Making Holy

Shadow Work

Making Holy
Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The shadow in and of itself is not the problem. The source of our disease and violence is separation from parts of ourselves, from each other, and from God. Mature religion is meant to re-ligio or re-ligament what our egos and survival instincts have put asunder, namely a fundamental wholeness at the heart of everything.

Robert A. Johnson (1921–2018) was an American Jungian analyst, author, and lecturer who studied at the C. G. Jung Institute. Many of Johnson’s insights have shaped my own work. In his book Owning Your Own Shadow, he explains how the shadow begins and how we grow:

We are all born whole and, let us hope, will die whole. But somewhere early on our way, we eat one of the wonderful fruits of the tree of knowledge, things separate into good and evil, and we begin the shadow-making process: we divide our lives. In the cultural process we sort out our God-given characteristics into those that are acceptable to society and those that have to be put away. This is wonderful and necessary, and there would be no civilized behavior without this sorting out of good and evil. But the refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own—the shadow life.

The shadow is that which has not entered adequately into consciousness. It is the despised quarter of our being. It often has an energy potential nearly as great as that of our ego. If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage or some indiscretion or an accident that seems to have its own purpose. . . .

It is also astonishing to find that some very good characteristics turn up in the shadow. Generally, the ordinary, mundane characteristics are the norm. Anything less than this goes into the shadow. But anything better also goes into the shadow! Some of the pure gold of our personality is relegated to the shadow because it can find no place in that great leveling process that is culture.

Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously. . . . The gold is related to our higher calling, and this can be hard to accept at certain stages of life. . . .

Wherever we start and whatever culture we spring from, [most of us] will arrive at adulthood with a clearly defined ego and shadow, a system of right and wrong, a teeter-totter with two sides. The religious process consists of restoring the wholeness of the personality. . . .

Generally, the first half of life is devoted to the cultural process—gaining one’s skills, raising a family, disciplining one’s self in a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness (making holy) of life. One might complain that this is a senseless round trip except that the wholeness at the end is conscious while it was unconscious and childlike at the beginning.

Reference:
Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (HarperSanFrancisco: 1991), 4-5, 7-9, 10.

Image credit: Girl Before a Mirror (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1932, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The face we turn toward our own unconscious is the face we turn toward the world. —Richard Rohr
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