EMBRACING THE DARK
The integration of Tantric and Western psychological shadow work
Another day has passed, and all I did was procrastinate. Watching Netflix or Instagram as soon as I opened my work.
I feel a constant hunger for sexual pleasure and intimacy, but however much attention I get, it is never enough.
My life and interactions feel flat, dull and uninspiring. I know there is more, but I’m just not connected to my inner fire. Whenever I create something that is dear to me, I quit just before it is truly finished. I find myself acting kind and ‘compassionate’ to others, but actually I judge them in silence. Somewhere you know there is more. More realness, more joyfulness, a deeper connection with your essence, an embodiment of your authentic path.
These are some of the numerous expressions of our personal shadows. Many of us feel fear, as well as an intriguing appeal to these highly influential forces in our being. Shadows are the parts in us that are hidden from consciousness, but still beg for attention. We tend to avoid looking at our shadows in daily life, because we are afraid of what will happen if we truly face them. It is like trying to ignore a splinter in our foot, but exactly that keeps us walking limp for days. Actually it is more than that, it is like we suppress a minority group in a society for years and years and you don’t want to give them the right to speak up or vote. But some day, you know, they will show up and let themselves be heard – often in destructive ways. This is the amount of force that we deal with in Shadow work.
Shadow work in western psychology
The term Shadows was originally coined by Carl Jung, the founder of Analytical Psychology. He described Shadows as those parts of our personality that are placed in our unconsciousness because they do not correspond with the ideals that we have about ourselves. These can be qualities like anger, jealousy or sadness, sexual desires and also playfulness, joy and strength. Depending on which qualities were unwelcome in our social, personal and cultural upbringing, we exiled different qualities into our unconsciousness. For example, in our culture a girl is typically more welcomed to show her vulnerability then a boy, therefore, the boy will be more likely to take his vulnerability into his Shadow. The result of this is that he has less connection to that part of his personality. We all grew up to have shadows, because in every family certain aspects of ourselves were more welcome than others.
The thing with shadows is that, even though they seem to be gone, they always influence our behaviour unconsciously. For example, the vulnerability that is expelled in the heart of a boy who learned to be ‘tough’, might express itself through rage when he is being insulted. Or, his shadow might express itself through obsessively seeking sexual attention as sex is his only way to experience his own lost ‘softness’. Moreover, the more we hide or suppress shadows, the more power they get over us. Therapists Connie Zweig and Steve Wolff write in their book Roaming the Shadow, that we can picture our whole personality as an enormous round table with many figures sitting at it. They all have their history, needs, and story to share. What happens if we ignore one of these figures for long enough? First, they try to speak up, but if that does not work, they will make some noise. More subtle at first, but if we don’t pay attention, they will stamp on the table or shout, if that does not work, they throw their chair through the room until we face them.
“We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases the patients themselves have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realisation that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts.”
“New Paths in Psychology” (1912). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P.425
Shadows are not just expressions in the mind. The effects of suppressing parts of our psychology can be seen everywhere in ourselves and society. Within a person, this can have the effects of chronic illness, fibromyalgia or autoimmune disease, depression, violent or impulsive behaviour. In society we have numerous examples of abuse, racism, war, and so on that are oftentimes (if not always) expressions of unintegrated shadows. The necessity to face the ‘demons’ in our being seems evident, and the consequences of ignoring them are devastating. Luckily, there are effective scientifically proven and profound spiritual approaches to do so.
Helena and I feel privileged to have studied Psychology next to our Tantric education, as the Western psychology has systematic and deep knowledge of therapy and how our family history shapes our personality. One tradition of great value is Gestalt psychology. It has come up with many workforms with which you can face and work with shadows (some of which we apply in our retreats). For example, one can go into a voice dialogue with one’s shadow, either by writing or verbally. This ‘figure’ can be put down in space on a chair and you can actually sit on the chair of this shadow figure and talk from their perspective. We can visualise what he/she/it looks like, what clothes they are wearing, what feelings and needs they have. We can ask them questions of what they need or what frustrates them. The figures that Zweig and Wolf talk about, are not merely theoretical constructs. They are actual imaginable entities that we can relate to. This method of voice dialogue can show messages from your unconscious with more clarity than you thought possible!
The beauty about working with our shadows is that once we truly listen to the figures in our being, we can unravel the gifts that they have been hiding. Once we acknowledge and embrace the depth of the anger or fear, we uncover qualities like power, compassion, aliveness, clarity. These are the qualities that have been put away and distorted in the unconscious, and as soon as we truly free ourselves from the suppression of our shadows, they come back in their full form.
We recommend you to do deeper shadow work exercises under supervision, but if you want to start working on your shadows after reading this blog, I recommend doing the exercises in our workbook ‘Shadow Archetypes’. You can access it by signing up for our newsletter.
But this is not the end of the story about shadows, because when we integrate the ancient wisdom of Tantra into the work, we can release the power of shadows to dive deeper and deeper into realising our true nature. You will read more about this in part 2 of Embracing the Dark.