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Spiritual Life and Our Shadow

Carl Jung, a 19th century Swiss psychoanalyst whose work bridges the gap between psychology and spirituality, understood our Shadow to be where we hide all the bits of ourselves we think are shameful or primitive. It is that aspect of our nature that is cast into the unconscious and held there in the dark to protect our conscious life from what we feel may be unacceptable, either to ourselves or to others.

As we bury these unwanted parts of ourselves, they gradually become blind spots held in the darkness through denial. It is important, however, to understand that the Shadow does not go away by repression and denial - by burying it in our depths. We may be spared conscious knowledge of it, but it goes on influencing much of what we do even though we cannot recognise it. It lives in our hidden agendas and secret intentions, and sometimes painfully and unexpectedly erupts when our particular personal buttons are pushed.

It also lives in what we project onto others – the things about others that we find repeatedly annoying or that disturb us in some way. From a Jungian point of view, the alleged evils that Hitler saw in Jewish people were none other than his own Shadow impulses. But he wasn't even dimly aware of this, for his views were all righteousness and truth for him, as too often ours can be to us.

To deny our Shadow is to live in unreality. If I want to maintain an image of myself as innocent, superior and righteous, then I can only do so at the cost of truth. Denying our Shadow can amount to living a half-life devoid of awareness, growth, healing and change.

Christians are sometimes aided in their avoidance of an honest encounter with the disavowed shadow parts of themselves by unhelpfully labelling them as sin. Often they are quite dark and can appear to be frightening, even evil. But, as Jung reminds us, the Shadow’s darkness is a result of its being deprived the light of consciousness. No part of the self is inherently evil, although clearly we are capable of doing great evil. Evil can, however, gain in power within us when we deny the reality of inner existences that frighten us.

Jung found in his work that the brighter, more positive, and ‘good’ conscious life becomes, the darker our Shadow also becomes. We can't eliminate our Shadow, only expose it. So the challenge we face is to gradually bring the Shadow into awareness. Otherwise our spirituality becomes a perpetual splitting of ourselves between what is labelled light, good and acceptable and what is unacceptable, dark or evil.

In modern times so much of our spirituality can be seen as being 'in the heights,' seeking ‘the light’ you might say. In our eagerness to become more aware, more ‘Godly’, we've only looked up. Jung called this ‘sun-like’ consciousness and it dominates Western Christianity. We've lost contact with the 'lower worlds' - with our passions, instincts, sexuality, desires. Indeed, as Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch so ably showed in his recent BBC TV series ‘Sex and the Church,’ Christianity, in particular, has deeply struggled in its relationship to aspects of being human such as sex and instinctual passion.

Often in modern times the Judeo-Christian orientation carries the fear that our 'lower half' represents original sin, our unworthiness, our shameful evil impulses. Under early Greek influence, particularly Platonism, we've separated off our body, with all its instinctual needs, from our soul - a separation unrecognisable to Old Testament theology. We have grown a religious culture of 'light' that banishes the 'dark side' and we have lost touch with the spiritual journey of descent. Yet the dark side is not eliminated simply by being denied and banished, and true 'soul' can be found in our depths, where we find our sense of vitality and aliveness.

Also, hidden within our Shadow can be the ‘hidden treasure’ of positive qualities and potential we need but have disowned for some reason, and are frightened of possessing. Distorted notions (from childhood, society or from particular religious contexts) of the unacceptability of certain qualities can mean we’ve buried potentially helpful, beneficial aspects of ourselves as well - often qualities such as strength and assertiveness for women; vulnerability and softness for men. Although, thankfully, these gender biases are breaking down in contemporary times.

Another common example is the person who has developed the distorted belief (particularly in spiritual circles) that to be assertive is to be self-orientated and to lack humility. So, they go through life being pushed around by others, deep down experiencing much resentment which, in turn, makes them feel guilty. In this case, their potential for assertiveness and resentment both form part of their Shadow.

Lately, I’ve heard several Christians say how they’ve imbibed a fear of conflict from childhood and religious conditioning, making this feel unacceptable to them, and something they, therefore, avoid entering into at all costs. Whilst we are indeed called to be peace makers, we nevertheless as Christians follow Jesus, who was deeply controversial and whose words and actions brought him constantly into conflict with religious powers. Ultimately, his willingness to engage in conflict, appropriately, led to his assassination on the Cross. Jesus didn’t avoid conflict – he died because of his engagement with it. Too many human atrocities eg the antisemitism of Nazi Germany, have been largely unopposed by the Christian church for fear of conflict, except for the few brave souls who, like Christ, gave their lives in opposition. Sometimes we can distort our religious notions and values, eg here about peace, to justify our own inner issues or neuroses, which can then colour and distort our whole perception of our spiritual path – more on this in my article on spiritual pathology.

Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our Shadow. It is in facing our conflicts and contradictions that we mature, as I explore in my Living with Paradox article. We largely remain unconscious as a human being until issues come into our lives that we cannot fix or control, and something challenges us at our present level of development, forcing us to expand and deepen. We come to full consciousness, or wakefulness as the term Jesus so often used, precisely by shadowboxing, facing our own contradictions, and making friends with our own mistakes and failings (for more on this see my blog on the spirituality of imperfection). As Julian of Norwich put it in her Middle English, "Sin is behovely!" It is in our places of failure that God grows us the most if we are willing and open. Carl Jung used to say if we can shed a little light on our own darkness it will remove some of the larger darkness from the world.

So, it is in the struggle with our Shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of awareness. Embracing our Shadow is essential if we are truly to know ourselves. And self-knowledge and inner truth are vital to any spiritual journey (for my comments on this link between spiritual and psychological growth read The History of Spiritual Direction).

How is the Shadow encountered?

We can start to recognise our Shadow when we repeatedly see in an 'other' (an individual, group, organisation, society etc) something we do not like, and begin to feel judgmental about it. What we dislike in others is actually something we likely have disowned and struggle with in the depths of our own self, something hidden within our Shadow. So, those, for example, who seek to avoid conflict, probably find themselves seeing others in terms of this quality - positively and negatively. For how we view the outside world is ultimately a projection of our own inner world. We have to face the difficult possibility that what we encounter in others might also be in us as a capacity or hidden quality.

In some ways, the ancient Christian discipline of confession is about growth in self-knowledge and realisation, bringing the darkness we experience of ourselves regularly into the light and love of Christ's unconditional love via the one who hears our struggles. It’s an extraordinary resource for helping us constantly, and positively, stay in touch with our shadow nature, bringing it fully into the light of consciousness. But sometimes this wonderful process has become subsumed into what Fr Richard Rohr – a contemporary Franciscan monk and writer - has called a 'sin management' system, that instead perpetuates an ever-deepening sense of guilt and shame about oneself, that then pushes the Shadow deeper away into the depths of our unconscious. If we also carry images of a harsh, rejecting and unforgiving God (or perhaps a harsh, rejecting, unforgiving spiritual community), our tendency to try and hide bits of ourselves we deem unacceptable will be ever stronger.

How can we start to work with our Shadow?

We can start by noticing what we are judging - ''that's a selfish person... that's an arrogant person… that’s a weak person,'' etc. What we judge as negative we project onto others, so noticing these judgements gives us information about our own Shadow. The more unconscious we are of our Shadow side, the more apt we are to unknowingly project onto others what we fear and despise about ourselves.

In the process of spiritual accompaniment work, the whole atmosphere should be one of soft, gentle inquiry and unconditional acceptance, where the person can gradually access and reveal their hidden parts, if they so wish. Certainly, in the way I work I seek to create a context that welcomes all of the person. I deeply respect those who are able to acknowledge, and bring into the space, their realisation of aspects of their Shadow, for it shows the true depth of their commitment to their spiritual path.

The way forward is to move to accept our flawed and wounded selves (see Spirituality of Imperfection) and make peace with ourselves and all our inner paradoxes (see Living with Paradox). To 'go in peace' is not to be freed from the tensions of life and ourselves, but rather to be aware and work with them, finding the spaces within us to hold these tensions in balance.

We then can offer the difficult truths we uncover about ourselves into the divine loving embrace of God. When brought into the light we can see it for what it is, a lost fragment of self that was set aside because it didn’t seem to fit with who I thought I should be. We do not need to fix our Shadow, or resolve all our inner issues, to continue to grow. What we have to do is simply be open to the truths of our inner self.

And when we do start to face our own Shadow, we also find we become much more accepting, at a very deep level, of others.

‘To enter the darkness in trust is to emerge more whole…

To go further into the inner caverns of badness and self-hatred, with steadiness and courage, is to emerge into a broad place…

a place of greater honesty and clarity in encounters with others…

a place of greater ability and enjoyment in loving and being loved by friends…

a place of greater strength and compassion…

Give me a Candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the springs of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making. Out of the deeps I cry to you, O God.’

From ‘Prayer at Night: A Book for the Darkness’ by Jim Cotter.

In part 2 Working with our Shadow, I look at deeper ways we can start to work with our Shadow in the spiritual life. For further reflections on how we can distort our understanding and practice of our spiritual path, please see my article on Spiritual Pathology.

Image 'Meditation at the Lake' by H. Kopp-Delaney & used gratefully under Creative Commons license.

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