Unveiling the Shadow — Center for Action and Contemplation
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Unveiling the Shadow

Shadow Work

Unveiling the Shadow
Sunday, June 13, 2021

This week’s meditations focus on unveiling the shadow self, an essential concept in my work that comes from Swiss psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961). It always needs initial clarification and definition.

Let’s begin with the personal shadow. During the first half of our lives (and for many, into the chronological second half of life), we are building up our separate or false self. For the first months of life, human infants feel they are one with their caretaker, usually their mother. But soon the child grows into a sense of separateness, a split between my self and your self that understands “I’m here and you’re over there.” We call this dualistic consciousness.

To put it very simply, as children we learn which behaviors cause approval and disapproval from our family, teachers, and friends. If we want to have some sort of control over our lives and create pleasant outcomes, we tend to develop those things which are acceptable and repress those things which are not. Those things we repress or deny about ourselves become our shadow. The qualities we “place” in our shadow aren’t necessarily or only bad; they simply are the ones that are not rewarded by our family system or culture.

The more we have cultivated and protected a chosen persona, the more shadow work we will need to do. Therefore, we need to be especially careful of clinging to any idealized role or self-image, like that of minister, mother, doctor, nice person, professor, moral believer, or president of this or that. These are huge personas to live up to, and they trap many people in lifelong delusion that the role is who they are or who they are only allowed to be. The more we are attached to and unaware of such a protected self-image, the more shadow self we will likely have. This is especially dangerous for a “spiritual leader” or “professional religious person” because it involves such an ego-inflating self-image. Whenever ministers, or any true believers, are too anti anything, we can be pretty sure there is some shadow material lurking somewhere nearby. Zealotry is a good revelation of one’s overly repressed shadow.

Our self-image is not substantial or lasting; it is simply created out of our own mind, desire, and choice—and everybody else’s preferences for us! It is not objective at all but entirely subjective (which does not mean that it does not have real influence). The movement to second-half-of-life wisdom has much to do with necessary shadow work and the emergence of healthy self-critical thinking, which alone allows us to see beyond our own shadow and disguise and to find who we are, “hidden with Christ in God,” as Paul puts it (Colossians 3:3). The Zen masters call it “the face we had before we were born.” This self cannot die, lives forever and is our True Self. Religion is always in some way about discovering our True Self, which is also to discover God, who is our deepest truth.

References:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, MP3 download; and

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 128, 129–130.

Story from Our Community:
Nonviolence starts when we learn how to love ourselves with compassion. Upon beginning shadow work and looking within myself, I was able to heal old wounds, relearn healthy boundaries and thought patterns. Complete love flows through all we say, do, think, and pray after taking steps of transformation. —Susan C.

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?
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