now, he thinks. It’s too late for him to even think about exploring that part of himself.
The sexuality, the wildness, the spontaneity, the anger, the freedom, the creativity. They have now become hostile features of his personality, captives of the bottle.
He wonders, as he turns 30, how much energy that bottle can really store. He’s heard that eventually, like some over-carbonated beverage, it might explode, bursting its contents like shrapnel, hitting everyone in its vicinity. He might scream at an unacceptable volume, hurl his body over a bridge. Or just punch the next guy who cuts in front of him on the subway line. While having dinner with his friends, instead of asking them to pass the salt, he’ll say ‘I can’t fucking stand you assholes.’
He can feel it, curdling, bubbling. He’s no longer in control anymore. It’s no longer floating beneath the surface of his conscious awareness. He feels the tremors - and he feels them everyday. They’re so black, so dense. He thinks of another Bowie-like character, Freddie Mercury. ‘Oh how I want to break free,’ he sings to himself.
He wants to break free.
And he wants it NOW. He’s tired of forcing a smile whenever his boss suggests something that, in his heart, knows is a terrible idea, but he just swallows it, because, shit, everyone might reject it. He’s tired of pretending to be such a ‘good Buddhist’ who looks calm and meditatious on the outside but inside, is a firestorm of unspoken rage. He’s tired of pretending that he enjoys just doing what all his other ‘friends’ do - going out, drinking, maybe chase some tail, but never wholeheartedly, because he’s a good guy and he wouldn’t want to ‘impose' his desire on someone else who might judge him for going in for the kiss and, when she hears he’s a Buddhist, be like ‘what the fuck, what a fraud!’ and then shame post about him on Instagram and get media to write a story about all the fake Buddhists out there, which will, effectively, make him the ultimate persona non grata that no one will ever talk to. Again.
And most of all, he’s tired of being stuck in his head, imagining all sorts of shit - shit like becoming a persona non grata for getting rejected by a girl. He knows that his head distorts the world through his kaleidoscopic vision. But it just feels so safe in there, in the comfort of ‘knowing everything’ and never having to be wrong.
Against all odds, he meets a girl.
After going to a movie, he walks with her over a bridge. He pauses. Something about the moment gives him a hint of ‘possibilities’. There are a bunch of military tanks driving by and fighter jets zooming over him. Odd. Overcome by all this funny energy, he goes in for the kiss. And they both embrace, and hold on to each other like war might erupt any moment now and there might not be a tomorrow.
He’s shocked; that was fucking electric. And the bottle feels a bit lighter.
And then, he approaches his boss.
The same boss he hated so much for hijacking his project at the last minute without telling him, and when he told her how he felt, she pulled rank and told him how he shouldn’t ask those questions, and then they had a half-hearted conversation about how the situation went, and, without expressing his true feelings, he agreed to never let it happen again. With a smile so fake he might’ve stolen it from a Barbie Doll. And so, for months, he’s been holding on to that unspoken anger, avoiding her at all costs.
But something feels different about today. So he asks her out to tea, and tells him how he’s been feeling; that he hasn’t been able to connect with her, that he didn’t feel like she listened, but that also he’s been treating himself like a ‘victim’. He doesn’t spray the feelings like bullets - he’s measured in his words. And, to his shock, she hears him out. And she tells him all sorts of things that he hadn’t anticipated, like how she felt insecure in her own position as a mother of two infant children, how she rarely felt acknowledged, and how she felt hurt that she wasn’t able to connect with him. And they hug and embrace after, leaving all that baggage on the table.
He’s shocked; she’s not the controlling bitch he thought she was. And the bottle starts to feel even more light.
With things going so well, he decides to just say, ‘fuck it,’ and quits his job.
He wants to write the ‘Next Great American Novel’. No, he wants to tell a story - a story that he thinks no one else has heard. That whole ‘Next Great’ shit is just a term he’s used to belittle the activity - and the possibility of him ever writing one. And so, he writes it, spending an entire month focussed on making it happen. A 200-page manuscript - what a shock.
He starts sending his work to publishers everywhere. But doesn’t hear back. He waits a week, a month, two months. Nothing. Maybe he’ll self-publish. No one reads it. It wasn’t the story he thought would rock everyone’s socks. But he wrote it. He stepped outside of who he thought he was. And he created something that he could call his own. But shit - now he needs to make some money, he remembers. Maybe that means he can’t live the glorious life as a writer that he envisioned - he might have to get his hands dirty doing something he hates, like consulting. But, he knows now that doesn’t have to come at the cost of his creative aspirations.
And all of the sudden the world feels full of possibilities - for himself.
He’s forgotten about the bottle that used to control him. It’s not empty - there’s still plenty left inside. And it’s probably not going away. But that’s okay.
The bottle is just part of who he is. It’s no longer the malicious villain, here to sabotage his shot at happiness; instead, it’s a teacher, offering new possibilities for him to know himself at a deeper level. If he stands to face it, he’ll see that the dragons were actually just cream puffs after all.