I’m going to work real hard to not be a cranky, judgmental curmudgeon, but there are a few things that drive me straight up the wall. One is hearing people pontificating about “shadow work” on social media when it is perfectly clear that they have no idea of what they’re talking about, have never cracked a book, have no real world experience, and dispense fraudulent advice about how to heal or train your shadow.
OK, thank you for letting me get that off my chest.
Like every good philosopher does, we must begin with a definition. The guy who brought that term into the psychological lexicon was Carl Jung. Jung understood the shadow as the unconscious personality – the ground of intuition, the province of dreams, the repository of life’s memories and experiences. In dreams the shadow appears as the “anima” or the “animus” depending on the gender of the conscious ego. The shadow is the gender opposite of the conscious identity. I believe I’m being faithful to Jung here, and I basically subscribe to his idea. In our world, we may have concerns about the acutely binary character of the Jungian model, and that is a legitimate critique, but we must remember that Jung was doing his most important work around the outbreak of World War I.
Some problems I’m hearing:
Problem #1: Too many people are defining “shadow” as the “dark side” of the personality that needs to be fixed. It’s not that. It’s actually the best and smartest part of your personality.
Problem #2: “The shadow is a problem that needs to be managed.” This is not true. The shadow is to be listened to, not fought. For an artist, it’s your best friend.
Problem #3: “The shadow is something that can be ‘reverse engineered’ and manipulated.” Trust me – you’re not really that smart.
Problem #4: “The shadow is something that can be manipulated with trite meditations and affirmations.” It cannot be.
Problem #5: “The conscious ego personality knows what the shadow should be doing.” It does not.
To me, these ideas are a simple confession of a complete failure to understand the shadow. At the very least, people who have never read the literature, have no clinical experience and advocate risky and untested methods for playing with the shadow should cease trying to give advice about it because it’s dangerous misinformation. People will be hurt and driven into madness by this. Yes, it’s that serious. I have spent a lifetime studying Carl Jung, among others, and I can’t say that I completely have a handle on what Jung was saying, and people say I’m a fairly smart boy. I actually have a copy of and have read The Red Book.
One of my favorite images of the shadow, though flawed, is Jacob wrestling the angel by the ford of Jabbok. It’s the long struggle with the mysterious Other that leaves you wounded but blessed, with a new understanding of yourself. It’s a battle that lasts a lifetime. There aren’t some little spells somewhere in a book or a YouTube video that solves the problem, and thank God there aren’t.
I guess my message is to not get glib about the shadow. Approach it with reverence. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
The natural way to connect with the shadow is dream work, reading tarot cards, playing guitar, writing bad poetry, drawing pictures and wandering around town with no particular place to go.
A practical advisory for those who are serious and thoughtful, who want to connect with shadow: Don’t try to do this alone. If you want to swim these waters, find a real, live human being – it can be a light worker, shaman, therapist or pastor who you really trust, and share your journey with them. You want an empath, someone who can sense where you are and care about it.
Another option: LEAVE IT THE HELL ALONE. IT KNOWS WHAT IT’S DOING.