Commingling in Dark Empathy
A Short Essay on Chaya and Sammelana in Rajanaka Yoga
Mythology is art because it takes us to places we want to go, we can’t or won’t go without it. Myth happens in language, image, symbol, allegory, but what happens is more than we bargain for and less than we expect. We expect things that are true to be true, and myth challenges that experience. It draws out truth and draws us into places where we experience deeper truths by deliberately telling us lies. It is more than we bargain for because no matter how deeply we look or assiduously interpret, there is always more. Like art, a great story comes back to us again and again because we change, times change, because we are able to see or feel more the next time.
Few surviving western fairy tales are sunny but like most of those we find in India too, the darkness is usually explained away. The story is reduced to good versus evil and, of course, we are told that the arc of goodness will prevail. More importantly, we’re told that evil or darkness will be vanquished, not merely defeated but eradicated. Somehow the dark side always makes a comeback but somehow the heroes, heroines, gods, and goddesses will appear to rescue us. Rajanaka teaching offers a very different view and a very different project for our yoga.
Let’s make this clear about the Shadow ---it warrants a capital letter for the complexity of the greater category, like Dog for all kinds of dogs. Nothing mystical here ---unless “mystical” means unknown, hidden, sometimes inaccessible, and always under the horizon of what is available or being experienced. What I don’t mean by “mystical” is some supernal agency, authority, or power that manages, controls, or has a plan. And I certainly don’t mean some privileged or special kind of human experience. Mystics traditionally claim some sort of special access and privileged insight. What we are proposing may involve challenging comprehension and provide personal empowerment but it does not confer any sort of cognitive, moral, or spiritual superiority. I mean simply that there is more reality to every experience than any experience confers.
The Sanskrit word for “shadow” here is chaya and mythically takes shape in the goddess Chaya and myriad other characters. The mythologies of chaya are commingled with dharma and māyā and that whole process we call “rajanaka yoga”, that is the “engagement with delimited sovereignty.”
The Shadow is all that is hidden from us, for better and worse. All of it. Even if “all” is never fully possible. Some of the Shadow is just how nature works because understanding anything more is hard won, like the revolution of meaning that came with natural selection or the discovery of DNA. Some of the Shadow is about our personal experience that pre-exists awareness or memory or exists as just part of our hidden make up. Myths are about all of the features and kinds of Shadow and there are more of those than we imagine or can ever reach. Myths invite more and more interpretation and especially more than one meaning. Facts prefer a more reductive kind of reality, no matter how much they imply.
The Rg Veda puts it plainly enough (RV 10.90), three-fourths is unseen and hidden. The implication Rajanaka takes from this is that no level of understanding or investigation that reveals more of the world --- truths of nature, culture, or individual conscience--- changes that proportion of the hidden. We live on and with surfaces and no matter how deeply we go, the ocean holds more secrets, more truths and facts and lies than we can uncover or experience. There are words for “vast” in the Sanskrit language that make this point vividly: vyūha, viśāla, bhrhat, even mahā. But let us not fool ourselves, the vast majority of philosophers claim there is true finality, an endgame of liberation, and are determined to describe, or at the very least make claims about omniscience. In the end there is nothing hidden that can’t be revealed, nothing important left unrevealed, and no unseen or unwanted consequences to living in a mostly hidden vastness. Just what these writers forgot about the poet of
Rg Veda 10.90 and his 3/4ths that remains unseen is another story. So nuance this however you like but there’s little doubt that the majority philosophers mean to tell us that certain people, enlightened beings, either penetrate to and command the All-ness and reach a place where they are exempt from the implications of the hidden that burden the rest of us. Rajanaka again demurs from such traditionalist views, which is tantamount to rejecting nearly every assumption or claim about liberation. That may take us off the “Tantric” or “yogic” reservation but it’s hard to be exiled from a place that always includes more than meets the eye.
So much for my familiar prelude.
I have described the Shadow at length in public seminars for at least the past 15 years. The topic always warrants more attention and more nuanced understanding, but it’s important too to think about what we are going to do with our lives because the Shadow is real. Our own claim here is that the Shadow is responsible for three-fourths of us and we, in our access to self-understanding, remain only one-fourth aware, one-fourth in access, and ever one-fourth in possibilities. We are made beings and we don’t have to claim a God for that to be true. What’s key here is that we must be receptive to this thesis of 1/4th to 3/4th disparity if we are to engage more deeply the power of myth.
As we’ve said, some claim to move from darkness to light, eradicate the darkness, and pronounce fulfillment. I’ve written about “consolation” lately and I think this helps explain why the majority traditions are looking for their finalities and fulfillments. Some will claim that one goes to the Shadow and brings back to the light the lessons it confers. The point befitting this strategy is to use these shadow experiences and understanding without suffering the worst or, worse than that, becoming the darkness that is present in shadows. Again, Rajanaka offers a different point of view.
Let’s be clear about the three strategies outlined here: (1) From darkness, from shadow into the light leads to perfect illumination and release from darkness and shadow. This is the majority claim about the possibilities of human spirituality in Indian yoga traditions. (2) Journeying to the darkness and into shadow leads to an awareness that allows us to bring forward an understanding that creates a wisdom that will spares us the worst of what we find in those hidden realms. This is references the idea that we do our “work” from our waking experience and in our social lives. (3) Rajanaka begins with the second strategy but then invites us to go to the hidden, including all of its darkness, complications and unwanted implications, and learn to experience those realities in every kind of human experience. This would include meditation, dreaming, and other forms of contemplation. Just how much toxicity one can endure or is healthy is another aspect of the process, one we don't mean to overlook. Our proposal, like all mythic spiritualities, suggest these perils of commingled dark empathy require degrees of privilege and power that have never been equal opportunities. The social and political forces of the world as are much a part of our personal development as are the rest. Further, Rajanaka never suggests it is the only path, the best way, or superior to others. Everyone finds their own way to make it through this world, we hope.
Our goal is to bring forward with us all of the truths of our experience, including those we know are deeply problematic, even evil, and so begin a process of further integration into our lives. The key Rajanaka term here is the compound “commingled darkness.” We use the Sanskrit term sammelana for this concept of “commingling.” It is the process by which we co-habit, integrate, bond and aver from all the features of our complex identity. Rather than only bring the shadow into the light, Rajanaka means to find ways to live in those dark places too. We call that process chāyā sammelana.
So long as we don’t reduce to one self or to any one kind of experience, then there is room for more self and multiple selves that function to secure this ever-more complex identity. Rather than claim control or complete sovereignty, Rajanaka, as the word “rajanaka” itself suggests, means we have incomplete power and limited authority. Our task is to keep the complex fragments in some measure of coherent relationship--- not balance, not alignment, but relationship--- notwithstanding the fact there are always more (often fewer) bits than we command or experience. The crisis that defines us and the conflict that takes root in us are our very nature. We neither conquer nor realize the whole of that nature. Yoga is our process of contending rather than merely consoling ourselves with the rich complexity of being. The problems we solve invariably lead to paradoxes we must embrace.
It’s a mistake to think that all shadows involve regret and horror or that they primarily refer to all that is unsavory and disagreeable. There’s always more of that than we imagine but shadows are filled with potencies and possibilities and the claim of Rajanaka is that yoga is power to empower all that we experience. Every shadow has an unknown potential to provide something of value, even when it appears in our experience as fear, hatred, anxiety, or anger. Every human experience, even those we deem most troublesome or even repugnant, teaches us something of value. What are we prepared to do about the truths of all of our experience? What can we do about the Shadow that reminds us there is more than we are experiencing? The Shadow involves the broken, missing, and extra pieces in every story. The best myths lead us to those pieces and invite the next myth.
Myth is like art because it invites us to Dark Empathy, the ability to draw into the Shadow and into the worst, most unsavory, forsaken and irredeemable aspect of the shadow and feel that too, imagine it, think with it. Dark Empathy refers to the processes that take us to our own other, our worst angels, and the possibilities of humanity we wish were not true. Art, music, film, fiction ---all mythologies that can taks us to almost-everything that is horrid and real, almost-everything you despise and seek to avoid or from which you dissociate and reject as evil. For all of the beauty, light, tolerance, and goodness there is within us, there is also everything that we fear and causes us rage, anger, frustration, and the rest. And it is the desire, the need, the power to feel all of those those things entirely that is our yoga.
Somehow we emerge the _better_ for this when we have evolved the skills and kept the good company we need to sustain a viable life of responsibility and generosity. This is what Rajanaka teaches, it's what great artists do far better than most of us. But this is why Rajanaka is artistry: we need to be able to go to the unwanted places and find more there than just the other, just the unwanted or the adversary. When we find ourselves there too, something better can emerge with that as part of us, integrated into us, commingled in our bodies, hearts, and minds. Because when we engage all that we are and all that is more than what we believe or experience as ourselves, we become more of what is possible and more a part of what is hidden in all of us.