“Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” ~ Madalene L’Engle
You see the darkest blackest flag of your own despair whipping in a cruel wind. Its shadow is fierce and snapping inside you, filling you like hot smoke.
All of your guilt, all of your pain, every worry and every stress, all of your grief is there contained. All of your memories of angst and love-loss blasts through this shadowy self-apocalypse.
A vision of your birth, the suffocating feeling of birth-pangs, wracks your body. A vision of your death does the same. Everything else is crushed between.
The full-frontal meaninglessness of your tiny existence slams into you with such ferocity that you have no choice but to give in to the storm. You weep. You bleed existential fear. It tears you apart and puts you back together again. But before it does, it draws you to the brink of the Existential Black Hole.
It forces your head over the edge of its event horizon, showing you the end to all adventures, the end to all journeys. Your breath catches and drags. Your soul warbles in its sheath. You know now why you have chosen to embrace your shadow.
You would rather embrace the pain that comes from knowledge than the bliss that comes from ignorance. When you rise to your feet with a full heart, you’re aware that you are the universe itself rising with a full heart. And suddenly you are not so small…
Have no doubt: shadow-work is light work. Here are five compelling reasons why.
1) A sacred transformation of your shadow transforms the shadows
“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” ~ Spinoza
Despair can be a crippling thing, but it can also be motivational. Like Tyler Durden says in the movie Fight Club, “It’s only when we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” This is a liberating disposition that flips the tables on the concept of despair itself.
Likewise, a sacred transformation of your shadow has the power to transform the shadows themselves. It expands your perception, causing you to become more aware of what would otherwise become suppressed or dissociated. Life is a rollercoaster ride, filled with peaks and valleys.
We all too often express the peaks and repress the valleys. And why not? The highs are so wonderfully happy and the lows are so dreadfully melancholy.
But “if wisdom is defined by our ability to hold the tension between opposites,” as Loius G Herman claims, then does it not behoove us to hold the tension between peak and abyss, by becoming more aware of both, and by disclosing the abyss as much as we do the peaks?
Indeed, what you’ll discover in such disclosure will be nothing short of heroic, because facing your own shadow is the epitome of courage. Like Clarissa Pinkola Estés said, “As with any descent into the unconscious, there comes a time when one simply hopes for the best, pinches one’s nose, and jumps into the abyss. If this were not so, we would not have needed to create the words heroine, hero, or courage.”
2) You become more compassionate toward the shadow in others
“By accepting the inevitability of our shadow, we recognize that we are also “what we are not.” This humbling recognition restrains us from the madness of trying to eliminate those we hate and fear in the world.” ~ Loius G Herman
When we attempt to balance self-interest with a holistic perspective, we discover, as Socrates did, that deep self-interest actually involves concern for the altruistic good of the whole.
The same applies to the shadow. When we attempt to balance our shadow with the shadow of others, we discover that embracing our shadow actually involves embracing the shadow of others. This creates compassion for the fallibility of the human condition.
When we can recognize that no human being is perfect, including us, we can further appreciate our imperfections as a species and perhaps even garner a sense of humor about our fallibilities. True empathy is the ability to recognize and learn from the shadow in others and the hope that others can recognize and learn from the shadow in us.
With enough humor and enough learning, we might even reach a point where your shadow becomes my ally, and vice versa, thereby eliminating the parochial preachy programming of good-and-evil and replacing it with an updated platform of healthy-and-unhealthy discussion.
3) It gives you the courage to accept what you can’t change and change what you can’t accept
“Selfishness is not living your life as you wish. It is asking others to live their life as you wish.” ~ Oscar Wilde
One of the most powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and reveal your shadow to the light. Shadow on deck shines like diamonds in dark times.
Think Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump railing at the gods during the thunderstorm at sea. Think Maximus in Gladiator tossing swords at the rich, saying, “Are you not entertained?!”
The darkness of the shadow intensifies the light of the soul. It sends up flashes of intensity that brings hope to the courage of the heart. It builds a nest of ashes for a phoenix to burst from. It triggers appropriate matters to catch fire. It gives us the courage to accept what we can’t change and change what we can’t accept.
It gives us the courage to be an interdependent (ecocentric) force of nature first; and an individual (egocentric) person second. To display the shadow of the soul in dark times like these, to be fierce and to show courage to others, is an act of immense bravery in an otherwise cowardly world.
Struggling souls catch light from other courageous souls who are fully lit by both the light and the dark, and who are willing to show it. Like Nietzsche said, “The great epochs in our lives are at the points when we gain the courage to rebaptize our badness into the best in us.”
4) It teaches you the power of a good sense of humor and how not to take yourself too seriously
“Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.” ~ Mark Twain
The only way we evolve as a species is to learn from our mistakes. If we can move on with our own journey, with the knowledge of both the successes and the mistakes of our forefathers inside us, then we can discover new ways that make their ways obsolete. It’s a way of recycling the mastery.
Engaging the shadow is a powerful way of recycling the mastery, as it makes conscious the otherwise suppressed and dissociated mistakes of the collective unconscious. Like James Russell Lowell said, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”
This applies to what we can learn from the mistakes of our forefathers as well as to our own mistakes/successes. If enough time passes by, even the “good” that came from our understanding of things can eventually become uncouth.
This is because the only absolute in the universe is change, the only permanence is impermanence. Truth is a chameleon best recognized by the shadow. So it behooves us to have an unquenchable sense of humor.
Let’s work hard, but let’s play harder. Sincere play is the only way that the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold. Like Nietzsche wrote, “The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.” Let your shadow out to play. The playground has become grossly overworked. If we ever needed to go on recess it’s now.
5) It teaches you the power of amoral agency
“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. So aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
The moral is too good. The immoral is too bad. The amoral is just right. The Goody two-shoes fails to see past his own purity and righteousness –probably because he has not engaged with his shadow.
The villain fails to see past his own corruption and wickedness –probably because he has become a puppet to his shadow. The amoral agent sees through it all with a humor of the most high, empowered to pull his own strings in full-frontal engagement with both his shadow-side and his light-side: a walking, talking, laughing-out-loud, flexible yin-yang subsuming all dispositions under his banner of humor.
The amoral agent teaches us how to be fierce with our courage, how to be circumspect with our wisdom, and how to have fun with the sacred play of our inner-child.
The amoral agent realizes that one could just as easily replace “genius” with “shadow” in the following statement by Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Thomas, “If you bring forth the genius within you, it will free you. If you do not bring forth the genius within you, it will destroy you.”
Indeed, liberate yourself by bringing forth the shadow within you. Use it as a tool to awaken the too-moral Goody Two-shoes and the too-immoral villains of the world. Learn to balance your own light with your own shadow, and maybe you’ll earn the right to bring balance to the rest of us.
Surreal Self-portrait by Ben Zank
You can make a difference
Yin yang face
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