metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

June 1995, Volume 2 Nr 10, Issue 22


The shadow, the dark side of the psyche. What does it mean to acknowledge the shadow, to integrate it? It means nothing less than to become whole, holy.

The lack of understanding on this subject is grave. I suspect that in the trendiness of the spiritual marketplace, the shadow may soon be a buzzword. Shadow work is in danger of being trivialized, of being pigeonholed as one more technique, rather than recognized as the profound discipline that underlies the advanced practices of most religions.

It can be introduced and danced about and hinted at in an essay like this one, but the shadow does not lend itself to bumpersticker, one-liner analysis. That our society ignores the shadow, denies it, runs from it, is increasingly obvious. The disintegration of 90's Americans is reminiscent of Germans in the 30's. Scapegoating is on the rise, creativity and individuality are on the decline. Ennui and violence, exhaustion layered over a vast helpless rage, these are symptoms of unacknowledged shadow.

While the concept is ancient, encompassing many names and informing countless rituals, I will explain primarily from a Jungian perspective.

The shadow is made of traits we disown, "the part of us we fail to see or know." We've written in these pages many times about projection, the process by which we see in others those traits we disown in ourselves. Those aspects we respond to most vigorously in others are clues to what we don't see as existing in ourselves. Greed, arrogance, violence are things we see out there. The flaws, the not niceness, the badness of others.

Projection can also result from denial of our finer traits. Hero- worship and the glorious mystery of falling in love are largely due to projecting our disinherited inner divinity onto another.

The Long Bag

Ever since we were quite young, we've been learning what characteristics are acceptable (or not) in our particular culture. Civilization is a great achievement, and diverse. Within various cultures there are various taboos. These are differing social mores. The collective life of a society depends on some structure. And structure it is, artificial not instinctual, as can easily be seen now that we have travel and communications to link and even consolidate heretofore distinct cultures.

In India, teenage boys hold hands with other teenage boys, but not with teenage girls. Shoes are part of respectful attire in a European church, but shamefully disrespectful in a mosque or dojo. Mealtimes have such a confusion of conflicting values among cultures that books are written on etiquette for international business and political diplomats.

Poet Robert Bly describes the shadow as a long bag we drag behind us. "We spend our lives until we're twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put in the bag..." the civilizing process; "and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again," the humanizing, integrating, holistic process. Disowned traits are rattling in an overcrowded closet called the Shadow.

In that closet named shadow may be wildness, anger, spontaneity, freedom, sexuality. A man's closet often contains the soft voices and screaming banshee of his inner woman. The anima spirit in a man's closet may have been deprived of light and air for a long, long time . When he peeks in, at mid-life perhaps, hoping to find his nurturing side, she may leap out dressed as, not Betty Crocker, but Bette Davis, enraged at her long imprisonment.

Or a woman may have banished her interior male hero, her goddess, her tyrant and her witch. Those four are duking it out in the dark, tripping over the debris of individuality, the old poetry and diaries, the disowned athlete, the body hair, the scientist. Imagine the crowding. Imagine the smell!

Sacred Art

Consider Bali, a country saturated in art. There is no demarcation, no false frontier, between mundane life and sacred art. Praying, singing, dancing, carving...all daily activities. And theater: enactments of terrifying scenes from the Ramayana are community produced and performed throughout the year.

The Balinese are considered to be a cheerful, generous and gentle people. But, the artwork decorating homes and temples is not soft safe pastels. Nearly every Balinese home has a stone carving outside, fierce, toothy, hostile, and artistic. Consciously so.

A recent meal at an Indian restaurant surrounded me with colorful stylized depictions of Hindu mythology. Benevolent blue Krishna played his flute among the cattle. And fierce Kali danced with her bloody sword raised, her necklace of severed heads. A culture steeped in sophisticated symbolism, Hinduism does not consider its thousands of deities as facts, the way many Christians consider the tales in the Bible. Truth has mystery and wonder, shadow and light, while facts are considered something like mathematical absolutes.

When I explored the rich symbolism of centuries of Christian art, I was astounded to see as much depth, as much dimensionality there as I find in Hindu art. The Catholic upbringing I had was sanitized. The symbols and archetypes had not been taught or presented to me. The pictures in my catechism books were pretty, the faces almost invariably serene or expressionless, except for the Passion itself. But, even the crucifixion was almost neat in these books. This was partly the result of using uninspired illustrators rather than spirit-rich artists.

Mostly, I think the neatness was to protect us from the horror of the incident. A well-meaning attempt which may have been better served by either better art, works of true depth and passion which would resonate with both the terrors and the joys we experienced as human children; or more stylized art, which did not pretend to realism but to an abstraction which revealed. Instead we were served illustrations as flat and lukewarm as sketches in the Sears Catalog. And few of the ancient symbols were carried forward.

I don't know whether this loss was deliberate, as the "one true church's" suspicion of mysticism and its defensive posture of literalism were both on the rise. Perhaps it was simply the flatness of the 60's suburbs infecting suburban parishes built in those years. I had some tastes of glory and mystery and depth: in organ music, incense and Latin murmuring; and whenever I was able to attend mass at the huge cavern of an old castlelike city cathedral in Syracuse. The art was better and the lighting was worse; the shadow still had an honored place.


Great sophistication and discipline are required to allow a society to ignore or suppress the shadow. Such idealism backfires, however, as spurned demons are not vanquished. They are right here, living in the walls.

As Bly said, we spend our early lives becoming civilized, responsible and productive, usually at great expense to our wholeness, as we stuff more and more into our bag. The religious impulse next is to restore wholeness - make holy. That impulse can be seen as underlying the tasks of maturity. Why the round trip? Because it's more a spiral than a circle, the difference being that the Innocent (child) is not conscious, while the Adept (wise elder) is.

Shadow work, by whatever name, is a conscious engagement. Unfortunately most of us deal with shadow through the unconscious means of projection. Parents commonly project their shadow on to their children. One of the added tasks many maturing children have in our society is casting off shadow legacy from incomplete, immature parents.

Watch how people interact with their pets. Many of their own dark traits - laziness, dirtiness, gluttony - are carried by a pet. So, too, pets may carry the gold in an owner's shadow - loyalty, forgiveness, exuberance. Although a trait such as forgiveness is said to be much admired and desired, it is disowned, shadow material, for some people. They consider forgiveness a weakness, setting oneself up to be hurt, a trait of gullible chumps. Such people are likely to also disown trust, loyalty. "People are as frightened of their capacity for nobility as of their darkest sides."

Much social interaction among supposed equals is vivid with projections. When someone projects a shadow at you, it's likely that your own shadow will jump out in reaction. As Robert Johnson writes, "When your shadow is like a gasoline can waiting for a match to fall in it, you are fair game for anyone who wants to irritate you." Hopefully, he continues: "To refuse another's shadow, you don't fight back, but like a good matador you just let the bull go be in the presence of another's shadow and not reply is nothing short of genius. No one has the right to dump his shadow on you, and you have the right to self-protection."

There are plenty of ways to devalue and disown our shadow, and projection is a path of least resistance, an easy way out. But in giving away essential components of our very self, we are thin, superficial, easily manipulated. Others can push our buttons. We are less than whole, less vital.

Not Either Nor Or

I am writing this the week of Yom Ha'Shoah, Holocaust remembrance, and less than two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing. The mindless scapegoating, the demonizing which I hear on the airwaves this week, is in chilling juxtaposition to the bombing. At a time when people are internationally commemorating and mourning those lost in the death camps, and in the federal building, simplistic divisive rhetoric is given more, not less, airtime. (At the time of publication, I was grateful to have noted a shift toward more balance, in polls, and, relatively speaking, in the mass media.)

We do not only project our demons out to other individuals, but onto movies and fashion and cop shows and, most destructively, onto an enemy group. We may name the group Jews, welfare mothers, lawyers, homeless bums, Iraq, Christian fundamentalists, acid rockers, gays... on and on. You get the drift even though I avoided the most incendiary language. And naming enemies is more, not less, popular as the century closes.

In a hot conflict, reason is put aside, as is diplomacy. When the Persian Gulf War erupted I was astonished at the vehemence of my coworkers to my pacifist position. They had known I was a pacifist all along, but to actually state it in the midst of overwhelming public support for the action was somehow perceived as the absolute flip side, i.e., supporting the enemy.

That I condemned actions on both sides, that I perceived militarism and hatred as the only "enemy", that I admitted to not having a complete answer to the precipitating conflict - none of that was, I realize now, listened to. It was not even heard, because it did not fit into the fear-based, either/or view of my colleagues at that moment. There was no place to put me except in enemy camp. Conscientious objectors confound childlike reasoning by suggesting that there is an alternative to participating in either shadow.

John Berg, in his talk, "The Shadow and the Light - Roots of the Holocaust", spoke of Jung's perception of many of his German patients which indicated to him a culture-wide problem. This was gradual, but as society changed, he saw more individuals who were unstable, insecure and highly suggestible. The archetype of order was not integrated so appeared later in that degenerate form: totalitarianism. Since 1914, Jung had noted patient's growing influence in patients of archetypes of cruelty, primitivity, and violence.

"In hating the Jew, the German...hated his own shadow; he exterminated his own soul." John Berg said. Only in a very off-balance culture can such a thing occur. Between 1939 and 1944, Sir Michael Tippett wrote the oratorio "The Child of Our Time." Berg, now in his seventies, sang it in 1993. Tippett composed the piece in an anguished and holistic response to Nazism. The repeated theme is the integrating sentence, "I would know my shadow and my light and so would at last be whole."

Attitudinal Healing is what the name implies: an active, creative, cognitive, personal means to heal one's attitude, one's relationship with the world. It is not a denial of the world, nor of the shadow. Rather, it is courageous and loving engagement with others, ourselves, the world.

Eating the Shadow

How to integrate the shadow? Eat it regularly. Rituals, writing, artful conversation, taking time to be bummed out, allowing grief, imagining. Bly writes of eating the shadow:

"In daily life one might suggest making the sense of smell, taste, touch and hearing more acute, making holes in your habits, visiting primitive tribes, playing music, creating frightening figures in clay, playing the drum, being alone for a month, regarding yourself as a genial criminal. A woman might try at being a patriarch at odd times of the day, to see how she likes it, but it has to be playful..."

In a whimsical but instructive direction, Bly continues, "For the man, when he figures out which woman or women are holding his witch" (because he projected it onto her), he can go to that woman, greet her cordially and say, 'I want my witch back. Give it to me.' A curious smile will come over her face, and she may hand it back or she may not. If she does the man should excuse himself, turn to the left, and eat it."

To eat the shadow, retrieve the projection, there are countless examples of rituals, and we may (I'd encourage this) develop our own. Shadow rituals can run from the mundane (a famous Jungian and her housemate had the custom of requiring whoever had good fortune to carry out the week's garbage), to the formalized dramas of the Catholic Mass, or grand opera. Since the unconscious cannot distinguish between actual and symbolic acts, a ritual will pay out the shadow without harming anyone.

So much energy may be found, ready to use and at your service when you acknowledge your shadow. There is an accelerated system of teaching languages in which one chooses an identity opposed to one's actual life. The professor as a prizefighter, the lawyer as a nun, the salesman as a wizard. The energy released makes learning easier, and fun.

Modern Community Rituals

Two delightful examples of communal rituals that deal with both dark and gold shadow material are literal masquerades. One is a Star Trek Convention. Many people dress up, playing Klingons, crewmembers on the Starship Enterprise, Romulans and assorted aliens. Just one example: a person dressed as a Klingon can act out characteristics of loyalty, discipline, fierceness, hairiness and even growling.

Another example was inspired by the cinema. For many years, in city and suburban neighborhoods, midnight movie showings were attended by an astonishing crowd. Outrageous make-up and hair, thriftshop glitz, and lots of young men in ladies' black lingerie. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a singular phenomenon at which many parents threw up their hands. A cheap, trashy, oversexed horror movie musical whose main characters are apple-cheeked Dick and Jane (Brad and Janet actually) and Frank N. Furter, a transvestite extraterrestrial. Yet, it answered a need for ritual in a unique and surprisingly complete way. There was a pattern of ritual responses chanted in unison by the audience, who also danced in the aisles and acted out scenes along with the big screen (such as when the ingenue couple is caught in a rainstorm and huddle under a newspaper, some in the audience made water pistol rain and some shielded themselves with the local tribune). A ridiculously campy and silly movie, it touched all the big issues teens face: love, death, identity, gender, sex, belonging, body image, friendship, loyalty, art. It treated these issues with playful melodrama. Movie-goers had a communal joviality, a spirit of togetherness. And, they were safe. Thousands of mostly college age people playing naughty, playing dress-up, and knowing that it's a game.

I think it would be wonderful if there were more masquerade parties all year round not just Halloween and Twelfth Night, but any time,any season.

Psychic Hygiene

Less elaborate rituals can be part of our day to day psychic hygiene. Consecrate some of those chores involving waste and smell (toilet bowl, garbage...) by consciously offering them to your shadow as the sacrifice for your good fortune. Write with your non-dominant hand or backwards. Compose limericks. Engage in Walter Mitty fantasy. Do something out of your ordinary patterns. As Bly says, "make holes in your habits."

I began to study karate to contact and develop my athlete, my tigress. I am facing my fears and developing a practical compassionate fearlessness. Such warrior energy is not antagonistic to my pacifist ideals, but rather informs and affirms them. As Steven Hayes, a Tendai Mikkyo Buddhist priest and the carrier of Ninjutsu to America, says "...there is no contradiction. What we are studying in the physical action is not violence. It is how we put up with violence...What ninja means is...I will persevere..."

Hayes' work consciously seeks to balance, to integrate, two common and antagonistic positions. There are Buddhists "who have never confronted their own sense of inner violence or competitiveness, so they fear it greatly within themselves." Such people may project that which they deny, and dismiss martial artists as uniformly practicing aggression. On the other hand, there are, in the martial arts, some people "afraid of their own gentleness, so they run these imitations of brutal macho toughness." Hayes encourages students to own their shadows, to practice from their center.

Integration, becoming whole, healing: this is the great work of our life. It is nothing new. Though I'm using terms such as shadow work and attitudinal healing, this is more of the same wisdom people have practiced for millennia. The golden rule; it is better to give than to receive...all of this is our natural legacy, this impulse to love and forgiveness.

One of the finest ways to do shadow work is to serve others. In service, we meet ourselves in the faces of others, "Christ in His distressing disguise", as Mother Theresa says. Service must be non-judgmental, compassionate and non-attached.

Anger is one of the emotions most often denied. Denial is not release. It is furtive repression, and may be a pressure cooker for rage. Jozef wrote in the September, 1994 issue of Metaphoria (then A Course for Teachers): "When we recognize rage about to happen, we may intervene and channel the energy constructively." We may do so in a manner that harms no one but does not deny or repress the powerful emotional current. A lovely and effective ritual was that of a person who spoke to Peace Pilgrim about his rage. When Peace suggested the energy be used for yard work, it was a revelation to the person, who then bought a hand mower. Every time the anger roiled up, he took to the yard, pacing vigorously up and down, mowing the lawn. It worked wonders. Since he wasn't projecting or repressing the anger, the habit of anger gave way. When Peace met this man a couple of years later, she asked how the lawn was. He laughed and said he has a power mower now since without the anger energy the hand mowing was too much work.

"When children are upset, many parents and teachers have them sit in a time-out chair to sort things out. We can give ourselves a time out." This is shifting gears, making holes in our habits, and may be done preventively as well. We can change our perspective to heal perception, retract projections to clear perception. To see with eyes of love.


The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one's own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well.

Carl Jung

Nothing determines who we will become so much as those things we choose to ignore.

Sandor McNab

The purpose of the shadow is to provide the human soul with the opposition and tension to develop a tough inner resolve and determination to clarify through the challenge of the opposites.

John Conyer

There is no hidden poet in me, just a little piece of God that might grow into poetry.

Etty Hillesum

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu (974? - 1034?) Tr. Jane
Hirschfield andMariko

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.


Psychoanalysis still preserves the initiatory pattern...

The patient is asked to descend into himself...

This dangerous operation resembles initiatory descents into hell, the realm of ghosts, and combats with monsters.

Mircea Eliade The Sacred and the Profane

The great epochs of our life lie at the points where we gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us.


If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

1995 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

Return to Homepage