Shadow work is bringing to light the subconscious which, like an iceberg, carries most of its mass below the surface. On a group level, the subconscious contains everything. On a personal level it is full of all the stuff that’s been repressed due to conditioning and fear and which we need to remove if we want to live our fullest lives. The work can encompass a broad umbrella of therapeutic modalities but can be as simple as sitting in a comfy chair and contemplating the anxiety that arises upon doing nothing. It can be simply reflecting on why you behave a certain way when you wish you could behave differently. It can encompass mindfulness, formal meditation, yoga, qi gong, breathwork, sweat-lodges or just walking in nature. Whatever the modality, I think there are two essential aspects to shadow work: intention and self acceptance.
In understanding who we are, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you’re not your thoughts, feelings or emotions. When you begin to see yourself as your are, you necessarily begin to judge the parts of yourself you don’t like. You begin to see all the parts of yourself that were repressed because they weren’t socially acceptable and, how difficult it is depends on whether those parts were repressed through love or withdrawal of love. They emerge as thoughts, feelings and emotions. Please note that these are not thoughts, feelings or emotions that we “shouldn’t” have. Variations of these feelings have served our species in its survival and are far older than any of our histories. Where they become damaging, I think, or at least can stand in the way of our evolution, is when they’re repressed through punishment, mental or physical.
I’m not a trained social worker, doctor or psychologist, but after 30 years of shadow work I have seen myself in a lot of detail. I have seen my arrogance, my pride, my selfishness, my anger and my hate. Shadow work showed me these things not to make me feel bad but to help me understand that the characters that evolved/accreted to me were the personalities that evolved to deal with trying circumstances. They helped me survive in hostile environments and they would not let me rest until I acknowledged them and put them to rest, something they can’t do if you hate on them and try to push them away. If you listen to them, they might tell you, “we did what we did to survive. Those were the times.” And you can say to them, “I’m sorry I hated you. Please forgive me for not acknowledging you. Thank you for protecting me and being with me. I love you.” This is based on the Hawaiian ritual of reconciliation, the ho’oponopono, and I think it’s appropriate because shadow work is helping you to integrate the fractured aspects of your personality.
I can’t stress enough that the voices most of us take to be ourself are nothing but the voices of our ancestors (and everybody else’s ancestors through teachers, friends, etc). Every voice and character that somehow made an impression on us in our formative years—all deep echoes of normal humanity—the brain records and plays back to us as our mind constructs our personalities. For me that means: the parochial, disapproving and judgmental voices coming from my Protestant Irish Scottish ancestors; the barking rules of military bases where I grew up; the schoolyard’s casual cruelty and churlishness; the sophisticated arrogance of an English public (if you’re not from the UK, read “private”) school boy; the nihilistic cynicism of Punk and the screw-you-got-mine mindset of Eighties and Nineties, and everyone of them steeped in the invisible dividing waters of status consciousness we swim in, competing, as we are, for limited resources at the bottom of this 6,400 km gravity well. This is not to say there aren’t positive aspects of all these cultural milieus such as Truthfulness, Loyalty, Good Humor, Discipline, Respect, Service, Leadership, Iconoclasm, and… well, the fact that there’s nothing inherently wrong with abundance. These qualities can—if attention is purposefully steered towards them—outweigh the negatives, it’s just that the negatives are more noticeable to our nervous systems which evolved to notice threat.
Intention is important in working on yourself. It can be as simple as asking yourself what do I want. It can be difficult because you need to go inside and ask your heart “what do I need to be happy.” And your heart doesn’t speak English, it speaks through feeling. You ask yourself what would make me feel happy, complete. The articulations that come back at you that are simple, quiet, not prone to too much revision, and insistent, that is, the same thing occurs to you over and over, usually point you in the right direction. It’s really important to ask for what you want. Part of my early conditioning was that it was rude and selfish to ask for things. It is essential in this work to build a vision of what you want for yourself, to ask your higher self for things and circumstances. Otherwise you sit around your whole life just hoping for something nice to happen while at the same time your subconscious is saying “I don’t deserve it, it probably won’t happen.” In that respect, intention is a prayer to your higher self.
In setting intentions, imagination needs to be exercised. One needs to project forward. There is a symbiotic relationship between my conditioned self and the person I wish to become, the unconditioned self. Neither can exist without the other. The conditioned self, the ego, is essential because it is the parent of the higher soul and our interface with the material world, and it can’t do its job if it’s continually trash-talking itself: “I’m no good, oh I’ll never reach my goals, I don’t deserve x, y or z.” The unconditioned self is also an integral part of us and is that part that draws us towards realization. As such, I’ve found it useful to cultivate models of my unconditioned self. In Tibetan Buddhism, this is formalized through contemplation of the guru, stylized as Tapihritsa or the Buddha Shenla Odker. My models are a tad more playful in that, for a while, I was walking around with the laconic voice of Geralt de Rivera and the self confident one of Venom saying, “dude! Chill out! I got this.”
Happy trails, and remember, self love is divine!