In this article I explore the idea that diversity is, at core, about more than just accepting and welcoming ’other’. It is, first and foremost, about accepting and welcoming parts of ourselves – parts that we haven’t yet had a chance to meet.
Before discussing diversity in depth I am going to introduce you to a belief that has influenced me for a long time now and underpins all the work that I do. I ask that you bear with me for a while as I take you through my own personal journey to arriving at this understanding – via shamanism, mysticism, quantum physics, group dynamics and the other varied influences that have informed this belief.
When working with the shadow I work with the idea that we are all made up of many different parts. Some of these we are aware of and happy with, others we are aware of but we dislike and we’d rather they weren’t there. In addition to this there are yet other parts of us of which we have no awareness at all. They are missing from our conscious knowledge of ourselves and, as a result of these ‘missing’ parts, our experience of life is limited. Furthermore we can suffer much pain and confusion as these hidden aspects run things from the shadows.
Every day in my work I experience the truth of this idea that we are all made up of different parts. I meet and get to know many different aspects of my clients, and we continue to discover new parts of their personality together as different sides of the client begin to come out of the shadows and make themselves known.
But how can it be that we are made up of so many very different, and often contradictory, parts? What deeper truth lies here? This is what I would like to explore now a little more deeply.
The Holographic Universe
I want to introduce here the idea of the holographic universe.
Both ancient mysticism and modern physics have suggested this profound, and for many of us counterintuitive, property of nature. Let me first explain about holograms themselves:
A hologram is a three dimensional image that is created when light is shone on to a holographic film. A holographic film is a small thin sheet of material where a 3D hologram, such as the image of a flower, is stored using laser technology. When you shine the laser through the film a 3D image of the flower will appear in front of you, hovering in space. This image looks just like the real flower, and can be viewed from many different angles, but it has no physical substance – it is made purely of light. That a hologram can be created at all is in itself pretty exciting – but there’s more. A fascinating property of a hologram is that, if you break up the holographic film into a thousand different pieces, and then you shine the laser through just one of these tiny pieces, the whole flower appears. It doesn’t matter how many pieces you cut the film in to, or how small each piece is, this is still true – although the image does get slightly blurrier as the pieces get smaller. For most of us this is completely counterintuitive and obviously profoundly different to the result we would get if we cut up a photograph of the flower, where each piece would contain only a small fraction of the whole image, and in order to see the whole flower again you would need to have all the pieces and then do a complicated jigsaw puzzle. This is not so for a hologram, the entire image is contained in each part of the holographic film. The whole is contained in each part. This is an idea that has been understood by mystics and poets for millenia. Famously it is found in the four lines at the beginning of William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’ :
‘To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour.’
Science, however, has only relatively recently caught up with this idea. For example, in the mid 20th century results suggesting that the whole exists in every part were found by neuroscientists studying the human brain. They found that, rather than separate memories being stored in separate locations, almost any part of the brain can access any memory, and there is no one fixed location for any one piece of information. Each part of the brain has been found to have multiple and complex connections with other parts of the brain and information can be accessed from any area. As well as this the mathematics governing the way the brain works has been found to have the same form as the mathematics governing a hologram, suggesting the brain has similar properties to a hologram, ie – The whole is contained in each part.
To help with your understanding of this idea I want to include an analogy using some everyday science that more of us are familiar with. This time we are looking at the human body. We all know that the body is made of a head, arms, legs, brain, heart and so on, all very different in appearance and function, yet, if we take one tiny cell from any part of the body and look deeply in to it we find the genetic information that gives the template for the whole person. It doesn’t matter where we took that cell from – it will contain the information needed to recreate the whole person. A nerve cell will contain all the information necessary to make a heart, a leg, a toe nail and so on. So again, the whole is contained in each part – if we look deeply enough.
The above examples only refer to three specific aspects of reality – holograms, bodies and brains. What is really fascinating however is that theoretical physics has come up with the same suggestion for the entire universe. That is, the whole of reality. David Bohm, a pioneer of quantum physics who worked with Albert Einstein, believed that although the universe appears to be solid, it is, in essence, a magnificent hologram. He believed in the “whole in every part” idea, and he believed that, just like a hologram, each part of physical reality contains information about the whole. Quantum physics has found that particles in the universe are connected in surprising and instantaneous ways and that the mathematics that governs the universe has similarities with the mathematics governing holograms. Each particle is instantaneously connected to other particles and the universe behaves as much like a single unified whole as it behaves like a collection of separate particles. If we study one particle deeply enough we can find connections and information about other particles and other parts of the universe. So theoretical physics provides a wealth of evidence which suggests that the universe can be seen as a giant hologram existing in a way where the whole is contained in each part.
I first came across this idea many years ago, when studying theoretical physics at university. I studied the bizarre predictions that quantum physics makes about the nature of reality, and although disagreements continue to abound about how to interpret this ‘strangeness’, no physicist would dispute just how strange the nature of reality actually is. Further experiments have only gone on to confirm some of the more weird predictions of quantum physics that are impossible to marry up with our ‘everyday’ understanding of the world. The holographic universe is one of the many ideas I came across at this time. These studies allowed me to open my mind to ideas that previously I might have thought were ‘unscientific’, and once I’d gained my degree I left the world of physics and began to study psychology, shiatsu and eventually Shadow Work.
So let us run with this idea for a moment – if the nature of the universe is that the whole is contained in each part, then doesn’t it make sense that this could be true for human beings too – that the whole of humanity may be contained within each human being? Could the “whole in every part” nature of holograms provide us with a radical new way of understanding ourselves? We are the creations of a holographic Universe. As reflections of it we reflect its nature and are holographic as well – with the whole of humanity being contained in each and every human being.
This is an ancient mystic and shamanic belief and is at the core of the work I do exploring the shadow. This idea provides us with a way to make sense of human beings presenting with so many different and contradictory parts – because we all contain the potential for every possible aspect of humanity. We are not simple but infinitely complex. We are not just individuals but we are also intimately connected with the whole web of humanity. This idea is beautifully expressed in this poem by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh written in 2015:
Please Call Me By My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Our 360 Degree Personality
In Shadow Work we often speak of the idea of being born in to a 360 degree personality. In a similar way to the ‘whole in each part’ theory, this idea suggests that at the moment we are born we contain the potential for all different aspects of humanity to be expressed. What does get expressed, however, depends on a multitude of factors: the people around us, the circumstances we are born into, the challenges we face in life and also perhaps a natural tendency to lean towards certain ways of being. In childhood we will quickly learn to hide or deny aspects of ourselves that might put us into danger. Similarly, the sides of us which help us survive become strongly developed. The situations life presents us with will powerfully affect which aspects of ourselves we call on, which we hide away, and which are never discovered and lie dormant.
Many years ago when I was training as a couple’s counsellor I read a book about working with gay and lesbian couples. As part of the author’s introduction she stated that if you have never had homosexual feelings you are repressing something. I was really taken by this idea and remember saying to myself slightly jokingly – “Wow, how interesting, I must certainly be repressing something, I have never felt any sexual attraction to women”. To my astonishment, a week later I had a dream about a sexual encounter with a woman. I was fascinated by this process…. it seemed like reading that one sentence had unlocked something in my unconscious that gave permission for attraction to women to be expressed. Although consciously I still have no attraction to women, given the dream I had, an unconscious part of me clearly thinks otherwise.
In the work that I do I hold this understanding that each person has every possibility in them – even if they have never known that aspect of themselves or it has never been expressed. Holding this belief informs the way I facilitate. So if a client hasn’t found their ‘successful leader’, or ‘sensual lover’ or ‘brave warrior’ side for example, I will help them find it. I will work on the assumption that this is within them (in the same way that every aspect of human nature is within them) – they just haven’t found it yet. Similarly, if someone has difficulty with authority, say, and finds authority figures to be overbearing and critical, I will support them in finding their own inner critical authority figure. Only when they meet, accept and get to know this part of themselves will they gain the understanding and resources necessary to be able to manage such people in the outside world effectively.
In my early years as a Shadow Work practitioner I attended a week long Shamanic course where we explored and deepened our understanding of ourselves using many different shamanic tools and ideas. On one of the days we performed a ritualised dance. We had to imagine that the person we were dancing with was someone from our real life with whom we were in conflict. This dance was a battle – without touching our partner we energetically battled out who would ‘win’ and who would ‘lose’. The winner finally ‘killed’ their opponent who then dramatically ‘died’ and fell to the floor. I was absolutely immersed in this – and absolutely determined that I would be the victor in my dance! I couldn’t imagine why anyone would submit and be the one who was killed. True to form I ‘won’ the battle and ‘killed’ my opponent. Then, when all the ‘losers’ were dead on the floor we, the victors, were directed to go and be with the person we had ‘killed’ – to put our hands on them and absorb their being in to us – to breathe their essence in. We were accepting they were part of us. We had slain part of ourselves and were now absorbing and integrating that in to ourselves. It was astonishingly powerful. At the same time I was still very glad that I’d won! It was only when we had feedback in the group afterward and the ‘losers’ reported the beauty of being lovingly absorbed in to their victor that I realised I had missed the point – It didn’t matter who had won and who had lost – there had been beauty and love in this experience for the ‘losers’ too. This was the first time I really came across the idea of us all containing every aspect of humanity with no aspect being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other. Anything we see and are in conflict with in the world is an aspect of ourselves we haven’t yet come to know and love. The battles we have in life are important processes to go through in order to meet and integrate these new parts of ourselves.
It may be striking you by now that if each one of us contains the whole of humanity, we need to expand quite a lot to become whole and embrace every aspect of ourselves! This is certainly the work of more than one lifetime…. However, being part of a diverse group or society can significantly increases the potential for this process by introducing us to new and different aspects of the human experience. As we get to know people different to ourselves we are offered the opportunity to recognise new aspects of our own being. We can then explore, accept and integrate these parts.
There are, however, obvious and significant challenges in this. Familiarity is safe, and there may be risks for us in accepting certain aspects of ourselves. For this reason it may be very uncomfortable to be exposed to diversity. Because of the risks of facing particular parts of ourselves we may keep distant from certain people who are different to us. This offers us the opportunity to deny aspects we don’t want to see within ourselves and to use the different person or group as a convenient place to dispose of these parts. We can leave ‘abusiveness’ with authority figures, ‘moral degeneration’ with sex workers, laziness with ‘youth’, disconnection with immigrants and so on – so we can firmly leave those aspects ‘out there’ and not have to accept that they may also live in us. Of course, if we really got to know these people we would realise that they were much more than just our projections – that they may not even fit these stereotypes at all – that they are, in fact, not so different from us. So if we wish to maintain this illusion of difference it’s important that we don’t really get to know these ‘others’. We keep them, and the aspects of ourselves we’re not willing to own, at arm’s length. This may give us a sense of security and confidence in the short term – but in the long term it can limit who we are and our full expression of ourselves.
Most of us enjoy the sense of safety that can come from being in a group or society where people are ‘familiar’ or ‘like us’. We seek out such places and feel relaxed and comfortable there. Sometimes though, after a time, we might get the unsettling sense that our acceptance rests largely on us not ‘rocking the boat’. What would happen if we spoke a different opinion or revealed something different about ourselves? We are unlikely to trust the outcome of this if we haven’t seen it tested by anyone else. Or worse, we may have witnessed another person being rejected by the group for expressing their difference, and we may fear this to be our fate too if we share certain sides of who we really are. We begin to sense that our safety and acceptance depend on us being similar to the rest of the group.
For simplicity, and ultimately for safety’s sake we often try to fit ourselves in to certain boxes and to narrow ourselves down to just a few aspects with which we and others are comfortable. Human beings, however, are not simple, and at some point we will feel the pain of these restrictions as parts of our true selves are denied and repressed. A more authentic sense of safety can come if we get the opportunity to be in a group, society or family where those who are different are welcomed and accepted for who they are – where difference is approached with interest, and conflict is openly processed. We are then able to trust that we are safe to be ourselves and express the many facets of who we truly are, without the pressure to fit in or the fear of rejection.
My Own Journey With Inner Diversity
When I was a young mum bringing up my son alone I was very aware of how people might pigeon hole me. As well as raising my child I held many different roles simultaneously. At one point I was a Starbucks barista, an ‘A’ level physics tutor, a relationship counsellor and a shiatsu practitioner. Internally I was also a struggling single parent, someone who felt isolated and lonely, someone who had painful angry relationships, and I was a wonderful, devoted and loving mother. I could feel myself inhabit each of these stereotypes at different times. Some I enjoyed and embraced more than others, and some I felt deep shame about.
When new acquaintances asked me ‘What do you do?’ I rather enjoyed choosing from my varied list of jobs. Playfully I would often choose the role which I thought would baffle them the most. I was well aware that the answer I gave would result in people forming very different views of me and responding to me in very different ways. I envisaged people’s confusion when they couldn’t marry together the different dimensions to my life.
The different elements I expressed may have confused others, but primarily I believe I myself was confused by this diversity and I was struggling to integrate and feel comfortable with all these disparate parts of myself – especially the polarities of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. They didn’t all sit together comfortably within me and I wasn’t sure how to present myself to the world. I was self-conscious in choosing how I wanted to be seen. I was uncomfortable with the thought of the different opinions people might form of me – both positive and negative. I somehow didn’t feel that I was allowed to just be myself – containing such variety. I did my best to hide the parts that carried deep shame, trying to obscure these by developing what I saw as the more ‘acceptable’ and praiseworthy sides of myself. This may have looked ok from the outside, but for me it limited my true self expression and prevented me from feeling relaxed within myself.
The impact of denied aspects in a group
If there is no person or group of people available where we can ‘dispose’ of our unacknowledged sides then these will come bubbling out in unexpected and sometimes dangerous ways. An aspect can get completely put in to shadow if a whole group, family or society are unaware of that side of themselves – it is pushed in to the shadows and can cause damage from this place. Let me explain this with an example: Imagine a group of people join together for a month long retreat. Now imagine that for one reason or another none of these people believes that anger is part of their personality. As this aspect is denied by the group over the month it goes more and more deeply in to shadow. All groups and individuals have a natural drive towards wholeness. So, if something (in this case anger) is missing from the group the tension of this will build. At some point, anger will erupt out in an uncontrolled unconscious and destructive way. When the tension gets too much it may result in one person having an extremely angry, explosive outburst and then being ostracised – scapegoated by the rest of the group as ‘the angry one’. This will restore the status quo for a while as anger is now consciously present within the group. (Although it will be extremely uncomfortable for the scapegoated person who is left carrying all the repressed anger of the whole group!) Alternatively the anger may show up as passive aggressive behaviours that fracture the group and reduce trust. Another result might be that the anger gets turned inwards, resulting in self harm, depression or suicide. One way or another the anger will find a way to come out, because it has to be present for the wholeness of the group. We all have an angry side – and if we can come to accept and know this side of ourselves we will be able use its power consciously and constructively rather than destructively. However, our using anger effectively also requires those around us to have an awareness and acceptance of this side of humanity, otherwise we can simply become a convenient scapegoat for their unacknowledged anger.
So, when a group or society decides (consciously or unconsciously) that something is unacceptable, or taboo, it doesn’t have the effect of ‘stamping out’ that behaviour, or that type of person. Quite the opposite – this aspect, driven in to the shadows, rises up, forcing its way out, and carries a huge amount of power from its banished position. A helpful analogy is to imagine trying to hold a beach ball underwater. It takes up a huge amount of energy to keep it down, and if we lose control for just a second it forces its way quite powerfully to the surface. One way we can make sense of this hidden force is by thinking of all groups, societies and individuals as having a drive towards wholeness. This is their true nature, and the desire to be whole will eventually overcome all obstacles and win through.
There is a paradox I’d like to mention here regarding group workshops. A high level of safety is required if we are to explore our shadows. We can often find this sense of safety if we are in a group of people who are similar to us and who we feel will understand us well. However, if a workshop consists of only one section of society then, while the sense of safety experienced may be high, the work of the group may also be limited by this lack of diversity, which can limit what people believe would be acceptable within the group – and paradoxically make them feel less safe to express themselves. On the other hand, the more diverse the group the less safe each person may feel – at least initially, yet the greater potential for richness in the work. As more and more aspects of the human experience are welcomed into the room everyone present is liberated by this – shadows are lifted and people feel safe to express more of who they really are.
Every Part and Every Person is Necessary
Now let’s come back for a moment to my original statement – that diversity is, at core, about welcoming in and accepting parts of ourselves. I hope the links I’ve explored and the examples I’ve given have both clarified this statement and helped you to explore it more deeply. Diversity is intrinsically linked with the work that I do. It is vital when working with the shadow to invite in all aspects of each person – to make everything welcome and to understand the inherent value of each part. No one part is more important than another, and each is an essential, necessary piece of the whole. If a group is unable to accept certain members then that group is limited and diminished by this. If a person is unable to accept a part of themselves then their experience of life is limited and diminished also. Each person is necessary for there to be wholeness in a group and each part of each person is necessary for that person to be whole.
Who am I then?
This leaves us with the question – Who am I then? If we all contain everything what makes me different from others? Which parts are the real ‘me’? For myself – am I the wise, capable, confident group facilitator, or am I the person who can be found curled up in a ball overwhelmed by one of my many ‘irrational’ fears? Of course, the answer to this is that I am both – and much, much more. A more pertinent question might be – Can I expand enough to embrace and accept both of these aspects of myself? Ultimately can I continue this life long process of getting to know and accept ‘new’ aspects of myself – the ‘bad’ as much as the ‘good’, the ‘small’ as much as the ‘big’, the ‘hopeless’ as much as the ‘hopeful’? The more parts of myself I can know, accept and integrate the more whole I can become. Furthermore, the more parts of myself I know, the more I am able to welcome and accept all aspects of others. The more I know and accept myself the greater intimacy I can have with my partner and my friends as I will be more willing to allow and accept all aspects of them. I will also be better able to support those coming to my practice to explore their shadows and get to know new parts of themselves.
Once I know and have integrated new parts of myself I can then choose which to express and which not to express. This is different to being in denial of these parts and saying they are ‘not me’. This is about knowing and accepting all aspects of myself, so that I am in charge of myself and my life and no aspect dominates from the shadows. So, once I get to know the frightened part of me well, I can then listen to her and reassure her and take care of her so that she doesn’t need to dominate. If there are parts of ourselves we don’t know then we have no power over them and such parts can dominate us completely. Working in this way, whilst each of us contains the potential for all aspects of humanity, we can manifest our unique personality deliberately and consciously in the way we hold and express each part. We can also accept that who we are is something fluid, dynamic and changeable as we continue to explore more and more parts of ourselves.
Uniqueness and Universality
Rather than ending this article with our uniqueness and difference though, I’d like to share with you another paradox that often emerges when working with groups. As everyone’s differences are welcomed and expressed, what frequently comes across most strongly for everybody present is how, as we dive deeper and deeper in to each person, we find so much similarity there, and how, at core, we experience the same pains, the same joys, the same longings, the same fears. We’re each part of the same whole and the whole is contained within each of us.
‘… While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’
Jo Cox MP (An extract from her maiden speech in the House of Commons Chamber on Wednesday 3 June 2015)
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