“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 psyche… But one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball of energy that we were. 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 bag, and the part of us that our parents don’t appreciate we, to keep our parents love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school the 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 high school it is our peers whose opinion we value sufficiently to stuff more parts of ourselves in the bag.” (Robert Bly in Meeting the Shadow)
This invisible, overstuffed bag is filled what we think of as the shameful and destructive parts of ourselves, which the great psychologist Carl Jung dubbed “the shadow.” The shadow develops naturally in every young child. As children we learn to identify with ideal personal characteristics which are reinforced in us by parents and teachers. At the same time, we take those qualities and characteristics that we are told are “bad” and we shove them onto the dusty shelf at the back of the closet. We literally bury them in the shadows, making them unconscious. The shadow feels disorderly and dangerous. It is forever hiding. Yet its influence on us is very real.
We often see our shadow-side indirectly, in the distasteful traits and actions of other people, out THERE where it is safe to look at. The great Jewish spiritual teacher Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov knew this well before Jung. He taught that if you see something distasteful in another person, it is likely that it is a part of ourselves that we are seeing. It is our shadow that is showing.
Cut off from consciousness, the shadow can wield a huge unseen influence in our lives. But when we shine the light of consciousness on the shadow, we have the potential to disarm and deflate it. The practice of mindfulness meditation can help us in this endeavor. In the practice of mindfulness, as painful or difficult emotions or thoughts arise, we do our best not to push them away or try to fix them. We simply allow them to be present, notice them, without attachment or the need to change them. They are like puffs of cloud floating across a clear blue sky. As we sit with these difficult and often painful emotions or thoughts, they begin to lose their potency, their edge, and their ability to make us miserable. We begin to welcome them as a part of ourselves.
As the poet Rumi wrote:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.