Essay: Integrating Your Shadow as Part of a Spiritual Path
Last week I wrote about Batman Begins and Bruce Wayne’s journey to the unconscious, where he confronted his shadow and found his true power.
There’s a lot to be said on this topic, and I wanted to explore it a little further in this Redefining the Sacred post.
When I was a child, I had a phobia of dogs.
I don’t just mean I was afraid of dogs.
I mean that I could not be in the same room with one, or even see one several blocks away in an open outdoor area, without being seized with a terror that left me senseless. It was as though every organ in my body crowded up into my throat, and all I could do was scream.
My aunt and uncle had a pug—yes, a little cute-ugly pug—and any time I went over their house and they refused to keep the dog in a separate room, I would climb up onto the monkey bars of their swingset and stay there all day and night. I can still remember how painful sitting on those bars were after several hours, and how the cold air seemed to penetrate my coat as the stars came out, because I couldn’t get down and run around to warm up, and I couldn’t go join my family around their small backyard fire. There was that little pug running around . . .
I lost a lot of friends over this fear. It was something I had to constantly be aware of. Come on—EVERYONE has a dog!
Many well-intentioned people—especially friends’ parents—tried to talk me out of this fear. They tried to help me reason it away. They seemed unaware of the fact that you can’t use intellect to rationalize something away when that thing is so inherently irrational, and embedded so deep in the psyche.
Yes, knowledge is often a very powerful tool to help overcome fear, but not with something like this. Something as irrational as a phobia like the one I had will simply not respond to logic.
As I became a teenager, my fear began to limit my social life. My parents realized that the whole logic thing wasn’t working, and I wasn’t “growing out of it” either. They began trying different kinds of therapies with me, like exposure therapy and hypnosis.
I made progress—I no longer screamed when I saw a dog a few blocks away, and I could even be in the room with one sometimes—but it was slow going.
I believe that fears like this are a prime example of our psychological shadows showing up in our daily lives.
A quick crash course on the shadow: Everything you identify yourself with—your personality, the things you like and dislike, your political opinions, the behaviors you admire, the people you love and those you can’t stand—everything that you think makes you YOU is your ego.
Sure, there are things about ourselves we want to change, and maybe we’re always working on self-improvement, but those are still things we identify with. Just because you don’t like something about yourself, doesn’t mean you don’t see it as part of yourself.
Everything you don’t identify with—everything you fear, everything that disgusts you, everything you don’t want to be, do, or experience—that’s your ego’s shadow.
It can be as simple as not liking people who gossip about their friends (you’d never do that!), or as dark as sexual assault and murder (what is WRONG with people, why are they so dark?!).
Many times, we don’t even recognize our shadows . . . even when they show up.
And they do like to show up. Our shadows have a tendency to project themselves into daily life. It’s similar to the process of “projecting onto someone.” Your shadow can also show up as fears, phobias, anxieties, and anything that makes you feel a negative emotion. This includes social issues you might stand up against, such as domestic violence.
Carl Jung, who did a lot of work around archetypes and the psychological shadow, would probably say that an issue like domestic violence is the shadow of an entire society.
The more upright and virtuous a person or a whole society claims to be, the more they deny their “dark sides” and shove their shadows into the closet . . . and the harder the impact when those shadows finally make their presence known. This is when we see things like priests molesting children, or leaders of “pray the gay away” movements who turn out to be homosexual. They have tried so hard to deny certain aspects of themselves, that those aspects made themselves known in a way that harmed others.
Why do our shadows do this? Why can’t we just ignore things that make us uncomfortable and go about our lives the way we want to live them la-de-frickin-da?
Well, for one thing, that’s pretty childish. It’s an undeveloped state of consciousness, and it’s a denial of yourself. Peter Pan had issues with his shadow—he had so much trouble integrating it—and he just never grew up.
Denying the shadow is basically denying one entire side of life, and one entire side of self.
And if life is a spiritual journey—one where we’re constantly expanding our experience of ourselves and our consciousness—then we cannot deny the shadow. We can’t remain “split” beings and continue to grow.
Spirituality isn’t about only experiencing positive things and skipping along through life. (That’s the Peter Pan thing again.) It isn’t about mentally or emotionally manipulating the universe to only experience what you want. It’s not about morality, and aligning with “right” while denying what’s “wrong.” I think that spirituality is about expanding our consciousness so we can experience ourselves as creative beings—microcosmic versions of an infinitely creative universe.
This universe doesn’t not only contain what’s “right” or what’s “light.”
So in order to recognize our wholeness, we must face, and even embrace, our shadows.
A great symbolic version of this happens in the movie The Dark Crystal. (Spoilers ahead.) This Jim Henson film takes place in a world where “good” and “evil” are clearly delineated. The “good” side is led by the Mystics, a race of peaceful monk-like beings who understand energy, kindness, and love. The “bad” side is led by the evil Skeksis, who only want power. In the end, the Mystics calmly approach the Skeksis, begin to chant, and draw the Skeksis’s bodies physically into themselves until the two halves merge—the Mystics and the Skeksis become one, and transform into majestic beings of light.
Does this mean the Mystics approved of what the Skeksis did throughout the entire film? I would say no. That’s why the Mystics had to merge with them.
A disowned shadow will run rampant and create pain and fear in your life, and in the world. But if you acknowledge it and own it, it stops acting out so desperately.
So how do we work with our shadows?
There are different ways. Some are more psychological, and others are more spiritual. I’ve experienced better results with spiritual work than with psychological work. I’ve noticed the psychological stuff tends to be more rational and logical than spiritual work, which is more holistic. I can’t logic with my shadow, and I can’t run from it. The more I run, the more it will chase me.
It may be more difficult to turn around, face my fears, and try to accept them, but I’ve found it much more effective.
In the case of my phobia of dogs, I reached a tipping point. I was sixteen years old, and was about to walk into a new friend’s house for the first time. I felt a real connection with this boy—I’m still friends with him seventeen years later, and the friendship between us began almost on sight. But he did warn me . . .
“I have three dogs. They’re really big and they like to jump, but just ignore them.”
This was my ultimate terror. Big dogs who liked to jump? Dear ever-loving lord just kill me now. But I was too ashamed to ask him to put the dogs away. However, as afraid as I was of the dogs, I was also afraid of losing my new friend. I did not want to lose ANOTHER friend to this fear, and especially not this friend.
As I stood on his front porch and he fumbled with his keys, I began to panic, and then I noticed my own panic—and I withdrew from it. I had already begun my spiritual path at that point, and I said to myself, “Okay Leslie, so you say you believe that we are all one—that all souls are one soul, and all things are ultimately the same thing. Do you really believe that, or are you just talking? Because if you really believe it, then that means these dogs are a part of you. Their souls and yours are the exact same stuff, and there’s no reason to be afraid of yourself.”
When my friend opened his front door, time seemed to slow down . . . and motherf—king Cerberus sprung out of the gates of the underworld at my face.
Then I did exactly what Bruce Wayne did with the bats in Batman Begins—I stood there, completely still with my arms at my sides and my eyes closed, and I let the dogs jump all over me. I took the experience in, and I held onto the understanding that this was another aspect of myself coming at me. The fear didn’t rise.
Soon the dogs gave up jumping and barking and left me alone. I would say I felt triumphant, but that implies a hierarchy—it implies I defeated the dogs. What I felt was more like a kind of unity with them, and a deep sense of peace.
My phobia is gone, but dogs remain some of my strongest teachers in this life. Every time I meet a new one, there’s always a time of respectful distance, not to say nervousness, before we’re friends. Recently, I neglected this respectful distance with a new dog and got a fierce bite.
I didn’t relapse into fear. It was just a friendly reminder from my shadow guides not to take them for granted—not to stop the spiritual work of integration.
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