The Craziest Thing That Ever Happened to Me, or, Existential Kink and My Shadow
I feel awkward about writing this, because the truth is that if someone else had written it, I wouldn’t believe anything they said.
I’m generally a guy who doesn’t believe in magic or magical-seeming things. I’m a mechanistically-minded person. I certainly do not believe, in general, that people can achieve instant global changes in their consciousness through reading weirdly-titled spiritual self-help books written in a funky feminine vernacular.
But here I am, with a task I do not relish. Realism is not the order of the day. I’m writing to you about how I did one meditation exercise from a book called Existential Kink and permanently altered my subjectivity.
I can't say it any plainer. It feels like sorcery. It actually was sorcery—indistinguishable from a wizard snapping his fingers. My world shifted instantly, for the better.
I hope that you, unlike my hypothetical alternate-world self, can believe me. Because you should take this seriously. If there’s a 1% chance that you can achieve what I achieved, then you should roll that die.
What I achieved is a global upgrade to my operating system. The following changes in my consciousness have occurred, following my reading of Existential Kink.
Lights are now brighter, and the world seems more aesthetic, in general.
I feel more emotionally in tune with others, and, indeed, my wife has reported that I’m more understanding, present in conversation, and so on.
Overall, I’m calmer, looser, and feel more ‘vibe-y’, but my ability to do mechanical tasks has not diminished.
It’s not like I achieved enlightenment or anything. But I’d say everything is about 10% better, more colorful, more delicious, more sensuous, warmer, happier, easier, and so on.
I’m a little dumbfounded by this, and I don’t have an explanation for it that I’m certain of. But I have some suspicions that I will share with you. First, though, I have to tell you what EK is about, and more about what the hell it did to me.
Shadow Work 101
Essentially, EK is a highly idiosyncratic and entertaining presentation of the idea of shadow work. Itself, shadow work is fairly simple to explain and quite plausible.
The idea is this. There are parts of you that you consider unacceptable. Habits you don’t like, memories of things you’d rather not have done, thoughts you’d rather suppress. Normally, what you do is a sort of clumsy triage on these parts of yourself, as necessary. Bad memory surfaces? Involuntarily grunt and move on. Binge on your favorite substance? Sober up, feel bad, swear it’ll never happen again.
This isn’t all that effective, as evidenced by the fact that you’re constantly suppressing all of this stuff over and over again. It’s like the cartoon closet with a bulging door, ready at any moment to spew unpleasantness all over your inner bedroom. You’re caught in destructive cycles, and, all the way through the cycle, you’re having the same thoughts over and over again. “Why am I doing this? And, by the way, who’s doing this? Me?”
Shadow work suggests that you do something different. Instead of trying to disown these parts of you, how about, instead, accepting them. Try, perhaps, to include them in your self-perception. Understand the desires you wish weren’t a part of you. Look those memories square in their awful faces. Own up to your behavior and examine it compassionately. And so on.
This process is called integration. Instead of continuing the process of splitting off bits of your soul, you try to heal the split. Proponents of shadow work will tell you that once you get some integration done, you won’t feel as much inner conflict. You’ll spend less time battling random torrents of shame, and more time doing the things you want to, rather than wondering why you’re not.
There are lots of proposed varieties of therapy in this genre. As for EK, specifically, it adds a little bit to the traditional shadow work frame. I don’t want to try and recap the book's contents entirely. It’s worth a read—even if you hate it, it certainly won't be boring—and I don’t want to mess up the book’s integration deployment procedure, which appears to be quite effective.
But basically, EK proposes that, well, you know all of those hells you cast yourself into all the time? Maybe you kind of like them, in a perverse way. Maybe falling apart, or falling short, or disappointing yourself nourishes some dark part of you. (This is where the ‘kink’ part comes in—it suggests you have a predilection for your pain.) Maybe you should investigate the nature of this nourishment. What would happen if you tried to explicitly approve of the darkest elements of your nature? Is it possible that they wouldn't have such a hold over you?
Anyway. The book culminates in a series of meditation exercises, designed to achieve rapid shadow integration. I read the book in one sitting, and when I came to the meditation exercise part, I put the book down and did the first one, which involves making contact with bits of yourself you’re ashamed of, as you might expect. And that’s when the craziest thing that ever happened to me, happened.
At first, the exercise felt nice and non-threatening. But a few minutes in, I started feeling kind of funny. I started tingling all over. Not a little bit—a lot. It was like I was bathing in static electricity. Then, a sort of inner glow crept across my body, and I felt both extreme bliss and extreme tranquility, simultaneously. I’ve done an opiate before, and this was kind of in that neighborhood of pleasantness, but without the druggy feeling. It was clean and clear and beautiful. For you meditation people out there, it was like Jhana 1++++ highly recommend would meditate again.
And then the weirdest thing of all happened: I kind of felt some ugly parts of my self-conception fall off. Like, it was as if my habitual thoughts were links in a chain, and then some invisible force grabbed a pair of heavenly bolt cutters and started chopping the chain to bits. I felt lighter, clearer, more lucid. Finally, I was adrift in an endless space, unsure of my spatial coordinates, for some moments. And then, slowly, I came back to earth.
Then, I went to bed. That was a month ago, and since then, as previously mentioned, colors brighter, people more connectable, everything more fluid. The effect has not diminished a bit.
So, what the fuck?
Something Something Filtration
It’s not controversial that narrative and self-concept can affect properties of your sensory experience, large and small. Depressed people experience a slower, more monochrome world. When you’re in love, the world is more vivid. People you respect seem to possess physical magnetism and a kind of largeness. And so on, and so on.
If you have a big chunk of non-integrated shadow, what you have is a brittle self-conception. There are lots of parts of yourself that you’re constantly avoiding, and all sorts of things that happen to you that aren't supposed to. This requires vigilance. You’ve got to filter, erase, elide, and generally Photoshop your consciousness on an ongoing basis to make everything acceptable to your judgment.
That filtration might have some effects on experience generally. Maybe if your mind is enforcing a heavy-handed narrative frame, some of the aesthetic properties of life go unnoticed. And maybe the complexities of other human beings are harder to perceive behind the wall of concepts you’re placing in front of them. If you could take that filter off, perhaps the world would look different, and your existence would feel smoother, more intuitive, less fragmented.
I think that might be kind of what’s happened here, with me.
Also, there’s an important clue that I haven’t mentioned. The way I feel now is sort of familiar—it’s similar to the way I used to feel the day after a psilocybin trip. There was a point in my life when I consumed mushrooms frequently, and my favorite part was always the hangover—the loose, luminescent, easy-going state I’d experience during the afterglow, and the day after. That’s more or less how I feel all the time now.
In my experience, psychedelics loosen up your self-concept. But the effect is temporary. Your subjectivity is shattered, giving you a brief chance to look closely at some of the weird wiggly shards, and then it’s put back together again rapidly. In a week, you feel about the same, unless you’ve had an unusually intense psychedelic revelation.
This appears to be a similar effect, but it’s subtler and longer-lasting, and I can still drive a car.
Previously, I’ve heard critics of psychedelics say that they’re a cheap substitute for more enduring spiritual growth. I don’t think I agree—psychedelics have offered me unparalleled and valuable experiences, and they arguably sparked my marriage—but now I see where the critics are coming from a little more, in that I achieved some similar effects in a non-chemical fashion, and they appear to be more sustained.
So What Should You Do About This
I’m probably an outlier. Most people’s results with shadow work will probably not be so dramatic—although, since this experience, I’ve been working with a friend, Mark Estefanos, who does shadow-y psychological coaching stuff, and he says that similar integration experiences are not unusual (!!!).
My guess is that shadow stuff works best with people who are on a kind of inner precipice. You know, people who want to take big, interesting steps in life, but, instead of doing that, helplessly watch themselves not seizing the things they claim to desire. If you’re totally self-possessed and in alignment with every element of your personality, then maybe shadow work is not for you.
If that description doesn’t apply to you, I endorse reading Existential Kink. If you can’t get past the presentational style of it, maybe try talking to a counselor/coach/therapist who does shadow-related therapy.
The average person reading this probably has some stuff lurking in their personal darkness that doesn’t need to stay there.