Why shadow work is the missing link of most spiritual practice and self-help.
The spiritual industry: what’s missing
This is a touchy subject that may trigger some (for reasons I will explain). There is something very important missing from much of the modern spiritual industry. We look after our physical body by exercising and eating well. We balance our energy through yoga, Qi Gong and various energy healing modalities, and nourish our minds through meditation, work, study, and stimulating conversation. But way too often we are not taught much at all about our emotions; how to recognise or live with them – except perhaps that certain emotions are ‘bad’ and to be avoided.
This is the reason why so many people, despite all their best efforts, stay stuck. It’s the reason why, in spite of doing all the ‘right things’, our life still doesn’t flow and we end up unhappy and in pain, repeating our old dysfunctional patterns. Let me explain.
Bringing light into the dark
The whole business of becoming ‘conscious’ is really about bringing consciousness into that which is unconscious. In other words, it is about bringing light into the darkness. This is not possible by only concentrating on light, love, and joy (as nice as they are). There is an epidemic and compulsive avoidance of the dark which some of this industry promotes: we are to only think positive, always look at the bright side, see the best in people, overcome our fears and rise above our anger and judgments.
However there is a problem with this fixation. As a result we feel ‘wrong’ about having completely normal ‘negative’ thoughts or feelings of fear, anger, sadness, shame, or guilt, and hence further avoid and suppress them. When we suppress those heavier emotions, we push them into the ‘shadow’ part of our psyche – the part that is unconscious. The more we do this, the bigger the shadow grows, and the more charge it contains. The underlying emotions don’t go away, but accumulate in our system and our cell memory. They then negatively impact our happiness, health, wealth, and relationships, without us being aware of it. Further, they hold back our spiritual connection.
Affirmations and the shadow
Even something as innocent as positive affirmations can add to the problem, unless paired with owning our difficult emotions. If we try to patch an uncomfortable feeling up with a conflicting incantation, our subconscious mind hears it as, ‘What I’m feeling is not ok. What I’m feeling is not ok…’. We may feel ashamed because we still have these ‘bad’ feelings, or because we are stressed or stuck in some area of our life, or don’t feel the spiritual connection/gratitude/compassion we are ‘supposed’ to, despite our best efforts. Or maybe we sit on a pseudo-spiritual high horse, protecting our sensitive ego by pretending to never have such thoughts or feelings at all, thinking that we are better-than, perhaps even fooling ourselves. As good and convincing as it can look, this is a slippery slope (I am speaking from personal experience).
But the true evidence is in our life. What is inside of us will eventually manifest in our physical reality. If we are struggling with stress, anxiety, persistent health problems, or relationship issues (does that cover about everybody?) chances are that we have unresolved issues we have pushed into the unconscious. The more we do this, the more unconscious we are, by default.
The place where the shift happens
In order to grow our consciousness and spiritual connection, we cannot forever avoid looking into those parts of ourselves we aren’t proud of. It is only when we learn to accept and love those bits that aren’t perfect, or that are painful or yucky, that we really learn to love ourselves – and as a result we are able to more fully connect with, love, and accept others. When we uncover our repressed painful emotions, hidden agendas, core beliefs, and secret pay-offs that no longer work for us, we actually free ourselves from their grip. Once they have been brought into the light of consciousness, they no longer have the same power over us. This is where great shifts happen.
The challenge facing teachers and therapists
This is where we teachers and therapists also have a challenge. We can establish and maintain an illusion of perfection and having it all figured out, feeding into the exclusive marketing of love, light, and joy – at the expense of all the rest. OR, we can remain authentic and teach from an open-hearted space of ongoing self-discovery and acceptance of our humanity. We can help to create a community where everyone can feel safe to explore and own their darkness, and even to share it with one another without the fear of being shamed or made wrong.
Working with our shadow
Shadow work can be tricky because the shadow isn’t so willing to come out into the light of day. It has remained hidden for decades, and intends to remain so, because it is where it can drive us without being caught. The shadow contains all of that which we are ashamed of and all of that which we have denied about ourselves. So it also knows that coming out will be painful. Unfortunately there is no avoiding that pain. It’s the avoidance that got us in trouble in the first place!
Luckily our body has built-in release mechanisms for all this build-up, and I believe we can utilise one (or several) of these innate mechanisms to bring to the surface previously unconscious material, suppressed emotions, and negative core beliefs. All the stuff that holds us back in life that we may have not been able to access even through years of talk therapy. In my breathwork sessions I see people regularly release accumulated emotional charge and have ‘a-ha’ moments of realising patterns that have started early in childhood and kept playing out unconsciously through their whole lives. It is through deep emotional work that finally those patterns can be unravelled and renegotiated.
The beautiful thing is that when we release our stuck anger, fear, sadness, shame, and guilt, it frees the flow of the love, peace, joy, and all those lighter emotions as well! When the emotional body is cleared of old baggage and all these energies are flowing freely, the power of all the meditation, yoga, and other modalities and practices we engage in become super-charged! We can connect deeply and more authentically with one another as well as the divine.
When we feel stuck, we are unconscious. When we become conscious, we remember our ability to choose.
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