Embracing Our Shadow

How to look deeply into the eyes of your own shadow and embrace it with love


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When I worked in St James’s Church, Piccadilly, there was a wonderful quotation blue-tacked to one of the walls. If you walked from the adjoining rectory through to the church you could not avoid seeing it. It was a quotation from the Swiss psychiatrist and mystic, Carl Jung: One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

This comes from his book Alchemical Studies and in the same passage he goes on to write that this process of making the darkness conscious “is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

Never was a truer word written. Spiritual people will often do anything to avoid looking at their own faults and shadows. We could have a television talent competition for avoidance, denial and excuses.

Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome. And who is the winner today for denying their bad behavior, blaming others and maintaining a smug composure? Roll up. Roll up. Everyone welcome.

I always smiled when I passed the Jung quotation in the church. I liked the reality-check. I especially liked it because so many of the speakers on our program were naïve about the human condition. They delivered intriguing and inspiring ideas that promised better health, improved finances and more loving relationships.

You are probably very familiar with this type of teaching. Change your thoughts. Change your attitude. And you will attract whatever you desire.

But they did not acknowledge or understand our deeper shadows.

That type of teaching points in an interesting direction but is, in my opinion, misleading and shallow. It misleads because it ignores the huge unseen and unconscious material that is beneath the surface. It treats the human psyche as if what you see is what you get.

But human beings are like icebergs, only the tip showing. Below the water is a mass of psychological history, karma and ancestral influences.

More than that we are also animals, complex mammals, naked apes with powerful biological instincts. We loudly profess our spirituality — souls on immensely long journeys, developing heart and consciousness — but it would be gullible and immature to ignore our biology.

Look at some of the embedded instincts that can drive our feelings, thoughts and behavior: The need for food, shelter, status and comfort. Lust and loneliness. Pain, irritability, excitement and sloth. Responses to threat, rudeness and aggression.

You may think all these behaviors are just human. In fact they are driven by biology and you can clearly see them in other animals. (Don’t get in the way of a tired, hungry, irritated beast, whether it is a member of your family or an elephant in the jungle. Let them have tea first.)

But there is one biological drive that is particularly human and is especially challenging for us. Our mind-brains, our monkey-minds, are endlessly whirring with a compulsive neural drive to understand, interpret and comment on all that is happening. This never-ending chatter, which includes made-up stories and fictions, results from a biological drive that has ensured our species’ survival.

Our brains fill in gaps, so that we have a whole picture and story. You can see this in rudimentary form in animals: Grey clouds = Rain = Animals go to water hole = Dinner.

Our brains compulsively fill in gaps — and are often wrong! Someone promised to phone you and then doesn’t. Your brain makes up a story…

This continuous brain activity and our other biological drives trigger different levels of arousal. You see food you like and hormones of digestion are produced. You perceive a threat and your body responds with anxiety. You see something you like and your body responds with desire. Our minds and bodies are integrated in an intimate neuro-endocrinal anatomy. And our confabulating brains — creating the story, filling in the spaces — compulsively tells a story to relieve us from the anxiety of unknowing.

Those are the biological realities for all of us: the pursuit of food, survival, status and never-ending internal gibbering chatter.

It is problematic, isn’t it? Here we are, beautiful cosmic souls and we are incarnate in this flesh and blood activity. No wonder there are spiritual traditions that try to ignore the body or, even worse, punish it for being so biological.

It is important for people who are serious about spiritual development fully to understand these realities. Yes we are beautiful cosmic souls. And we are also biological creatures enmeshed in our personal and collective karma.

Look at the worst forms of human cruelty and you can see all of these dynamics converging and at work. Stupid, cruel, bestial behavior justified by internal stories of delusion. Exhausted, frightened, threatened, caught up in a herd dynamic, who knows what any of us might do?

Eckhart Tolle graphically refers to our shadow as the pain body and in A New Earth writes that it “is a semi-autonomous energy form that lives within most human beings…It has its own primitive intelligence, not unlike a cunning animal, and its intelligence is directed primarily at survival.”

All experienced spiritual practitioners are realistic about our shadows. There are, for example, wonderful Eastern paintings of serene meditators surrounded by terrible dragons, ghosts and ghouls all representing aspects of the shadow self.

We have to take all of this seriously, don’t we? Surely it merits our highest wisdom, insight and compassion. In acknowledging the shadow we are realistic about the challenges in our spiritual development. We can be strategic and wise in self-managing our growth. We no longer have to lose energy in fandangos of denial. We no longer have to guilt-trip ourselves as if there is something personally and uniquely wrong with us. Our shadow behaviors are all just part of the human condition.

So what’s my advice to help us along? It is no different from that of all wise spiritual traditions.

First, deepen your experience and connection with the wonder and benevolence of nature and cosmos. You need the fuel and motivation that come from being connected to the great mystery and benevolence of life. Commit to increasing surrender and openness to spirit.

Second, turn up the volume on your insightful and wise compassion. Open your heart more fully to the realities of the human condition, practicing acceptance, forgiveness, healing and integration.

And if none of that works you might try ice cream or a movie…anything that calms the beast. Until you are ready to make the moral and compassionate effort, to look deeply again into the eyes of your own shadow and embrace it with love.

William Bloom is Britain’s leading author and educator in the mind-body-spirit field with over thirty years of practical experience, research and teaching in modern spirituality. He is founder and co-director of The Foundation for Holistic Spirituality and the Spiritual Companions project. www.williambloom.com.

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