What is the Shadow?
The Shadow is an archetype that lives within all of us. It is the home for all the parts of ourselves we don’t want to look at or accept: our shortcomings, prejudices, or perceived negative qualities. The more we reject our shadow, generally, the larger it grows. The more we deny its existence, the more insistent it becomes on getting our attention, and suddenly, we find we cannot keep ourselves from saying things we don’t want to, or falling into unhealthy habits.
Most of us expend a lot of energy trying to avoid, hide, or diminish our shadow sides. We know it’s there, but we’re ashamed of it, and we don’t want to talk about it, let alone engage with it. This is partly due to upbringings that don’t allow discussion around such topics, as well as our culture at large, which tells us either that a) human beings are uniquely special and good, or b) they are innately sinful, and must work hard to rid themselves of any negative impulses, thoughts, or behaviors.
But, once inside the crucible of transformation, you come face to face with your shadow. There is no hiding. For however many years, you were believing your own lies, fooling yourself with your bravado or external confidence. And then, suddenly, it all crumbles. All the pretenses fall away, and no amount of hiding will work.
Sometimes, an external event causes the crumbling — the loss of a job, a relationship, our health, an identity. Other times, it’s an internal crisis or transition that causes the breakdown of all the beliefs and ideas you held about yourself. But no matter the reason why the first cracks in our façade begin to show, once you’ve arrived at the crucible, you have two choices:
- Continue to try to repair the cracks in your identity and beliefs, hide the damage, and pretend that everything is fine. You might be able to get away with this tactic once or twice. But you will be here again, at the mouth of the crucible and a decision point. Every time you arrive at the crucible of transformation and choose to walk away instead, the next time, the stakes will be higher, and the work will be harder.
- Let yourself break down, melt down, and go down. If it is transformation you seek, then there is no ignoring, pretending, restating, or justifying. The work is waiting, and it will be challenging, but the promise of rebirth crowns you.
We are Always Becoming
One of the great truths about spiritual or personal growth is that there is no arrival. Truthfully, except for maybe the smallest handful of human beings on this planet, there is no final enlightenment. Instead, we are all in a process of undoing and unraveling, after which we once again bundle ourselves up in new ideas of who we are now — until that, too, falls apart.
Wisdom is recognizing that there is no point in time at which this process is complete. Instead, we must learn to embrace the process like an actor embraces each role they perform: with gusto while they’re in it, and then letting it go as they return to their authentic selves.
Enlightenment is the awareness of our continual process of birth, death, and rebirth. And if we put that wisdom to good use, then we honor the changes of the seasons in our lives. We find humor in our fierce attachments to what will always be false identities, and start recognizing these changes with rituals and ceremonies so that we can embed their lessons and knowledge even deeper into our being.
Embracing the Black Stage
This is the work of the first stage of an alchemical personal transformation. It is called the Black Stage because this is when the lights go out on all the things you thought you knew about yourself. All the beliefs you’ve used to hold yourself up, to identity yourself by, disintegrate like salt in water.
Instead of assuming your long-held beliefs support you or identify you, you begin to see how they hold you back. You see how they keep you from greater truth, compassion, and connection. You are in the dark, what St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul”.
Once you’ve accepted that this is where you are, your work for now is done. Surrender yourself over to the undoing. Let yourself feel, mourn, let go, melt down. Do not be afraid, but instead, be hopeful. This is the beginning of the work of the bravest and wisest of human beings.
Let me end with this alchemical saying: Opponere Draconem est prehendere Vitam, which means: To Face the Dragon is to Seize life Itself.