Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

October 28, 2009

The Shadow: Misunderstood and Maligned Ally

shadow trees

by Metta Sweet Johnson Edge, MSW, LCSW

I’ve been afraid of the dark as long as I can remember.  As a child, even with my nightlight on and my sister sleeping in the room after I pleaded and bargained with her, letting go of the light of day and allowing the night to fall with its shadows was scary.  I know it didn’t help that when as a pre-teen I felt peer-pressured into watching a horror movie before I knew they even existed—how I managed to run home in the middle of the night after that still amazes me (it was only five houses down the street but it seemed like five miles).

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of in-depth personal work to realize that there is light in the dark.  That the dark is, in fact, rich with gold.  That the dark that I face in my own life is always the place to go to find what I need to move into the light.  I get it now, that night is a time of rest and replenishment—and sleep key to health.  That the night’s cloak of darkness can be comforting and cozy instead of threatening and scary.

But I have been a hard sell.

Ten years ago, I attended a conference by Omega Institute (eomega.org), an educational organization “dedicated to awakening the best in the human spirit.” In my enthusiasm for the weekend of seminars, I had pre-registered for an extra day-long workshop at the end of the weekend called Spiritual Partnership by Gary Zukov.  While I was participating that weekend, though, I noticed another workshop option called The Shadow.

Just the workshop name gave me a bit of a shudder: The Shadow.  Who would volunteer, much less pay good money, to spend all day talking about the dark side of human nature and the human experience?  Not me, I instantly insisted.  But in the next moment, I wondered if I should, in fact, attend it because I had been learning that going into “the places that scare you” was important to one’s healing and growth.  And wasn’t that what I was here to do and learn about helping others do as well?  Quickly, images of the workshop filled my mind with detailed accounts of people inflicting pain on one another.  Not to mention the horrors in the world and in our heads and hearts.   Another shudder.  Then relief washed over me as I recalled that I had already pre-registered for another workshop.  Surely it was too late to switch, I justified.

As I shuffled my handouts, brochures, and notebook into my bag and started to head back downstairs from my hotel room for another break-out session, I was stopped suddenly by a very strong statement coming from some part of me: “Metta, if you really want to know about healing and growth, go into the dark.”  I stood still.  Blinked.  Cringed.  But knew in some deeper place in me than my fear resides what I had to do: meet the Shadow—my Shadow.  Ugh.  As if I hadn’t already…well, we obviously hadn’t been formally introduced.

Going into the Dark to Discover the Light

That day was a pivotal point in my personal healing and growth and key to my becoming a therapist.  People most often come into therapy, as I did, in some kind of darkness: of uncertainty, pain, shame, confusion, betrayal, addiction, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, etc.  And they come searching for help out of the darkness.  Ironically, the key to getting out is going in.  But, this time, being in that dark consciously by processing and owning that very darkness.   By mining for the gold hidden there in that cave of darkness.  To then use the intensity and power of it to fuel one’s Light Shadow and truly transform one’s life experience.

By denying, dismissing, diminishing, or disowning one’s own “dark side,” one’s life simply becomes that much darker because those aspects of self won’t and can’t be denied.  They cannot not be.  Energy is energy—it cannot be created or destroyed as the first law of thermodynamics tells us.  Pretending and defending simply will not work.   In fact, it will just cause these denied aspects to come at you as “the way of the world” as Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung asserts.  In your family, your work, your relationships, your health, your world.

Just as your shadow follows your every step on a sunny day, your Shadow is an unconscious aspect of self that has loyally and lovingly walked behind you all of your life.   It was born with you for the purpose of picking up what you discard and drop along the journey of your life until you were ready in your adulthood to “pick up the pieces” of yourself again.  The negative pieces you dropped may have been because of family, friends, and cultural influences, shameful experiences, constricting beliefs, etc.  In addition, you may have dropped positive qualities for fearing that if you succeed too much you may be cut off, be seen as or become arrogant, or feel obligated to achieve.

Clearing Up Some Misunderstandings about The Shadow

My biggest misunderstanding about The Shadow was that it is scary.  That it is only horrific stuff that would lead to nightmares and negative self-talk.  That it is to be feared and avoided at all costs.  But the true cost of avoiding it is much scarier: 1) it puts me at risk of living an unconscious chaotic life where my shadow aspects comes “at me” in uncontrolled and unexpected ways and 2) that I live a life as only fractured adapted parts of who I am instead of an integrated whole.

In his book Working with Your Shadow, the metaphysical teacher Lazaris speaks about how there have been some key misunderstandings about The Shadow that can get in the way of truly owning one’s shadow.  In order to work to clear up these misunderstandings, the following truths are offered for consideration:

1.       The Shadow is Born with You
Your shadow is born when you are to collect and hold what you cannot about yourself.  It protects these aspects of you—your shame, greed, hostility, motivation, talent, creativity, until you can deal with it as an adult.  Then, it starts returning the negative, the “litter”, that you discarded so that you can clean it, glean its gifts, and dispose of it properly.  And the Shadow returns the treasures that you let go of so that you can now own and celebrate them.  Far from wanting to hurt you, like the monster that some fear it to be, your Shadow is there to help you to become integrated, whole, real and give you the possibility to become who you were meant to be.  To live the life you were born to live.

2.       Owning is Not Imprisonment
Instead of pushing them away, owning your shadow involves bringing the shadow aspects of you, dark and light, so close to you that you can feel the intensity of the emotion.  That firey burning of hostility, for example, so that you can then free its intensity in a direction of your conscious choice and in order to the energy for healing and growth (instead of pain and violence).  It’s about harnessing and then freeing with direction, not containing.

3.       Making Peace with Your Shadow Brings it Closer
While this is unappealing to many: “you mean my hostility/anger/selfishness etc. will be closer to the surface?”  Yes!  But the good is that by being there you can manage it.  Think about it: if it’s buried deep, it’s also out of your reach and unsupervised will ultimately pop up when you least expect it (often when you are are on the brink of some success).  So, yes, though counter-intuitive, you do want to bring your shadow aspects into full view so you can monitor, manage, and direct their energy in constructive ways.
Once you clear up your misunderstandings about The Shadow, you can begin the true work of owning Your Shadow.  And it’s worth your while because “your Shadow holds your ability to be free of the past, to be, with dignity, self-determined.  It contains your full capacity not just to be loved, but to love.”

Moths in Shadows instead of Butterflies in Sunshine

One final childhood story that comes to mind: I had collected caterpillars who lived in my room in a basket on my bookshelf.  One day, I noticed they were no longer there, but that fluffy gray cocoons had taken their place.  I learned that they were transforming into butterflies and I excitedly awaited the day they would be flying about my room beautiful in the sunlight coming through the windows.  One night, though, I was lying on my bed leaning back over the bed upside down as kids do sometimes, letting my head hang and my hair reach toward the floor.  As the blood rushed to my head, I noticed on the wall in front of me a huge gray moth just inches from my face.  I screamed and scrambled back up.  I then realized with an exasperated shudder that instead of butterflies in rays of sunshine, I got moths in shadows of night.

This was not only unexpected but disappointing and frightening.  Moths have been misunderstood and maligned in my mind since that day.  But they were a part of my story of darkness being full of the unexpected, ugly, and scary—a story that led me to a strong reaction against changing it.  That led me to realize that that’s just what I wanted and needed to do.  And I am grateful.

And I’ve tried to express that by being more open to the beauty and mystery of moths.  A few years ago, I became interested in the Luna Moth.  In early August this year as I was writing this article, I witnessed a Luna Moth doing a circular dying dance in pine straw in the moonlight outside my home.  I gently slid some straw out of the way, clearing her a path to ease her process if possible.  I was honored and saddened and struck that my disgust and fear of moths had transformed.  Turns out, too, that the Luna Moth is a symbol for spiritual transformation.

Turns out, too, that far from fearing and fleeing from this Shadow work, I’m drawn to and fly toward it.  And, as a result, have birthed powerful, creative change.  After all, as Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, “creativity—like human life itself—begins in darkness.”

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