By Adam J. Pearson
Shadows and Shadow Work Recap:
Shadows are those contents of the mind that feel uncomfortable, painful, terrifying, anxiety-inducing, or otherwise disturbing to us. We know them when they arise because they hurt, disturb, or make us feel limited in some way. ’Shadow work‘ is the process of actively acknowledging, facing, exploring, working through, and allowing our shadows to arise, be present, and subside. Shadow work involves a willingness to be open to our real experience–not our experience as we think it ‘should be’–and explore it fully. The fruit of shadow work is usually a great sense of freedom from parts of our minds that previously limited us and a greater sense of overall peace with the state of our lives.
Two-Way Attention and Interrogating the Shadow:
In a previous article, I described the method of ‘two-way attention,’ a way of working with a shadow in which you hold your attention in two directions at once: some attention on the shadow itself, some attention on the awareness in which the shadow is appearing.
In the article that followed, I introduced yet another tool for shadow work: interrogating the shadow. Interrogating the shadow is a process of asking progressively more precise and detailed questions about a shadow and its various aspects– underlying motivations, repressed reasons, connections to idealized self-images, effects on patterns of feeling/thinking/behaving, roots in particular memories or experiences, etc.–in order to gain insight into it. The interrogation process effectively makes previously unconscious aspects of our experience conscious through a process of question-based discovery.
As a review, here are some of the questions you can ask to inquire into the shadow. You can either phrase them in 3rd person “it” language or you can phrase them in 2nd person “you” and “your” language and address the shadow directly. Here are some sample questions in 3rd person form:
- What is the form of this thought/feeling pattern?
- How does it really, honestly make me feel?
- Is it his shadow based on any assumptions about me?
- Why do I think this thought-pattern is true?
- Why do I hold on to it?
- Do I have any underlying motivations here that I’m not facing?
- Am I repressing this feeling? Am I denying it or projecting it onto others?
- Why do I resist this shadow?
- Is it related to an idealized self-image, a way I would like to be or people have told me I should be?
- Is it related to a self-image I’m trying to avoid, a way I would not want others to see me?
- How does this thought-pattern affect how I behave, think, feel?
- Does it limit me in some way? What would life be like if I didn’t hold on to this thought pattern?
- How did I develop this shadow? Did it have any roots in any of my past experiences or things people have told me?
- Did I learn this pattern? How?
Part 2: Interrogating the Shadow in Practice:
In the previous Interrogating the Shadow article, I presented the example of a real conversation I had with my friend Rachel in which we interrogated a shadow she had about feeling resistance to posting things related to ethics and social justice. The questioning helped us probe the shadow deeper and helped her gain insight into the machinery of the shadow and how it was operating in her inner life. In this continuation of that article, I’d like to present yet another real example drawn from a conversation with my friend Rick in which we practiced the interrogation method. Rick’s words will also show how shadow work can be approached with a sense of humor! It need not be all serious.
Rick: I’m about to interrogate the part of me that is massively and irresistibly swooned by awkward women with eyeliner and bangs, but can’t manage to actually connect and then slips into depression and sighing because:
(a) I’m willing to massively delude myself (biology overriding logic) into thinking they’re good for me, even though a few minutes/seconds of conversation or eavesdropping reveals to me that I’m not really interested in them past their utter and irresistible cuteness.
(b) I don’t know what I’m saying right now.
(c) I keep getting attached and turned on by things I dislike in myself, which are present in women, which is weird, I don’t get it.
(d) I don’t know what I’m saying, but I once went a month without masturbating and didn’t feel the slightest cringing or guilt in flirting or being sexual with women. Something about the secret orgasm creates a barrier there.
Adam: Alright, we’ve already got a nice selection of material that we can interrogate here. Your sense of humor is also refreshing; shadows need not be all dark and depressing; we can approach them with a light heart too! Let’s look at these reasons in order. I’ll ask questions based on each one to explain what I mean by ‘interrogating the shadow’ and how this process can work in your case. Let’s start with the first one:
Rick:“(a) I’m willing to massively delude myself (biology overriding logic) into thinking they’re good for me, even though a few minutes/seconds of conversation or eavesdropping reveals to me that I’m not really interested in them past their utter and irresistible cuteness.”
Adam: Is your physical attraction really in your control? Is it a problem that you find these types of girls attractive? Must you necessarily make the jump from your attraction to deluding yourself that you and her should be together? What really causes your suffering, the attraction or the thoughts about it that you come up with afterwards?
Rick: “(b) I don’t know what I’m saying right now.”
Adam: This is actually fairly normal for shadow work. When we face things we haven’t faced before on progressively deeper levels of detail, we often come up against barriers of expression. But that’s okay. Just keep questioning and answering anyway. Sometimes the language of the unconscious is apparent gibberish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hide deeper meanings beneath its surface nonsense.
Rick: “(c) I keep getting attached and turned on by things I dislike in myself, which are present in women, which is weird, I don’t get it.”
Adam: This is a very important realization! I had this one myself as well and several other people have expressed this same feeling to me. I’m tempted to give you an explanation for why this happens, but if I do, you won’t come to the discovery yourself. So I’ll give you more questions instead that will lead you to it yourself: Why are the things you dislike in yourself attractive in others and in women in particular? What makes the same quality unattractive in you and attractive in others? Does liking the quality in others compensate for not liking it in yourself? Is there a part of you that is resisting owning this quality in yourself? What is it exactly about the quality that you dislike when it is present in you? Would it be okay to own that aspect of yourself without resisting it? If not, why not?
Rick: “(d) I don’t know what I’m saying, but I once went a month without masturbating and didn’t feel the slightest cringing or guilt in flirting or being sexual with women. Something about the secret orgasm creates a barrier there.”
Adam: Even if you don’t know what you’re saying, when you’re working with a shadow, keep talking. Part of you knows what is going on and another part doesn’t want to face it. That’s okay. Shadow work will tease that out and make it conscious. How does the ‘secret orgasm’ create a barrier? What is it about masturbating that brings this ‘cringe’ or ‘guilt’ factor into flirting or being sexual with women?
Look into this cringing and guilt; what do they feel like? Do they have their roots in earlier experiences from your life or in things people have told you about sexuality? Are those things true? Is it possible to be okay with the secret orgasm, to accept it as part of your life? What about the secret orgasm gives rise to these other feelings? Is this barrier real or just imagined? Is it the masturbation or the thoughts about the masturbation that give rise to the differences of feeling?
Reflections on Shadow Work
Deep Shadow Work and the Method of ‘Two-Way Attention’
Four Kinds of Anxiety and How to Work Through Them
Buddhism in Practice: Exploring the Path Beyond Insight into Anatman