Surviving Shadow Work Lesson One: What Is Shadow Work and Why Do It At All?
The above picture features Hades, one of our two cats, and he has graciously agreed to be our familiar during this intensive on Surviving Shadow Work.
Why, a cat, you might ask?
Well, Hades and his sister Aphrodite, were born right after their mother was rescued from Houston during Hurricane Harvey. If anyone knows about surviving the shadows it is this little guy!
So, in order to make a beginning it would probably be useful to define what shadow work is. This is my definition and it may or may not align with what you have heard before.
Shadow work is any physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and/or therapeutic work that we engage in that puts us face to face with the aspects of ourselves that we typically do not see or acknowledge.
Carl Jung coined the term “shadow” to refer to the unconscious mind and thus we often see “shadow work” as a term employed in various psycho-spiritual disciplines.
A couple of notes about my definition and how it might differ from what you are familiar with:
1.) Shadow work is not exclusive to the emotional realm. Often we think of shadow work as something that occurs exclusively through our feelings but this is not accurate, we can engage in shadow work with multiple faculties including our spiritual, intellectual, and even physical selves. How do I know this? I have done it, and you probably have too.
2.) Our shadows are not necessarily bad. They are not necessarily good. They may or may not be neutral and they may or may not be gifts. Our shadows are first and foremost the unseen and unacknowledged parts of our lives.
Talk to any good therapist specializing in trauma and they will tell you that sometimes, in some situations, and for some people there are aspects of life that are hidden and the need to remain that way – at least for time being. There can be a bias among spiritual practitioners that all shadows are somehow malevolent and need to be conquered or brought into the light or what have you. This is not true.
There is also a bias in some communities that all of our shadows are fundamentally benevolent and gifts that we have yet to claim. That is also not true.
The most important thing to recognize about our shadows at this point is that they are the unseen and unacknowledged parts of ourselves – there may be good reasons that they have gone unseen and unacknowledged and there might be not so good reasons for that.
Now that we have defined it, let’s talk about why we do shadow work in the first place. Actually I would say that we don’t do shadow work, it does us. By which I mean that typically we begin engaging in shadow work when a shadowed place naturally makes itself known to us.
This can happen in a lot of different ways. Sometimes a shadowed part of ourselves begins to impede our daily functionality – we find ourselves triggered all of the time or our issues begin to take a toll on those closest to us – and we know it is time to look at the shadow. Sometimes we remember something that had previously not been present in our waking minds and it is time to deal with our shadows. And sometimes, we commit to a spiritual or intellectual path that requires us to look at our shadows for the sake of further development.
Typically people in communities like ours are pretty hip to why you would want to do shadow work and what the benefits of that kind of work can be.
We are much less clear however (or at least much less willing to talk about) the greatest pitfall of shadow work which is getting lost, trapped, and stuck in the shadows. This phenomena happens frequently and you can usually recognize it in yourself and in others whenever you encounter the feeling (or the thought) that your work with a particular shadow is never-ending.
To go back to Jung for a moment, Jung took the notion of the shadow from literature, stories, and myths. In many of these works we see the protagonist confront something about themselves that had not been previously seen or noted. They discover this unseen aspect of themselves, they see it, and then…what?
This is where the story often ends in modern practice but in reality it is where most stories begin. The meat of most of these tales is not the discovery of the shadow but rather what happens after, the integration of whatever medicine the shadow might carry into our lives and the ascent out of the depths back into the waking work.
Much has been written and created around the theme of descent and with good reason – it is an essential step in our development. But less attention has been paid to the ways that we then ascend back into the here and now. That’s what our focus is going to be in the next two lessons.
For now, I would love you to think about your previous experiences with shadow work and feel into one shadow area in particular that you are aware of. Write it down and if you need to add any description to it feel free to do so.
We are going to work with this in tomorrow’s lesson so stay tuned.