How is your Shadow?
August 24, 2015
I’ve always been drawn to ask people about the things we don’t normally talk about – our deepest fears and most farfetched dreams, the obsessions that keep us awake at night, the “confessions” that tumble out in darkness when everyone else has gone to sleep and it’s just two voices whispering fervently beneath the bedcovers. The meeting of the secret, ineffable realm and tangible, sensate reality.
In any instance of shared vulnerability, whether with a stranger on an airplane or with someone I’ve known my whole life, an invisible and unspoken but nonetheless formidable barrier is penetrated, and suddenly I feel as though I’m on holy ground: inside a makeshift sanctuary where all is welcome, where judgment is withheld and absolution comes not through any process of retribution, but simply as a byproduct of revealing what’s been hidden and forbidden for far too long. A moment in time when rules and conditions fall away and shame is replaced by trust, however briefly before the fear creeps back in. In the act of telling the truth, a crack opens up where, as Leonard Cohen puts it, “the light gets in.”
I’ve heard that in Japan, there’s a customary greeting between friends that goes something like, “How is your shadow, your honorable shadow?” This, in essence, is the question I’ve always longed to ask. “Hello, how’s it going, how’s the family… and what is your most private struggle, the thing you least want to expose, the feeling you’re avoiding, the secret about yourself you hold close for fear that no one will like or love you if you let it out?”
The shadow, according to Carl Jung, is “the person you would rather not be.” Jung taught that our enlightenment – or salvation or freedom or simply wholeness – lies in “making the darkness conscious.” This requires shining a light on the shadowy qualities that we’ve deemed unacceptable – all the parts of ourselves that, as Debbie Ford writes in The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, “we have tried to hide or deny.” She goes on to explain that because we fear ourselves and all the thoughts and feelings we’ve repressed, we project our disowned qualities onto the world, so we can then see them in the reflection of the people and situations that trigger us most.
Terry Tempest Williams, author of When Women Were Birds, describes this phenomenon another way: “A shadow is never created in darkness. It is born of light. We can be blind to it and blinded by it. Our shadow asks us to look at what we don’t want to see. If we refuse to face our shadow, it will project itself on someone else so we have no choice but to engage.”
This is the kicker – we can’t escape our own shadow. If we don’t turn and face it, we’ll see it in our family, friends, strangers, and in the seemingly traumatic events of our lives. But the shadow isn’t just the qualities we abhor – it’s also the parts of ourselves that seemed threatening for other reasons, like our creativity, our beauty, our power. Debbie Ford writes, “When we locked away those parts of ourselves we didn’t like, unknowingly, we sealed away our most valuable treasures.” In order to retrieve these treasures, we have to open up the vault to everything that’s been rejected – everything about ourselves we’ve been afraid to own and accept.
I may have liked digging into other people’s emotional underworlds from an early age, but I kept my own shadows locked up and hidden away. The person I’d “rather not be” was hypersensitive and selfish, powerless and enraged, needy, vain, jealous, fearful, ugly, lazy, arrogant, manipulative and judgmental. She had no patience for delayed gratification, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get her way, and shirked responsibility when the going got tough. Rather than embrace my natural empathy and compassion, I had desensitized myself best I could and walked around feeling victimized, depressed and overwhelmed by life and the suffering I saw reflected everywhere I went. I went through periods of self-hatred and self-destruction, betraying myself and others in an unconscious attempt to confirm what I had suspected all along – that if people knew who I really was, no one would love me. That somewhere deep down I was fundamentally bad, wrong and defective – damaged goods, so to speak.
The luckiest day of my life was the day I met my teacher, the founder of the Awareness Institute, and began a journey of self-awareness facilitated and supported by the Institute’s experiential workshops, classes and volunteer program. The work of truly freeing one’s shadow is not for the faint of heart; it takes real courage, vigilant self-awareness, and ideally some conscious support from others who can offer clarity, perspective and encouragement. Debbie Ford writes, “The feelings that we have suppressed are desperate to be integrated into ourselves. They are only harmful when they are repressed: then they can pop up at the least opportune times. Their sneak attacks will handicap you in the areas of your life that mean the most.” I’ve experienced these “sneak attacks” in myriad ways over the years – my unconscious saboteur wreaking havoc in friendships and relationships, disrupting opportunities to grow, pulling the rug out from under me right as I was about to take that crucial next step. For years, I lived in fear of my own shadow, like someone held hostage in her own house.
What I’m coming to understand is that, however unromantic or cliché it might be, the way out truly is the way through. Through the darkness, through the fear, through the tangled and overgrown wilderness of our own beliefs. Rumi told us that “the wound is where the light enters,” and this is how I began to envision my own shadow – as a wounded child desperate for love and acceptance, waiting in a dark room until it was finally safe to come out. She might have caused some damage – broken things, said and did things she regrets – but it was all, ultimately, in service of healing. An insistent cry for love. A call to throw open the basement door and consciously invite the shadows out – and into the makeshift sanctuary I had always loved, the place “beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing” where I could offer myself the unconditional love and acceptance I had occasionally experienced with others. I can finally ask myself, “How is your shadow, your honorable shadow?” and not shrink back in horror, but step forward, arms open, to embrace ALL of me – the treasures hidden in the darkness, the grace contained within the truth.