This text is a fictional short story about supernatural encounters with an inner critic. It contains insights from compassion meditation (Metta) and inner work for conflict transformation. I hope you find it entertaining and useful.
The bizarre path stretched far ahead. Its sides were marked by medical equipment, pillars of paper, computer stations, and the shells of atomic bombs. Flat photovoltaic panels sprouted like mushrooms from the ground. Dim orange light colored the cloudy sky.
I walked ahead until suddenly a coldness seized my veins. My breath became shorter and it felt like a hand was clenching around my heart. Darkness condensed in front of me. The shadows drank the orange light. Paralyzed, I watched the wall of darkness solidifying, hindering me from continuing on my path. Streaks of blue lightning twitched through the shadows. A deep voice sounded and captivated my whole being:
The hand that had gripped my heart closed and shattered it.
“You don’t have what is needed”, the voice continued.
A contourless body peeled out of the wall of darkness. The head was an oval of dull black. The body was shaped like one of a human. It was a shadow that had taken shape. The voice was his.
“You are not enough!”
The first time I met the shadow man was in this vivid dream. I awoke from it drenched in sweat, feeling small, incapable, and alone. I didn’t know that things were about to take a major shift. I didn’t know that the shadow man was about to play a crucial part in it.
The next day, I reflected on my dream. It wasn’t the first time I had heard its voice. If I am honest, I knew his voice all my life. This harsh, critical voice that gives me reasons why I shouldn't do what my heart is striving for.
I struggled with many things during my life. What to do after school, what to do after studying, how to approach personal projects that were important to me, and – you guess – how to be confident in the scariest situations; the love life. Just to name a few.
Of course, the things I struggled with weren’t always rational. Sometimes it seemed that I managed to easily navigate difficult terrain only to get lost in simple areas.
What I was struggling with at that particular time isn’t relevant, it wasn’t special either. It was just one out of many. One of those situations that I was challenged by and in doubt about. One of those situations in which the shadow man grew loud and strong.
Looking back, I also didn’t meet this one mentor guiding my way and helping me to deal with this dark presence in my mind. I met many who all brought me closer to understanding. They were all giving me another fragment of the mosaic of truth I was finally able to assemble. They all showed me another perspective I needed until I finally saw the whole of what I was looking at.
The first one was a close friend of mine.
“Do not listen to that voice!”, he said. “Just tell yourself that you can do it and ignore the shadow man. Your doubts only grow stronger when you feed them.”
It did me good to be heard. And naïve as I was, I also thought I was washed in all waters now. Just ignore it, brilliant. Well, the euphoria lasted exactly until the next night.
I was on a stony path in the mountains seeing the sun set behind a beautiful mountain range. The flora was blossoming, and the air was warm and touched me softly. I was relieved, feeling blessed and amazed, slowly wandering ahead.
Looking at the grass, I suddenly saw it change from fresh green to a dirty brown. The sun left, turning the colorful sky dark and grey. A cold blow of air swirled dust in my eyes. The path became narrow, changing into a precipice.
On alert, I continued my way forward, seeing the sky darkening even more. A cracking thunder rolled through the mountains. A moment later, a heavy rock slammed into the ground just in front of me, ripping a gap in the path and shattering into small fragments.
“You foul will die on this path, you will fall and break into pieces”, said a familiar voice.
A lightning bolt illuminated the scenery and revealed the contourless body standing on the precipice behind the gap torn by the rock.
My heart hammered in my chest but I found the courage to resist:
“I know I can do this; you have no power over me. I will pass this test.”
The shadow man grew bigger and bigger and the world around me got darker and darker until I couldn't even see a tiny rock in the mountain landscape. All I sensed was the presence of the shadow man and his dark voice, which crushed all my resistance.
“I am strong and you are small and feeble. Listen to me, you idiot. You can’t solve this riddle and you are going to die on this path. Listen to me, you idiot…”
I was soaked in sweat, breathing fast and shallow when I awoke again. Standing up from my bed, my legs were weak and shaking. All the confidence I had gained after the talk with my friend had disappeared.
It took me some weeks until I met my next mentor. Weeks in which the shadow man and I were in heavy conflict. Every time I was able to push him away, he grew stronger and crueler until all my resistance broke. And when things were calm for a while, the next war was being prepared in the silence.
This was until I listened to a wise woman who had managed to tame her shadow creature. She said it took the shape of a fire-breathing dragon. And as soon as she would relax, breathing deeply and starting a conversation with the dragon she might get close enough so he would lift his claw. And under the claw, there would be a diamond, a valuable piece of information that hasn’t come to her mind and which only her dragon could deliver. She just needed to stand firm and continue to remind the dragon to be more helpful and clear in his messages. Then, she might be able to reach the gem the dragon is holding.
I was inspired by listening to what she said. Who would come to the idea to get closer to a fire-breathing dragon? A brutal creature that could turn you to ashes with one breath.
I needed to try this. What could possibly go wrong? After all, the shadow man tortured me mercilessly every time I met him. How could this get worse?
So, I found a quiet place, breathing deeply and closing my eyes.
I was sitting on a chair standing on the ground of an empty plain. There really wasn't much here. Just a seemingly endless meadow, without animals, trees, or even a river running through it.
There was another simple chair in front of me, but no one was sitting on it. The sky was blue, only some clouds were floating around.
“Please come, we need to talk”, I said, feeling my heart pumping faster. It was the first time I invited the shadow man. It felt wrong, like calling death for a one-to-one.
A circle of shadows around the two chairs announced his coming. The circle grew upwards, looking like a hollow cylinder made out of darkness. When I looked again towards the chair in front of me, he was sitting on it.
“What do you know that I need to know?”, I asked him straight away.
The oval head of the shadow man turned towards me, even though it was devoid of any facial features. There were no eyes, no ears, no angry mimics. There was only shadow.
“Do you really think you are enough?”, the shadow man asked me in his deep voice that echoed through my head, “Good enough to be able to succeed with your so ambitious project?” He paused and I noticed that the shadows around us were now rotating like a cyclone. A blue flash twitched through it.
“Let me tell you that you are not.”
I recognized that I was breathing shallowly, so I took another deep breath, trying to remember the words of the woman while my heart felt like it would be freezing to ice.
“This is not very helpful. Can you please be more specific?”
“You are biased and blind-sighted of your limitations. The project is doomed to fail if it only has you as a supervisor”, the shadow man answered.
I took another deep breath and even though the shadows around us were still rotating, I couldn’t see the lightning anymore. The storm seemed to calm down. I asked the shadow man again.
“Can you be clearer? What do you mean?”
“Your project suffers from your hesitancy. It will stay under its potential if you don’t change your ways.”
Another deep breath filled my lungs.
“You can’t know everything yourself, don’t be a fool. Go and ask other people for help, together you can achieve far more.”
A golden glow of light pierced the black storm and I felt like a rock was falling from my shoulders that I had been carrying around all this time.
I opened my eyes. There it was, the gem under the dragon's claws. The knowledge that the shadow man had hidden in his criticism. And finally, I had listened without cutting myself on all the thorny words in which it had been concealed.
Even though it wasn’t easy, I tried my best to follow the advice. I asked people their opinion on the project, I asked what they were thinking was its weak point. And their response was the, sometimes bitter, medicine that I and my project needed.
My relationship with the shadow man became more productive. Even though I sometimes still didn’t understand his message and we often argued in exhausting debates, I often got a glimpse of what he had to tell me. And it was always some useful information I had been unaware of.
One day I followed his advice to join a meditation retreat instead of trying to dabble in this practice just by myself. I can especially remember one session that had a particularly transformative impact.
We sat in a beautifully decorated room. It was clean, simple, and surrounded by a peaceful natural landscape.
“Make your mind your friend”, our teacher said, talking about the practice of mettā. He was describing this quality of loving-kindness towards oneself and other people in which one simply wishes well, without strings attached. This benevolence towards living things in which one just feels this caring attitude.
“May you be happy; may you be free from suffering.”
I also remember a poem from the Persian poet Hāfiz, which the teacher shared:
“Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, 'You owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky”
Extending this attitude towards all beings, even those who harm this world, our teacher said, would be the path to follow. It could also just mean to start by wishing someone to be free of hatred, free of harmful ideas.
And what struck me the most was the insight of showing this attitude towards all the aspects of our own experience. It could be directed towards the body:
“May my shoulders be happy. May my back be happy.”
Or towards one’s struggles in life. Welcoming all pain and hardship with this attitude would be transformational. Loving not only pleasant experiences but also the dark ones.
I lost myself listening to this. It was so beautiful, so simple. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it to be in the first place.
In my following meditation, I imagined myself sitting on a chair again, calling for the shadow man to arrive.
The shadow man appeared on his chair.
“Why did you call me?”, he asked.
This time, the surrounding landscape was similar to the one of the meditation retreat. A hilly panorama with healthy forest and fresh air. There was no storm, no wall of darkness. It was quite peaceful. Unfamiliarly peaceful.
“I want to thank you”, I said as sincerely as I felt it. I really was grateful for being where I was and for all of the valuable information, he gave me so far.
The shadow man was silent but I saw a vein of golden light forming in his dull black head.
“I can see now that all the time, you wanted the best for me. You wanted to protect me from danger, and pain.”
More veins of golden light permeated the body of the shadow man.
“All those times I wanted to push you away when you were concerned about me and wanted to help because I didn’t see your good intention in these harsh words you have learned. Thank you for being there for me. I wish we can find more loving ways to interact with each other.”
The network of golden veins expanded so that the entire body of the shadow man began to glow with golden light. It was like the shadow man had turned into a golden guardian.
“How can I support you?”, he asked.
I was silent for a moment, marveling at the transformation that had taken place. There I was in this peaceful landscape, looking at this instance of golden light. I felt as if all the chains which were holding me back had fallen off. As if all the walls standing in my way would have evaporated.
“Take me where I need to be”, I said to the golden being.
“As you like, but be warned. It will be painful”, he replied, “The wounded fields are always full of pain. But this is where I need to take you. If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on those who didn’t cut you.”
We stood up from the chairs and the shadow man, now illuminated golden, took my hand.
The landscape faded away and turned into a music hall. On the stage stood a child, singing. There was a teacher, walking toward the child and waving his arms.
“Stop, please stop singing”, the teacher said.
“You can’t sing and you don’t belong in our choir. Go and find a different hobby.”
I felt my heart bleeding. Full of sadness for this child who was trying to hold back the tears but failing.
“Now don't make a fuss.”
A wave of anger flooded over my heart which was still crying together with the child.
“Stay with the pain, just let it be and wish well for this child”, the golden guardian said. I still felt his caring presence close to me.
I took a deep breath and felt a warm tear running down my cheek.
The voice of the teacher echoed in my ears.
“You can’t sing. Don’t make a fuss.”
“Can you feel compassion for this child?”, the golden guardian asked, interrupting the echo.
“I do and I wish he’d continue to sing, that he doesn’t take this teacher seriously.”
I felt that the wound in my heart started to heal, that the bleeding slowly ceased.
“What about the teacher, can you feel compassion for him?”, the guardian asked.
“Why should I?”, I replied. “How could he even say such a thing to me when I was young?”
“Isn’t it tragic that he behaves in such a cold way? Don’t you think he would be happier being able to be kind?”
To my surprise, I felt a spark of compassion glowing in my heart. Indeed, I thought, how empty life must be for that teacher talking this way. How much more beautiful it would be not only for the child but also for himself if he could be kind.
I sensed this feeling for a while until it faded away, leaving a peaceful calm.
“Alright, you have been here long enough now, time to move on.”
“Thank you”, I said to my golden companion and opened my eyes.
The shadow man became my friend and together we visited the wounded fields in my mind. We were digging in the dirt, visiting old traumas, injuries I didn't know I had hidden from myself. And every time I felt my backpack becoming lighter, I felt more freedom than before and more energy to do good in the world.
One day I found myself preparing a talk about my journey into my inner worlds. How making one’s mind one’s friend can leverage one’s efforts in doing good in the outer world. How it can lead to inner peace and strength.
Before I went to bed I had a look at a quote, I wanted to cite during my talk:
“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our own terrors. If it has precipices, they belong to us. If dangers are present, we must try to love them. And if we fashion our life according to that principle, which advises us to embrace that which is difficult, then that which appears to us to be the very strangest will become the most worthy of our trust, and the truest.” 1
I stood on stage looking into an empty hall. In my fingers, I held a note. There was nothing written on the paper.
The room grew dark until I was looking into a wall of shadows. Out of the darkness, the shadow man stepped. He was a shadow taking shape once again.
“You are not well prepared”, he said.
I was sweating. My heart was beating faster. Where was my golden supporter?
I saw blue lightning flashing through the shadows. Frost reached for the wood of the stage.
Then I looked the shadow man in his empty face.
“What is it that I need to know?”
I like to thank Dr. Scilla Elworthy and Joseph Goldstein who sparked not only the idea of this story but also helped me in finding a richer inner life myself.
1 Rilke RM. Letters to a Young Poet. New World Library; 2010.