By Adam J. Pearson
Update: For additional explanations and tips for deep shadow work, see the new article ‘Deep Shadow Work and the Method of ‘Two-Way Attention.”
Each of our minds contains shadows which limit, hold us back, and influence us whether we are aware of them or not. These shadows can be conscious or unconscious and hover between the foreground and the backgrounds of our minds. Shadows can be loosely defined as “things in your mind that you don’t want to face, that make you uncomfortable, that make you suffer, or that you cling to, push away, or lie to yourself about.”
Differently stated, shadows are contents of our minds (conscious or unconscious) that trouble us, discomfort us, or limit us in some way. Usually, our strategy towards these things is to repress them or deny them. They still continue to affect and influence us, however, without our knowledge. In this situation, they become unconscious and often manifest as neuroses.
The alternative to passively living at the mercy of the shadows that shape our minds and lives is to engage in shadow work. ‘Shadow work’ is the process of actively becoming aware of, accepting, acknowledging, facing, working through, and eventually transcending, our shadows. It is a process of getting to know our shadows and working through their ins and outs so that we can gradually learn to free ourselves from them.
Some examples of what I call “shadows” are insecurities, fears, traumatic memories, hidden motivations, worries, complexes, clingings, aversions, limiting or distorted assumptions/presuppositions, and lies to self and others. Actively facing them, working through them, and looking into them with full awareness loosens their hold on us and liberates us from their power. The process of working through this material, I call “shadow work.” It is difficult, often painful, but ultimately deeply transformative and liberating. I believe that I have grown more in a single summer because of my engagement in constant shadow work than I have in the past two years.
When a friend asked me for another explanation of the idea of “shadows,” I suggested that shadows those parts of ourselves we repress, deny, ignore, or push out of consciousness because they do not correspond to how we believe we should be, that is, our idealized self-image.
Our shadows hold us back, make us suffer, limit us in ways that we do not need to be limited. Living with them without facing them is the cowardly unpleasantness of daily life. Facing them is courage, working through them is determination, learning about what they are and how and why they arise is wisdom, and moving through and beyond them is liberation.
Claiming to have attained self-knowledge without gaining deep insight into our own shadows is like believing one has attained knowledge of a whole iceberg after simply getting to know its tip.
We cannot be fully “ourselves” until we dig up and face the shadowy, uncomfortable contents of our personality — insecurities, fears, traumatic memories, hidden motivations, worries, complexes, clingings, aversions, and lies to self and others. Unless we face and integrate our Shadow, we may say “I can be myself,” but we really don’t know what “self” it is that we’re being.
Since I started working through my shadows and conquering my fears, a new clarity and calmness has slipped its way into my mind. Thoughts are less vague, less fuzzy, more crisp. Feelings feel sharper, deeper. Sensations are less overlayed by projections and concepts and more bare, direct.
Working through your own bullshit, digging up the shady contents of your unconscious and facing them all head on with no denial, self-deception, or turning away… these things are nothing short of transformative. They thrust you out of delusion and into insight, out of cowardice and into courage, out of haziness and into clarity, perhaps for the first time in your life.
If we wish to be harmoniously whole, we must first face and integrate our shadows, that is, our fears, insecurities, anxieties, worries, self-doubts, and assumptions. While we continue to deny, repress, or avoid aspects of ourselves, we remain in internal conflict and suffer as a result.
Inquiry, attention, and honesty help us to face and reown these parts of who we are and come to terms with them. As we become at peace with our shadows, we liberate ourselves from their hold on us and a new sense of joy and freedom begins to infuse our lives.
Some say that we need not face our shadows, only “let them be.” I took that approach for two years. But even as I let the shadows “be,” they still remained there, unconsciously affecting me. They continued to limit me and cause suffering to arise. Only when I have begun to face them and reintegrate them have they been resolving themselves into peace. I propose that mindful inquiry can be very helpful here, much more so than simply “letting them be,” at least in my experience.
We may establish a fake or artificial sense of peace within us when we have not yet faced our shadows; this is a sense of peacefulness, which is shaky and easily dashed against the harsh and uncomfortable contents of our minds. I believe that shadow work helps establish a real and not faked peace within and that this in turn translates into greater peace in our immediate environment.
Others suggest that we can never fully work through our shadows, but must resign ourselves to the suffering they cause us. I disagree with this attitude because suffering has definite causes and these can be recognized, worked through, and overcome. My thoughts and view of the world are clearest when I work through the causes of conflict and suffering within me and become attentive to the clarity that is ever-present beneath the psychic turmoil.
‘Shadow work’ has no goal except to help us to face what is arising within us without clinging or aversion. Just being deeply honest and open and present with what is here now in our experience. And if clinging or aversion arise, then we face those too. Sometimes what arises is beautiful and rosy, like a lovey feeling. Sometimes its dark and harsh like a brutal hatred. Whatever arises, we meet it in the same way. Not holding on, not pushing it away. This is what shadow work is all about. It’s not about making our ‘inner landscape’ into some idealized state of perfect bliss. It’s not about making it look like what we imagine the minds of our favourite spiritual teachers to look like. It’s just about taking the time to breathe and face what is coming up within us.
What you may find, though, if you continue this process, is that it gets easier. And a clarity and a deep calm are revealed. The shadows are simply waves rising up on the surface of this calm. Sometimes the ocean brings pearls to the surface, other times, it brings forth decaying dead fish. We are like this too. Sometimes pearls, sometimes nastier things. And that’s perfectly alright. Moment my moment, mindfully looking into what comes up within us, what arises from the ocean of our minds, calmly, without hurry, without urgency. This is shadow work.
Shadow work is the ultimate medicine for the illness of avoidance. In shadow work, we do the opposite of avoiding; we face things. We explore a feeling from within instead of pushing it away. We look into its nature and causes.
If fears come up, face them and feel them through. If cringing at these unpleasant feelings comes up, face the cringing and go into it too. Shadow work is built on a willingness to face whatever comes up, positive or negative, painful or enjoyable, illuminating or traumatic. As we engage in it, we become more fearless, braver, clearer, and more honest with ourselves. We learn to see when we are retreating into comfortable illusions or lying about how we really feel–these illusions and lies are also shadows to work through–and this is where that sense of clarity comes from.
Our lies and illusions to ourselves distort not only our perception, but our overall moods and feelings. Shadow work empowers us and takes us out of a submissive relationship with these shadows and illusions. They come to dominate us less and less as we are more willing to work through them and more aware that we do not need to resign ourselves to their influence.
There are no prerequisites for engaging in shadow work except for a willingness to be open, to inquire, to be present with your feelings, and to be honest with yourself. Regardless of how much anger, traumatic memories, sadness, insecurities, anxieties and other shadows you may have, you are just as qualified to engage in shadow work as the most clear and happy person on the Earth. Shadow work starts where you are and takes you where you could be.
Just remember this: exactly where you are emotionally–here and now– is just fine. Start there and take things one moment and one feeling at a time.
Some practical tips for engaging in Shadow Work, or, working through your shadows:
- Notice what makes you uncomfortable. Look into that, both what it is that disturbs you and why it does. There are shadows to be worked through there.
- Notice what you are afraid of and ask what it is about that thing that scares you. Ask yourself: is there a safe way I can conquer that? Then do it.
- Notice what you are clinging to or making yourself dependent on. Ask yourself: why do I feel I need this so badly? Do I really? Question the assumptions behind the clinging. Question the clinging. Look into it deeply, feel it through. Accept it and you’ll be able to work through it.
- The same is true for aversions. Notice what you are pushing away from you or hating or disliking and ask yourself why you are doing that. Why do you feel that way? Why has a neutral stimulus become so negative and repulsive? Look into it deeply, feel it through. As in the case of clingings, accept it and you’ll be able to work through it.
- We can also work through traumatic memories and see that despite what happened, we are still here. We are still growing, we are still moving forward. We can give the memory power over us, or we can accept what happened and work through all of the pain, clingings, aversions, self-deceptions, etc. that it has given rise to. The most liberating and health-giving option is usually the wisest.
- If your shadow involves a form of anxiety, feel free to consult this article, which is all about how to identify four kinds of anxiety and how to work through them.