By Marc Gafni
“INTEGRATE YOUR SHADOW” has become the battle cry of spiritual growth. Shadow integration is now seen as essential to personal development, success, and fulfillment. The centrality of shadow integration in these areas is most certainly a welcome evolution of enormous significance.
The only problem is that people, teachers included, often throw around highly charged words like “darkness” and “shadow” without actually explaining them or having a genuine understanding of what the words actually mean.
The reason the shadow conversation works at all, even without clear understanding, is that people have some natural idea of what “shadow” means. The word “shadow” automatically associates certain images, feelings, and ideas. When Shakespeare talks about “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” you understand he is talking about shadow, even if you can’t fully articulate it.
Shadow is usually understood to refer to the darker sides of human consciousness. Pettiness, jealousy, betrayal, rage, violence, malice—these are all considered to be shadow material. Sexual misdeeds are also often associated with the use of the term “shadow.”
In this line of spiritual and psychological teaching, “shadow” is explained to mean those qualities that live in you but that you are unable to hold in your first-person consciousness. Your refusal to own these qualities pushes them into shadow, where they exert enormous unconscious influence over your life choices. Some of the shadow teachers add that there is powerful energy in shadow that is—they say—liberated when you make your shadow conscious. Whether or not energy is liberated, and control over your life direction reclaimed by making shadow conscious, is at best not clear. From all my years of teaching, studying, and doing shadow work, I simply do not think it is true. Nonetheless, the explanations for shadow work offered by these teachers are helpful as far as they go. But they do not go nearly far enough. For the raison d’être of shadow work is said to be shadow integration.
Why would you want to integrate your darkest impulses? Perhaps those impulses need to be transmuted and evolved. At the very least, it would appear that they need to be disciplined and controlled. Is shadow integration merely a sophisticated license for ethical libertines, as some spiritual moralists have wanted to claim? And if it is not, if shadow integration points to some profound and important intuition about our wholeness and enlightenment, as others have loudly claimed, but not explained, then what is it?
A once-popular spiritual book called The Book of Qualities says, “The spiritual practice of shadow encourages us to make peace with those parts of ourselves we find despicable, unworthy, and embarrassing, our anger, jealousy, pride, selfishness, violence, and other evil deeds.” The purpose of shadow work is said to be “a way of achieving wholeness by unifying the dark and the light,” taking responsibility, and “embracing your full humanity.”
What exactly does it mean to unify light and darkness? Did the writer miss Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle, which says that opposites do not unify? How do we unify that which is good and that which the writer calls “despicable”? And what does it mean to “embrace” your impulse toward murder, rape, and mayhem as part of your “full humanity”?
Perhaps a little bit of holy war is in order. Is it not possible that making peace with your shadow is just a saccharine way to let you off the hook of the full, powerful, and sacred obligation to evolve out of your darkness and into your light?
This confused understanding of shadow is the rule rather than the exception. For example, a similar approach to shadow is shot through poet Robert Bly’s well-known and oft-cited A Little Book on the Human Shadow. Although I am a fan of his poetry, his explanation of shadow does not offer us anything near an in-depth understanding of what shadow integration might mean. For Bly, shadow is composed of what you had to suppress as a child to please the grown-ups around you:
When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bad, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.
With great respect to Bly, this paradigmatic passage is confusing. What is so bad about going through the ethical socialization required to become a “nice Bly boy”? Is it so heinous to leave behind your attempts to suffocate your brother with a pillow? Isn’t growing beyond the murderous rage that spawned the first fratricide a good and noble goal of human evolution?
Shouldn’t authentic teachers help us discern between legitimate and inappropriate anger? Finally, Bly’s implicit idea is regressive in the extreme: the one- or two-year-old with an energy-radiating 360-degree personality.
Naturally, the understanding of shadow integration that I have outlined until this point is not without wisdom. It is true but partial. This teaching assumes that shadow means jealousy, rage, pettiness, violence, and all the other negative ethical expressions. Shadow integration simply means to own the fact that you are jealous, angry, filled with rage, insanely promiscuous, addicted to all forms of comfort, and much more. Bring your disowned shadow into first person. Shadow integration comes to mean something like, “Get out of denial and admit that you are an asshole.” And free up the energy you have used to cover up being an asshole.
Now, this is not a bad idea. Indeed, it is absolutely critical for any form of spiritual or psychological growth. Someone who owns their dark side is generally more tolerable than someone who does not. When you are in denial, you are more dangerous, because it is impossible to engage in authentic conversation around any genuine issue. A good rule of life might be: self-acknowledged assholes are easier and more fun to hang out with than assholes in denial.
This understanding of “owning your shadow,” however, might be called more accurately something like shadow confession. So where does the integration piece come in? How do you integrate your night virtues, and why would you want to?
Some psychological teachers explain shadow integration as making a place within your own psyche for your rage, envy, greed, dishonesty, and pettiness, so that you do not project them onto everyone else.
This good and important teaching is generally attributed to Carl Jung. Shadow is understood by Jung to be your “dark side,” that part of yourself that you hide away—afraid to expose it to the light of day. Shadow is anything that you cannot hold as “I” in your self-definition—your less-than-noble qualities, including fear, rage, uncontrolled sexing, envy, greed, egoic pettiness, violence, frustration, depression, and more. It is in this context that Jung wrote “the most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”
Taking back shadow projection is a huge evolutionary leap forward and needs to be taught, practiced, and applauded. It allows for a more honest picture of reality, which always opens the heart up for deeper and more stable loving. But taking back projection still does not explain the core teaching of shadow integration…
The above excerpt is from Your Unique Self (pp. 211-214) by Marc Gafni