I’ll spare you the grisly details, but at 58 I find myself contending with what Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, called the archetype of the shadow. These are elements of oneself that from which we are so dissociated that when they rise up to bite us in the butt, we can hardly believe it has anything to do with us. This is obviously because when these feelings, thoughts, or images first surfaced there was no apparent way to integrate them and own them. We shoved them down into the basement of our psyche’s, there to function outside the realm of our conscious control. Usually, these elements are what society regards as unacceptable—rage, murderous inclinations, the desire to dominate the other, jealousy, sexual energy, ambition, etc. but the shadow can also be positive qualities that threatened our early environment, such as passion for life, deep intelligence, enjoyment of beauty, and even happiness—if our home was depressive, our happiness would threaten the equilibrium.
The Roman Catholic church has acted dissociatively about sexuality. There has been no adequate container for their priest to be able to explore their sexual nature, and so it has gone underground. But it doesn’t go away. Tragically, it becomes monstrous, and destroys the lives of innocent victims. It’s not limited to the Roman Catholics. Fundamentalist Protestants are particularly susceptible to the shadow side of sexual energy. Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart, to mention just two, have fallen on the sword of deep disassociation from their sexual energy, having preached ad nauseum about the temptation of sex. And recently, we hear in an article printed in the The American Prospect, “By Grace Alone: As Sex-Abuse Allegations Multiply, Billy Graham’s Grandson is on a Mission to Persuade Protestant Churches to Come Clean.” The article tells the story of how fundamentalist pastors are confronted with the stories of victims, they often end up in court support the defendant, and not the victim.
The best way to get a glimpse of what constitutes our own shadow is to notice what qualities and characteristics we are judgmental of in others. We may find ourselves chronically interpreting another’s clarity about that they want as selfishness, for example, or as the need to control others. We may see another person’s financial success and deem them to greedy or ambitious. A man’s way of adorning himself beautifully we may label as vain. When we find ourselves receiving information from the outside world, and interpreting it negatively, we are very possibly in the realm of our own shadow.
The other way is intimate relationships. You can’t really hide the shadow from your partner. The shadow will surface, and you had better be ready to deal with it, or it will be the monster that destroys the relationship. It’s a great opportunity, if we learn not to be afraid of it.
This is the wisdom conveyed in The Guest House, by Sufi poet, Rumi,
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
There are some spiritual lineages who think that meditation or some other spiritual practice will somehow enable us to transcend the shadow. Uh, not in my experience. This is known as spiritual by-passing, and its why so many “enlightened” gurus crash and burn around sexuality and power issues. Nothing impedes our spiritual evolution as much as unintegrated shadow. I would say that it may be the most important spiritual practice in the tool-kit. The plain truth is that you (and I) have organized our lives around trying to create the conditions whereby our shadow is never provoked, and this in itself limits the scope, the depth, and the range of our potential.
The steps to shadow-work are:
Face it: As Rumi puts, you are a guest-house for everything that arises.
Talk to it: Piece together the narrative of why you sent it underground, apologize for disowning it, and in the process, show a little self-compassion. There were good reasons for you to disown the feeling, thought, or image.
Be it: When you identify with the disowned energy, you begin the process withdrawing your projections from others, and releasing all the energy that was required to keep it locked up in the basement of your psyche. I recently went to a therapist to do my own shadow-work. I presented my mature, self-responsible self. He was totally disinterested. He wanted to know my shadow, to see it, get to know it. So do I.