The Shadow Work of Batman

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In anticipation of the soon to be released finale in the Batman Trilogy The Dark Knight Rises, I offer two videos from the first movie in the series Batman Begins (2005). This flim covers the origin story of Bruce Wayne/Batman. A theme running through the film is fear--in particular Bruce's fear of bats. 

This exploration of fear is quite potent and sheds some light I believe, on an important part of the spiritual path: embracing the dark side. Fear is often treated in the spiritual traditions as a negative emotion, something to be overcome. But Batman teaches us the way to overcome fear is paradoxically to embrace it--to surrender it. To become one with the fear. In this we see a true form of nonduality. 

As the Heart Sutra says, "Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form." 

Emptiness here does not mean nothingness but non-separation. All forms are not separate (or are one with) Awakening. All forms as the Tibetan Buddhists say, are self-liberated. All forms arise already enlightened (liberated) in their essence. And Fear is a Form. It has an enlightened expression. 


In the mystical tradition of Judaism known as Kabbalah there is a teaching called tikun. A tikun is a wound, a broken shard in the universe. In this broken fragment however is contained a light. The Kabbalistic master transmutes the density of the brokenness, releasing the light. 

The young Bruce Wayne watches in horror as his parents are murdered. Just before their murder, young Bruce falls down a well as a boy, breaks his arm, and is attacked by bats in a cave. This is his tikun, his deep never to be healed wound. The wound of his existence. We all have such wounds, such crosses--if not as dramatic and traumatic as Bruce's. 

In this first video, Bruce has met his teacher (a man who will later become his enemy Ra's al Ghul). Ghul gives (pre-Batman) Bruce a hallucinogenic potion which brings Bruce bodily into contact with his most primal fear (bats). Ghul commands Bruce to breathe in the fear deeply:

"To conquer fear, you must become fear." 

Fear disowned is a destructive choice, both emotionally and spiritually. It leads to all-too-happy spiritualities with beings who seek only the light. Fear starts to drive their being unconsciously. We end up seeking only goodness and pleasantness in order to avoid pain and fear. 

But this is not the way. The truth is:

"To conquer fear, you must become fear." 

For Ghul, Bruce must embrace his fear in order to prey on criminals without pity. We need not follow Ghul that far to take in the wisdom of this admonition. We must breathe in our fear, as in The Tibetan practice of Tonglen. Like Christ sweating blood in the garden before his death, we must admit our fears:

"Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me." 

And yet we may choose to walk beyond our fears:

"Not my will but your will be done."

Fear owned and embodied is a form of awakening. Batman is therefore a Realizer of Awakening through the form of Fear. 

In this second clip, we see Bruce seek out the bats. He travels to the cave, to the heart of his fear--in the underground symbol of the unconscious. As the bats attack him, he initially flinches out of pure habit and instinct. But then he stops, stands up in the midst of the bats whirling around him, and smiles. He comes to see the power in them. He has completed his tikun. He has brought the light out of the darkness and Batman is born. From the blood of his murdered parents, comes a hero who fights no longer for revenge but for justice. 

The best way to embrace our fear is to first admit we have fear. Fear is not our enemy. We might first start with the recognition that we are afraid of our fears. There are two layers there: the fear itself and the fear of the fear. First accept that we are afraid of the fear. That allows us to sink more deeply to come into contact with The Fear Itself. 

Then ask the fear to speak to you. Imagine the fear is like a guest in your home--just inside the door perhaps. At a moment's notice if things become overwhelming you ask fear to leave and come back later. But slowly you notice that fear is a guest not an intruder. The difference between Fear as intruder or Fear as Guest is your hospitality and invitation (i.e. your choice). Fear will come regardless. What you can control is whether Fear comes consciously or not. 

Now Fear is a guest in our psyche who might not have been loved or taught how to behave rightly. This fear may have lived in the dungeons for years. So when first encountered Fear may appear brutish and nasty, like a wounded scared animal. 

But slowly you come to listen to fear. Listen particularly to when fear was disowned and sent (if Fear was) to the dungeons. 

When we suppress, ignore, or run from fear, fear has no location. Being honest about the presence of fear moves Fear to being an It. We admIT that there is Fear.

We say: I feel fear. I experience fear. This is the first step. It establishes the position of both the I and Fear as realities. Until this point Fear moves in the shadows and cannot be grasped. Fear ends up coming out in unhealthy, unconscious, destructive ways. 

But now that we have invited Fear in, Fear moves to a Him or Her, a voice, a person, one with whom I relate. An I to Fear's Thou. We listen to Fear's perspective and experience. We realize Fear has some wisdom, insight, and power to offer. 

Then when the time is right, ask if Fear will come home and be with you. Promise to Fear that you will give Fear a proper home. Promise that Fear will be allowed to do His/Her Job: i.e. to warn you when there are things to actually be afraid of. 

Then you and Fear merge into one. To conquer Fear, you must embrace Fear. 

When you do so, you will notice a most amazing thing: you will not be afraid. Fear owned and embodied is not a panic-inducing experience. It is counterintuitively, a deeply relaxing experience. It's a space of real grounding. 

The last words of Thomas Wayne, as he lay dying, to his son Bruce are: 

"Don't be Afraid."

If we think that we have to act to not be afraid we are in trouble. Men in particular in our culture have this problem--they can't appear to be afraid or they will be seen as weak.

But understood in this paradoxical manner of embracing the shadow, Thomas Wayne's words are less a command as they are a description of what occurs when we embrace our fears. 

We will not be afraid. We may rightly experience fear but we will no longer be afraid of our fears. 

Fear will then no longer be our perceived enemy but Fear will reveal Him/Herself to us as a trusted friend. 


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1 comment

  • Comment Link Matthew Lewis Tuesday, 24 July 2012 01:16 posted by Matthew Lewis

    Great piece Chris. I read this prior to watching The Dark Knight Rises and it gave me a new lens to appreciate what Nolan has crafted and the deeper themes being explored.

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