Most of my intellectual understanding of 'Shadow' came from studying Transpersonal Counseling at Melbourne’s ‘Phoenix Institute’. I’d come across the concept long before, but never explored it academically, except to a limited degree as part of my training as a Holotropic Breathwork Facilitator (where I first heard the term ‘Golden Shadow’).
Basically, the ‘Shadow’ is a broad term for anything in the psyche that is hidden or suppressed, or is a natural potential as yet unevolved. For many reasons ‘Shadow’ is often taken to be describing only negative aspects.
Partly this misbelief stems from the fact that when we suppress something natural it tends to emerge in pathological ways, and such expressions are culturally misunderstood to be the entirety of ‘Shadow’. It also stems from a more broad-spectrum cultural fear of the unknown – an unconscious status quo supporting assumption instilled in us that the unknown is by definition something to be afraid of.
The truth is that the unhealthy manifestations are pressure-cooker results, not natural/organic expressions of whatever lies in the Shadow. When something is sufficiently squashed it tends to burst out at the edges under pressure. That’s just simple physics. If something wasn’t so crushed it could have the opportunity to find a more natural and safer way of expression. Sadly many examples exist of our powerful erotic natures being suppressed and then bursting forth in horrible, disrespectful and abusive ways.
Psychologically speaking, our ‘shadow’ is formed in early childhood, as we are educated in social and cultural norms. A degree of social training is of course essential and appropriate, or else we couldn’t function in the society to which we were born. However, much of what is passed on is actually over-culturalization. More accurately reflecting the fears, habits and conditioning of our parents and the society.
Such as repetitive conditioning to be ashamed of sexuality, to fear our own potential, and to accept the beliefs and values of others without ever applying critical thinking... A great many fears and outside forces can override our own natural impulses and capacities, forcing these aspects of ourselves back into ‘shadow’. Real but unrealised aspects of us can become lost, such as natural erotic preferences, self-acceptance of our diversity, and particular skillsets or artistic leanings that had no opportunity or permission to evolve.
We also of course suppress those things not deemed to be socially acceptable, because our deep psychological conditioning, and the survival-level vulnerability of the very young, means that our automatic tendencies are to conform. The deep unconscious fear around non-conformity is that if we aren't accepted then we will die. That’s not rational, but the mind of very young child (where this fear is formed and lodged) is not skilled in language, let alone critical thought. It is ‘pre-rational’, and that stage is when the deepest conditioning occurs.
Working with the Shadow
The way to work healthily with your ‘shadow material’ is to shine the light of consciousness onto it. When things are acknowledged and brought to awareness they lose at least some of the power behind their unconscious influence. Shadow Tantra is one pathway of exploration (for those who choose to take it) into the erotic imagination and safe and sane gradual exploration and liberation of the impulses buried in our unconscious.
Not for the sake of thrills and simple satisfaction, nor so as to become ‘cool’ or ‘impressive’, but because everything that is repressed is a potential doorway to uncovering more of our magnificence, our power and our self-acceptance. Nobody needs to explore the shadow erotic if they don’t want to, yet it is in all of us. The primal sexual self is simply part of being human.
Down amongst the dark, are many beautiful things, hidden there for all kinds of reasons related to our upbringing and the values, beliefs and psychological distortions that we were trained in. More broadly, this ‘Golden Shadow’ as it is sometimes known is all the groovy stuff that sits alongside the unpleasantness. The gold locked within nuggets of pain, trauma, or closure. Such things as unrealised aptitudes, the confident and self-assured self, the intuitive and empathic self... The list is endless.
The Compromised Self
When we are born we have tonnes of potential, and are effectively waiting to see which aspects will be allowed to flourish and which will not. Then, guided by cultural and family expectation and conditioning we develop a few, whilst ignoring or suppressing others. In the end some of the aspects we end up focusing on are not even primary authentic parts of us. Since the human need to fit in is massive, we develop them anyway. Because in so doing we gain approval, acceptance and love, or at least we hope we will. These then sit on top of the authentic self, contributing to the obstructions that block out the light of consciousness.
What results from our upbringing then, is a self that is not usually even remotely fully expressed and often not even very authentic. Down in the shadow are a great many parts of ourselves that want to be known, and a great many aspects that are old wounds, pain and even traumas waiting to be healed. All mixed and muddled together. Shadow can also be as simple as aspects of the self suppressed by cultural stereotypes.
Revealing the Shadow
I see investigating the personal shadow as something like a journey into unknown territory. Imagine the explorers of the Victorian age, when no kind of air-travel was available. Richard Francis Burton for instance, travelling deep into Africa with no knowledge of whether he will find cannibal tribes, lost cities of gold, fearsome man-eating beasts... (Quick plug for an old movie: “The Mountains of the Moon”.) The British TV comedy series ‘Blackadder’ also had an excellent scene where the main character is about to set off on a voyage of exploration and is handed a map prepared by ‘the foremost cartographers of the land’. The audience assumes this is being donated as an assistance, until Meltchett continues: “they’ll be very grateful if you can just fill it in as you go along.” The map is unrolled and sure enough it’s completely blank on both sides.
That’s what Shadow explorations are like, for those who have the courage to take them. Buried in our potential are the good, the bad and the ugly. (Hmm, I appear to be going through a favourite movie phase.) I believe that the reason why such adventures hold a secret allure for so many, is that all our shadows can be a pathway to becoming more self-expressed and having much fuller and more satisfying experiences.
Arven Alexander is a self-development enthusiast, currently residing in Melbourne, Australia.