Nodding to the Shadow — Center for Action and Contemplation

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See the schedule and event session details for the final CONSPIRE conference (Sep. 24 – 26)

Nodding to the Shadow

Shadow Work

Nodding to the Shadow
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I want to emphasize that the shadow is not inherently evil or wrong; it varies from culture to culture. In the United States today, white dominant culture prizes competition, urgency, individualism, niceness (or avoidance of conflict), and logic. Other values and ways of being, such as cooperation, appropriate self-care, community, and vulnerability, are often seen as inferior. We cause so much harm and lose so much possibility by fearing our differences. By reclaiming our shadow we can tap into greater compassion and creativity.

Jungian psychotherapist Robert Johnson continues explaining how the shadow functions and how we might work with it:

It is useful to think of the personality as a teeter-totter or see-saw. Our acculturation consists of sorting out our God-given characteristics and putting the acceptable ones on the right [visible] side of the seesaw and the ones that do not conform on the left [shadow side]. It’s an inexorable law that no characteristic can be discarded; it can only be moved to a different point on the seesaw. . . .

Johnson suggests that we should hide the culturally unacceptable parts from society, but not from ourselves. I agree that we must nod to our own shadow, name it for what it is, and give it the recognition it needs so that it won’t unconsciously control us. Likewise, it may not always serve us to keep parts of our shadow—whether seemingly “golden” (has a gift for you) or “dark”—hidden from the public.

Johnson continues:

The fulcrum, or center point, is the whole (holy) place. . . .

This is one of Jung’s greatest insights: that the ego and the shadow come from the same source and exactly balance each other. To make light is to make shadow; one cannot exist without the other.

To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place—an inner center—not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one’s own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life. . . .

To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as [depression], psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents. We are presently dealing with the accumulation of a whole society that has worshiped its light side and refused the dark, [1] and this residue appears as war, economic chaos, strikes, racial intolerance [more timely examples: gun violence, imprisoning refugees, and climate change]. . . . We must be whole whether we like it or not; the only choice is whether we will incorporate the shadow consciously and with some dignity or do it through some neurotic behavior. . . .

Any repair of our fractured world must start with individuals who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow. . . . The tendency to see one’s shadow “out there” in one’s neighbor or in another race or culture is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche. . . . We all decry war but collectively we move toward it. It is not the monsters of the world who make such chaos but the collective shadow to which every one of us has contributed. [Consider our complicity in centuries of colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism.] . . .

God grant that evolution may proceed quickly enough for each of us to pick up our own dark side, combine it with our hard-earned light, and make something better of it all than the opposition of the two. This would be true holiness. [And, I would add, it can only be done through contemplation.]

[1] Johnson notes: “Our language has lost the ability to speak of the latter in very noble terms. Our philosophy is unbalanced by the very language we use. How do we speak of dark and give it the same dignity and value as light?” At least we are becoming aware of that very problem.

Adapted from Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (HarperSanFrancisco: 1991), 10-11, 14, 15, 17, 26-27, 30-31.

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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