Enlightening the Shadow

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however is disagreeable, and therefore not popular."
Carl Jung
We are not just what we think we are. We are also what we think we are not. Each of us forms a sense of our personality based on our capabilities and virtues. We also define ourselves by the characteristics that we reject. If dad or mom seems rageful and dangerous, we may grow up rejecting awareness of our own anger. We might assess ourselves as being incapable of acting the way our unpleasant role model did. We tuck our own angry feelings away from consciousness. We go through life claiming not to be an angry person, but probably quite disturbed by those who are. Since anger is a legitimate expression of emotion in some circumstances, we become less flexible, less adaptable, in denying it to ourselves.

All sorts of qualities of self can get put away in that part of personality psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the shadow. We may put away our capacities for lust, greed, laziness, violence, ambition, or vulnerability. We might also hide away talents that don’t fit with who we think we should be, so they lie dormant. Each of us creates our own shadow based on our experience and culture. Hidden from awareness, we are protected from these characteristics of our self  that would be too painful to look at. Being out of awareness, though, doesn’t mean they don’t have power in our lives. Where we feel shame, weakness, or inadequacy we are likely perceiving the effects of the shadow. When we overreact negatively to certain qualities in another person, we are likely driven by the power of the shadow. We least like in others what we’ve rejected in ourselves.

Because it is unconscious, we can’t see the shadow directly. It has been formed to hide its contents from us. We can learn about our shadow indirectly. It shows itself in dreams, or slips of the tongue, or in exaggerated feelings about others. It may become evident in the negative feedback from others that tells us what we’d rather not know about ourselves. When we feel shame or humiliation, we may have been acting from our shadow self. When our anger at other people’s faults seems out of proportion, it may be our own weakness that we prefer not to face that generates the heat.

Barbara Hannah, a psychotherapist, analyst and teacher at the C.G. Jung Institute describes using active imagination to reveal the personal shadow. The process could go something like this:

Sit down in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Concentrate on seeing or hearing whatever comes up from the unconscious. Work at keeping the images that arise from immediately sinking back into the unconscious. Give them your full attention.

Be active in this process. You are not passively watching images go by like you would in a movie. Keep your attention on the first image that presents itself. Hold on to it until it explains itself. What can it tell you of the unconscious. What does it want to know from you?

Hannah states: "There is one very important rule that should always be retained in every technique of active imagination. In the places where we enter it ourselves, we must give our full, conscious attention to what we say or do, just as much—or even more—than we would in an important outer situation. This will prevent it from remaining passive fantasy. But when we have done or said all that we want, we should be able to make our minds a blank, so that we can hear or see what the unconscious wants to say or do. "

Release any negative feelings that the images might stimulate. Be friendly and kind toward them. Acknowledge that they have a right to be in your mind. Have a dialogue with the mental image. Ask it about itself. Find out what it knows, especially what it knows about you.

Invite the image to express itself in some way. Possibly this image is non-verbal. Could it express itself through movement or dance?

Once you have come to terms with the image, let it go and see what else comes up.

Images from the unconscious can quickly slide back into the darkness, so draw, paint or write down what you saw. This will help you fix the image in your conscious mind.

What you want to do is widen the scope of consciousness. Find yourself where you didn’t know you were. Bring what was hidden to light. This can be powerful emotional work. Be careful with yourself. Be compassionate toward yourself. Watch out for your mind’s efforts to ignore, distort, or rationalize away what you might not want to see.

May I carry my light to the darkness.
May I have courage to see what I’ve hidden.
May I be open to hearing the unthinkable.
May I remember to be kind.
May I grant mercy that I might receive mercy.
May compassion guide me.
May wisdom protect me.


Reference: Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, J P Tarcher, 1991.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett