The Darker Side

Many have asked me about working with ‘shadow’ in performances.  Although I do not work specifically with shadow it is always there in any great high teaching story, myth, legend where the spectrum of the challenges of being human are represented in magnificent and powerful archetypes. Here is my response to questions about the shadow archetype in a Letter to Parents. At the time we were working with the profound and beautiful story of Gautama Buddha.

Hello Everyone,

During my Waldorf Teacher Training, I came upon a quote by Rudolf Steiner: “Performing (in plays) is the only time all 12 of the senses are engaged.” What an opportunity for powerful high teachings, I thought. And it has proved to be true. I have seen more transformation in children from the opportunity to deeply live into powerful stories/legends/myths than at any other time. It’s kind of like Halloween ~ an opportunity for children explore aspects of themselves they need to get to know better. And, have you noticed how often they explore devils and witches, the darker sides of our nature? As a teacher I have worked with the shadow and socially challenging behavior in children thru the medium of performance for almost 20 years now.

This Spring, 2011, we performed the life of Guatama Siddhartha Buddha. It is a powerful teaching story that reflects the 9 year change, loss of innocence, and the path to enlightenment which included facing the spectrum of humanity from light to dark.

Each day we met in our cozy story room and the telling of this remarkable story unfolded. We took our time savoring his journey. We had many great conversations about Siddhartha’s challenges and awakenings first to life’s pain and suffering, then to it’s temptations and finally his awakening to the compassionate heart. Each child had the opportunity to live into Archetypal greats in the characters of: Siddhartha and his shadow Devadatta, Yasodhara, Siddhartha’s wife, and finally Mara, King of the Demons.

Always the questions for me are how to find a vocabulary that meets the developmental consciousness of the children. The desire body was easy as we spoke of all the things we want to eat, own, etc. And easy to reflect upon in the everyday life of our Program. Mangos gave us this opportunity one fine afternoon: Mangos for a child’s birthday sharing. Soon enough they all vied for 2nds and 3rds, etc. I observed one child, the one who ended up playing Siddhartha, struggle to let go of his desire for 2nds and 3rds. First he passed the offering by, then later called out “if there’s still some left, I’ll have some more” – ahhh, that wonderful moment of self-knowing…………

Facing the Dark Side through the character Mara, King of the demons, afforded an incredible opportunity for many of the children in our program. It was so dramatic that I want to share it with you all for it is an example of how I work with children to help them better understand their Shadow, and how I work with challenging behavior that is not socially acceptable and can be harmful to others.

When Mara, King of the Demons, entered the story material there was a lot of excitement as some children felt ‘resonance’ with this character. As I noted their reactions, I wondered how this ‘activation’ would play itself out.

Finally the day came: We had finished the story and begun rehearsing for our performance. We were rehearsing the Mara/demon piece. The children were very animated and excited about the correography. During recess/lunch time: one of my staff came to me clearly agitated: “Something is very wrong! The children are acting so strange, we’ve never seen anything like it. Rachel has called them all to lunch and we just stopped recess.”

“What happened,” I asked.

“First they created two ‘camps’ in the sand play area: Mara’s camp and Siddhartha’s camp. At first it seemed ok – good imaginative play – but then it started to get serious; they were yelling : ‘Mara’s greater than Siddhartha’ and then back, ‘Siddhartha’s greater than Mara’. Then one child in the Mara camp wanted to go over to the Siddhartha side and the ‘leader’ of the Mara camp got angry and refused to let the child leave. That’s when we decided to break for lunch and stop the play altogether. Then before we could get everyone to lunch, two children began throwing the ball for Jack (our dog) right into the stinging nettle to sting him. Deliberately! And, another boy, with the help and encouragement of a friend, took a shovel and smashed some lady bugs!”

“Oh”, I said, “This is wonderful. I‘ve been waiting for this moment!” (You can imagine her face since she thought it was all very dreadful.)

First I went to the lunch group. “Children, I hear there has been some trouble playing this afternoon. Let me remind you that no one can boss other children around and tell them how and who they should play with. There’s only one ‘boss’ around here and you know who that is? ‘You Sage,’ they replied. Everyone here should feel like they can freely choose who they want to play with and not worry about others objecting. Isn’t that what you would want for yourself?” Of course they agreed.

Then I spoke privately to the ball throwers and then the lady bug smashers. Both groups looked very contrite (for they are lovely, lovely children) and concerned at what I was going to do/say.

“You guys!” I said very animatedly, “Do you know what is going on here?!” Oh their eyes got so big, they had no idea what I could be asking them. “This is Mara!” Their brows wrinkled…….. “Oh you think this Siddhartha story is just a story? Mara comes into our heads and Siddhartha too. In all of us! When Mara said, ‘Throw the ball into the nettles. See if you can sting Jack’s face,’ did you hear Siddhartha saying that might not be nice for Jack? Did you hear Siddhartha say, ‘ The lady bugs have a right to live and keep our gardens healthy?’ Isn’t this amazing! I said in my own amazement at how these things work. “Something to think about.” I suggested…..and I walked away. No punishment, no moralizing, just information.

And that was the end of it all. The change in behavior was immediate and profound. One child (the leader in this story) who had been quite mischievous much of the year did a complete turn around. And we navigated our way back to our usual peace and harmony.

And, of course, the children’s involvement in the play was exceptional. They lived into their roles so profoundly and deeply as can be witnessed in the photographs up on our website from the performance, and, of course, they thoroughly enjoyed acting out Mara’s demons.

Shadow and desire bodies are not bad. They just are. How we relate with them is what is important.

Almost any great myth or legend offers a wonderful spectrum of archetypes for us to know ourselves better – the dark and the light and everything in between. They are ‘road maps’ of how to navigate our life’s challenges.

It’s easy to offer children those golden archetypes that we see so often in their eyes and perceive in their souls. It’s the darker side that needs equal time and attention – not from a place of fear but as part of us and life. How else can we navigate through our lives healthy and whole?

This past year focusing on China and Japan gave me the opportunity to wonder with some children: “Is the dragon riding you or are you riding the dragon?” Something wonderful to ponder even if you’re 9.*

Like Guan Yin who is the culmination of all the hearts of the Buddhas from before and yet to come: may we find our way to ride the dragon in equanimity and with a compassionate heart.
*A powerful teaching storybook that illustrates this message is
Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu, by Emily Arnold McCully


See Addendum: Full Spectrum Archetypal Stories