The Shadow

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
Carl Jung

The ‘shadow’ is a term originally used by the great Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung to designate the darker regions of our psyche, the space where all those aspects of our Self that have not been accepted end up. Jungian Therapist Aniela Jaffe describes the shadow as the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life.”

When you were born, you were born with a ‘360 degree personality’, energy radiating freely in all directions. A child is a “living globe of energy” (Robert Bly). But you were born into a family where some of your energetic expressions were acceptable and some weren’t acceptable. For example, in parenting narratives of the modern West, it is generally considered more acceptable if your baby is ‘happy and contented’. When a baby smiles, we say ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’. Any other emotions are less acceptable from the very earliest days of life. This is not true in all cultures. In studies of babies in Masai and New Guinea tribes and in Brazilian shanty towns, the babies that cried the most were labelled ‘fighters’ and deemed more likely to survive (Graham Music, Nurturing Natures, p.32).

An enemy is like a treasure found in my house, won without labor of mine; I must cherish him, for he is a helper in the way to Enlightenment.

As mammals, and especially as human beings, our biggest drive is attachment. We will do anything to stay close to our primary caregivers. So, over time, we adopt strategies to manage the parts of ourselves that, if given full expression, would damage our primary connection to our caregivers. In this sense, the shadow is a verb more than a noun: it is an active function of the psyche. In the family context, we can also think of ‘the black sheep’ of the family. As a Psychotherapist, I see this process happening all the time: one child becomes the container of all the shadow projections of the family: they become the black sheep.

The shadow is not a ‘negative’. Those aspects of our self that we disown contain vital energy and creative potential. Jacquelyn Small calls it ‘holy grit’: it’s the sandpaper in your psyche that rubs you raw until you make it conscious. Some talk of the ‘golden shadow’, the aspects of our self that we disowned which are actually just positive. An example of a golden shadow might be that when you were younger you loved to sing and dance, but your parents or bullies at school told you that you were rubbish, they ridiculed and shamed you, so you disowned the natural performer aspect of yourself. Can you think of a quality that you are ashamed to express in your current life, because of conditioning from your childhood?

To make light is to make shadow; one cannot exist without the other.
Robert Johnson

To understand the shadow, you also have to understand the psychic function of projection. When you perceive the world, you don’t perceive the world as it actually is. Instead, information comes into your body through your senses - which are themselves limited. Then your brain and body process this information, and generate your perception based on a multitude of filters. Think of the filters you can use on your iPhone camera. It’s like that but way more complex, and less under our conscious control. Let's call one of these filters the ‘projection filter’. The projection filter adds a layer onto the image we have of other people that includes the disowned parts of our self. So, let's say you disowned your inner performer, it is likely that when you see someone else performing freely that you will project onto them your unresolved shadow. You will either resent them and come up with reasons to criticise them, or you will put them on a pedestal and fall in love with them.

The shadow is also both personal and collective. When you grow up, you find the same rules apply in the society in which you live: in many Western societies, happiness is the most acceptable emotion - although in the UK, with our deeply conditioned ‘stiff upper lip’, you better not be too happy. The other feelings (sadness, anger, jealousy) get disowned so that you can ‘fit in’. The version of you that is most acceptable to your family and your society is called your ‘persona’. This is the walled garden. The bits of you that you disowned, they don’t disappear: they are right there just outside the walls of this garden, lurking in our shadow, and if we don’t go and feed them, then they will find ways to break into our walled garden.

I guess we’re all two people. One daylight, and the one we keep in shadow.
Bruce Wayne/Batman

The shadow is also deeply political. Let me share 3 examples.

The first and most troubling example is the scapegoating of Jews and other minorities in Hitler’s Germany. Interestingly, the first accounts of the idea of a scapegoat appear in the Old Testament, where a goat is ritually sent out into the desert carrying away all of the sins of the people. The ideology of the Aryan race was of a super-human race. In order to violently hold onto this ideal, the less human or more animal qualities were projected onto the Jews and other groups. These groups were the scapegoats carrying all the ‘sins’ and unresolved shadow material of the German people. These groups were depicted as vermin, as untermenschen (sub-humans), and because of this dehumanising ideology, it was easy to blame the Jews and other minority groups for all the economic and social problems of the German people. It was also easy to justify exterminating them, just as you would any ‘vermin’. As another bright Jungian, Robert Johnson, explains:

“The tendency to see one’s shadow “out there” in one’s neighbor or in another race or culture is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche. It has created two devastating wars in this century and threatens the destruction of all the fine achievements of our modern world. We all decry war but collectively we move toward it. It is not the monsters of the world who make such chaos, but the collective shadow to which every one of us has contributed.”

A second example of this type of shadow is in the political correctness of the progressive Left. I have a personal story of this shadow playing out. I was having dinner with some old friends, and we were talking about gay marriage. One of these friends said: ‘I think it's wrong that two gay men are allowed to have children.’ This comment instantly pressed my ‘outrage’ button. I got really shouty and shaming and soon managed to get this person to back down. But in the middle of this experience, I caught a glimpse of the shadow at play. I realised that in shaming this person with my outrage, I was actively participating in a wider problem. The rise of populism in recent times, as most alarmingly represented by Donald Trump, is in many ways a backlash against political correctness. When you shame people into feeling like they can’t express their views in public, then these views go into the shadow, where they grow more and more powerful.

I remember seeing the musical Avenue Q a few years ago, and feeling very liberated by one of their songs: “Everyone's a little bit racist.”  Hatred and unfair discrimination of any sort does of course need to be challenged. But if we challenge it from a place of outrage and shaming, without an honest relationship to our own shadow, then we are simply creating problems for ourselves further down the line.

The third example of the political nature of the shadow is terrorism. People living in Western democracies are in many ways very blessed. Our nation states have built up their garden walls to such an extent that most of the time these days we go about our day without fearing for our lives. But even though these garden walls are so high and so strong, there are still demons that lurk outside them. Geographically speaking, we have cut ourselves of from violence, and projected it far, far away into countries that we will never visit, which we bomb using drones, meaning the risk to our ‘people’ is at an absolute minimum. But as the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes, the creation of a huge space empty of political violence also entails a shadow. This empty space acts as a sounding board:

“amplifying the impact of any armed attack, however small. The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism. Killing 17 people in Paris draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence make them particularly vulnerable to terrorism...After centuries of bloody struggles, we have crawled out of the black hole of violence, but we feel that the black hole is still there, patiently waiting to swallow us again.”

So we respond to terrorism in the same way that the ego responds to any signs of the shadow emerging: we try to eliminate it. We only need look at the War in Iraq, and the birth of ISIS in post-war Iraq, to realise how shadow-blind this strategy is. Carolyn Baker says that: “In order to protect its own control and sovereignty, the ego instinctively puts up a great resistance to the confrontation with the shadow; when it catches a glimpse of the shadow, the ego most often reacts with an attempt to eliminate it.”

This is why shadow work is deeply ‘radical’. We can get to the roots of our personal and the political condition we live in, when we turn towards our shadow.

Ok. So by now you should have a pretty solid understanding of the shadow.

It’s important to remember that where there is culture, there is shadow. You can’t have one without the other. So this is not about eliminating the shadow. It’s about becoming more conscious of it in our psyches and in our lives.

So, here are some compelling reasons why you should have a practice of relating to your shadow self:

  1. It is essential on the path to awakening that you shine the light on your own darkness. As Jung says, “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

  2. This is a deeply spiritual practice. If our intention is to recover a sense of wholeness (‘healing’ means ‘making whole’), then we can only do this by making a space for the darker aspects of our psyche. As Robert Johnson says, “Whenever you have a clash of opposites in your being and neither will give way to the other you can be certain that God is present. We dislike this experience intensely and avoid it at any cost; but if we can endure it, the conflict-without-resolution is a direct experience of God. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. Heroism could be redefined for our time as the ability to stand paradox.”

  3. When you develop the courage to face your shadow, you will unleash infinite amounts of vital energy and creative potential. Maintaining the walls of this perfectly manicured garden and keeping the demons out requires a lot of energy. This is one reason why people consume intoxicants in social situations - they either need more energy to maintain their persona, or the demons take charge and get you to intoxicate yourself so that the walls of your garden come tumbling down.

  4. Liberate yourself from guilt and shame.

  5. Heal your relationships, by withdrawing your projections.

  6. Be an active participant in creating a more beautiful tomorrow. If more people owned their shadow, the world would be a better place.


Here are a selection of the best practices I have discovered to work with your shadow.

  1. Getting to know your shadow Listen to the a meditation on the shadow here.

  2. Shadow Ritual Create or find spaces where you are able to let out your shadow self. As Robert Johnson says, the unconscious cannot tell the difference between a “real” act and a symbolic one. So when you give a space to your shadow, even if symbolically, it no longer needs to break down the walls of your garden. If you have a sacred space, find an object that represents your shadow elements, place it in your sacred space, and find a way to honour it. You can light a candle by it, or meditate upon the object. In Tibetan Buddhism, they call this kind of work feeding meat to the demons.

  3. Dream Work This is probably the deepest way to really work with your shadow. If you pay attention to your dreams, you will find that the shadow is regularly showing up there. When remembering your dreams, ask yourself: what lesson is the shadow bringing to me?

  4. Projection Awareness This is a simple practice to use in daily life. Become aware of the projections you make onto other people or groups of people. Pay close attention to two types of projection:
    a) idolisation;
    b) resentment/blame.
    Whenever these are present, you can be fairly certain that your shadow is at play. This doesn’t mean that we condone negative behaviour. It does mean that we first find the place in ourselves where that negative behaviour is also an aspect of our self. To start this process, you can ask yourself the following question: think of last person who irritated you - do you have permission to be that way in your life?

  5. Embodied Shadow Work  This is the most direct way to work with your shadow. As a founding member of our community Lauren explained, ‘the body is a goldmine’. Listen to this meditation here to go deeper with this.

Recommended Reading List:

  1. C.G.Jung: Psychology And Religion

  2. Robert Johnson: Owning Your Own Shadow

  3. Connie Zweig (ed.): Meeting The Shadow: The Hidden Power of The Dark Side of Human Nature

  4. Carolyn Baker: Dark Gold: The Human Shadow and The Global Crisis

  5. Barbara Brown Taylor: Learning To Walk In The Dark (A good excerpt here.)

From The Secret of The Golden Flower:

The Golden Flower is the Light. What color has the light? One uses the Golden Flower as an image. It is the true power of the transcendent Great One. The work on the circulation of the Light depends entirely on the backward-flowing movement, so that the thoughts are gathered together (the place of Heavenly Consciousness, the Heavenly Heart). The Heavenly Heart lies between sun and moon (i.e., the two eyes).

In the purple hall of the city of jade dwells the god of utmost emptiness and life. The Confucians call it the center of emptiness; the Buddhists, the terrace of life; the Taoists, the ancestral land, or the yellow castle, or the dark pass, or the space of former Heaven. The Heavenly Heart is like the dwelling place, the Light is the master. Therefore when the Light circulates, the powers of the whole body arrange themselves before its throne, just as when a holy king has taken possession of the capital and has laid down the fundamental rules of order, all the states approach with tribute, or, just as when the master is quiet and calm, men-servants and maids obey his orders of their own accord, and each does his work.

Therefore you only have to make the Light circulate: that is the deepest and most wonderful secret. The Light is easy to move, but difficult to fix. If it is allowed to go long enough in a circle, then it crystallizes itself: that is the natural spirit -body. This crystallized spirit is formed beyond the nine Heavens. It is the condition of which it is said in the Book of the Seal of the Heart: Silently in the morning thou fliest upward.

In carrying out this fundamental truth you need to seek for no other methods, but must only concentrate your thoughts on it. The book Leng Yen says: By collecting the thoughts one can fly and will be born in Heaven. Heaven is not the wide blue sky, but the place where the body is made in the house of the creative. If one keeps this up for a long time, there develops quite naturally in addition to the body, yet another spirit-body.

The Golden Flower is the Elixir of Life (literally, golden ball, golden pill). All changes of spiritual consciousness depend upon the Heart. Here is a secret charm, which, although it works very accurately, is yet so fluent that it needs extreme intelligence and clarity, and complete absorption and calm. People without this highest degree of intelligence and understanding do not find the way to apply the charm; People without this utmost capacity for concentration and calm cannot keep fast hold of it.