A folk tale
There once was a little bird who became so frightened by her own shadow that she tried to fly away from it. She believed that if only she could leave it behind, she would then be happy. The little bird grew increasingly distressed as she saw that no matter how fast she flew, her shadow never once fell behind. Not able to give up, she flew faster and faster until finally she dropped dead of exhaustion!
And so it is with our inner shadow-side. We cannot outrun, or outwit it. However, we can learn to recognize, befriend and integrate present moment shadow aspects.
The nature of our shadow-side
To be human is to have a shadow-side, so we all have one. Our shadow-side is not some deep, dark pathology within us. Rather as Robert Johnson writes, our shadow-side is simply “those aspects of our self that we do not see or know.” And so in contrast to the little bird in the folk tale who was so frightened by her shadow that she tried to fly away from it, our inner shadow-side is not something to be feared or repulsed by.
Ken Wilber et al writes of the shadow-side, “our shadow is the drives and feelings that we have deemed as unacceptable and so have split off from our conscious awareness.” And it is important to note here that our shadow-side includes both our giftedness as well as the not so desirable aspects of our being.
Now even though we are unaware of our shadow-side, it nevertheless shapes our living in some way. For our shadow-side will express itself through distorted and unhealthy means.
Why do we have a shadow-side?
Again from Wilber et al:
“from the moment we are born our families, our culture, our religious and spiritual traditions let us know what qualities are valued and what qualities are frowned upon. Because we want to be accepted and loved, we try to fashion and present a self that will attract others and secure our belonging. And as we do so, we exile the emotions and behaviours that could elicit rejection from others and our shadow becomes a force within us.”
Why bother integrating our shadow-side?
We undertake the practice of shadow integration so that we may experience inner freedom, personal wholeness and authentic communal belonging. However, we live within a paradox: even though we are called upon to practice shadow integration, we will always have a shadow-side. So again, why bother engaging in the practice of shadow integration?! The answer lies in yet another paradox: we can experience inner freedom, personal wholeness and authentic communal belonging in the present moment, even as we are continuing to grow into inner freedom, personal wholeness and authentic communal belonging. For the experience of inner freedom, personal wholeness and authentic communal belonging does not turn on having everything sorted. Rather such qualities are experienced by befriending and integrating that which is currently emerging into our conscious view.
Note: within the context of this article the term paradox signifies two contradictory truths. As such the term paradox signifies both/and rather than the dualistic either/or.
What does the term gently integrating mean?
Within this context the term integrating means: to allow our shadow-side back into our conscious view. And here we are not seeking to allow the whole of our shadow back into our conscious view. For even if it were possible to see our whole shadow-side, which it is not, it would be far from healthy. It would be more like a tsunami that would most likely destroy us.
So rather than seeking to integrate the whole of our shadow-side, we are simply called upon to acknowledge that we have a shadow-side and intention to recognize and allow present moment aspects of our shadow-side back into our conscious view.
The term gently means: we engage in the practice of shadow integration with an attitude of loving kindness towards ourselves. To hold an attitude of loving kindness means that we do not engage in shadow integration with a harsh attitude of waging war against ourselves seeking to conquer our shadow or imprison it within a deep, dark dungeon within our being. Rather with an attitude of non judgmental tenderness and curiosity we simply engage with that which is emerging within us in this moment of time. We are simply allowing present moment shadow aspects back into our conscious view so that they no longer drive our thoughts, feelings and actions.
The following poem underscores the need for loving kindness when engaging in the practice of shadow integration:
It felt love
How did the rose ever open its heart
And give to this world all its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being
Otherwise we all remain too frightened
(Hafiz, 14th century Sufi poet)
So if at some time we find ourselves experiencing shadow integration as a frightening or burdensome task, it would be worth checking whether our attitude has become one of fighting against ourselves, or laced with harsh judgments, or focused on some preconceived goal of how we ‘should be’. For even though shadow integration may be confronting at times, it is an enlivening and self affirming spiritual practice.
The practice of gently integrating our shadow-side
Shadow integration involves a two-part practice. The first part is recognition. The second part is engagement.
Recognizing our shadow-side
If it is the nature of the shadow-side to remain hidden from our conscious view, how may we recognize aspects of it? In this regard, Wilber et al writes:
“one intriguing feature of our shadow-side is that we often see those aspects of our self that we have split off, as irritating or brilliant traits in another person. . . where they frighten us, irritate us, depress us or turn into an obsession.”
So it would seem that we project our shadow-side onto others; be they individuals, community groups, or institutions.
However, our projections also sit beneath our conscious view, so how may we recognize them? There are indicators that we are projecting our shadow-side ‘out there’. Indicators such as:
- any time that our reaction to a situation seems over the top, or, out of proportion
- when we hear ourselves blame others for the choices we have made
- reacting to someone for no particular reason
- when we assume we know what another person is thinking or feeling or why they are behaving in a certain manner
- pronouncing generalized judgments on a particular situation
- when we are irritated by the way someone else chooses to live their life, even when their choice has no bearing on us
- when we idealize someone for their talents and accomplishments
We can experience such indicators like a reactive hook within us. So when we notice that inner sensation of being hooked, we can stop and ask ourselves, “hmm . . . could I be projecting something here?” And in simply posing the question to ourselves, that hook sensation dissolves.
Engaging with the shadow aspect?
Once we have allowed a present moment shadow aspect back into our conscious view, it then becomes an entry point for engagement in the form of tender Self enquiry, with the intention of listening for inner wisdom’s invitation to personal wholeness.
Engagement involves three elements: noticing; letting be; gently opening up.
Gently ask yourself: “what am I experiencing in this present moment?”
In my body: do I sense any changes in my body? Where do I feel it in my body? How does it feel? e.g. relaxing/tightening; warm/cold; opening up/shutting down . . .
In my emotions: e.g. delighted/sad/angry/joyful/stressed/fearful/challenged . . . (You will probably notice a combination of emotions)
In my thinking: are my thoughts judgmental/circling around and around?
Now, simply hold your present moment experience within the gentle light of loving kindness . . . you may like to slowly breathe through it without seeking to change the experience in any way.
Gently opening up
If and when you are ready. . . open-ended questions that may be helpful to ask of your present moment experience are:
- “Is this tapping into a particular area in my life?”
- “If this had a voice, what might it say to me?”
- “Is there a colour/shape/texture/image/piece of music that seems to give expression to my present moment experience?” If so, feel free to draw it; express it in prose or poetry; write down words which arise in response; listen to the music.
- “What is my inner wisdom inviting me to see or see afresh through this experience?”
Note: Do not try to manufacture anything. Simply wait for a response to arise and metaphorically, try it on and see how it fits. Do not worry if there is no discernible response as yet. Simply pose the question and live into the response (Rilke). Be patient and wait for insights and understandings to emerge.
Ken Wilber et al, Integral Life Practice
Robert Johnson, Owning your own Shadow
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
David Richo, Shadow Dance
Deepak Chopra, The Shadow Effect