Working With the Shadow
Seeds of change hiding in the dark
Posted February 3, 2016
Is our urge for the light blinding us to the shadow?
There is often a serious lack of depth and scope to the call of popular psychology and spirituality, promoted by scores of books, magazines, blogs, posts, and television programs. We are bombarded with messages that we are in need of correction or reprogramming and given ways to rid ourselves of disturbing feelings and behavior patterns. We are guided to stop eating certain foods or ingesting certain substances, as if there were nothing to learn from exploring our yearnings; to stop making certain choices, as if there were no deeper reasons for our actions; to anti-depress, as if emotions that move us into ourselves have nothing to offer us. We are told, “Stop eating that,” “Don’t worry so much,” “Don’t judge,” “Forgive,” “Be honest,” “Make different choices,” “Don’t be so aggressive (sensitive, passive, cold, bold, insecure),” “Stop falling in love with the wrong people,” “Be more reasonable (rational, normal).”
These platitudes focus on individual inadequacies, are often shaming, play on our hopes and fears, and rarely address the issues underlying people’s behaviors or offer ways to deepen personal transformation in any sustainable way. In short, they are too often shadow-less.
Of course there is an appeal to this bias towards the light: Who wouldn’t want to feel happier, lighter, more productive, more at ease? However, while we look hopefully for the life we want, we blind ourselves to the power, beauty, and love that can be found in the shadows. The renowned African American scholar, Cornel West, said, “We live in a hotel civilization...in which people are obsessed with comfort, contentment, and convenience, where the lights are always on.” Popular psychology would do well to listen to Dr. West’s admonition.
When we compulsively keep the “light” on, we deny the wisdom hiding in the shadows and fail to heed Carl Jung’s dictum, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”
Promoting a personal growth or spirituality that equates health with light, happiness, lack of physical symptoms, productivity, and relationships without conflict, dismisses the truths and growth that can be found in the blues, in sickness, in conflict, in the dark. Further, it fosters a culture that avoids its darkest dangers, including the intractable pains of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, anti-Semitism, and all the ills of social injustice, that become ghettoized in society the same way personal “ills” are marginalized in the psyche. In short, while we may speak of tolerating and even loving diversity, avoiding the shadow fosters a living ethic that works against these democratic callings, both in our social and intra-psychic world.
How does shadow work proceed?
First, as many counsel, we must embrace the material that arises there: jealousy, greed, anger, narcissism, as well as the ecstasies and altered states of consciousness that we project onto the mentally ill, the homeless, and the addict. But we can go further yet; we can unfold the shadow material, alchemically cook it, until the gold pregnant within is revealed.
For example, I have seen anger flower into something that can compensate for passivity; I have seen insecurity flower into a detachment from day-to-day goals and ego; I have seen vengeance flower into a profound sense of justice; I have seen judgment flower into the capacity to see and own one’s gifts and strengths; I have seen fear flower into sensitivity and tenderness; I have seen egotism flower into self love and a “cure” for co-dependence.
Even on a purely physical level, I have seen limps flower into a new way of walking; I have seen tumors flower into amazing creativity; I have seen arthritis flower into exquisite self-love; and I have seen stomach aches flower into massive changes in someone’s status quo.
What attitude or vision promotes shadow work?
We begin by letting go of seeing these disturbances as “negative,” but we can proceed by watering the soil of the seeds in these qualities with a profound faith that nature doesn’t arise in error.
Finding this gold requires seeing a kind of perfection, a seed within these disturbances, with the possibility of flowering into something magnificent. My own attitude takes the form of a loving curiosity, wondering, “What kind of genius is hiding within this person’s seeming crippled state, in what they most hate about themselves, whether that exists in their body, their emotions, their relationships, or their worldly condition?” I become a student of the teachings of their “Illness”—a devotion to learning from the profound intelligence found in what we most want to get rid of, what we most despise, what we most marginalize.
Of all the psychological and spiritual teachers I have had in my life, none have imparted greater life lessons and wisdom than the spirit of what most consider their difficulties, pains, weaknesses, and failures - their shadow. The same is true for our greater democracy, which has been hastened and made more perfect by opening to the lessons from those most excluded - the shadow of our culture at large.
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