SHADOW WORK: CONNECTING TO YOUR DARK SIDE FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH
The following piece was written for Bodhi Tree:
Like fairy tales where warriors travel to the depths of the world to slay dragons, we too must face our dragons - our shadows. Except that our dragons are nothing more than repressed feelings and other disowned aspects of ourselves, and the shadow needs no slaying. Rather, it needs befriending.
As someone who has worked with and written about the human shadow, I know it can be ominous when it goes unrecognized, is dishonored, repressed, or masked-over with the false pretenses of socially accepted behavior. The repression of emotions always leads to those feelings coming back to visit us with a fury. As children, we unconsciously hide the parts of ourselves our parents don’t like. Due to our desperate need for their love and approval, we feel compelled to disown and bury thoughts and feelings that might threaten that love.
For many, by the time we reach adulthood, our unconscious is overflowing with suppressed material such as anger, greed, rudeness, spontaneity, selfishness, or sexuality. Any part that isn’t acknowledged, or that we’re shamed by, gets dumped in. This unconscious act of hiding our socially unaccepted pieces can lead to a huge loss of vitality, as repressing any aspect of ourselves takes energy. What’s suppressed inside of us is as much of who we are as the “nice” aspects on the outside.
Many of us, especially those on a spiritual path, experience anger as an aspect of the shadow. We are raised with the idea that nice people don’t get angry. Anger in itself is not inherently evil, and holding it back is not problematic either. But a deep imbalance, due to a violation of self, arises when we try to ignore these suppressed aspects of ourselves. Such repression is called "not owning one’s shadow".
The shadow needs to be owned because the material does not dissipate by itself. Instead, it stays with us and regresses into a destructive force that becomes more and more hostile, both toward others as well as toward oneself. Intuitively, we sense that the more regressive and hostile it gets, the more dangerous it is to approach the unconscious material, so we try even harder to repress it. Like a pressure cooker, the shadow has to have an escape valve; otherwise it will make its presence known. Whether it’s violence, addiction, or rage, the shadow will find a means of expression.
One of the most prevalent examples of shadows on the spiritual path is the marketing of the New Age movement’s focus on light and positivity. The underlying concept that we are all connected on a deep level, and hence whole, is true; many schools of spiritual thought subscribe to this. The experiences of life, however, add a dimension that’s not addressed by these spiritual practices. The marketing distortion pretends that by seeking “the light”, we are transformed. But this particular school of thought contains its own seed of destruction: the failure to honor the shadow.
As I say to my clients, that on a good day we are 10% conscious and 90% unconscious. This means that most of the time all the repressed emotions and energies are running the show. How does that manifest? We might have the intention to stop a certain destructive habit, yet we keep repeating the same pattern. We may know a certain behavior or person leads to disharmony in our lives, yet we find ourselves compulsively pulled in their direction.
Willpower is useless here, regardless of our good intention. When we repeatedly manifest actions in our lives that are contrary to our conscious desire it can be a sign that our shadow is in the director’s chair. It’s commonplace for spiritual teachers of all denominations to be exposed in sex or financial scandals because unless they have dealt with their own shadow, spirituality can be used to mask underlying issues around anger, sexuality, and greed. The social projection that a “spiritual person” has risen above base emotions only adds more fuel to the fire, since it leaves no room for the person to deal with these energies openly. Eventually, they will seep out and their expression will be hostile and ugly - be it inappropriate sexual behavior or financial chicanery. No holy robe of repression is strong enough to hold these energies back.
So how does healing occur? Through the process of shadow work, which involves reintegrating aspects of ourselves that we have disowned. By inviting these unconscious, disowned parts into the conscious realm, we release the negative charge that wreaks havoc in our lives. There are no specific road maps here and this is not easy or speedy work.
The first step is to acknowledge that the shadow exists. This is particularly true of “spiritual” or “religious” people who falsely think that their spiritual practice has somehow dissolved their shadow, when, in fact, the shadow has been further repressed. The power of this simple act of acknowledgment is profound. It opens a door of communication between the conscious and unconscious mind.
Next comes awareness of the repressed material through acute observation of one’s behavior, patterns, fantasies, reactions, and dreams. How is our interior life aligned with our exterior? Does our life naturally express our beliefs or are we constantly using our will to enforce them? How is our fantasy life integrated into our everyday conscious life? In which ways is it totally alien to that life? How shocked would a close friend or partner be if we expressed what goes on in those fantasies?
Such questions are all invitations to assimilate these energies in a healthy way. There’s a desperate need for more active shadow work. This is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for all.