Gold in the Shadows

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“In the beginning, we are mostly asleep. Society conditions our consciousness. And so we remain unconscious to our true self for at least the first half of life."  - Scott Jeffrey

The shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves. Everyone and everything has a shadow: the kindest person you know has a shadow, all spiritual groups have a shadow, teachers have shadows. Unawareness of our own shadows or that of organizations and other people causes us to project an unreasonable expectation of perfection for ourselves and for the groups with which we are connected. The result can be a misplaced reliance on the perceived perfection of teachers and groups as a way to avoid difficult interactions and thoughts. Sometimes called spiritual bypassing, this tendency reduces our capacity to hold the truth of opposites and simplifies the complexities of all the realities that are always present in one person or a group of people.

How to work with our own shadows? Author Robert Bly has an image of a black bag we drag behind us which contains all our shadow material, the things we don’t want to look at or acknowledge about ourselves. He says “We spend our lives until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.”

Notice what you don’t like about other people or groups. Are those qualities alive in you? Jung said “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” In psychology we would say that you are taking back the projection onto others and owning it as your own.

Many of us identify ourselves as being a “good person." We are praised as children for being a “good boy” or “good girl.” This intensifies the split between our conscious identity and our shadow. If you see yourself as a disciplined person, you’re repressing your lazy part. The lazy part is hiding in the shadow. So identify with this lazy part. See it. Accept it. Make friends with it. It’s okay to be lazy too.

Befriending one’s own shadow material creates compassion and understanding toward the challenges of others, who are also struggling to love and accept the parts of themselves that aren’t pretty or nice. Yoga class is a great place to practice this, surrounded as you are by the bodies, energies, and influences of others. If we’re all flawed, if we all carry repressed material, if we are all struggling to hold compassion for our own broken selves, this understanding creates a deep compassion for all the ways in which people are a little bit crazy. Welcome to being human!

Recommended Reading
“Owning Your Own Shadow” by Robert A. Johnson
“A Little Book on the Human Shadow” by Robert Bly
“Meeting the Shadow” by various authors, Edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Adams