An essential element in the spiritual journey is integration of the shadow; this often referred to as shadow work.
In this blog and the next one I will: 1- Define the shadow and describe how the shadow develops; 2- Talk about shadow work and its importance in the journey to wholeness; 3- Discuss specific ways to integrate the shadow; 4- Talk about how shadow work relates to meditation and mindfulness practice.
The shadow is a natural result of developing a persona; the persona is the face that we learned to show the world. The persona is formed early in life by the role-modeling of parents and family and by the process of socialization. Early in life we are taught what it means to be a “good boy” or “good girl” and what it means to be a “bad boy” or “bad girl”. Being good gets us what we want and being bad get us what we don’t want! Soon we identify solely with the good boy/girl (persona) and push the bad boy/girl (shadow) into unconsciousness. This is like sweeping dirt under the carpet and then forgetting that it is there! It is still there but it can’t be seen by others and eventually we even deny that it exists.
The shadow elements that we have disowned and forgotten consist of unwanted desires and emotions as well as the painful memories that drove these desires and emotions underground in the first place.
For example, if a child is repeatedly ridiculed or humiliated for expressing sadness then the experience of sadness may become buried--along with the painful feelings of shame and humiliation. Sadness may then be seen by him as a weakness and something shameful.
If a child is ostracized or rejected whenever she expresses anger then her anger may become buried--along with feelings of grief and abandonment. Anger may then be seen by her as bad or dangerous.
If a child is shamed for expressing sexual desires then these desires will be suppressed along with the shame that was received. Sexuality itself may then be seen by him as bad or shameful.
In addition to these feelings there will be the anger and grief that is the inevitable result of disowning parts of our self. Any living organism (animal or human) that is frustrated in its expression of life will experience anger and grief. This can often be seen in the behavior of a wild animal that has been locked up in a cage.
Shadow work is reclaiming into conscious awareness the shadow elements that we have forgotten and disowned. These elements consist of unwanted desires and emotions as well as the painful memories that drove these desires underground in the first place. All of this must be discovered, accepted and integrated into conscious awareness for us to become a whole person.
Shadow work is important for many reasons. It takes a great deal of energy to repress the shadow. An oft-used analogy is that it is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater--it can be done but it takes considerable effort. The minute you turn your attention away the ball pops up! This is not unlike the repressed shadow. It takes a lot of psychic energy to repress it and it will eventually come out anyway!
Living identified solely with the persona means that we are living only a partial life. Within the buried shadow lies our power, creativity and aliveness.
One way the disowned shadow presents itself is in the form of projection: that which we refuse to see within our self will be perceived as outside of us--typically in the form of other people. Our relationships are the mirrors of our own psyche; relationships that are problematic are typically reflections of our own shadow. If we do not see these traits as projections of our own psyche then we will believe that the problem is solely the fault of others. Our world then appears to be full of “bad people” and we will see ourself being victimized by them.
The unclaimed shadow can also show up as chronic health issues as well as financial or legal problems. That which we attempt to bury is still alive and will find a way to resurface in some disguised form!
Only to the extent that we recognize the disguises of the shadow and take ownership of it can we de-energize these shadow-related issues and begin our own psychological and spiritual healing. We will talk much more about this in our next blog.