The Twelve Steps as Shadow Work

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One

The Twelve Steps as Shadow Work
Thursday, December 12, 2019

Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. [1]

Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” (John 8:32) and I always feel compelled to add, “But first it will make you miserable.” There is no other way to describe the humiliation and grief that comes from seeing your own failures and weaknesses clearly, perhaps for the first time. Only in the presence of Great Love do any of us have the courage to attempt that kind of inventory. Today, Ron H., a beloved staff member here at the Center for Action and Contemplation, shares from his own experience how humility and honesty are needed throughout the Twelve Steps.

About five years into my recovery journey, I got to know a man in Los Angeles named Pepe. Like so many we get to meet in the rooms, he was a compelling character. His stories were spellbinding and masterfully delivered, his wisdom was simple and always rang of truth, and his heart was out there where you could see it, humble, genuine. When he told of how he took his wheelchair-bound teenage son Tony, dying of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, to the river to go fishing, the entire room would hang on every word (no matter how many times we had heard the story). Completely bereft as he watched Tony painfully work to get his line in the water, Pepe began to cry. “Dad,” Tony said, “Why are you crying? There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just my Earth suit that is having trouble. Nothing is wrong with me.”

As you meditate for a moment on what must have been the seat of Tony’s identity, as the whole room would do each time Pepe drove home this line, notice the shift in your own heart and body. Pepe would look down for a moment and then bring it humbly and powerfully:

“This program is a program of truth-telling,” Pepe would sometimes say and then pause to let it sink in. “Because it’s the truth that will set you free. The truth sets us free. The first step? We’ve been lying, distorting, denying, hiding from the truth. The first step is a truth-telling step. We admit who we are. The fourth and fifth steps are a huge exercise in finally telling the whole truth. [2] The tenth step? Learning to tell the truth on the fly, and to call ourselves out and correct it when we didn’t. [3] This program is a truth-telling program. That’s how it turns us into free people.”

That simple and profound description came to me years later when I heard Richard and others talk about Carl Jung’s concept of persona and shadow. Where my “persona” is the me that is presented for the world to see, my “shadow” is the undiscovered or undisclosed me (often unseen even by me). Shadow is a concept much like “denial” in the recovery context. It’s not even necessarily that I see it and deny seeing it, it’s that my mechanisms for protecting myself from seeing certain aspects of myself are so effective that I’m blind to them.

References:
[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

[2] Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

[3] Step 10: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

I am most grateful to Ron H. for sharing this original reflection with Daily Meditation readers.

Image credit: Femme Assise (Melancholy Woman) (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-1903, Detroit Museum of Art, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the very things I want to do and find myself doing the very things I hate . . . for although the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not. —Romans 7:15, 18
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