Be(a)ware (of) the Shadow

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” That was the signature line of an American radio program in the 1930s, a show which became so popular that this line entered the American idiom. In this case, the Shadow was an anonymous narrator of crime mysteries, but the implication was that evil lurks in the shadows.

To fear the shadows is an innate human reflex. We fear the unknown, the unseen, the unacknowledged. We perceive it in some way as dangerous to our well-being.

Carl Jung used “shadow” in a psychological sense: “The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.”

And so our personal shadow is the part of ourselves that we have refused to acknowledge — and if we don’t do so, it will be “acted out” all around us, in our relationships, our working life, our living circumstances. We may also project it onto others, seeing in them characteristics which are really in ourselves, but have been moved into our shadow. It isn’t to be feared. But it must be acknowledged, and perhaps even embraced.

When we’re born, we have no sense of anything being “unacceptable”. Regardless of whether one believes that an infant is born whole, and that we struggle the remainder of our lives to return to that pure state, or as a blank slate waiting to be filled with personality and experiences and ideas, or a being with original sin needing salvation — it remains that the infant has no initial concept of acceptability. But we learn. We learn that something we do displeases our primary caregivers upon whose good will our survival depends, and so we stop doing it. We learn that certain behaviors are acceptable in the family home, or in private, but not in society. We learn that certain people dislike particular characteristics, and so we deny them. We learn to ignore our traits that seem less than desirable to ourselves. Sometimes, traumatic events occur to us and we sublimate them in order to survive and function. And our cultures dictate a great deal of what we can and cannot do in order to maintain societal harmony.

On my morning walk to the beach for meditation at dawn, as I passed through a forested area and noted the fog and rain of this day, I discovered myself longing for my former life in Korea. As I’m still in transition between the life there and here in Hong Kong, it’s natural that I’m torn between the two — hanging in the balance. But this morning, I suddenly realized that I was “planning” for my return. And this works against the life that I’m building here. I loved my life there. I want this life here. I need to fully acknowledge this conflict in order to integrate these feelings and continue to create my new life.

What’s in your shadow? What, positive or negative, have you sublimated? What are you denying in yourself? If something you consider positive, the task may be to acknowledge and then reclaim it–allowing for that trait in yourself, or pursuing that activity or behavior. If there are aspects of your shadow that you consider to be negative, such as anger or judgment of others, the task is largely the same: to acknowledge it as yours, and then to discover ways to transform rather than deny it.

The shaman speaks of soul loss–when we’ve lost parts of our selves to the unknown, a loss which then creates disturbance in our lives. We need to discover what’s missing and then find and reintegrate it, transforming as needed.

And the shaman would ask: When did you stop singing? When did you stop dancing? When did you stop telling your stories? And when did you stop being comfortable with silence?

That’s the moment of loss. And a key to what’s missing…and how to get it back.

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