Dragons and princesses: the magic and power of the shadow

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I’m feeling resistance to delving further into this topic of the shadow. It demands honesty and strips off masks. With nothing to hide behind, I tell myself it’s too hard or it’s all been said before. What can I possibly add to the conversation? And yet this resistance itself is a perfect invitation, a dare to keep going. Shadow is not only a repository of shame and evil. It’s a treasure house of insight for those with the courage to look.

As slippery and tricky as the shadow is to pin down, we encounter it daily just by living life. Whatever shows up to block my way, to challenge and frighten me—that’s showing me my shadow. When a person or situation brings up strong emotion—especially aversion, fear, anger, or shame—that’s revealing something deeply buried. Either I know about it and thought it was safely under lock and key, or it’s been so long ignored, denied, or unacknowledged, I’m taken by surprise. Being blindsided happens less often now, but it does happen.

I came into this thinking that the most destructive aspects of our ingrained cultural story are reflections of my own shadow and everyone else’s. Now I have this radical idea: what if it’s just the opposite! My shadow, and everyone else’s, contains tremendous magic and power, and is just what we need to fuel the shift to new stories. Rilke saw this, in his Letters to a Young Poet:

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. . . . How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment transform into princesses; perhaps the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything that frightens us is in its deepest essence something helpless that wants our love.”

Years ago, I studied a rich reader called, “Meeting the Shadow.” In it, there’s a fascinating passage about our relationship to the web of life. Far from being the good news of belonging, one late 19th century lecturer framed it as being caught in a trap. He despaired of ever throwing off “the bonds that subject us to nature.” What an odd notion! And yet, so telling: our entire modern world reflects that intense aversion to the truth that we are one among many, not the center of it all. And that nature is a kind of prison from which we yearn to escape. Whether it’s factory farming, deep ocean oil drilling, genetic engineering, fracking or space travel, our entire world seems predicated on proving that we can break those bonds.

The creation of such a world requires burying and suppressing whole swaths of reality, which is the very process by which the shadow is created. Anything that doesn’t belong goes underground. Our hyper-materialistic, rational, achievement driven, nature hating culture has driven into the shadows the spiritual, the feminine, intuitive, receptive, creative, nonlinear aspects of reality.

It’s not enough to say we just have to rebalance and reintegrate these aspects and everything will be a-okay. There’s a reason the shadow is the shadow: owning it, let alone giving it expression in the external world, feels dangerous, subversive, even life-threatening. Certainly, anyone who dares to embody such qualities overtly will be shunned by the dominant society, or worse. So when I feel tremendous resistance to stepping out into the light with this, it’s from a deep, ancient, even primitive place of fear of my very survival.

I get caught up in thinking this resistance is my own, that I’m trying to spare my closest relationships the pain of seeing me withdraw from the world, from witnessing my loss of faith in the system that raised me and made all those promises. I went along with the program to avoid rocking the boat, but I have to stop now. The more I consider this, the more I believe this is not my own, single journey. (I was going to say “battle” there, but language matters.) This is a larger calling, the stirring of a sleeping giant that can only be awakened by a quorum of us. Yes, it seems like a dragon from where we sit right now. But it’s really a princess and she’s been sleeping long enough. She wants our love. Time to wake her up.

Read the first and second posts of this series.

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