Me and My Shadow

This is just one reason why shadow work can be so revelatory, and so life changing. Just learning to recognize your shadow can transform your relationship to other people and yourself. You'll have an easier time accepting constructive feedback once you've recognized that it's your perfection-obsessed inner critic who's beating you up, and not the person who's trying to give you a useful critique. Even more important, when you do your shadow work, you'll find that it can dissolve many of your negative feelings about yourself—feelings like shame and unworthiness, or the sneaking suspicion that you're not the person you pretend to be. It also becomes easier to notice and let go of unconscious behavior patterns like being deceitful with your coworkers, blowing up at your mother, or choosing romantic partners who tend to take advantage of you. Shadow work, if you do it authentically, lets you begin to unpick the threads of your negative samskaras.

Often, people who have engaged in shadow work exhibit a high degree of balance, tolerance, and self-acceptance. They tend to have high integrity, in the sense that they don't say one thing and do another. Their ethics are not undercut by their unconscious impulses, emotionally charged projections, or negative habit patterns.

As you, too, begin to acknowledge your disowned traits and do your shadow work, you'll catch glimpses of what genuine inner balance feels like. For instance, when you find yourself feeling envious of a friend's success, instead of resenting them, you will be able to use the feeling of envy to look to how you can step up to your own potential. Or you'll no longer feel so much resistance to getting on the mat, because having seen into your inner rebel, you'll be able to negotiate a practice schedule that is free-form enough so the rebel feels less restricted.

Birth of the Shadow
That said, it's painful to become aware of a deep-seated shadow trait. The pain often goes back to early childhood. Our parents might find us too exuberant, too volatile, too needy, too sensitive, or too angry. Our peers and teachers might reward certain behaviors, reject others. As we meet disapproval, we do our best to repress or cover these unacceptable qualities.

The problem is that as you repress these unacceptable behaviors, you lose the opportunity to work with them, to find the positive aspects of these traits. For example, the intensity that expresses itself in childhood anger—assuming that you are a mentally healthy person—could grow into a mature quality that allows you to stand up to a bully, or assert yourself in a challenging situation. Your sadness could develop into a capacity for deep empathy. Your fearfulness has the potential to blossom into healthy vulnerability; your impulsiveness can mature into genuine spontaneity. This is why it doesn't work to repress your shadow. Yes, it's primitive, selfish, and sometimes volatile, but it's also the source of the energy you need for creative and spiritual growth.

Into the Light
There are several core approaches to shadow, and each of them has its value. The classical yoga of Patanjali takes the view that shadow needs to be purified and ultimately, eliminated. The traditional prescription is to cultivate virtues like truthfulness, non-violence, and contentment, and to do purification practices; certain asanas, mantras, and types of meditation will clean out many of the shadow elements of the unconscious. Mantra and chanting practices, for example, can be powerful tools for clearing negativities from the mind and heart, dispelling painful feelings that might ordinarily spur us to impulsive action. These practices are important and necessary disciplines.

But at a certain point, you realize that there is a further step. You begin to recognize that it is possible to liberate the energy tied up in shadow energies, and turn them toward a positive goal. A key verse in a text called the Spanda Karika-s, an important text of tantric philosophy, explains something of the mystery hidden in shadow energy. It describes how spanda, the transformative energy of the universe, the energy that gives us the power to make an evolutionary leap, can be found with great immediacy in moments of intense feeling and passion—in anger, in fear, in deep confusion as well as in joyful excitement. The tantric approach to emotion suggests that you focus on the energy present in intense emotions and direct your focus inward, into the heart of that energy or impulse, rather than acting it out. Then, you can ride even a negative emotion into its Source—the pure consciousness that is your divine core.

Simple Strategies
If you want to begin to resolve the polarized opposites within yourself, you need to shine non-judgmental, conscious awareness on your shadow. A good place to start is by considering the traits for which people generally criticize you. Maybe you've been ignoring feedback from your family and coworkers that you're bossy, or hotheaded, or a little flirtatious with other people's significant others.

4/2/2012 4:00:00 AM
  • Hindu
  • Meditation for Life
  • Personality
  • Relationships
  • Sacred Texts
  • Samskaras
  • Yoga
  • Hinduism
  • Sally Kempton
    About Sally Kempton
    An internationally known teacher of meditation and spiritual wisdom, Kempton is the author of Meditation for the Love of It and writes a monthly column for Yoga Journal. Follow her on Facebook and visit her website at
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