Entering the Shadow, Do Not Turn Away

A spiritual teacher from the East, amused by Americans’ obsession with psychotherapy, shrugged, “If you want to change your personality, do it now. When you’re enlightened you won’t care.” Many spiritual seekers choose not to care way ahead of schedule. They think they can do an end run around the dark side and dash painlessly to the light. Their assumption—or wishful thinking—is that spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, prayer and the like, will either eliminate their hang-ups, weaknesses and internal conflicts completely, or at least make them irrelevant, like wispy clouds that float past the sun without diminishing its radiance. One image that’s used to illustrate this position is that of a train: spirituality in this view is the locomotive that pulls all other aspects of human development—psychological maturity, morality and ethics, cognitive ability, emotional intelligence, etc.—behind it at an even pace.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Life does tend to get better when we embark on a spiritual path. Disciplined practices can smooth out some of our rough edges and heal some emotional wounds. But most of us find that a lot of our “stuff” is not so easily discarded; like cans tossed into the ocean, they keep washing up on the shores of our lives and messing things up. In the long run most spiritual voyagers find that they can’t accomplish all of their growth and healing by focusing solely on the spiritual aspect of life. It’s as though the various parts of ourselves were not being pulled by the locomotive of spirituality, but rather moving along on separate developmental tracks, with each one having to be attended to.

If, in the name of spirituality, we turn away from the challenge of psychological growth, we end up neglecting a vital area of development. Ironically, by doing so, we can actually slow down our spiritual progress. Why? Because we will create problems in our relationships, our careers and other aspects of life, perhaps even our physical health, and how good can that be for our spiritual development?

There are three excellent reasons why shying away from the shadow side of our psyches is not a good idea:

  1. What you resist persists. It may sound like a New Age cliche at this point, but it’s still true: the more you suppress, the more likely it is that you will be unprepared when some buried part of your personality rises up and bites you, forcing you to deal with tendencies you consider ugly or frightening.
  2. You imprison the good stuff too. It’s not just harmful, undesirable traits that we hide in the basement of the subconscious, but also some of our gifts—our passions, our exuberance, our creativity, our unique talents and other qualities that can enrich our lives when we bring them into the light of day, where we can see their beauty and put them to good use.
  3. It can obstruct spiritual development. It’s not easy to achieve wholeness when you’re suppressing vital parts of yourself. When, in the name of spiritual progress, we try to steer around the shadows, it can be like moving into the passing lane only to run into a traffic jam. How can we locate inner peace when our mind roils with anxiety, or open up to divine love when we hate ourselves, or taste the rapture of holiness when we’re sad, worried or blocked. On the other hand, if we resolve our psychological issues in a healthy manner, we might actually liberate our soul’s capacity for love, joy, compassion and reverence.

In declaring ourselves to be Spirit, we have to be wary of refuting our humanness. Unfortunately, we often think that moving toward the light means turning our backs on the darkness. But we are better served if we look into our shadows with unabashed honesty and usher what we find into the light. Once it is visible we can see it for what it is—not shameful or fearsome, but a part of ourselves that we can learn from and dance with, not just for the joy of fully embodied human expression but for spiritual uplift as well. That is why Rumi, the great Sufi poet, offered this advice: “The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.”

What you find lurking in the shadows can be placed in one of these categories:

  • Toxic waste. This stuff is holding you back in one way or another; it might even be causing genuine harm. It has to be processed with the aim of eliminating it, bringing it under control or reshaping it.
  • Comic relief. Some aspects of the shadow are relatively harmless—fixed personality traits that help shape our uniqueness. Work toward accepting these qualities, and perhaps observing them with a sense of humor, as if they were characters in a sitcom.
  • Buried treasure. These untamed aspects of the psyche hold the potential for adventure, passion and creative expression. It can be liberating to explore parts of yourself that may have scared you before, and to expose yourself to experiences that evoke powerful feelings. Just be careful not to go so far that you lose control of the reins.

Making peace with the shadow is a crucial part of the spiritual path. “There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection,” wrote Carl Jung. “To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness.”

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021