Hello Darkness: Making Peace With Your Shadow Self

As published in OM Times Magazine, October B 2012

We do ourselves a disservice, we who seek spirituality, who probe the reaches of meditative consciousness, who work with light, who speak to Angels, who hold space for the planet, who just generally do what we can to evolve.  But we’re missing something here; we’re only getting half of the story.  In fact, we are denying a basic part of our humanity.  We’re not doing it on purpose, not really. We’re reacting to conditioning, to the way things always have been.   We’ve been told the bad parts of ourselves, the dark side, is evil and that it must be oppressed. This is not inherent of light workers, but of the entire human population. As Debbie Ford, author of The Shadow Effect, says, we’ve learned, over the course of our lives how to “behave” and “be good” and “look good.” It’s as if the other side of the coin never existed at all. At least that’s what we would tell ourselves.

But it’s a huge lie. The other side of the coin does exist. It’s just as much a part of us as the light side; you cannot have one without the other. But that’s awfully scary, isn’t it? Knowing that the dark space, where the wild things are, is also a part of you and a part of your “spirituality.” Karl Jung called this the shadow. Sigmund Freud would call it the ego. Luke Skywalker would call it the dark side. It is part of the contrast of the Universe, the give-and-take and the duality that makes us who we are.  Where the light meets the dark is where the things begin to jump out at us in stark relief.  That’s when things get the scariest and when we see the dark parts of ourselves blown up against the backdrop of our otherwise pristine lives, like a toothy shadow puppet.  In this moment we tend to run away from those places within ourselves.  We don’t want to admit that we could be unfaithful, addicts, liars, imperfect.  So we numb the pain of this reality, or we escape it, or put up a front so that we can hide it from ourselves and others.  But the more we do this, the farther and farther we fall from our true selves and purpose.

Escapism doesn’t work.  So many of us who are trying to walk the spiritual path are actually running frantically away from that which can make us stronger.  In this way, some of us use spiritual practices to escape instead of confront our issues since, let’s be honest here, looking at the worst in ourselves is a terrifying proposition.  Maybe you’re trying to be compassionate, but you’re actually discovering through the process just how dispassionate you are.  Or maybe you’re working on loving yourself, but in that process see how much you’ve mistreated yourself throughout your life.  And still there are some who are trying to forgive and discovering the places within themselves that prevent forgiveness, both self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. Or maybe you are a recovering alcoholic and you deny the places within yourself that make you want to drink until it becomes so painful, you can’t help but fall back into the bottle to numb the pain. It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re hung up on.  We all have those places, and going down into them is actually a place of power and renewal.

The first thing that we must do is have enough self-love to want to embrace these unsavory aspects of ourselves.  You have got to have a lot of love and compassion for yourself to want to stare down the icky places lurking within.  The Buddhists call this maitri, or loving kindness for yourself.  Maitri is taught in the context of meditation.  More specifically, when things arise in meditation that are less-than-desirable (I know you all know what I mean) and we aren’t having a particularly productive session, we allow it all to be ok.  Maitri allows us to have a friendliness with ourselves to allow emotion to rise and recede without handing out too much self-criticism.

We can take maitri and extrapolate it out to the rest of our lives and use it to calm the shadow self.  Less-than-desirable things are bound to crop up out of the shadow self from time to time and they can tempt us to deal with them in an unhealthy way. But by looking at emotions, unkind thoughts, aggression or ego-grasping with an air of kindness toward ourselves, we can begin to soften towards the dark places.  It’s almost as though the longer we look at the darkness, the more light we pour into the space and the less frightening it becomes.  The shadow self, while still present, has less power over us.  In fact, we reclaim the power the shadow self held and we can move forward in our lives with a little more of ourselves, becoming more and more whole all the while.

Learning to embrace these imperfections and inherent duality within ourselves is a gateway to deeper self-realization and higher spiritual living.  Through the shadow self, we have the opportunity to enter enlightenment.