We can’t see the shadow but we know it’s there


“When you turn to the sun, all shadows fall behind you.” ~ African proverb

I usually visualize the shadow as a dark cavern deep inside me, the kind you have to swim to the bottom of a lake to find, and that leads almost to the center of the earth. I like this proverb because it provides another image. The shadow follows us wherever we go. Maybe it can even take on a life of its own. In the second book of the children’s series, Peter and the Starcatchers, the evil Lord Ombra steals people’s shadows to possess them, read their thoughts and enslave them. The shadow is imagined as a kind of repository for an individual’s essence, but the fact remains that it is ever and always behind me. I never can turn around and face it squarely.

In the Tantric tradition, the back body is aligned with the universal, the front with the individual. This is a wonderful way to imagine wholeness: it’s in our body that we integrate our uniqueness with the wider world. The front is our place of effort, of being who we are in the world. The back is the unknown, the unseen, and yet it is always there, ready to support and help us when needed. This fits nicely with the classic teaching that the shadow is part of our childhood survival toolkit.

From our first days, we receive feedback from those closest to us about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The rejected stuff—including emotions, ideas, values, attributes—gets stuffed down a dark well deep inside of us. We are so hard wired for this that we are not able to distinguish well-meaning guidance from prejudice, healthy role models from bad parenting. Our shadow formation does not discriminate between the dangerous—say, homicidal tendencies—and the useful qualities that we’ll need to lead fulfilled lives as adults.

The shadow has layers. There’s the dark, evil stuff we all have: that’s ancient and universal. Then there’s the shadow created by familial and cultural narratives. I picture it as an accumulation of junk heaping on top of older junk, the cellar of a family home for generations. My mother’s shadow contains her parents’ shadows, and so on. Whatever doesn’t fit the cultural or familial or personal stories gets buried beneath norms, expectations and ideologies.

Eventually, I have had to come to terms with my shadow stuff. Driven by perfectionism, I was unable to be satisfied by any job for longer than a few years. I was an outsider to my body and emotions, uncomfortable in my own skin, and rarely able to be authentic in my closest relationships. In short, I was ruled by fear and anxiety, exhausted by the effort to appear normal. From the outset, I’ve been intrigued by the promise that the shadow is a treasure house, containing superpowers that we have only to excavate in order to claim. If that’s not motivation enough, there’s also the warning that if we do not integrate our darkness, it will destroy us. Just look at what happened to Macbeth.

I went into shadow work with a sense of urgency to fix all of the above as quickly as possible so I could get on with the rest of my life. Ten years in, I’ve settled into viewing it with curiosity, as a source of endless fascination and contradiction. This is a long-term project with no ending. The more I learn, the more there is to learn. It’s less about dredging up icky muck from the depths to expose to light and cleanse, and more about learning to tolerate discomfort and to appreciate the mess.

In that vein, I will go ahead and admit that I’ve been working on this for the better part of three hours and I still can’t quite grasp what wants to be said. I even took a walk with the dog, a trick that has always worked in the past. Now I’m just going to give up and post it. Maybe one of you can tell me what I’m not able to see.

This is the fourth of a series. Start with the first one, or skip to the second or third.

3 thoughts on “We can’t see the shadow but we know it’s there

  1. “From the outset, I’ve been intrigued by the promise that the shadow was a treasure house, containing superpowers…”

    That intrigued me as well, Julie. I heard there was gold in them there caverns! The monsters guarding the gold presented demonic. But I discovered they frightened me because I journeyed alone. Culture teaches that solo journey is wrong, bad, evil, foolish so don’t go alone. Once I realized I could and MUST take this particular journey alone, those scary sentinels assisted me. That’s all they wanted…to be viewed as allies and not enemies needing banishing or destruction.

    The gold truly lay everywhere along my cavern walls. I brought back all I could carry.
    its value

  2. The shadow is everywhere depending on where we are standing at the moment. Sometimes in front, sometimes beside us, sometimes behind us. It moves with us shaped by the part of the light we absorb. Think about how you paint shadows. The colors change yet the substance stays the same.

  3. Love this, Gail – the scary sentinels become allies. That’s been my experience, too. And, Duane – thanks for the image of painting shadows. I’m going to paint later today and will definitely keep this in mind. One thing for now – they go in last and make the painting come alive.

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