Shining Light on the Shadow

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." -C.G. Jung

 

The following claim should surprise no one: we are living in massively polarized times. Here in America, this is commonly seen in the ongoing battles between the left and right, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, alt-right and antifa, the MAGA crowd and the never-Trumpers, just to name a few. What is often overlooked is that the division we can so readily identify “out there” is simply mirroring a division we are less likely to see within ourselves. The world is conflicted because we are conflicted, each and every one of us, in different ways, and we are being asked right now, in some ways with quite a bit of force, to reckon with ourselves to resolve our inner-polarization. Ultimately for this to happen, we must unite our left and right brains, our rational and intuitive selves, our masculine and feminine sides, our hearts and minds - there are many ways we could frame it - but this is the work of our time, creating unity within the self. Personally, I think a quantum leap in human evolution awaits us if and when we can finally take responsibility for ourselves, for all parts of ourselves, and integrate our individual and collective unconsciousness, also known as the shadow. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about “the shadow” lately, about my shadow, about America’s shadow, and how this seems to be a crucial element of the human psyche to understand right now, as we move through this collective “dark night of the soul”.

What is the shadow?

In Jungian psychology, the shadow archetype represents the unconscious mind, or the dark side of the personality, which tends to be filled with our negative traits.  Because we are inclined to reject, ignore, or deny that which we perceive in ourselves as undesirable or unloveable, we push these things down, or away - but they do not disappear (if only!)- they simply become a part of our unconscious self, our shadow. This is precisely how we’ve ending up making such a mess of the world.  We tend to think that we are only the contents of our conscious minds, and we are unaware of or simply ignore many aspects of ourselves that lie below the surface, so to speak, in our unconscious minds. We erroneously think if certain qualities are not a part of our conscious awareness, then they are not a part of us at all, and therefore have no power to affect us. And yet these things do affect us, more than we realize, and our ignorance of them and refusal to deal with them is why we don’t live in a utopian paradise, but instead are cultivating more of a hell-on-earth scenario.

What's in our shadow - our deepest fears, suppressed desires, unexpressed emotions, past mistakes, unresolved pain, and unconscious traits are all coming to the surface now, no longer hidden but out on stage in the spotlight, right in our faces, demanding attention, and in some cases running amok. This is an uncomfortable, messy, precarious, and often painful process, but it is ultimately a good thing, as the shadow is seeking to be integrated and healed. In doing so, it is teaching us many valuable lessons along the way, lessons we have not wanted to learn. Until we take responsibility for our unhealed parts, we will continue to unconsciously recreate them in the external world in different ways. We will find ourselves wrestling with the same themes and the same issues over and over again, with each iteration intensifying, as long as we remain unaware that we are not the victim but the creator.

For most people, the shadow is decidedly negative, but It is important to note here that the shadow can also contain positive traits, found in such people as those whose conscious awareness is overrun with depression, anxiety, false belief systems, self-destructive tendencies, anger, hate, fear, etc. In those cases, the shadow would contain the positive aspects of the self which are currently unknown or unconscious to them. It’s essentially whatever you don’t know you don’t know about yourself, and are typically unwilling or unable to look at and take responsibility for. 

What’s in your shadow?

It can take some work to uncover your own shadow, as we typically have a lifetime of avoiding them, both individually and collectively, and have created many blind spots in ourselves so that we are not even aware of what we are avoiding, but once you do know what to look for, you can start to ask the right questions to uncover it.  For most of us, the things we hide in our shadows are things we judge, condemn, mock, become obsessed with, blame on others, get disproportionately angry about, refuse to talk about, accuse other people of, or just downright hate. In most cases, the shadow shows up as a projection, as something we see out there. This is a very clever tactic used by the ego to distance itself from its own shadow by making itself psychologically separate from it. We project our fears, unexamined traits, undesirable emotions, and really anything we don’t want to take responsibility for onto someone or something else, and then we react to that, usually by employing one of the aforementioned strategies of judging, blaming, condemning, mocking, etc. This looks like the extremely homophobic politician who is later revealed to have a secret gay affair, the serial liar who constantly accuses others of lying, or the cheating husband who is constantly accusing his wife of being unfaithful.  From the outside, with this perspective, it looks like complete insanity, but that’s mostly because it is so much easier to see other people’s shadows than our own. But make no mistake, we all have a shadow, and we are only under it’s rule as long as it remains safely hidden from us outside of our conscious awareness.

 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

 

One of the amazing things about the human mind is that we have an almost unlimited capacity for self-delusion. We can lie and hide and deceive ourselves to seemingly no end. We can create an alternative reality in our minds that in no way has any bearing to any external or collective reality, or any relation to the truth. In short, we can avoid taking any and all responsibility for ourselves, if that is what we choose.  Of course, you must be clever in some ways to do this, but we humans are also very clever. We can get away with this approach for a lifetime, and often we do, because who really wants to look at, and take responsibility for, their shadow? It’s an understandable urge, to look away, but it’s one that unfortunately does not work in the long run. Humankind has been playing this game for a long time, and now the chickens have come home to roost, so to speak.

The solution to all of this can sound rather simplistic on paper, but the execution of it requires a great deal of discipline, focus, and will-power. Regardless, if we don’t undertake this work, then we remain at the mercy of our shadow-selves, as they now more than ever desire to be seen and reconciled. We simply can’t afford to ignore it any longer.   

The first step is simply to become aware of the shadow, and cultivate the willingness to take responsibility for your own. Often in our willingness, things start to show up, or we become aware of things in ourselves that have been hiding in plain sight.  It was only that we were not willing to see it.

The second practice is ruthless self-honesty. This is a more difficult practice, at least at first, as the ego will do anything it can to keep us from exposing it’s tricks and uncovering it’s lies. It does not want us to see ourselves honestly, or neutrally. Being identified with the ego, we have spent so much time and energy avoiding our shadows that we may not even know how to be honest with ourselves, or what to look for. But it’s pretty simple - whatever bothers you out there is reflecting something that bothers you inside. Upset at the way children are treated (school shootings, separated from parents at border)? Then perhaps you could look at how you treat your own inner-child.  Do you get angry about our authoritarian leader? Look at how your own inner-tyrant tries to take control of you.  The amount that this upsets you, or you want to deny it, is inversely proportionate to how much it exists in you. It’s hard to look at, and it can make us very uncomfortable in the short-term, but as we shine light on it, the healing process begins.  In fact, much of the healing is done just in the act of being completely honest with ourselves, and witnessing our shadow from a neutral place. 

Observing with neutrality is key. Your essence is neutral, your ego never is. The essence is merely a witness, the ego needs to control everything and has opinions and judgments about every last little thing. So if we practice ruthless self-honesty but then use what we find to beat ourselves up, go into guilt, shame, blame, decide we are bad people, etc. then we know the ego has hijacked the process and is using it to its own ends, namely, to keep us trapped and reinforce the very cycle of bad behaviors we are trying to heal. A helpful pracitce here that works for me: whatever you observe, instead of labelling it good or bad or whatever, simply choose to find it interesting. This is how we see things in our essence, as interesting. “Ah, so. Anger. Interesting.” Simply witness.

Step three is forgiving yourself, accepting yourself, and loving yourself, no matter what you find in your shadow. This is also not easy - which is why it is a practice. It can takes years, maybe a lifetime, to really learn how to love and accept ourselves, but again, it is well worth it, and something we all must do sooner or later. In many ways it is the only thing we are here to do. Jung said “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” If it were easy, we all would have done it by now, right?  We would be living lives free of any conflict, turmoil, or suffering. We would be radiant and joyful, full of healthy self-love, in thriving relationships, always acting with integrity, always doing and saying the right thing. But this is obviously not the case. We are human, and we struggle. But this struggle is the struggle to awaken, the struggle to clear the darkness of our shadows, the struggle to become free. Once we are willing to acknowledge this, to look at our darker natures and be honest about it, and to begin to love and accept ourselves regardless of what it is we find, we are on the path home.