in the earliest forms of Western culture, there were rituals that actively encouraged shadow work. Mesopotamian cultures, Egyptian cultures, early Greek culture. In each of these cultures there were the gods of “light and order” as well as the gods of “chaos and darkness.” There was constant tension between these forces. There was a deep, physical, psychic, spiritual acceptance of the importance of both. The hero would often struggle against the gods of chaos and darkness to overcome, leave behind vulnerability and weakness.
In modern Western culture, especially in the United States, the hero’s journey has been elevated to a place of maximum importance. It manifested with European men taking land from Native Americans. Extracting resources from the earth. Enslaving other-skinned peoples (Blacks from Africa, Browns from the Central Americas, Yellows from Asia) to do the hard work of extraction from the Earth. Taking, taking, taking. This taking required strength, will, rational cunning and other attributes that that have been traditionally cast as positive in the dominant American culture. To show any weakness, vulnerability, invited others to take what had previously been taken. Myths developed around the attributes of these takers. The predominant religion was used to bestow “spiritual” blessings upon these takers. This myth was then transferred over onto the secular stars of the 20th century and onward – movie stars, political stars, financial stars, athletic stars, even spiritual/religious stars. Each of the stars are exemplars of the “hero” qualities. The advertising around the stars has touted the positive qualities, hiding the shadow side.
Recently, as people have begun to see the cracks in the façade of the “hero’s journey,” greater emphasis has been placed upon the exploration of the shadow side.
An ancient Daoist cautionary story: An ox is caught in a pen and wants to escape (pens back then were often composed of lattices of wood for walls or doors or windows; with small openings). The horns get out. The large head gets out. The massive chest gets out. But the tail gets STUCK. HUH?!
So what is shadow work? There cannot be light without dark. There cannot be high without low. There cannot be hard without soft. There cannot be wisdom without ignorance. There cannot be greed without generosity. There cannot be love without anger. It’s really up to you to decide if this is true. And it seems that every one of us knows that we carry within us, at least the seeds, if not the actual fruits, of anger, ignorance, greed, jealousy, pride and shame. Shame often appears when we outwardly deny the presence of anger/ignorance/greed/jealousy/pride, when we know full well that it is active within us. Shame is nearly unbearable. Denying our measure of anger/ignorance/greed/jealousy/pride, we project it outwards onto others. Because we know it so well in ourselves, it is easy to spot it in the hearts of others. And then we rail against the shortcomings of those around us. In person. On social media. In our politics. In our intimate relationships. In our business and community relationships. And on…
Shadow work is about looking at the “dark” side of ourselves. This includes looking at anger/ignorance/greed/jealousy/pride. It includes looking into our shame. It requires that we feel the fear that always arises when we look at the darker sides of ourselves.
Shadow work is not easy. It requires courage. Shadow work cannot be done in a vacuum. Our lives are all about relationship, we don’t exist without relationship. In a culture that has little experience with working with shadow, this can at first seem dangerous. The usual pattern is that someone becomes aware of a vulnerability within themselves, and chooses to open their heart to others, exposing this part of their shadow side. Very often, people begin this exposition very unskillfully, and it often comes out sideways. Most people are not prepared for this, and they react poorly to this heart opening. They project their shadow side onto the first individual, judging them, rejecting them. Therefore, the first individual’s natural reaction is to close back down.
As example: My partner and I are feeling cracks in our relationship. (We are feeling vulnerable and might not know it). My partner has just asked me if I’ve completed the registration for our DreamWork couples retreat workshop. I’ve been putting it off (because I’m scared about what I’m going to find. I’m feeling weak and vulnerable.) I don’t recognize these feelings and don’t really know why I’m procrastinating. I hear the question as a criticism (maybe it is, and even if it isn’t its bound to stir up more fear in me) and I say (angrily, shamefully) “You’re making me feel like I’m a kid who doesn’t know how to do anything. Just because I don’t do it the way you would doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to me!” And my partner responds “When you’re angry I feel attacked and just can’t talk with you.” The pattern has become “When you do this, I am fill in the blank.” This is very different from being able to say simply “I am feeling weak and vulnerable and scared. There are things going on in our relationship that resonate within these feelings, but you aren’t causing my feelings.”
In order to do successful shadow work, we must have the courage to create loving, supportive, trusting communities that are devoted to the difficult task of opening, and then perhaps closing a bit, and then opening again. Over and over and over and over again. We can be sure that this does not happen overnight. Especially deep, systemic changes do not happen overnight. This requires commitment as well as courage. Commitment to our self, ourselves and to our community.