What is the Shadow Self and why should I care?
Carl Jung thought the Shadow Self to be the unknown, dark side of the personality. It is the darker, more difficult places in us.
If you are less familiar with the Shadow Self and more specifically YOUR Shadow, then your first thought may be, “Why should I care?” In fact, “Why would I want to bring more of my attention to the darker parts of me? Shouldn’t I be trying to get rid of what I don’t like about myself?”
The shadow self traditionally refers to often hidden parts of us—whether beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and desires. It is the subtle ways we say “no” to life, pleasure and true freedom. It is often hard to even know it exists and even more difficult to accept and work with.
There is a reason the shadow is often ignored or denied. For most of us, these qualities don’t fit in very well with our concepts of ourselves.
We mostly like to emphasize what we like and identify with, who we believe ourselves to be. If we had it our way, we would just get rid of what we don’t like about ourselves. This is exactly what many of us try and do. We push away, rationalize, and minimize what we don’t like. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.
Once there, they often unconsciously work against the very things we want in our lives. The harder we push away what we don’t like about ourselves the more alienated and separate we tend to feel.
We all come into the world open and free of judgment, but whether from parents, relatives, teachers, or society; the imperfect world has an impact on us. In our efforts to be okay and create a solid sense of self, we can’t help but form misconceptions about life that are often sent underground and into our unconscious. Carl Jung believed the shadow holds repressed thoughts and feelings, and he believed everyone has a shadow self.
What is this about, really?
The words Shadow Self, can sound dramatic, dark, and mysterious. However, on a practical level, it doesn’t need to seem so dramatic. We’re talking about the fears you might have of success because of being told you weren’t good enough, that keep you from pursuing a dream you have. We are talking about practical things like when I didn’t call my father on Father’s Day because I had unrecognized and unexpressed resentments that I needed to share with him. We’re also talking about what’s underneath the anxiety that so many of us feel every day, sometimes for no apparent reason. And yes, we are also talking about what happens when a child is abused, any form of trauma is experienced, or a country is under constant threat of attack.
This is different than when hard things happen in our adult lives. Difficult things happen as part of being human. As adults, if we are able, we are affected by them, grieve, feel pain or frustration, process and continue on the best we can. The Shadows in us are formed when we can’t process or allow the full extent of the experience because we are either too young, or when older, the experience is too traumatic.
Bring a little Buddhism into all this
Some of you may be familiar with stories of the Buddha. Many stories of the Buddha also include a companion of his, Mara. If you aren’t familiar with Mara, you could say he is the antagonist of the Buddha. Mara is the tempter who tries to distract Buddha with fear, greed, pride, etc. You could say Mara is Buddha’s Shadow. There are many wonderful teachings about this.
Thich Nhat Hanh, of blessed memory, told the story of how Mara visited Buddha in his cave. The story gets interesting right away because this event took place after Buddha had achieved enlightenment. Even after Buddha has achieved enlightenment he is still visited by his fear, pride, self-will, etc. Even enlightenment didn’t make Buddha’s Shadow magically go away. When Buddha hears that Mara has come for a visit he immediately says, “How wonderful, welcome him in!” He then does a hugging meditation with Mara, invites him to sit for tea and wants to hear how he has been. There is a whole discourse. In this story the Buddha comes closer to his suffering, his shadow self, inviting him in.
This is Shadow Work.
Our shadow, by nature is going to be difficult for us to see.
Of course it is! We are who we are in the world, the good and the difficult, partly because we needed to be. By nature, there are going to be aspects of our consciousness, our life force, that are constricted, bound, protective parts of us. Some are going to be obvious, but still hard to come into relationship with. Other aspects of our shadow will be expertly elusive.
One of the trickiest aspects of our shadow is making us believe it doesn’t exist.
Sometimes we even use so called positive attributes in service of our shadow.
Even things like generosity, kindness and so-called wisdom can sometimes be used to protect us from a deeper, real intimacy and freedom in life, that on some level feels unsafe to us. These can be subtle.
There are others that are not so subtle, yet are often ignored. Think for a minute about some of the more powerful people in the world right now, both domestically and internationally. Think about their actions, their impact on others and how it ripples through the world. Now think for a minute about what must be inside of them, driving those actions. We don’t need to know the intricacies of their psyches to see the danger in the world because of the disowned Shadow inside, and others’ willingness to ignore it.
Finding Your Own Shadow Self
A way to start to explore this for yourself is to simply look at your own thoughts and feelings and life circumstances as honestly as you can.
Where do you have that feeling that something just isn’t quite right? Where do you feel stuck?
When do things get on your nerves or otherwise bother you more than circumstances warrant?
Where do you feel like you have the same experience you’ve always had, but feel like something could be different?
Where are you somehow “more” than you need to be? Stronger, weaker, louder, quieter, too giving, too selfish, loosing yourself to your partner or too separate?
These are all examples of where there is more you could learn about yourself. More that could lead you to deeper freedom, intimacy and aliveness in your life, not more that is “wrong” with you!
In the work, Creating from Wholeness, this is exactly how we enter this work. These are indicators that there is opportunity to know yourself more deeply and find a new level of creativity and freedom. In the work from Jason Shulman, The Nondual Process for Conflict Resolution, we include as much of these places in ourselves as we can as we work to unlock to a deeper freedom born from conflict.
The Ego’s Role in the Shadow
There are some schools of thought that tell you that it is your ego that is the source of your shadow, your suffering, and needs to be done away with. It is true that the Ego, because it believes itself to be a separate only self, trying to protect itself from annihilation, creates the shadow. It is also true that we don’t have to do away with the ego. In fact, the ego turns out to be one of the best vehicles for healing, awakening, and knowing the Divine or Sacred that we have. Jason Shulman’s work on the Healing Ego is groundbreaking.
A healthy, healing, awakening ego knows its limits. Instead of thinking it has the answers to everything, it can learn to sit in the unknown. Instead of needing to always be right, it can ask for help.
With your healing ego, you can reach inside to the more awakened places and ask for help. It can say, “Help me to see what is in me that I cannot see. Help me to open my heart to myself and know that it is safe to see what I wish were not there. Help me to see my protected places, my fearful places, my self-will, my pride.” The healing ego can then also remind itself, “I may have these darker places in me, as part of me, as threads within me, but they are not all of who I am. Help me to remember this.”
The ego is a holy creation, just like everything else.
The process of Self-Healing can be a gentle, powerful way to help us open to more of who we are.
Respect the Work!
This can be very difficult work. It requires tenderness and great humility and needs real safety. Sometimes seeing our darkness, our suffering, our unenlightened, petty, protective, judgmental, or fearful selves will be too much.
Our sense of who we are can feel threatened when we do this work. That is because it is. Who we have identified ourselves to be up until this point starts to change on the path to a more alive and open self.
This is tender territory. In fact, we can’t do it alone. We need the world to reflect back to us, we need companions and helpers and healers and teachers. We need community, a tribe, a safe one, to really do this work.
What Buddha and Mara teach us
I want to bring us back to what Buddha did when he greeted Mara in that story. Remember, he did a hugging meditation. A hugging meditation. If we take this seriously, which I think we really should, think about what is being said. He isn’t just trying to learn about Mara and know Mara’s story, though he is doing all of that too. But a hugging meditation…this is something a step further.
What happens when you embrace someone who is suffering, or when you are embraced when you are suffering? Your body might soften and open, your mind might ease, your emotions might flow, you breathe more deeply. In that moment you don’t need them to change, and they don’t need you to change to be okay. You’re simply being there with them with as much of your tenderness and being-ness as possible, and that’s enough. In fact, it’s everything. Nothing else is needed.
I invite you to consider this stance with your own suffering, your own difficulty. It is a practice of true non-violence, of real acceptance.
Of allowing something to exist just as it is.
When we can to do this for ourselves or for someone else, it is a doorway into something else, something new. This is new and precious territory. You may not even recognize it when it happens. It is a level of consciousness and relationship where everything is allowed to exist as it is, and we are able to see the preciousness in it all.
Our Shadow Self is the Doorway into more Aliveness, Pleasure and Freedom
There is an aliveness, a pleasure and a freedom that is born of this place. A deeper experiencing of life. We emerge as the Whole Being we have always been, not because we have changed anything or removed anything, but because everything has its place, is met and is allowed to exist, as part of the Wholeness that we are. It is where life itself is freed from its bonds and flows more freely. The constricted or bound aspects of ourselves, our consciousness, unwind and flow. It is the blooming lotus, born out of mud.
There is no awakening without your shadow
This is a part of us all. We all have it. Everyone who has ever lived. That fact of solidarity alone should create some level of softening to these places in us.
Whatever it is you have in you, it is uniquely yours and simultaneously it exists all over the planet.
Knowing our Shadow, inviting our Shadow to sit and have tea, makes us safer human beings.
By knowing the difficult places inside of us, locating our neuroses, they are not as likely to be acted out unconsciously. Simultaneously a new place of freedom and the ability to choose more freely is born. Deeper intimacy with life is possible. Our humanness is realized.
The darkness we have in the world is only possible because of the difficulty inside each one of us, individually and personally. When people are not aware of the difficulties inside of them, they will inevitably pass them along to others, and so on and so on. There are many examples that are not so subtle. Our darkness can and will hurt others.
It is why I come down on the side that the only way to change the world is for each of us to heal ourselves.
I leave you with this blessing:
May you be openhearted to all that you are, and know kindness and acceptance for yourself, including where you can’t.
May the Abiding Presence of all that is guide you and hold you as you Awaken deeper into your Truest Selves.
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