By Gary Z McGee
“It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” -Rocky Balboa, Rocky
Shadowboxing is sparring with an imaginary partner as a form of physical training. Existential shadowboxing is sparring with imaginary aspects of yourself as a form of spiritual training.
Spiritual training is vital to achieve heightened awareness. It is essential to build character. In the boxing ring of the soul, the individual who can handle the most adversity will be the one with the superior character and the greater capacity for heightened levels of awareness.
Great character is forged in the furnace of great adversity. Pain, hardship, misfortune, these are mere kindling. Nothing burns brighter. Those with great character have the courage to bask in such flames. They realize that the boxing ring is on fire and it’s either burn or be fire. For fire plus fire equals greater fire.
Pressure is needed to forge the diamond. Not comfort, not security, not safety, but pressure. So it goes also for the rough diamond of the soul. Pressure is needed to smooth out the edges; to make it more resilient, more robust, and even antifragile.
Pressure is the epitome of existential shadowboxing. The boxing ring of the soul is the crucible. Your character will be tested, your heart will be sharpened, your soul will be forged. But first, there are threshold guardians to contend with.
Boxing threshold guardians (and cultural conditioning):
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” ~George Orwell
This first match may not be the most difficult match to fight, but it will be the most difficult match to start. This is because it will require a leap of courage out of faith. It will require stretching your comfort zone. It will require you questioning what you believe. It will require you getting out of your own way.
Because the only way you can begin this fight is to realize that it is vital that you do so. And the only way you realize that it is vital, is to realize that your character is not yet strong enough to fight. It’s a conundrum. But, as Camus said, “The greatness of man lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition.”
Starting out, your condition is one of cultural conditioning. You must first break through this threshold before you can face your shadow. The demons will continue to howl inside you until you have the courageous wherewithal to face this initial threshold guardian. Ironically, the first demon you must fight is the one convincing you not to fight.
Therefore, rebellion is foremost. Without the initial rebellion, you are without. You are stuck. You are at a dead end. Without the initial rebellion you can kiss the forging of your greater character and heightened states of awareness goodbye.
This rebellion is a crossroads where you transform your life into a Hero’s Journey.
It’s where you surrender to the fall down the rabbit hole. It’s taking the red pill after forsaking the blue. It’s embracing the Desert of the Real upon exiting Plato’s Cave. It’s “making room to receive.” What do you receive? Truth. Hard truth. The hard truth that reality as you knew it is fundamentally meaningless and hopeless. But losing all hope is the beginning of meaningful hope.
This hard truth is a dark gift. It’s tempest-testing, honor-honing, humor-sharpening. The reward is deep insight and access to the inner sanctum.
Boxing Demons (and shadows):
“Anyone who perceives his shadow and light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” ~Jung
Now that you’ve made it into the inner sanctum of the Self, it’s time to wrestle some demons. It’s time to countenance the bitterness. It’s time to integrate the shadow.
This will be an attack on all fronts. You will be outflanked by darkness. You’ll probably have to fight blind. You will get knocked down—a lot. You will be beaten and bruised, bitten and bloodied, foiled and skinned. Your heart will have been exposed, vulnerable and pinned. Your soul will have been unveiled, conquered and thinned. For you see, the only way to win this fight is to lose it.
This is the deepest darkest depths of the crucible. The place where the purpose of your life is tested and found wanting. You will lose. It could very well destroy you. It could even turn you into an existential invalid. It could leave you broken and forever nihilistic.
That is unless you can get back up, again and again. Unless you can put yourself back together, again and again. Unless you can surrender your heart to being Never Not Broken. Unless you can finally let go, and let the shadow in.
Let it in through the cracks of your never not broken heart. Let it in through the absolute vulnerability of your conquered self. Let it in to join forces with your inner light. The primordial union of which will transform you into a force of nature.
Where the forge tests metal, the boxing ring of the soul tests mettle. And it’s all surrounded by black flames, the darkest hottest fire in the universe. Let it burn you. Let it annihilate you. Let it forge you. Smolder in the ashes, then rise up as a stronger more robust version of yourself, as someone prepared to adapt and overcome. This is Zen in the trenches. Be the Phoenix. Rise up into a new way of being human in the world.
Boxing Angels (and Masters):
“A true teacher knocks down the idol that the student makes of him.” ~Rumi
Now that you’ve survived the fight for your soul, you’ve made it into the highest ring of the fiery forge. Here you will fight your holier than thou spirit. You will fight your overreaching pride and your pietistic ego. You will fight your own mastery and your vainglorious need to cling to that which you must let go.
This fight is vital because it will determine your capacity to continue sharpening yourself into an instrument that can receive next-level frequencies for heightened awareness. It will carve your character into a vessel fit to receive wisdom.
The confidence you gained from fighting the threshold guardian and inner demons could easily lead to overconfidence and being blinded by the light. It could lead to having a master’s complex. That’s why this fight takes place in the Temple of Apollo, where the inscription over the entrance reads: “Certainty brings ruin.”
For you see, not only are you fighting your pride and your ego, not only are you fighting mastery and self-importance, you are also fighting their symptoms: certainty, blind faith, and dogmatic thinking. In order to prevent certainty from bringing you to ruin, you will have to ruin certainty itself.
You do that with the blurring ninja punch of curiosity.
With curiosity in your pugilist arsenal, you can never be defeated by certainty. Curiosity is simply too fast for certainty to keep up. For curiosity has the imagination, the depth, and the otherworldliness that certainty can never touch. Certainty is blind to it. Certainty doesn’t even know that it can’t see it.
Indeed. True mastery is the ability to stay ahead of mastery itself. It’s the ability to keep beginner’s mind ahead of mastery lest your mastery turn into a self-important master’s complex. As Simon Blackburn said, “The cure is for people to respect inquiry over assertion. Full, sober, objective inquiry is the only way forward.”
And so, armed with the gloves of curiosity, you are unconquerable. You rope-a-dope your own ego. Certainty is left in ruins at your feet. Mastery is humbled. Your holier than thou angels are grounded. Your pride is laid low. Like Ali, you float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But you are not overconfident. You are simply confident enough; to maintain your connection to the underlying essence and thus your link to the higher frequencies of absolute awareness.
About the Author:
Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.
This article (Existential Shadowboxing: Strategies for Building Character) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.