[This is one of the rare openly Pagan posts on this blog. If you are not comfortable with such discussions, this is your warning to leave now]
I’m writing this post because one of the questions I get asked all the time (I mean, three or four times a week) is for written materials on the subject of shadow work.
They are out there, but you have to know what you’re looking at to find them-there are plenty of books on healing, on emotional balance, on energy incorporation, on death work from both a spiritual and an academic standpoint…but it’s hard to find something that’s directly on the shadow paths.
If you really wanted to get as solid a grasp on shadow work as you can I would actually start with Jung or someone who writes in the Jungian tradition. Jung defines the shadow as:
an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious.
From Wiki, but it’s a place to start. While there have always been people working with the darker side of personality, these are the people who codified a lot of the language used in shadow work.
In terms of how shadow work interacts with the concept, shadow is any part of the psyche that causes discomfort, pain, or is otherwise rejected by ‘light work’ such as primal emotion such as anger, or processes such as grief and conflict. Shadow work however does not see these concepts as full negative because shadow work attempts to avoid ranking or favoring of energy for any reason and instead sees all emotions ranging for joy to rage as human expression and should be accepted as such.
What Does Shadow -Not- Do?
I am deliberately going at this backwards because the conversation about shadow work gets swamped with misconception and stigma, really fast, and frankly quite aggressively. It has been my observation that what people call ‘light work’ is heavily favored to the point of a social bias, but a lot of that bias seems to stem from a lack of understanding surrounding shadow work and what shadow workers are attempting to do.
What shadow work is not:
-Death worship (though a shadow worker may work with death energies/deities for support and facet energy)
-Obsession with darkness and pain
-An insistence to be mired in depression or negative emotion
-Chaos work (not that there’s anything wrong with chaos work at its core, it’s just not chaos)
-Being goth or emo (though again there’s no reason you couldn’t be goth or emo and do shadow work)
-Seeking out the worst aspect of a situation or forcing discomfort on a person
What Shadow Work is:
Shadow work is sort of an awesome practice in that it’s easily described in a single word: balance.
Okay, so it’s not that easily described. Shadow work is about integration of what could be called primal emotion, and acceptance that all experience is necessary to a point as an expression of the human condition. Which isn’t the same thing as saying that all experience is healthy, optimal, or desirable, but to be fully human means that you experience ‘darker’ emotions or feel pain, as well as the light and love that takes center stage in modern Western society.
It does not mean that a shadow worker lets anger take over or attempts to cause harm on another individual because ‘that’s what happens in the human life cycle!’ I really want to stress that. Shadow work is NOT the same thing as being an asshole.
What shadow work is attempting to do is bring all emotional expression in alignment, valuing it, and giving it the room to be processed and released. So it is the attempt to heal old emotional wounds, and learn how to handle future situations without either denying anger/pain/stress by bottling them up or forcing them down, and learning self healing and soothing techniques to reduce the intensity of those emotions in the first place.
Shadow works ironically by increasing the role of light in the life cycle in that sense. Shadow workers actually greatly value the beauty and grace in mundane existence because we do acknowledge that life brings with hardship and eventual death. How each worker does that will vary, depending on the base path-I walk a type of shamanistic path that includes a lot of work with what could be called hardship deities like Baba Yaga, who teach wisdom through intense (truly intense at times) work and through the valuing of things like hearth work and homesteading to extend out the usage of resources. There are other workers who are healers and artists and therapists. There is no one way to do shadow.
Should a Person do Shadow Work?
This is one of the few times where I will say that everyone should be engaged in a practice. I do actually feel that a person is happier, healthier, and more balanced when shadow is allowed as a practice into their established belief set. Because shadow work can be as minor as ‘right now, today is bad, but that’s okay, life will get better some day’, there’s no reason -not- to do it-and people really do seem to find greater peace by facing and feeling darker emotions and acknowledging their own flaws.
It is a slow path though and I do want to stress that this integration isn’t a fast fix. You will not be able to do shadow work on a three day retreat and come back completely whole. However, even short term work will allow for more healing and greater integration than what existed prior.
What about Hedge Riding?
I sometimes get asked about mood altering substances in relation to shadow work.
The down and dirty answer is that while I acknowledge and respect the role of such things in traditional shamanism, I don’t use them (with the exception of lower than normal social alcohol use and a handful of supplements for depression), and I’m not sure that it’s a great idea for someone just starting out on shadow path work. Not until you know what your psyche is actually holding onto, and -only under the guidance of someone fully trained in their usage and only in an environment where they’re legal-. I have heard horror stories of terrible trips because people were chasing enlightenment, and trying to ‘prove’ to an unsympathetic legal system that you really were using for religious reasons is a nightmare, or so I’ve been told.
Don’t cast deeper shadows by doing something dicey when walking meditations, while slower, get you to the same place both ethically and legally.
Do You Actually Have to Have a Religious Practice?
In fact, cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) is actually very grounded in mindfulness and other techniques that link into shadow, and is almost completely secular. There is absolutely no reason you have to bring deity of any form into this. This is purely digging around in your own psyche, and there’s no reason you have to be on a fully shadow path to do so.