Soon after Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years in jail Bill Clinton asked him if he was angry about how he had been treated. “Tell me the truth, when you were walking to freedom, didn’t you hate them?” Clinton asked, referring to Mandela’s jailors. “You must have been so angry!”

“Sure I was,” Mandela replied. “I felt great anger and hatred and bitterness. But I also knew that if I continued hating then once I got in that car and out through the gate I would still be in prison. I let it go because I wanted to be free.”

Such awareness as Mandela displayed is rare. Normally, we don’t accept or release our negative feelings so easily. Rather, we repress or disown them. But these sentiments are ignored at our peril, for when denied they can cause guilt, shame, depression, relationship failure, rage or sadness. When recognized, such hidden places contain great resources of strength, for locked in the darkness is a depth of sensitivity and insight.

“Our hang-ups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth,” writes spiritual teacher Pema Chödron in The Wisdom of No Escape. “Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.”

To run or hide from the obstacles confronting us—the dragons in our mind—simply increases resistance and makes us a casualty of ourselves, while awareness of our dark corners can be the impetus that brings greater self-reflection. From knowing the darkness comes the urge to grow into a strong and healed self, like a weed impelled to grow through concrete in order to reach the light.

Can mindfulness and meditation help us embrace and accept our essential humanness? They are definitely the appropriate remedies for stress and illness, but can the same be said of more psychological states, such as greed, anger or fear? How do we deal with shadow issues that invariably arise during a self-reflective practice?

“When I met my shadow right in front of my face,” says yoga teacher Seane Corn,* “I knew that spirit was saying, ‘Honey, if you want to heal yourself, you’ve got to walk right into this fire. This is your shadow, and this is what is keeping you from self-love. You are not going to be of any service to this world unless you go right into it and find out who that little girl in you is.’

“If I can come to terms with the parts of myself that scare me, then when I meet them I can say, ‘Oh, I get it, you’re my teacher, you’re going to kick my ass on a psychic level in order to open my heart.’”

As long as places we have hidden from stay in the dark, they will continue to dominate our behavior. Only by exploring their true nature and accepting that they are a part of being alive can we bring real transformation. Meditation enables us to meet these places. As we touch into levels of grief or shame, repressed anger or hidden fear, in the touching is a knowing of ourselves in a fuller way. We are more complete, as if something lost has finally been found.

We taught meditation in a men’s prison in England, and the experience was as transformative for us as it was for the inmates. In exploring and expressing their own dark places, the men saw how easy it is to become literally locked into avoidance or denial. Through meditation, they began to realize that rather than looking outside for freedom they could find it within themselves. Until then, as Bo Lozoff of the Prison Ashram Project says, we are all doing time, whether in jail or not.

“I was seventeen years old and was in jail for maybe the twelfth time; I thought I was probably going to prison for a really long time for robbery, drugs, you name it, I’d done it,” says meditation teacher Noah Levine.* “I had all of the suffering from the past—the shame, guilt, and regret, the anger, vengeance, and resentment—all were playing out in my head.

“At that point something started screaming inside me: ‘This isn’t everyone else’s fault! You’re the one taking the drugs! You’re the one committing the crimes! You’re the one doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to be different!’

“Then my father said, ‘Why don’t you try meditation?’ I had no answer, no reason not to. I’d already tried everything else.

“The immediate result was relief. One breath at a time. Half a breath at a time. The only thing that I’ve ever done that has ever worked is meditation; it’s the only place where I’ve found any real reprieve. It helps me see that anger or fear is just what happens when we get into certain situations: anger arises, fear arises, sadness comes. Meditation enabled me to take such negativity less personally and, perhaps more importantly, to meet it with more care and compassion.”

* Quotes from The Unexpected Power of Mindfulness & Meditation by Ed & Deb Shapiro