When The Shadow Surrenders the Form

Steve Olweean

Perspective magazine, October 2003

The Shadow often conjures up less than positive images of us and others — whether in terms of active expression or potential. Darkness carries that kind of bias in our psyche – perhaps a unique and quite human quality. My guess is that there are no other species that literally fear the dark, as opposed to a distinctive scent or sound that give clear evidence of a bona fide, embodied threat. Other beings, in fact, seem to seek refuge in the dark as opposed to from the dark. It may be that our separation from nature and our discovery of fire have freed us from sharing in this common creature comfort, rather than offering us any net gain to our sense of well-being.

To be sure, a good flame was handy in warding off a marauding cave bear or other predator in the night, but we seem to have evolved into having made a habit of its use even when the beast has moved on. As a consequence, we anticipate danger in far more expansive waves of vigilance and symbolic presence. Our metaphors of light and dark reveal themselves in surprisingly universal ways. Coming out of the darkness and into the light is considered to be the epitome of both progress and security. Delving into the darkness – let alone feeling at ease in it – is synonymous with degeneration, peril, and The Fall.

Yet, paradoxically, some of our most enlightening, intimate, and even romantic moments occur in the dark; moments when we actively shun the light for a closer union with all that comes with the twilight. The period between waking and sleeping also involves a transition in consciousness that can be a time of great insight. Although there is the obvious dichotomy of the known and the vastly immeasurable unknown, a Light (good) vs. Shadow (evil) dichotomy seems to me both artificially polarizing and contradictory. The question that emerges, then, is what makes up this conflictual relationship we have with Shadow, and how does it play out in our lives?

At least partly at play here, perhaps, is that having moved outside the warm boundaries of deep nature, we may, consequently, experience ourselves as being out in the cold, struggling to make sense of the primal part of us left behind. Additionally, Shadow has been eternally potent in our psyche because of our unique ability to imagine. We certainly have a knack for constructing a decidedly dynamic inner world far more expansive and multidimensional than any mutually-agreed-upon reality. This freewheeling creativity is most expressed in our dream state, which has prompted intense wonder and self-speculation as far back as our earliest depictions of dreams on cave walls. The combined elements of a boundless unknown, the insecurity of separation at the most basic level, and our remarkable talent of imagination contribute to creating the most mysterious and challenging of frontiers – that of our own authentic self.

If we conclude Shadow exists in and of itself and contains that which is contrary to life and well-being, we are manifestly locked into nervously watching out for it – in ourselves and all too often in others – or retreating from it. If, however, rather than being intrinsically ominous, Shadow is simply our unknown possibility, then it is totally dependent on what we individually or collectively “expect” of it. Consequently, Shadow is what “might” be there, lurking, which gives us pause far more than what is there. As a blank slate with troublesome undertones, it can prompt our imagination to fill in the space with our most disturbing images. When the shadow surrenders the form contained within it, more often than not we find it has been of our own making.

That there exists cruelty and malice in the real world is certainly true. Ignorance and fear can stumble into great cruelty and adversity. This doesn’t mean, however, that ignorance “is” cruelty and adversity by design, but that it profoundly undermines our consciously owned choice to recognize and avoid them. Our fears and insecurities are allowed too much latitude to misrepresent our actions and deny personal ownership and responsibility.

Generalized, undifferentiated fear is the most distressing and debilitating kind, and the most likely to result in highly unpredictable, reactionary behavior. The energy of fear distorts reality in fundamental ways that create a trance-like state of experiencing interactions with others. It can misconstrue harmful pre-emptive acts toward others, for example, as justifiable defensive acts against imminent harm to us. Mixing the energy of fear and a perceived negative character of the unknown can produce a blindness to reason and a vulnerability, often open to exploitation. We see this increasingly in our world today as toxic, divisive concepts of “Us” and “Them” are actively promoted and institutionalized, while appreciation for diversity, individual human rights, and the sanctity of life is discredited.

Certainly there are instances when revealing what’s hidden can be troubling, even terrifying. As therapists we know that in healing trauma it is the revealing and reframing that reclaim our essential power and sense of healthy connection to the world. One of the most meaningful roles a therapist can play is in the willingness to enter the darkness with a person and stay with them until their natural, intuitive sense of trust, security, and belonging emerges.

With this comes the revelation of the shadow – or the light if you will – bringing the size, the weight, and the context of what is revealed in relation to all else that is also reality. Healing can then take a natural course, and, just as important, vital learning occurs that says the lack of knowledge and understanding is qualitatively and quantitatively more the problem than what the shadow contains.

Coming to terms with our shadow, then, becomes more a quest to shed the light of understanding on both the unknown and on our most intimate insecurities. While at the beginning of this quest we may experience feeling lost and adrift in the unknown, we do have a deep-felt connection with the rumblings of our most intense insecurities; rumblings that can take on megaphone proportions the deeper we venture. If they are perceived as warnings of impending danger, they can keep us perpetually off balance and at bay from our authentic selves. If, however, they are recognized as our own inner voice struggling to speak out our most fundamental truth, they can be vital guides along the way to making sense of our existence. The source of these internal echoes is invariably smaller, less threatening, and more understandable after emerging into full view rather than when the shadow takes up all the space of the vastly imagined “possible” reality.

The most helpful guideline may be that Shadow is not any established quality, quantity, or entity. Shadow is simply what is not known; and on the most elemental level, not known about ourselves. Because we’re supposed to know more about ourselves than anyone else does, a shadow within us is understandably most disconcerting. Yet if we can collectively muster up enough trust, heart, and spirit to overcome this apprehensive self-consciousness, we may yet find our way back into harmony with our inner world, and along the way, with each other.

 

Steve Olweean
Perspective magazine, October 2003

Copyright by Common Bond Institute, unless otherwise noted in the article. All rights reserved.