The winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2013 was Hungarian shadow-dance troupe Attraction. They presented three tableaux over the course of the competition which told compelling stories (although the final one was just a touch sycophantic), sending the audience on an emotional inner journey, and clearly appealing to our human fascination with the illusion of shadow.
One of the things I always notice is my shadow. Right back since childhood. Although I no longer try and beat my shadow, or pin it down, I do still appreciate its shape and attitude. Studying Virgil’s Aeneid for O level Latin I remember learning about Aeneas’ encounter with the insubstantial shades in the Underworld, the shadowy, lost figures of the Dead. But these days I prefer to think of my shadow as evidence of my body, my physicality, substantial and very much alive.
It’s good having a body. Not only does it allow us to cast a shadow, it also allows us to play sport, dance, sing, make love, walk out in nature. Sometimes it goes wrong and it gets old, but generally, as long as we look after it and pay attention to it it’s a great source of solace and inspiration too.
Our bodies are vessels of physical intelligence, intuition and deep-seated wisdom, or, to coin a word from Marion Milner, sagacity. And, if we learn to recognise our body as part of ourselves, rather than simply as a vehicle to carry our head around, we can discover much from being in it.
A few weeks ago at the Swindon Festival Of Literature I heard Resurgence editor Satish Kumar define spirituality (from Latin spirare to breathe) as relationship, a particular connection that we share through the act of breathing the same air. And I find that we create relationship with our shadow-casting bodies through precisely that – breathing; breathing into our physical presence, creating a tingling feeling from the tips of our toes to the top of our head. Milner is particularly struck by the sensation of her skin burgeoning right to the ends of her finger nails as she focuses her attention and her breath on the weight of her body.
This sets the scene for deeper forms of inquiry. Once we’ve been reminded about our physical self by the appearance of our shadow, and we’ve reconnected with our body through the simple, intentional act of breathing, we can then begin to notice what memories we have stored, and what these tell us about who we are.
How we view our relationship with our own physicality is an important aspect of the exploration of self and other that our journaling practice makes possible. It’s a vital starting point. Whether we think of ourselves as our bodies, or our bodies as part of ourselves, or even as completely separate from who we think ourselves to be, when we dare to go further than our self-righteous, self-pitying rants, we find great stillness in our body. I also know from experience that what my body has to tell me is always valuable, whenever I make space to hear the particular message coming from my back, neck or jaw.
Like Aeneas we might see our physical shadow as our insubstantial ‘other’. But it is an echo of our substance and can point the way back to the ‘other’ within us.
Otherness is always part of us. The unknown, unconscious functions of our body that enable us to perceive our environment; the mysterious, though entirely rational, rhythm of life which pulses through us day and night; the ability we have to engage in an activity and be aware that we are engaged in it; the ease with which we recognise the “me” and the “not-me-guv” in our physical experience.
Our inquiries go deeper when we develop the capacity to view ourselves objectively. We need to become ‘other’, to get out of our own way and step aside from ourselves in order to look in. We can imagine another self, stepping out of and away from our body to look back whence it came. As we do this we are automatically expanding our imagination, our inner space, which, once expanded, won’t shrink back. We have now become simultaneously the observer and the observed.
Meanwhile the functions of the body continue, and maybe they benefit from increased inner space. Inner reflection and expressive writing in our journals have a proven feedback loop of health benefits. The space within expands, our awareness increases and from a more objective standpoint our unknown, unconscious and mysterious functions get to choose which of our narrative serves us, and which needs to be jettisoned.
So next time you see your shadow, appreciate its magic and use it as a prompt to expand your inner space. As you look back to your Self from the perspective of your inner Other, what do you notice?