“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” — Joseph Campbell.

Just as the stars in the night sky are saturated with mystery, so too is the human psyche. Just as we can choose to focus on our day-to-day lives and ignore the cosmos, so too can we choose to focus on the superficial and ignore deeper dimensions of the Self.

However, the cosmos doesn’t just disappear if we ignore it. And, just the same, the Self does not cease to exist just because it isn’t observed.

When it comes to genuine personal growth or self-actualization, forget empty platitudes or positive thinking. The reality is, to really get to know yourself, to plunge into the deeper elements of the psyche, to return to wholeness, you have to confront the darker elements of personality.

These elements are what Carl G. Jung called the “shadow.” Throughout decades of work, Jung discovered that the human psyche is fragmented, split between the conscious and the unconscious. Most of us are only aware of a tiny fragment of ourselves. The rest is hidden from view.

Without exposing the shadow, we may not understand why we do the things we do, enslaved to forces seemingly outside of our control. The unconscious heavily influences our behavior, reactions, thoughts, emotions, relationships, likes, dislikes. 

Untamed and unexplored, it’s in the driving seat as we navigate our lives.

Detached from basic instincts

With the emergence of the civilized world, we’ve become detached from our basic instincts. Any disagreeable aspects of ourselves are pushed away and suppressed into the unconscious mind.

“Certain areas of outer life and his own behavior are kept, as it were, in separate drawers and are never confronted with one another,” writes Jung.

Basic instincts come with negative connotations such as animalistic desires or biological impulses (see: uncivilized). But there’s a price to pay when pushing away these traits. We disconnect from instincts, intuition, and feelings. We become encased in the rational mind.

Instead, consciously exploring these aspects, learning from them, owning them, integrating them is a key aspect of growth. Not surprising, then, that shadow work is a vital component in Jung’s field of analytical psychology.

The practice of embracing all aspects of the self is equally vital to mindfulness, meditation, and other forms of psychology and self-improvement. Denial or resistance keeps us fragmented and stunts growth.

The Buddha, for example, practiced mindful non-judgement of inner phenomena, be it “negative” or “positive,” thus allowing the shadow to be viewed in its true nature. Allowing the shadow to be seen allows it to fully emerge into consciousness.

That’s because the unconscious wants to make itself known. It communicates through dreams, emotions, thoughts, instincts. Resisting the unconscious resists our true nature. The yearning for growth and self-actualization is inherent to us all. By confronting these aspects of ourselves, we heal, grow, and become the fullest expression of ourselves.

The polarity of the shadow

A common misunderstanding of the shadow is exclusively for darker elements we choose to lock away in the recesses of mind. The unconscious is in many ways a depository for the elements of ourselves we’ve discarded; dark thoughts, intense emotions, sexual urges, traits that conflict with our ego-identity.

Darkness in itself isn’t bad, though. It’s the canvas of the night sky, seeds sprout from darkness. Humans are conceived in darkness.

“This darkness is not the simple converse of the conscious ego,” writes Joseph L. Henderson, “just as the ego contains unfavorable and destructive attitudes, so the shadow has good qualities — normal instincts and creative impulses.”

It takes honesty and strength to approach the difficult emotions and traits that reveal themselves. Because the unconscious presents an immense challenge and the journey is tough, many choose to avoid the plunge. Sadly, this means missing out on hidden dimensions of the psyche; of truly understanding who you are.

The journey to wholeness is a long and winding road and is not for the faint-hearted. Confronting the shadow means integrating the parts of ourselves that are unfavorable, ugly, or unwelcome; the parts we would rather deny. On my journey, I’ve had to grapple with endless shadow elements, be it anger, bitterness, judgement… traits I’d pretend I didn’t have.

Yet all of us are imperfect and flawed and beautifully human. And taking a leap into these imperfections also allows us to explore the hidden gifts waiting to be discovered; latent talents, creative skills, playfulness long forgotten. Like a seed of realization, these gifts are in the soil of the unconscious, waiting to sprout.

Introducing the Shadow Work series

In the Shadow Work series, I’ll present common life challenges that provide opportunities to explore the unconscious. Through this exploration, we learn to integrate and grow. The upcoming articles are based on the concept of psychological projection — whereby the shadow projects its contents onto the external world and other people.

Encountering these projections and facing what Jung calls “shadow realization” sparks the beginning of the process.

“Afterward the painful and lengthy work of self-education begins — a work, we might say, that is the psychological equivalent of the labors of Hercules,” writes M.L. Von Franz.

The Herculean task of shadow work is absolutely worthwhile. By acknowledging the elements of our shadow, through learning the lessons or our resentment or anger or egoic responses. We are able to integrate all aspects of our personality, that which is there, under the surface, waiting eagerly to be expressed fully in this world and in this lifetime.

Shadow work moves us away from superficial, unconscious ways of being. The self becomes flexible, nuanced, expressive. The result is a life fully lived, an expression of the most authentic and genuine aspects of our personality. To move beyond the ego into a more gentle, relaxed, natural, and heart-felt state of being.

Taking those first few steps into the shadows takes great courage. But those who enter the cave find the treasure.

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