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Moon and Shadow: Shadow-work as Spiritual Practice

March 2, 2010

Moon Shadow, Copyright (c) Nicola Gibbons

For the past couple months I’ve been experiencing something peculiar during the full moon period – the more that the moon grew in splendour and brilliance, the darker and more negative my own thoughts grew.

I’ve been used to the idea for some time now that our Mother orb tended to intensify emotions as she waxed to fullness, but since the blue moon that ushered in this new year, the energies seem to have taken a decidedly more ominous turn.

Last month was particularly intense and resulted in my having to withdraw from friends and family alike for a period of a few days to keep them out of harm’s way.  During this time I could identify easily with the werewolf myth because it felt like the more primal and ferocious parts of my self had taken over my more moderate and rational side.  I found myself snapping at persons whom I knew meant well, and  growing increasingly intolerant of others where it was not my place to do so.

At first, I managed to regain some composure by speaking to a friend who reminded me that this aspect of my personality was not all of who I am, and was certainly not the reason why our friendship had blossomed to this stage.  But quickly after that conversation, I found myself slumping back into blackness.  So intense was this energy, and so profound the self-loathing that undergirded it that I was initially afraid to be consumed by it.  Then I remembered, not even category 5 hurricanes can sustain their destructive power indefinitely, and though they leave chaos in their wake, they also give way to renewal.  Let’s see where this takes me.

What confronted me during this time is what psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, refers to as the “shadow” – that aspect of the self which has not been given expression, either because the opportunity hasn’t presented itself, or because there was a deliberate choice taken by the individual to  suppress these characteristics in favour of others. Classic examples, for many women in particular, are those ‘negative’ emotions of anger and hatred.  These, we’ve been taught, alienate us from, and cause the disapproval of, others – something we learnt back when we were trying to be  “good little girls.”

But, according to Jung, this is a far more pervasive issue, especially at this time.  For example, among the New Age movement, the emphasis on “the light” and affirming good, has the unfortunate consequence of suppressing  and denying any shadow, or ‘bad,’ tendencies.  Debbie Ford, in her book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, addresses this issue and encourages persons to not only identify shadow tendencies, but to integrate them into the whole person.  “Aren’t there times when you need to be a bitch?” she asks.  (I can personally certainly think of a few such occasions.)

Indeed, Jung has highlighted the fact that the shadow possesses tremendous energy which is necessary for transformation.  For him, enlightenment is not a matter of eradicating darkness, so much as “seeking to make the darkness conscious.”

What tends to happen, instead, is that people, in suppressing the shadow, effectively end up projecting it onto others – allowing the finger to be pointed ‘out there’ and keeping one blind to any parallels within.  There are therefore implications for others as well.  To the extent that we do not own our own shadow and withdraw it from persons outside, we contribute to the ‘collective shadow,’ a trans-personal energy that defines whole communities or even nations, warns Jung.  The bodhisattva (Buddhist) way of seeking liberation for self in order to enable liberation of others thus comes to take on real, and practical, meaning.

But how do we even approach this?  Well, firstly, shadow work has come to be a significant part of feminine spiritual practice and feminine psychology.  One cannot venture too far into literature without coming across references to the Dark Mother, or dark feminine, which we find personified in myths of Lilith, the Black Madonna, Kali and Hel (goddess of the underworld).  Getting to know these myths and archetypes, and being comfortable with their representation as your own internal shadow qualities, is one way to approach this practice on your own.

Aside from that is the need for a place that can act as a container for these energies, which are as much a part of our makeup as the dark side of the moon is to the full moon – we often forget that there is another side of the moon upon which no light is being shed, at the same time as its luminescence shines forth.  This place can be a physical or virtual community in which women can find comfort, not criticism, in coming to terms with the shadow personality.  Acceptance and compassion are crucial elements of such a grouping.

Finally, and equally important to confronting the shadow, however, is knowing when to step away from it, according to Jungian analyst and Spiritual Director, Don Bisson.  In that regard, not only is it necessary to have a community which will nurture you through the process, but also to have a guide who will show you when the time comes to walk away.  Find someone, a spiritual counsellor, practitioner or therapist, who is familiar with shadow work and will encourage you to stay with the process for as long as you need, and then lead you out of it in a way that facilitates integration and wholeness.

As for me, I was lucky to have had experience in shadow work during my transpersonal psychology studies.  I’m certainly no expert, but what I did know, along with my meditation practice, allowed me move through the process consciously – which, to me, was the most important thing.  I eventually emerged from it after a few days, feeling as though my ego had been attacked, battered and subsequently annihilated. I experienced such a deep and profound sense of suffering due to my ego identification that I felt mortally wounded from an emotional standpoint.  The shadow, in its ugliness, is my self, I had to admit.  There was more to me than what I chose to put out there and I could no longer hide that fact.  It has been a gradual recovery – nothing like a profound “aha” moment at all.  What I’ve come away with so far, interestingly, is a simple, but tremendous feeling of liberation in knowing that nothing further lingered in the dark… at least, for now ❍


A list of physical and virtual places to go

Ereshkigal - Sumerian Goddess of the Underworld

Featured Goddess – Ereshkigal

Among all the myths of the dark feminine, the one which seems to meet with the greatest resistance is in relation to Ereshkigal, sister of Inanna, Sumerian goddess of love and fertility, and war.

Their most famous myth tells of Inanna’s descent to the underworld, presumably to conquer it, clad in raiments and jewelry – including a turban, gold ring and lapiz lazuli rod – that denoted her preeminence as a goddess.

Upon learning of Inanna’s visit, Erekshigal advises each of her seven gatekeepers to remove an item of Inanna’s clothing or jewelry at each gate before allowing her to proceed further.

Stripped naked, Inanna arrives to the underworld, then she made her sister Erec-ki-gala rise from her throne, and instead she sat on her throne. The Anna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.

Thus she remained for three days and three nights before the other gods intervened and sent two genderless agents to help rescue her.  As they are making their departure, Ereshkigal stops them and insists that someone be made to take Inanna’s place.  Inanna turns down two offers by her servants to take her place in the underworld and instead makes the decision to let the demons take Dumuzi, her husband, whom she finds lazing under a tree and expressing no distress that his wife was taken captive to the Underworld.

This myth has powerful symbolism as it relates to shadow work.  Firstly, it demonstrates the grave error in going about the process with the intent of conquest.  One must befriend, embrace and shed compassion on the shadow in order for it to yield.

Second, as with the stripping of Inanna at each gate, the descent to the realm of the shadow requires that one abandon those things that comprise the outer persona.  There is no place for such things in shadow work.  One only arrives to meet the shadow with the bare self.  Not who you think you are or have chosen to be up to that point.

Thirdly, expect that part of the process will include an ego-death of some sort.  A disidentification with a treasured part of yourself – the good girl, for example.

Finally, know that emergence back into the world means that you will be leaving behind that formerly beloved aspect of yourself.  It is a sacrifice that must be willfully given.  This too is part of the process and needs to be accepted.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. shan permalink
    March 16, 2010 9:20 pm

    i think this is the most beautifully written personal discourse on the shadow that i’ve ever read. i really got a sense of what you went through, but more importantly, i got the sense that you achieved full awareness and insight into your process, painful as it may have been. that level of honest self-reflection is the key to integration, often not easy to do. thank you for sharing of yourself as you do. as you learn, heal, and grow, you offer others (me) the opportunity to do the same.


  2. sean permalink
    March 2, 2010 11:02 pm

    Thankyou,I love Carl and he and his students and followers have helped me a great deal.

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