This is a fascinating parable by Lao Tzu that exposes the human condition, specifically how mankind has been dealing with his shadows (i.e. insecurities, deficiencies). It is expounded by Osho in his book: Intimacy.
The key idea that strikes me in this parable is that shadows are cast because all mankind are substantial. That is, the suffering that has been continually created in our minds – our imperfections, and sick twisted yearning for the attainment of impossible, mentally conjured ideals – is attributable to that fact that we are alive, real and substantial beings. Osho says: “Why are you so disturbed by the sound of your footsteps? You are substantial, so there must be a little sound; one has to accept this.” The shadow is not substantial, but man himself is.
We are a people running away from our shadows, seeking to mask our imperfections in the wretched chase of an ideal portrayal of ourselves. The true self, or the one deep down looking at us, is suppressed by layers of superficiality that fill our psyche. Yet, sometimes our petty insecurities and dissatisfaction have a crippling tendency that forces us to re-examine our makeup. In silence or meditation, a person may experience at the core of his or her being, an existential shame rooted within the psyches of mankind, that speaks of a tragically deep unworthiness that has no logical explanation.
The parable goes like this:
There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both.
The method he hit upon was to run away from them, so he got up and ran, but every time he put his foot down, there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.
He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realise that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.
Simply put, the chase of our “ideal self” is an endless one that would leave us dead on the ground. The mind, in relation to the “perfect world”, would continually create a false ideal driven by mankind’s ego – such is the human condition, the very mechanism of the human mind. Osho asks: “Why are you not enough as you are? Just at this moment why are you not like gods? Who is interfering?? Who is blocking your path?”
The light of this parable offers an alternative way of dealing with one’s imperfections: to step into the shade. Osho’s perspective is that God has given a unique gift to everyone, and yet we condemn our differences by wanting something better, and trying to be wiser than existence. However, the part can never be wiser than the whole. It is because of this that we go wrong. Instead, he says:
When a person can celebrate life in its totality, all that is wrong disappears. But if you try first to make arrangements for the wrong to disappear, it never disappears.
It is just like fighting with darkness. Your house is filled with darkness and you ask, “How can I light a candle? Before I light a candle this darkness has to be dispelled.” This is what you have been doing. You say that first greed must go; then there will be ecstacy. You are foolish! You are saying that first the darkness must go, and then you can light a candle, as if darkness can hinder you. Darkness is a nonentity. It is nothing, it has no solidity. It is just an absence, not a presence. It is just the absence of light – light the light, and the darkness disappears.
Celebrate, become a blissful flame, and all that is wrong disappears. Anger, greed, sex, or whatsoever else you name are not solid; they are just the absence of a blissful, ecstatic life.
The alternative, thus, is to accept ourselves (in the deepest and broadest sense, our totality) so that we no longer run away. To do so, we could simply step into the shade, known as “silence” or “inner peace” where “no rays of the sun enter.
One learns to move in from the periphery (mind, activity) to the center (being, inactivity), leaving out society that instills in us images of how we should be. The mind continually runs, fights and creates suffering for the soul – such is the nature of the mind. The key is to leave the mind alone and not fight it, but to learn to rest in our imperfections, to expand into them, to accept our ways of being which are gifts from existence to our godly selves. Osho says: Celebrate! Become a blissful flame. And all that is wrong shall disappear.