What is ‘shadow’?
The shadow is the unconscious, hidden, or rejected aspects of the personality by the individual, and these shadows can be personal or reflective of society. Shadows are typically examined, integrated, and released (if needed) through dream analysis, Jungian "active imagination", counseling work, meditation, spiritual and contemplative inquiry, body work, and/or shamanic practice. Examples of shadows might be depression, shame, anger/rage, disordered eating, addiction, anxiety, illness, the taboo, and wounds both societal/cultural and personal.
Shadow can be expanded to include place as metaphor, described as no-man’s land, the dark side of the moon, a space of becoming, held breath, or the Wasteland. Some religious and mystical traditions utilize shadow as place for death practices or philosophy, such as the Christian purgatory and the Buddhist bardo, places where spiritual progression is paused and the soul is at a threshold or in liminality.
What is ‘shadow work’?
Shadow work is uncovering the suppressed, wounded elements of the self with the intention of self-discovery and healing. Rather than rejecting or hiding components of yourself, shadow work allows, acknowledging that there is wisdom in those dark spots. They are clues about what you need (in bodymindspirit) vs. how you have been socialized for example. In that way, shadow work is a form of re-wilding - learning your inner voice and your needs, and reclaiming them.
“Our bodies can initiate us into the darkness when we lose control for a moment through illness, stress, or exhaustion…..But rather than follow this path into the darkness we put our focus on trying to do ‘normal’, patching up the cracks, medicating ourselves, rather than supporting the break-through process which is occurring….. the dark mind when seen through the lens of Feminine darkness offers a different perspective: the underworld as a place between the worlds, where healing and transformation can happen. Disintegration is necessary step to greater integration.” (L.H. Pearce, Burning Woman)
An additional perspective from John O’Donohue:
"When the unconscious becomes illuminated, its darker forces no longer hold us prisoner. This work of freedom is slow and unpredictable; yet it is precisely at this threshold that each individual is custodian and subject of their own transfiguration" (J. O’Donohue, Anam Ċara)
As a practice of re-wilding, shadow work is also a practice of non-duality (a common theme in shamanic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions), essentially integration of the split components of self or the recognition that nothing is separate. In this regard, shadow work is a form of atonement (at-one-ment) and reconciliation of self. In the quote below, one enters the shadow (place) to gain a new understanding that can be utilized for healing, here at the individual as well as community (interdependent) level:
“we go into the darkness, we seek initiation, in order to know directly how the roots of all beings are tied together: how we are related to all things, how this relationship expresses itself in terms of interdependence, and finally how all phenomena abide within one another. Deep in the ground of being, they tangle and embrace. This understanding is expressed in the term non-duality”. Non-duality leads to awareness and “Awareness shows us who we really are, of what we are composed, and what we are actually doing at this very moment” (J. Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness)
Shadow work at the individual-level, therefore, is a form of self-exploration and inquiry. It is the ceasing of resistance; getting curious, leaning in, asking those elements what they need, why they are there; sensing their quality and triggers; and accepting that they gifts for your development and that they are your teachers. It is courtship and befriending of your inner being. It is work with the practice of authenticity, courageous belonging, self-compassion, and using a “loving eye” (self-love) – belonging and being with your whole (healing & holy) self.
“The loving eye can even coax pain, hurt, and violence toward transfiguration and renewal. The loving eye is bright because it is autonomous and free. It can look lovingly upon anything…..It rises above the pathetic arithmetic of blame and judgement and engages experience at the level of its origin, structure, and destiny. The loving eye sees through and beyond image and effects the deepest change” (J O’Donohue, Anam Ċara)
Shadow work forces the individual to live in the 'now' - it confronts fear and resistance around change, dying, and death (as an ongoing process of dismemberment and shedding of self as well as the terminal event). Emotions are temporary, the present is slippery and always allocating to the past, life is temporary. Change is the only constant, and the Buddhists play with this idea utilizing charnel ground meditation, which leaves the seeker asking and reflecting:
"Why not live fully now? Why not live to end the suffering of others? What else would I want to do with my life?" (-J Halifax, Standing at the Edge). She continues, "The charnel ground is a metaphor for any environment where suffering is present....Really, any place that is tainted fear, depression, anger, despair, disrespect, or deceit is a charnel ground - including our own mind.....when we take a wider and deeper view, we see that a charnel ground is not only a place of desolation but also a place of boundless possibility." The possibility of the now and the shadow.
As the individual works with shadow, and in doing so, dismantles harmful narratives, shadow work is also community care. In walking the edges of your interiority to learn boundaries, expand them, remap them, and build a container for these heavier states of being, you are cultivating acceptance and compassion not only for yourself but for others. There are so many ways to live and love and be, and shadow work cultivates comfort with that potentiality and possibility. By living authentically and expanding the conceptualization of “normal”, you allow space for others to do the same.
“Authenticity is a form of service” (Danielle LaPorte)
Shadow work does additional community-level spiritual work by acknowledging that healing is not all LOVE and LIGHT, stuffing down, or “rising above”. The idea that to be spiritual, one should shut down the negative and focus on the positive is called ‘spiritual bypassing’. The spiritual is also found in the underworld - there is germination on the charnel grounds. As individuals, families, and communities, we can use the negative and wounded and dying for growth. Avoiding this work can be toxic for individuals as well as community, even across generations (as evidenced by concepts like racisim, sexism, maintained and reinforced taboo around sexuality).
“Learning to be in the dark requires that we hold space for ourselves. And find others who can hold space for us as we journey” (L.H. Pearce, Burning Woman).
Shadow work is ultimately a healing modality of integration, a form of positive disintegration, resilience - crafting, and post-traumatic growth for individuals, families and past and future generations, as well as communities.
Shadow Archetypes and Mythology – Brief Review
There are several archetypes that are representative of our shadow selves including the Death Mother (see Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home by Toko-pa Turner), Burning Woman and Burning Man (explored in Burning Woman by Lucy H. Pearce), the returning Hero (see works by Joseph Campbell), and the Wounded Healer. The Wounded Healer is particularly applicable to shadow work in that this person had some illness or mental health difficulty, and by way of healing and addressing those “shadows” and transformation, they now have a new awareness or “medicine” from that experience that they can use to help others.
Different gods, goddesses, and mythological or divine figures are also relevant to and/or synonymous with shadow work in a variety of ways, such as Kali, Hecate, Anubis, Osiris/Isis, Inanana, Buddha, Jesus, Sekmet, Selket, Ixchel, Chiron, Baba Yaga, bodhisattvas (Guan Yin in particular), and the calliach. Their stories might be worth exploring depending on the reader’s interests or needs.
The healing power behind archetype and myth is recognition of themes and (if we are lucky) solutions. “The stories that hold a real power to transform are the stories that reveal the world to us in all its complexity.” (Sharon Blackie)
Shadow and Social Justice: Race, Gender, Privilege
There is a recognized connection to shadow and racial prejudice/injustice (i.e. black is bad), and as such, some authors refer to shadow work as occult, though this is different than magick, black magick, voodoo, etc. Rather, occult here refers to working with the hidden. (see Jailbreaking the Goddess by L.A. Firefox). I chose to stick with the more familiar term of shadow; however, I urge the reader to consider what implicit bias this terminology may bring forth. There is a research group out of Harvard University (Project Implicit) that examines social cognition and implicit bias, such as word association with racial groups. For more information or to explore your own implicit bias, please see: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.
In Burning Woman (L.H. Pearce), the author recognizes that the darkness/shadow was historically related to godlessness and to be avoided, and, possibly, contributed to the dominion of marginalized individuals:
“In the Abrahamic religions darkness is equated with the absence of God…….And so began the battle between good and evil, dark and light, masculine and feminine……Our fear of the dark has been deeply ingrained. Dark– both literal and metaphorical – is bad, we are told. Stay away from it or suffer the consequences…..The light tends to be associated with logos – rationalism, logic, and order, and contrasted with the disorder and demonic qualities of the dark”. This polarization of opposites, dark vs light, masculine vs feminine, to Pearce, led to the domination of the wild, women, people of color and the medicalization or confinement of the emerged darkness (“madness or rebellion”) “We fear the descent of madness or depression, because in the masculine view of the dark they lead us away from the light, through complete disintegration (lack of control) and towards the ultimate darkness: death and hell.”
My recent reading has been focused on women’s healing and, as such, much of the derived quotes and recommended resources regarding shadow work are specific to women. Women do seem more comfortable discussing mental health and spiritual exploration than men. Whether this is from a je ne sais quoi or a potentiality of deeper inquiry, I don’t know, though I find that doubtful. Men are just as hungry for deeper personal work. However, there is a stigma against vulnerability, spirituality, and mental health in our men. If you identify as male, or for that matter as non-binary, please accept my apologies that the above is female focused. By no means is shadow work only a woman’s tool.
Shadow work, like all spiritual work, is a privilege. Individuals who are preoccupied with meeting basic survival needs will likely lack the time and desire to even consider these personal and cultural issues (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), though this assumption is potentially classist. Regardless, as suggested above, collective change requires personal change – if you have the ability to do substantive self-work, please do – we will all benefit from kinder, more aware individuals.
To work with my own shadow elements, I utilize meditation, mindfulness, and shamanic journeying techniques to get to know my inner world and nurture acceptance of myself and compassion for others (more information here). A specific mindfulness tool that has been helpful when cultivating relationship with my more intense emotions is The Pause, a fairly well-known technique. Rather than lashing out or being reactive when triggered, I pause and breathe, even if I can only do that for a moment. The pause, both in being and breath, allows the shadow emotions a presence but does not place them in the driver’s seat. I am not perfect and will often forget The Pause, but, true to form, life offers constant practice.
My experience with shadow also revolves around the Wild Woman archetype – the instinctual, re-wilding woman that manifests differently for all who work with her. Our instinctual/wild selves tend to be shadow (because of self, familial, or community norms). The wild self will claim your shadow and bring you home. The Wild Woman is initiating me on the path of the midwife - the birthing of my own being and reclamation.
“Shadowing means to have such a light touch, such a light tread, that once can move freely through the forest, observing without being observed……The Wild Woman has been shadowing human women for years. Now we see a glimpse of her. Now she is invisible again. Yet she makes so many appearances in our lives, and in so many different forms, we feel surrounded by her images and urges. She comes to us in dreams or in stories – especially stories from our own personal lives – for she wants to see who we are, and if we are ready to join her yet. If we but look at the shadows we cast, we see that they are no two-legged human shadows but the lovely shape of something free and wild. We are meant to be permanent residents, not just tourists in her territory, for we are derived from that land: it is our motherland and our inheritance at the same time. The wild force of our soul-psyches is shadowing us for a reason. There is a saying from medieval times that if you are in a descent, and pursued by a great power – and if this great power is able to snag your shadow, then you too shall become a power in your own right…….Once the Wild Woman snags our shadows, we belong to ourselves again, we are in our own right environ and in our rightful home” (Estés, CP. Women Who Run with the Wolves)
Questions for further exploration:
- What is your relationship to your shadow elements?
- How did your family of origin play into this relationship? (that is, how did they treat the shadow elements? And is your current relationship similar or different?
- Is there a time in your life when you navigated tragedy or challenge and, because of resilience, experienced positive growth? If so, what happened?
- What are your favorite personal inquiry/shadow work tools? What hasn’t worked for you?
- How has your personal shadow work rippled out to family or community?
- How is shadow work related to ancestral and generational healing?
References and Resources
- Blackie, S. If Women Rose Rooted.
- Campbell, J. The Power of Myth.
- Chödrön, P. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
- Chödrön, P. Embracing the Unknown: Life Lessons from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
- Estés, CP. Seeing in the Dark.
- Estés, CP. Women Who Run with the Wolves.
- Firefox, LA. Jailbreaking the Goddess.
- Halifax, J. Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom where Fear and Courage Meet.
- Halifax, J. The Fruitful Darkness.
- hooks, b. The Will To Change.
- Lister, L. Wake the Witches.
- O’Donohue, J. Anam Ċara.
- Pearce, LH. Burning Woman.
- Pearce, LH. Medicine Woman.
- Turner, TP. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home.
- Chameli Ardagh, creator of Awakening Women (https://awakeningwomen.com/) does a great job exploring feminine rage, a shadow element, in her TEDx talk Fierce Face of the Feminine (https://youtu.be/6cRws7dKJPg).
- Tracee Ross explains the wisdom of women's fury (shadow and cultural wounding) in her TED talk and the impact it holds over generations of women (https://www.ted.com/talks/tracee_ellis_ross_a_woman_s_fury_holds_lifetimes_of_wisdom).
- Daniel Beatty, explores a black, masculine version of shadow side in his poem, “Duality Duo” (NSFW - language https://youtu.be/1INMYz0AMSI). Beatty’s poem concludes that we need to be our WHOLE selves, not shunning or hiding components, so all of us can heal.
- Disney’s Moana’s ‘Know Who You Are’ scene (spoilers https://youtu.be/sHToFOt6OKc; if you haven’t seen the movie, please do – so many gems of goodness). Here, Moana calls forth Te Kā, depicted as a fiery demon of sorts, facing this being down rather than running or resisting; Moana recognizes that this being needs something (a heart, love, compassion)
- For more information on the power of story-telling (as an individual and as a culture):
- My blog piece on the hero’s journey: https://ignitewell-being.com/re-wilding-the-hero-ines-journey/
- Coming soon, a related blog piece on ancestral wounds
*Disclaimers: This post is not meant to replace health care – if you have mental health needs, please seek the counsel of a trusted healthcare professional.
*I am not a mental healthcare practitioner and do not diagnose or treat mental health issues, but mental health issues come up for many of my clients because the body does not fit the reductionistic, mechanical model of just physical entity. We are bodymindspirit - all planes of being interact to make you, You. The modalities I use can often aid mental and spiritual well-being - women’s and children’s circles, yoga, reiki, and shamanic practice.*
*As always, I acknowledge that my writing is imperfect – there’s always more to learn, edit, engage. My posts are meant as a starting point, not an end point. Significant edits were made since the first posting of this material*
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT 500, reiki master
For questions or collaboration, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
All writing is protected by copyright. Photo is from Pexels.