Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark
Deep shadow-work does not leave us intact; it is not some neat and tidy process but rather an inherently messy one, as vital and unpredictably alive as birth. The pain it brings up is the pain we've been fleeing or suppressing most of our life; the psychoemotional breakdowns it catalyzes are the precursors to hugely relevant breakthroughs; the doors it opens are portals that have shown up year after year in our dreams, awaiting our entry. Such shadow-work not only breaks us down but also breaks us open, turning frozen yesterday into fluid now.
The terms “shadow” and “shadow work” have become increasingly common in psychological, spiritual, and personal growth circles. A significant number of us talk about our particular shadow and its constituent elements, in many cases acknowledging the need to do more about it than just admit that it’s there — hence the notion of “shadow-work.”
What I mean by our “shadow” is whatever in us we’re disconnected from or out of touch with, whatever we’ve denied or disowned in ourselves, whatever we’ve not illuminated or will not illuminate in ourselves, whatever in us we’re keeping out of sight.
So our shadow is that zone of us that’s occupied by what we have not faced or can’t/won’t face about ourselves.
To the extent that our conditioning (especially that originating in our early years) is allowed to run or operate us, it is our shadow. Or put another way, to the extent that our conditioning is kept in the dark, it is our shadow.
When we are both aware of our conditioning and are not letting it drive us or dictate our direction, it cannot at such times be categorized as our shadow. However much we may still have to change our relationship to our conditioning, it’s now out in the open, lit up and held in a grounded awareness.
When we are acting out our shadow material — looking through its eyes and embodying its viewpoint — we usually don’t know we are doing so at the time. For example, we may be righteously condemning another for not listening to us (even though they actually are, but are not agreeing with what we’re saying), not realizing that we have not been listening to them — nor that we generally are a poor listener. In this, we are projecting our own shortcoming onto another with such conviction that we block ourselves from really seeing that we do in fact have such a shortcoming.
(Note: It’s important to remember that just because we are projecting a certain quality onto another — like inconsiderateness — that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not being inconsiderate! What matters is that we don’t solely focus on what they are doing, but also focus on what we are doing.)
To know our shadow is to bring it out where we can clearly see it and recognize its detailing, its constituent parts, its modes of operation. And, eventually, its origins.
To get more familiar with our shadow, we can begin with doing our best to answer questions such as the following (however partial our answers might be):
What do I least want others to know about me?
What do I tend to have a disproportionate reaction to?
What qualities of mine do I often feel aversion toward?
What do I most easily project onto others?
Which emotions do I consider to be negative?
Which emotions am I the least comfortable expressing?
Who or what specifically was I trying to get away from in those dreams of mine in which I was trapped or being pursued?
What am I most scared to openly express or share in a relationship?
Don’t worry if you don’t have clear answers for all of these questions. To even attempt to answer them brings you into the domain of your shadow, however slightly. The lighting may be dim and your steps tentative, but at least you are approaching your shadow. The very act of turning toward it is a major step in our evolution, no matter how slight such movement initially may be.
If we don’t face our shadow or, worse, deny its existence, it nonetheless persists, largely functioning beneath our radar, infiltrating our lives in all kinds of ways. It’s as if someone other than us is pulling our strings. And that someone, that dark stranger, that alien other, is none other than us in disguise — which we will know right to our core once we have left the safety of our conventional self and made the journey into our shadowlands.
When we are in the midst of an unpleasant dream, we usually want to get away from its disturbing elements. If we don’t know it’s a dream, which is usually the case, we ordinarily just suffer the consequences of being in such an environment, doing whatever we can to make things more pleasant. Though this, of course, mostly fails, we nevertheless still tend to seek “better” conditions. Such a dream scenario is much like our condition when we are turned away from our shadow; things may be unpleasant, but we tend to make a priority out of doing something other than directly facing that unpleasantness.
But face it we must, if we are cease being a victim or pawn of our shadow elements.
We can avoid our shadow — and much of our life may be precisely about this — in whole or part, keeping ourselves so far away from acknowledging its presence that we might act as if it’s not even there, while at the same time seeing its various qualities in others (so that they have the problem, not us!). And we can also fuse with our shadow in whole or part, losing ourselves in its darkness and programming, having no distance from it, including the distance needed to keep it in clear focus. In both cases — avoidance or fusion — we are being run by our shadow, run by that conditioning of ours that we are all but blind to.
The optimal strategy for handling our shadow is to develop intimacy with it — this means getting close enough to it to see and feel it in detail, but not so close that we lose the capacity to keep it in focus.
To know our shadow is to no longer keep it in the dark, becoming intimate with it, intimate with all that we’ve kept in the dark in ourselves. And what is the purpose of becoming so close to our shadow? To reclaim all, all, of the disowned, rejected, and otherwise unwanted parts of ourselves, welcoming and integrating them into our being. In so doing, we become more whole, more vital, much more able to live a deeper life, a life in which passion, awareness, love, and integrity function as one.
Becoming intimate with our shadow frees us from being controlled by it; we simply see it too clearly to allow it to operate us. What we are unaware of, what we are keeping in the dark, what we busy trying to get away from, is precisely what controls us.
As you cultivate intimacy with your shadow, you will inevitably find yourself in various situations which activate your shadow, but you will be far more likely now to work more skillfully with this: You might get into a charged disagreement with your partner, you may have an upsetting encounter with a coworker, you may flare up in reactivity, you may be triggered by a disappointment — but whatever happens, you’ll be much more able to take it as an opportunity to see your shadow more clearly, and to make wiser use of it.
Becoming intimate with our shadow allows us to open to and embrace all that we are, high and low, dark and light, dying and undying. Such openness, such depth, such healing and awakening, such full-blooded aliveness and presence, is our birthright.
Seeds grow in the dark — so do we.
Let’s stop making such a virtue out of the light
and turn toward what’s in the shadows
and breathe it in, breathe it here
meeting it face to face
until we realize
with more than mind
that what we are seeing
is none other than us
in endarkened disguise
Seeds grow in the dark — so do we.
Let’s not be blinded by light.
Let’s unwrap the night
building a faith too deep to be spoken
a recognition too central to be broken
until even the darkest of days
lights our way
Image by Pamela Sukhum [+view gallery]
KNOWING YOUR SHADOW
We are glad to announce that Sounds True has recently published Robert's 6 CD audio program, Knowing Your Shadow.
Stay tuned in coming weeks for Ken Wilber's exclusive interview with Robert about the program, about which Ken says, "Knowing Your Shadow is a terrifically well-done and very useful guide to one's shadow, teaching ways to re-own and integrate it, and exercises for doing so. Everybody has a shadow, believe me, which means this product is for you, me, everybody. Take advantage of it!"
Click here to learn more.
BECOMING INTIMATE WITH YOUR SHADOW
Upcoming teleseminars and online courses with Robert on deep shadow work, providing expert guidance for working with and integrating whatever you've rejected or disowned in yourself, in ways that are deeply healing and liberating.
Sign up for more information and receive a free guided meditation from Robert on how to cut through self-doubt.
Other Pieces You May Enjoy
A crucial aspect of any integral practice is finding a way to be profoundly honest with ourselves about our shadow, or unconscious, or false self, or dishonesty, or disowned self. The 3-2-1 Process is a simple and effective tool for working with the shadow—any part of ourselves that we unconsciously repress or deny. In this "1-minute module" from the Integral Life Practice Starter Kit, Diane Hamilton teaches us a short but powerful version of the 3-2-1 Process to help us identify and reclaim these disowned parts of our identity....
Andrew and Ken unpack their vision of a new "evolutionary enlightenment" that is beginning to emerge all across the world, which involves at least three basic components: waking up to spiritual states of consciousness contained in all the world's major spiritual traditions; growing up through the stages of psychological development described by Western psychology; and cleaning up our emotional, psychological, and spiritual shadows if we don't want our highest potentials to become hijacked by our lowest neuroses, fixations, and conditioned habits.
Robert Augustus Masters, PhD, is a relationship expert, a spiritual teacher, and a psychospiritual guide, with a doctorate in psychology. He is the cofounder, with his wife Diane, of the Masters Center for Transformation (MCT), a school featuring relationally-rooted psychospiritual work devoted to deep healing and fully embodied awakening. A substantial portion of his work involves training MCT practitioners. He is also the author of thirteen books, including Transformation Through Intimacy and Spiritual Bypassing.
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