Hanging With Our Shadows: A Survival Guide for the Darkest Time


Here in the compact bowl of mountains where I live, transformation can happen very fast.  Though not always in a way that is welcome.   Recently, within the span of a week, the trees lost their leaves, the afternoons dropped into darkness, and the first heavy snow fell.  This trifecta of grayness, darkness, and coldness descended so suddenly that it seemed aggressive, creating in me a strange mix of both heavy despair and skittering panic.  Like a pinned insect, I was pierced to the spot, unable to change my condition. Deeply uncomfortable with where I was, I could also not keep from constant unproductive fidgeting.

It wasn't just me. All around me, in the lengthening shadows and the lessening light, the world mirrored my condition. Mice scrambled indoors, scratching incessantly in my walls. Yoga students stumbled into the studio, stamping boots and fussing about snow tires and still-packed winter sweaters.  Snowplows lurked, sweeping up and down the street with their beeping, high alert energy. Everywhere I looked, it seemed there was disarray, darkness, destruction.  Contested ballots, mishandled elections, raging wildfires, children tear-gassed on our border.  And more.  And more.  And day by day, the light is dipping even lower, its sharp slant shining a laser-like brightness on all that is not working.  The fissures, the fractures, the polarities, the divisions.  The world, broken. People, broken.  Myself, broken.

In a dark time, the eyes begin to see, writes Theodore Roethke in his poem In a Dark Time.   I meet my shadow in the darkening shade.

In this dark time, I too have met my shadow. Looming large and dense, on the street and in my dreams and during my meditations, she has risen up from the very bottom of my heart, and I have cringed to see her reflected in the world around me.   With the light behind me, out of view, I can no longer look away or pretend she does not exist. The eyes begin to see:

An ugly, ungainly thing, my shadow feels both familiar and foreign. Disembodied and detached from my conscious sense of self, it contains all within myself I've hidden and ignored.  The unloved, unclaimed, and unwelcome aspects of my identity and past:  old injuries, habitual reactions, repetitive thoughts, worrisome desires, regrettable memories, resurfacing traumas.  All that is painful to tend to and acknowledge.  All that I believe I already “fixed” and laid to rest.  All that I can easily see in others and yet choose to deny in myself.  After all, I tell myself, I'm on the path of growth and healing.  I've worked so hard.  I'm aware of my flaws.  Mostly, by now, I’m made of light.  Right? Please tell me I’m right.  And that I don't have to actually take this shadow home with me, sew it onto my myself, make her mine.

Everyone has a shadow,” promises Carl Jung, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is." 

The more we refuse to see it, he elaborates, the more it unconsciously directs our thoughts, our words, our actions, our reactions.  When we refuse to witness and take ownership of what is wounded and broken in ourselves, the shadow splits away, takes on a life of its own and claims more power than it should. The earth manifests wildfires.  Minds manifest mental illness. Bodies manifest disease.  Relationships manifest division.  

This split is harsh and when we finally see it, it can feel sudden (though it has probably been happening for some time) and aggressive, like the shift from light to dark, autumn to winter.  It can be tempting to grumble, blame-shift, and play the victim of malicious forces outside of ourselves.  There is another response, however; we can instead, see this for what it is:  a teaching about ourselves.  

The shadow-guru - whom is always with us, whether denied or acknowledged – shows what in ourselves and in our world is not being attended to, cared for, and healed.  And even if it is easier to believe that we're only seeing the shadow in others (i.e. in our political leaders, in the family member with whom we disagree, in the person who has hurt or disappointed us), this shadow always exists as a mirror.    What we see that is out of whack in others has something to show us about ourselves, our perspective, and our behavior.  The wounds in others, therefore, are also our wounds.  The dark, destructive tendencies in others, we begin to see, exist also in ourselves, even if unrealized or in another form. This shadow is a profound messenger and the message is:  we are not separate from others; the light is not separate from the dark; the whole is made up of parts and these parts must be seen, tended to and reintegrated. Turn your eyes within,the shadow says.  Study yourself. Be brave.  Find your shadow.  Own your shadow. Balance her back into your light.

For as Carl Jung says, “I must have a dark side if I am to be whole.”

Wholeness.  It’s what we long for, consciously or not.  In body.  In mind.  In spirit.  All of ourselves in alignment so that we can move in one, clear piece rather than as a thing broken apart, fragmented, partially in hiding, lame, or numb.  So how to get back to the wholeness that is our birthright?  How to find balance and have a radical, unashamed ownership of our entire selves, including the not-so-flattering histories – our own, our ancestor’s, our country’s?

First, we must quiet down, relax, and get still enough to see and feel it.  And then, when we do our best to stay still in the onslaught of the ego’s distractions, we will, as Roethke writes, meet our shadow in the deepening shade.  And can we do so with curiosity?  And can we do so with a welcoming spirit?  And can we do so with a desire to get to know it, no matter how ugly, deformed, or foreign from our usual view of ourselves?  

Then over many years of gentle self-inquiry and witness, can we learn to love the parts of ourselves we’ve hated and rejected?  

The other day, my four year old and I took a walk.  Our shadows led the way, dark, long and lean.  Freddi held up his hand, his shadow held up a hand, and they greeted one another.  Then he took a running leap and jammed his foot right through the belly of his shadow.  Ouch! he yelled and then cracked up laughing and told his shadow he was just playing around.  Then he did it again and again, each time feigning a cry of pain and then laughing. 

"Mama, you do it, too," he said. 

So, I did, and together we jumped onto and over, chased and watched, talked to and played with our shadows until the light was gone and our dark counterparts retreated once more.   Not into hiding, however.  More into a contented rest.  
Feeling playful about our shadows is no easy thing, so we can start smaller by simply seeing before moving into engagement.  Eventually gratitude comes.  We can say thank you to the darkness for its teaching.  Thank you to the light for illuminating the darkness.  Thank you for the revelations of brokenness that, like an xray machine, show us exactly where we can now focus our healing.  First, on ourselves because when we heal the divisions in ourselves, we begin to see there is no division between ourselves and others, ourselves and the earth, ourselves and the Love that holds us.  

Which I is I? Roethke asks at the end of his poem.
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind, 
and one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Fallen and dark and a wreck of wounds moving through the windy, challenging world around us, we are also free, aligned, whole, and connected.  May the darkness show us that. May the light show us that.  May together, in balance, they continue to be our greatest teachers.
I am yours in movement, equal parts shadow and light,