Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
Shadow Work
Shadow Work

A Necessary Negativity

Friday, June 18, 2021

Shadow Work

A Necessary Negativity
Friday, June 18, 2021

True spirituality, that which invites us to ever deeper levels of transformation and love, does not insist on “staying positive” all the time, but on “staying true” to the journey. Drawing on the wisdom of both the Sufi mystical tradition in which she was raised as well as the teachings of Jung and other scholars, author and dreamwork specialist Toko-pa Turner writes about how facing our shadows will benefit us individually and collectively, even as it makes us uncomfortable:

What if [negative emotions] have something essential to communicate to us and each other, and the real problem is the misguided attitude that negative feelings make us less evolved and need fixing? In the same way that we hold others at an arm’s length when they are too different from us, we avoid the inner encounter with otherness, excluding anything that doesn’t fit the image we’ve been building of ourselves.

‘Negative emotions’ don’t cease to exist because we ignore them. They just find other ways to express themselves. Sometimes we lash out inappropriately, having confusing crying fits, or feel protractedly numb. Most commonly, we slip into depression and anxiety. . . .

If not addressed in a person’s life, these issues can harden into ideologies which are then passed down through the generations. When you add to this equation a loud or charismatic leader, movements like Nazism will be born from the corroborative fear of otherness. Nazism was fomented on the notion of a ‘pure race’ and, capitalizing on people’s unintegrated shadows, convincing a nation to murder millions of people who were the unfortunate bearers of this shadow projection. We think of Nazis as evil, but the truth is we all have the potential for this kind of evil, which is ultimately the act of turning away from the suffering of others and ourselves.

Most of us have been raised to be moral, good, and agreeable, putting all of our ‘unacceptable’ qualities in what Robert Bly calls “The Long Black Bag” we drag behind us, or what Jung termed the personal “Shadow.” The Shadow is the place where everything we have forgotten, denied, rejected, or not yet discovered goes to live. [My emphasis—Richard Rohr] But when we try to live up to the impossible image of a spiritually enlightened, knowledgeable, selfless, patient, forgiving, easy-going, supportive, generous superhuman, the dark side of our nature just gains in power. . . .

You always have the choice to turn away or to look for redemption in the shadows. Sometimes turning away is exactly what you need in the moment, especially if you’re tired from toiling down in there. Trust that whatever you decide is the right decision. Also know that if the issue being presented has roots, it will still be there when you’re ready to look at it. . . .

We cannot simply remove the shadow all at once. It takes wisdom, courage, and forbearance for our shadows to reveal themselves to us so they can be faced and dealt with gently, compassionately, and firmly.

Toko-pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home (Her Own Room Press: 2017), 106–107, 127.

Story from Our Community:
Fr. Rohr points out the roadblock that I think limits transformation. We do not accept the shadow side and focus only on the conscious world. As we become aware of our shadows, the divinity waiting there transforms us. Christ’s presence, our healing, and salvation are always taking place in messy parts of life. We have not and never will be abandoned by God. —Ed J.

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, dapple (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.
Image inspiration: Shadows are always influential if not always obvious. Some, in focus in the foreground, are easier to name while others remain hidden in the background. How might we attend to the lessons of our own inner shadow landscapes?
Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.