We all know the feeling of discovering parts of ourselves that we may have suspected but didn’t know existed. Some of these parts come from the “shadow self”. The psycho-spiritual notion of the “shadow” was first used by Carl Jung to describe the repressed part of the Self – an undeveloped, unconscious part of us we have denied. He saw it as an archetype – a part of our collective understanding.
The shadow is hidden. When it surfaces it dances out of step with our “real” self. Through working on ourselves and processing our stuff, we create self-awareness and if all goes well the shadow begins to dance in step, creating balance and harmony.
So here’s the pop-psychology: As infants we took on life without censoring, without filters. Our being was raw – alive with love, pain and celebration. We lived the intense reality of here and now. Bit-by-bit, as we grew up, we discovered that it’s probably not a good idea to throw a tantrum at the supermarket, so we learnt the practical human trait of selective behaviour, repressing any bits that were not welcome. This is all well and good, as without such guidance, fitting into society would become quite demanding (if that is one of your goals). The flipside of course is that painful and even traumatic events at an impressionable age can coincide with hyper-real and often magical feelings, which collectively can be buried down, hidden inside. So as a child, if you got all excited and shouted out “I’m the chief of the ooly gooly tribe” and your dad said “shut up and get in the car”*…I don’t need to go on, most of us have been there before.
So the shadow is made up of bits of junk and lustrous pearls that we preferred not to explore. We may not know (but do suspect) such parts of us exist. Many people, like Robert Bly, see it as the baggage we drag around with us. Stuart Wilde called this stuff “the little brother/sister hidden in the basement”. However, as noted, these feelings are not just negative but wondrous things like our latent creative urges, expressions of love and friendships. They become dark because they are hidden.
So why not confront our shadow? We may choose not to. Firstly, because it can be genuinely scary and we might get a glimpse of our nature selves: our unencumbered humanity including animalistic qualities and child like traits. And secondly, we may skip our exploration because of the association of suffering with our love of life. And here is the conundrum – to get at all that goodness, creativity, etc; you may have to bring up a lot of stuff that is not acceptable to other members of the planet. It’s as if you can’t consciously choose which parts to pull out at what time. After a bit of rummaging it just comes up and out.
But to be truly self-aware we must confront the shadow, as if we do nothing we will remain divided between our inner hidden self and the masked person we express to the world. This creates an emptiness (so we toddle out and get a personalised registration plate). This emptiness is a spiritual longing created by a gap between our inner and outer lives. We become out of touch with our humanity; with the true cosmic feeling of togetherness.
Another point: if left repressed and denied, the shadow will surface in quite unexpected ways. When these inner feelings are not made conscious, are not confronted, the shadow will manifest or externalise the conflict outside of us. It will show us blatantly and with astounding accuracy our true selves. The world will act out the divided self, expressed in anything from the behaviour of the neighbour’s cat to the perpetual punch up in the Middle East. So in effect we all create the world – collectively.
The more dense our shadow, the more divided we feel between the love of humanity and all the hate and repression this world has to offer. It’s all entirely natural really.
The shadow tends to come out when we are unwillingly confronted with physical or mental pressure – some cousins show up and they want to subject you to endless photos of their trip to Phuket. OMG! Or the shadow may surface when we get drunk or become ill. Or when mushroom picking – we eat a variety that makes us laugh uncontrollably and act like a badger (’tis true – a friend once did and what a great healing it was for him).
Does this mean we are excused from all our bad behaviours – after all it’s just the shadow coming out? Certainly not in the letter of the law, so I don’t recommend bringing out your shadow at the bowling club. (Is this why we have families and friends – a safe environment?)
But if we are truly magnanimous human beings, we should give people the freedom to bring it out with gusto. If it gets too much, we can simply walk away – vote with our feet.
Anyway, society tends to limit how much you can explore as people will eventually tell you to stop. You may even find yourself unbearable to be around. And of course people will accuse you of losing the plot – but they will be busy plotting, hiding from their shadow.
Wherever we traverse in this dimension, we bring light and shadow with us. Let our light shine out in front and our shadow dance behind.
So on this reckoning it’s better to work on the shadow by choice rather than wait for it to jump out unwittingly. Because you are reading this then you probably have already done a lot of work on your shadow – as stated it’s essential for self-awareness. And that may have been painful at times. Bringing out your shadow and letting it dance is entirely natural, so you just have to accept it’s less than salubrious gyrations. Once your shadow dances as you do, then you can relax. You are natural with the world. You can say “oh there is my shadow; it’s a bit silly at times but it’s Ok. I will relax, sit down and have a cup of tea”.
Note that the more you put yourself on the crinkly, creative edge of life, the deeper you will rummage about and your dancing shadow will be for all to see. But coming out the other side is a wonderful, peaceful world of calm, surrender and profound healing. That is the bright side of taking the risk. But let’s not get too serious about it all. Remember, life is acceptance – is life is acceptance – and the wheel we are on turns endlessly. Own your shadow and celebrate it somewhat because it follows you wherever you go. And importantly never apologise for it dancing.
Godspeed and see you around on the fringe
*thanks Stuart Wilde for the “ooly gooly tribe” example – a classic from one of his lectures.