by Nancy J. Napier
This book explores approaches and ideas that enhance a sense of vitality and connection in daily life. Through both guided meditations and experiments, you have an opportunity to practice mindfullness and deepen a sense of meaning and purpose.
Guided Audio Meditations:
Table of Contents:
Introduction to the Second Edition
Introduction to the First Edition
Chapter 1 Fields Within Fields Within Fields
Oceans of Consciousness
Chapter 2 The Shadow
An Invitation to Dynamic Wholeness
Chapter 3 Compassion and Lovingkindness
Living with an Open Heart
Chapter 4 Getting Grounded
Nurturing Yourself as Bodymind
Chapter 5 Practicing Mindfulness
Chapter 6 Gratitude and Generosity
Engaging a Prosperous Life
The Interplay of Collective Consciousness
Chapter 8 Creating Possibility
The Dance of Intention and Synchronicity
Chapter 9 Opening to Your Optimal Future
Saying Yes to All You Can Be
Chapter 10 Intuition and Well-Being
Affirmation, Prayer, Guides, and Other Nonlocal Phenomena
Chapter 11 Living Consciously
Putting It All Together
Prologue to the 2nd Edition
The Western perspective on reality has changed a good bit since I was a child. What began in public consciousness as a Newtonian world run by mechanistic, predictable rules has become, over these years, a quantum reality characterized by probabilities and the emerging notion of a multiverse. There is also a more dynamic relationship emerging between Western cosmologies and indigenous perspectives on nature and reality. Having grown up in a home where multidimensionality and interactions between visible and invisible realms of reality were taken for granted, my soul sings at the new openness to issues of non-rational ways of knowing, near-death experiences, life after death, the presence of nature spirits, and more.
This second edition of Sacred Practices for Conscious Living reflects changes in my thinking, and an increased willingness to express my inner experiences more openly and directly that has emerged in the years since the first edition was published. It also reflects the shifts in our culture at large, where people are now much more open to a multidimensional worldview than was the case when I originally wrote Sacred Practices.
Introduction to the 2nd Edition
As I sit down to finalize this new edition of Sacred Practices for Conscious Living, it is 2015 – fully 18 years since the original version of this book was published. At the time I first wrote it, Sacred Practices represented my deepest heart space, reflecting the aspects of my life I loved most, and continue to love even now. Since that time, this part of my life has remained the most central focus of how I move through each day and how I understand the world and my place in it.
When I was very young, my grandmother began to teach me her version of spirituality, reflecting the multidimensional world in which she lived. She taught me about reincarnation and karma, about different planes of existence, about healing and intuitive knowing. Her words were inspiring and sometimes frightening, as she shared stories of beings who live in non-physical realities, and who interact with us all the time. As a child, and then as an adolescent, I took in her words as truth, even as what she taught at times frightened me. Because of my own not-quite-conscious awareness of what was around me in the invisible realms, I sensed that there was much more to reality than my five senses registered. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how very different my fundamental assumptions about reality were, compared to the majority culture in which I lived. I realized, then, that my grandmother oriented me to a perspective of the world that is much closer to indigenous realities than it is to an everyday, Western understanding of how the world works and our relationship to it.
That early foundation shaped my development as a person and as a psychotherapist. I recall how, when I began to practice in New York City in the early to mid-80’s, I began to get calls from people who wanted to be able to combine their psychotherapy experience with their spiritual lives. For me, there was never any question that spiritual experience and psychological experience were each their own valid source of information and inspiration, and it was natural for me to offer people an opportunity to explore both realms of consciousness equally. I recall the first time someone cried with relief that she was able to tell me about a spiritual experience and not have it interpreted as a delusion or as a misperception created by an underlying psychological issue.
I also remember when a close friend told me that I reminded her of a kite, flying way up in the sky with lots to share and yet no one had hold of the kite string down here on the ground. She made it her mission to help me find language to share my spiritual reality with people in a grounded and useful way, and I will always be grateful for that timely support. It coincided with my uncomfortable discovery that being from California and living in New York City meant I had to work very hard to be seriously accepted in my field. I hadn’t known that there was a sense, for some East Coast people, that Californians are flaky. In response to this discovery, my spiritual life went underground publicly and only found its expression through the pathway of hypnotherapy, which thankfully gave me a language where I could speak about spiritual realities in non-threatening and more grounded ways.
Over all these years, I have become more able to translate and share my spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences with others, and the publication of Sacred Practices was a major step in making that integration in my work real and tangible. This new edition of the book is another step, and includes even more of what has always been part of my spiritual world, but was not as overtly expressed in the first edition. I am grateful to have an opportunity to update the book, as the pieces that I’ve added are the glue that holds together, and makes comprehensible, my understanding and experience of my spiritual world.
In this new edition, I’ve added new content to existing chapters and begin with a new Chapter 1. Except where I’ve written a whole new chapter, you can identify new content within each chapter because it appears in a different font and in italics, adding new perspectives and input along the way. What I add will reflect the deepening I have experienced over these years, along with a greater willingness to share my thoughts and experiences about two main themes that have shaped my world from the earliest time I can remember.
The first is that we live within fields of energy and information (language that wasn’t available back then) that contain the wisdom of all humanity—all life, actually—over all time. These fields of information and energy are ever-present sources of support and inspiration, and are available in every moment. I call on these fields in my work and life every day. My awareness of them and belief in their existence shapes much of how I move through daily experiences. The work of Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist, has been profoundly meaningful. His writings on morphic resonance and morphic fields offered me a way to speak about information fields in a coherent and understandable way.
The second theme is that our world is populated by countless intelligences and beings that inhabit frequencies of reality that are not visible in our usual, three-dimensional world and yet with whom we interact and collaborate all the time, usually without realizing it. Those who were fortunate enough to have been taught to follow a more indigenous-based perspective, where a world inhabited by non-physical beings is a given, have always had this rich and dynamic worldview. The particular paradigm I grew up learning, and which I still experience as my primary map of the world, emphasizes the presence of beings called “devas”, along with a panoply of nature spirits and other non-physical beings. In Sanskrit, the word “deva” means shining one and can be translated as the word “angel.” Other invisible beings might include deceased people, “ascended” spiritual beings and the like, although these are less part of my everyday experience.
The one request I make of you as you read the book is that you take all that I say as a metaphor, or a creative description of my particular experience, and let it touch you only in the ways that resonate with you. I have the deep feeling that reality is profoundly pliable, if I may put it that way, and that there very probably isn’t actually a “right” or “correct” view or description of it. Whenever I teach a workshop, I generally end with suggestions to “allow everything that was said or experienced to find its place in the back of your mind, where the field of creative possibility receives the seeds of new ideas. Then, allow yourself to notice what finds its place because it resonates with you and your life experience, as you allow the rest to become compost.” For me, it’s essential that each of us engage our spiritual and daily lives as the unique beings we are. To live a life of kindness and not doing harm to others is, I believe, a universal invitation to all humanity. Beyond that, I believe there are no answers that are right for everyone, no one-size-fits-all approach to how to move through, or understand, life.
Nature thrives on diversity, and it’s no different with our deeply intimate relationship with reality. I remember my grandmother saying to me that if someone someday were to tell me that it’s impossible to perceive other dimensions, I might think of it as if someone who has no physical sight told me that there is no blue sky or clouds. The sky and clouds are outside their experience. I have always taken that to mean that some of us see things that others don’t; and others of us hear, sense, or otherwise perceive things that may seem strange or impossible to most. For some people, multidimensional awareness is a given—it’s as simple and obvious as being aware that there are white clouds in a blue sky. For others, the thought that other dimensions may be perceived is unappealing at best and crazy at worst.
For that reason, if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of multidimensional awareness, or with perceptions that go beyond the five senses, this book probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re interested in what might be possible, or if you already perceive with more than your five senses, perhaps there will be information here that will be useful or inspiring for you.
It is, most of all, my deep pleasure to take this journey with you.
Fields Within Fields Within Fields
Oceans of Consciousness
One of the things that has changed most for me in the past 18 years has been my willingness to share more openly how I experience and live in reality. Increasingly, I invite people in professional and public presentations to take time to attune to the field of information, wisdom, creativity, and experience that we generate whenever we come together in a group. I also invite people to pay attention to other fields of collective energy and information they swim in all the time—to actively hold the awareness that all of us constantly and inevitably contribute to and draw from these fields.
Along with an increasing emphasis on attending to and consciously invoking these fields, I also focus, increasingly, on inviting people to sense into their own presence, as well as the presence of any group in which they participate. Presence is that quality we radiate all the time, whenever we are, whatever we’re doing. It’s our “tone”, our “color”, the “flavor of us” that naturally emerges from us no matter where we are, no matter what we may be doing.
For example, take a moment now to find the place inside you that you identify as your home base or your landing place, your core presence when you settle into yourself. In a very real sense, this is a place in you that has never been hurt, that is like the deep currents in the ocean that are undisturbed by what goes on up on the surface.
Then, sense into the quality and tone you radiate into the world from the inside out. What kind of energy do you emanate? What qualities coming from you reach out and touch the people you interact with along the way? Does your presence bring calm, or does it elicit agitation in others? In every moment, we radiate our fundamental energy presence and this has an impact on everything around us.
Later in this chapter, we’ll explore an exercise and guided meditation you can do to connect with your own presence and to sense the presence of any group to which you may belong. This includes any learning context—a class, a workshop, an ongoing study group—your church, synagogue, mosque, temple. Any group you encounter has its own unique presence, just as every person you encounter has his or her unique presence.
There are also global sources of presence, fields of information and energy within which we participate with people we will never know and who will never know us. For example, those of us involved in healing practices generate a field that I call our global healing presence. It touches every single person all the time and is comprised of all the men and women, all over the planet, in every human community, who work with healing practices of every kind on behalf of every conceivable life form, across all time. For me, it is a dynamic presence that I have come to count on throughout my workday.
In the chapter on Oneness and Interconnection, I write about nonlocal reality and morphic fields. Here, I’d like to focus on some of the current explorations that have emerged in recent years to support the idea of information and energy fields. It’s a fundamental shift in thinking, and takes us naturally and inevitably into a more indigenous worldview.
For example, in the documentary, The Living Matrix, various scientists, teachers, healers, and lay people share their experiences and speak of the emerging idea that our bodies organize themselves around the information they receive, rather than just responding to medications we might take. These stories offer inspiration and support to the many people who have experienced spontaneous healings within non-traditional contexts, or as a result of prayer or sacred ceremonies.
In his experiments with morphic fields, Rupert Sheldrake demonstrates that we constantly participate in collective information fields that impact us all the time. One of his experiments involved the London Times crossword puzzle. He tracked the speed and correct answers in those who did the crossword puzzle on Saturday evening compared to those who did it on Monday morning. Essentially, he found that by Monday morning people completed the puzzle much more quickly and his hypothesis was that they had an easier time of it because the answers were now in the information field, put there by the people who worked the puzzle all weekend.
Information fields include many aspects of reality, some of which we Westerners have a hard time accepting or taking seriously. For example, the indigenous world embraces a much larger and dynamically interactive reality than does our Western point of view. For many indigenous peoples, the fact that we live in a larger context than what our five senses can perceive is a given. That there are non-visible beings who interact with us on a daily basis is also a given. We in the West have become accustomed to thinking of these kinds of assumptions about reality as naïve or based on fantasy. For people who live in societies that take these wider realities as a given, they are anything but fantasies.
For example, in some indigenous cultures, the experience of spirit guides and power animals are part of coming into one’s own as a spiritual being. Rituals, prayers, blessings, and other activities that honor non-visible helpers, ancestors, and other sources of support along the way are part of the fabric of daily life. Honoring them is as natural as honoring the living. One of the things that has touched my daily life powerfully is the inclusion of rituals to honor my home and all the visible and non-visible beings who are part of my home environment. Whether or not what I believe and experience constitutes an “actual” reality, my sense of living within a dynamic context of non-visible support nourishes my quality of life and deepens my sense of ongoing gratitude.
I have lived within the concept of collective consciousness for most of my adult life and, even more clearly now, of the presence of different frequencies of reality. I am keenly aware of, and interested in, the subject of frequencies as they represent differing aspects and qualities of consciousness and reality. In a forthcoming book, Living Paradox, I talk a lot about how we can attune ourselves to particular frequencies depending on what quality of experience we want to have. Within collective consciousness, I believe that we can attune ourselves to frequencies that put us into a dynamic relationship with fields of, say, kindness, compassion, nature’s intelligence, and guidance from various non-physical sources, and more.
As a reminder, just as we have access to deep sources of wisdom within our collective consciousness, we also have the capacity to resonate with collective fear, anger, hatred, animosity—with any kind of feeling of which humans are capable. For this reason, it is useful to develop a habit of noticing where you resonate emotionally and mentally in any given moment, as the focus of your attention will also point to the collective frequency with which you resonate in that moment, the frequency that automatically amplifies your personal experience.
So, as we go forward with this journey into sacred practices, I invite you to keep in mind that we travel within fields of consciousness that we contribute to and draw from all the time—most often unconsciously. These fields of consciousness may be sources of inspiration and guidance, as when we attune ourselves to Nature’s Intelligence and open to what Nature wants to teach us about how to live with her. Or, when we choose consciously attune to the field of information that enfolds the human experience of healing the body and open ourselves to what might impact our understanding or unexpectedly inspire us, we are able to draw on that collective wisdom.
The key here is that we constantly participate in fields of information that are well beyond our individual awareness and knowledge. These fields of awareness contain collective wisdom, experience, and creativity upon which we can’t help but draw all the time. They also contain collective fears, animosities, historical antagonisms which we may not want to magnify in our personal lives. As we move through this book together, remember that everything we explore has its place as both individual awareness/wisdom and as collective fields of immense and expansive wisdom from human experience over all time.
An Invitation to Dynamic Wholeness
To honor and accept one’s shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and the most important experience of a lifetime.
— Robert A. Johnson
One of the most powerful journeys we can take together is through a land of shadows wherein lurk the disowned, unacceptable parts of ourselves. This landscape can be a frightening place to visit, or it can become a source of discovery and deepening into greater psychological wholeness and vitality—and a more skillful capacity to live consciously. It’s up to each person: if we allow ourselves to become willing explorers of the terrain of human fallibility, we can experience a rich and satisfying journey. If we are attached to an image of ourselves that allows no faults to show, looking at our shadow side can be a distinctly uncomfortable experience.
I would add, now, that the journey into wholeness not only offers us an opportunity to feel more empowered and able to be present, but it also invites us into an expression of authenticity that nourishes us in the presence of others. To trust oneself to be able to express wholeness, to be fully human, generates a sense of safety with other people that is impossible to experience when we have parts of ourselves we need to hide. The flow of self-expression and presence emerges spontaneously and easily when we so deeply embrace our wholeness that our authenticity becomes the only natural place from which to live.
For me, the content of this chapter is both the most exhilarating and the most challenging to convey. It is difficult and uncomfortable, in many ways, to look at disowned parts of ourselves. But such a process provides a powerful means of achieving a greater sense of wholeness and self-acceptance. I can only tell you that it has been one of the most profound parts of my own journey.
Here, we ask ourselves to tolerate our own “messiness”, to become comfortable with the knowledge that we are inherently imperfect beings, that we are frail, greedy, selfish creatures—even as we are magnificent and beautiful expression of the sacred in action. Repeatedly, I have observed people—myself included—blossom as they develop a lighter, more forgiving relationship with their own fallibility. Somehow, it seems, our willingness to know ourselves as whole people, warts and all, stimulates a capacity to be more comfortable in our own skin and to express ourselves more openly, spontaneously, and congruently.
And so, we begin our journey by deepening our awareness of the most hidden aspects of ourselves that comprise our shadow. For each of us, the shadow consists of disowned and unexpressed aspects of our personalities—positive as well as negative—that had to be hidden when we were young; those elements of our natural self-expression that were disapproved of, punished, humiliated, or otherwise judged as unacceptable by the important people in our lives.
Disowning parts of the self is an unconscious, self-protective mechanism that allows us to fit in as we grow up. The shadow doesn’t exist only for people who come from troubled families or for individuals with particular kinds of psychological problems. The psychological dynamics that create the shadow provide a necessary and inevitable adaptation to our interpersonal world. We all participate in creating shadow selves that contain whatever qualities we were not allowed to express openly.
When we don’t acknowledge our own wholeness—when we continue to push away parts of ourselves that are a source of shame, fear, or anger—these parts erupt unexpectedly and create all manner of difficulty. For example, we may unconsciously make enemies of those who act as the representatives of the very characteristics we can’t tolerate in ourselves. We create a world of “us versus them”, in which we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get other people to change. In fact, if we would only stop and look in a mirror, we would discover the source of much of our discomfort and displeasure staring back at us.
The shadow is not just a garbage can filled with ugliness and unsavory characteristics, however. It also contains all manner of human potential and creativity—for both good and ill. It’s a treasure chest filled with aspects of personal power, talent, resourcefulness, and other useful and positive attributes that, for whatever reason, were not tolerated or celebrated when we were young.
The shadow also contains more than disowned attributes, be they positive or negative. It holds all the known elements of our personalities that are outside conscious awareness most of the time. Think of the movement of sunlight around the planet. In the same way that it can’t be daytime all around the world at the same moment, we can’t be totally self-aware at any given time. Half the world is in darkness when the other half is in daylight, just as some parts of ourselves are in shadow while others are in conscious awareness. What counts is that we develop the capacity to allow our awareness to move as naturally as sunlight, to illuminate and acknowledge any aspect of us that may rise to the surface.
Since much of the shadow is unlovely, when I work with people to uncover disowned aspects of themselves, many initially find the work unsettling. Even so, what excites and inspires me about the process are those times when I experience these same people coming alive with an increased sense of self-acceptance and personal power. For this reason, even though the shadow contains elements that may be downright undesirable or unfriendly, acknowledging and accepting them as part of our inevitable wholeness is profoundly liberating.
There are important reasons for connecting with the shadow side of ourselves before moving on to explore “lighter” and more expansive attributes of the spiritual side of being. It’s been my experience that burrowing down into the shadow offers a natural, spontaneous way to move into a more expansive, lighter sense of self, just as an inherent urge for equilibrium constantly moves us toward wholeness. It’s as though the deeper we go, the more open and transparent we become.
On the other hand, when we seek expansive states without including our shadow aspects, an equal tendency toward internal balance plunges us spontaneously into the muck and mire to bring us back into wholeness. By beginning with the shadow, we consciously choose when and how we want to engage aspects of ourselves that are a source of discomfort, even as we open to more expansive, compassionate, and accepting states of being.
I have a deeply personal reason for honoring shadow work. My experience of my grandmother was that she sought the light at the expense of acknowledging the darker aspects of her being. As a result, her need to control and overpower those around her often was acted out on me and other family members. My grandmother had no conscious notion that she could act as a tyrant. Her self-image allowed awareness of only those aspects of her personality that reflected her role as healer and spiritual teacher.
In these past 15 years and more, I have deepened my understanding of my grandmother’s place in my life. I understand, in clearer ways now, how the shadow side of her expression served to offer me a way to keep my own rudder moving in a direction of wholeness. So often, the very people who challenge us also serve us. They become our most potent teachers, and my grandmother was one of these people for me on so many levels, in so many ways.
The Beauty of Light and Shadow Combined
Wholeness requires us to discover the contribution and value of both light and shadow. Everywhere we turn, we find evidence of the constructive and creative interplay of these two elements. When the artist draws or paints, she uses shading to create depth and complexity. The writer depends on the conflict between good and evil, or suffering and joy, to drive his stories. In a concrete and tangible way, without the presence of both light and shadow, we couldn’t read the words on this page.
In nature, sunlight without shade can burn us; shade with no sunlight can create a chill. Light plays in the shadows of a forest, dappling the ground and bringing tree trunks, branches, and leaves into bold relief against the darker background of the shade created by the trees. The serene, often dramatic, beauty of a forest emerges in the play of light and shadow. With only light, a forest would appear flat, like the artist’s drawing without shading. With only shadow, there wouldn’t be much to see.
In human experience, we learn the delicious gift of happiness even more powerfully when we have also tasted sorrow. Eating a beautiful meal is even more satisfying when we come to it hungry. Friendship becomes more precious when we can recall times we’ve been alone. As these examples demonstrate, all light or all dark, all one thing or the other, reveals only half a picture. To be whole means, of necessity, to embrace both.
The Power of Projection
The shadow becomes dangerous—within and between individuals, and collectively in society—when we insist on pushing out of conscious awareness those aspects of ourselves we just can’t bear to own. When this happens, the disowned contents travel in one of two possible directions. We run the risk of expressing disowned parts of ourselves unconsciously and indirectly—as my grandmother did—when we say something cruel without realizing it, or when we deny we’re angry and, say, eat instead of acknowledging our true feelings. The second, and potentially more destructive, possibility is one I mentioned earlier and it bears repeating: when we project our disowned parts onto others and make them into the enemy, we assign to them what we refuse to see in ourselves.
Projection operates in interpersonal relationships, at work and, on a larger scale, within communities and between groups and nations. When we can’t bear to know that we feel vulnerable or helpless about a situation, for example, we run the risk of projecting that intolerable feeling of helplessness onto others and then vilifying or attacking them. At unconscious levels, the attack is an attempt to destroy in them the very thing we can’t acknowledge or experience in ourselves.
Think of a co-worker or friend who drives you up a wall. Your reaction may stem from the fact that you think she dresses inappropriately. With a feeling of righteous indignation, you want to tell her to get her act together and dress in a more subdued or business-like manner. After doing some shadow work on your feelings, you may discover that your co-worker or friend mirrors a daily battle you had with your parents about how you had to dress before you were allowed to go to school. Rather than being fully aware of how humiliated or angry you felt when they wouldn’t let you wear what was in style, you may have pushed those feelings into the shadow. Now, decades later, you are activated by this person’s ability to wear the kinds of clothes you wanted to wear but couldn’t.
On a collective level, people of color have historically been the recipients of shadow projections from Western European cultures. Many white people experience an underlying distrust and fear of people of color. These reactions reflect an inherent fear of the shamed or unfamiliar part of themselves rather than a valid response to genuinely negative qualities attributed to the “other”.
The pay-off for projecting shadow parts is that, if we succeed in assigning negative traits and characteristics to someone else, we feel more comfortable in two ways: we access a soothing feeling of self-righteousness—we’re better than someone else, and we don’t have to think about how we might possess the hated characteristics as part of our own inevitably-flawed human makeup.
Someone once said that whatever any human being is capable of being or doing is also within the capacity of each and every one of us to be and do. This is a discomfiting thought for a lot of people, because most of us don’t want to know that we have the capacity to hate, kill, rape, torture, or steal. Take a moment to think about the vilest, most despicable behavior you can imagine. What’s it like to know that the capacity to behave in that way exists in you, too—that it is part and parcel of being human? When you move into an experience of psychological wholeness, you can tolerate knowing this about yourself because you also know that you have the choice as to whether you would ever act on this inherent human potential.
The same is true on the positive side of things. Think of a person you admire in a heartfelt way, someone you feel is the kind of person you’d like to be. It’s important to know that you also have, as your own potential, the capacity to actualize the qualities you so admire in the other. You just haven’t allowed these qualities to come alive in yourself yet.
There are real benefits in discovering your own projections. If, for example, you are someone who has had to disown your desire to be first in line, the first person served, the most important person at a meeting, owning this part might help you overcome an inappropriate tendency to put yourself last, even as you resent doing so. Acknowledging your wish to be first allows you to have the choice to ask for what you want, rather than forcing you to be indignant when other people get what they want instead.
Or, if you can acknowledge your disowned fear, for example, rather than projecting it onto others by getting angry at people who are afraid to try new things, you create an opportunity to learn how to manage your own fear more effectively. As long as the fear is out there, in the other, you are helpless to deal with how the unconscious power of your projection shapes the quality and tone of your daily life.
The other side of projection is “god-making”—idealization. In addition to projecting negative qualities onto people, each of us also has the capacity to see in another the disowned power, love, and talent we cannot own in ourselves. For example, I recall a friend’s description of an affair she had that began as if it were a dream come true and ultimately ended up a bitter disappointment. When she met the man in question, my friend experienced him as someone who was strong and reliable, a person she could turn to for love, comfort, and security. She assumed he had plenty of money and that he was a “solid citizen.” Much to her dismay, she eventually discovered that he was quite irresponsible and that he turned to her to get his needs met without giving much in return. As she explored what had attracted her to this man, my friend realized that she had projected her own strength, reliability, and competency onto him. She didn’t know she could experience in herself the very qualities she believed she could get only from a man.
My friend’s experience isn’t at all unusual. Many of us project positive disowned parts of ourselves onto other people and then think it is only through being connected to them that we can have good feelings. We hand over power to people without realizing that the power resides in us, as well. We lose ourselves through this kind of projection and never recognize, let alone actualize, our own deep potential.
Discovering Aspects of Your Own Shadow
It’s not too hard to discover telltale signs of your shadow, once you get the hang of it. Shadow projections elicit powerfully intense reactions, usually accompanied by a strong feeling of self-righteousness or justification for how you feel.
When I was younger—thank goodness it was many years ago now—I always had at least one friend whom no one else could stand. This person was invariably difficult to get along with, had an abrasive personality, and was generally unlikeable. People often asked me why I was friendly with these kinds of people, and I had no good answer. It was only as I began to explore my disowned self that I discovered the service these friends provided as they expressed the disowned nastiness and unfriendliness that lived in me as part of my shadow.
Having grown up in a family where being good was a prerequisite to being safe, I learned early on to hide angry and “unreasonable” responses, even from myself. As I matured and went through therapy, I became increasingly able to tolerate and value these parts of me. Slowly, over time, they were transformed into adult resources, which automatically became the ability to stand up for myself and to disagree with people in more open, direct ways. Now I no longer need friends who express in themselves what is disowned in me. Not only am I more comfortable in my own skin, but I also feel more at ease with other people.
A friend of mine discovered a disowned part of herself in relation to her work. Coming from a family that had strongly valued education, my friend was told from the earliest time she can remember that she would grow up and go to college. All through school, she took college preparatory courses and set her mind on a career as a professional. She followed through and succeeded. She got a job at a good school and began to climb the professional ladder towards tenure and a full professorship.
Throughout her schooling, and then in her academic position, my friend experienced a particular kind of impatience with students and colleagues who took time off to, as she called it, “play”. She realized that her reaction was irrational, but it was also powerful and felt completely real and justified. Simply put, she felt that she was better than these people because she worked all the time. She was at school early and stayed late. She published. She went to conferences. She read journals.
What she didn’t realize was that the students and colleagues who knew how to take some time off and enjoy life mirrored a disowned part of herself that she couldn’t bear to acknowledge. If she had consciously felt how much she longed to be an artist, and how much she liked to be outdoors in nature, she would never have been able to fulfill her family’s expectations.
As she connected with the disowned artist in herself, my friend began to shift her emphasis at work. Even with the sadness she felt at the lost years spending time doing something she didn’t actually care about, she experienced an underlying excitement and energy around reclaiming a part of herself that yearned for expression. She didn’t leave her work. She was so well established at this point that her profession provided a regular and reliable source of income. Instead, she created more time off and used it to develop her artistic skills. If she hadn’t discovered her disowned artist, she would have continued to drive herself mercilessly in a job that didn’t fully express her creative urges, and she would have continued to experience contempt for those who honored their true needs.
The shadow has so much power only because it is completely outside conscious awareness. Because of this, it gets “its way”—until we take the time to pay attention to it. In fact, its sole “job” is to remain outside conscious awareness. In the exercises and guided meditations that follow, you are invited to access different aspects of your shadow. First, you’ll have an opportunity to explore parts of yourself that most people would consider unacceptable, unsavory, or undesirable. You’ll identify these parts in several ways. In the experiment, I invite you to look for qualities, reactions, thoughts, and feelings that represent aspects of your shadow. In the guided meditation, you’ll then have a chance to experience these aspects symbolically, represented as objects, people, animals, colors, or a “felt-sense”.
As you move through the experiment and guided meditation, give yourself permission to be curious and open-minded about what you discover. Keep in mind that the more you know about your whole self—the more you acknowledge and accept the totality of your entire range of being—the more comfortable you will be in the world and the safer you are for others to be around. It is the unacknowledged and unconscious aspects of the shadow that slip out sideways and cause unexpected and unwanted problems with others. Becoming conscious of the disowned parts of yourself allows you a greater choice in how you want to be.
In the second set of exercises, you’ll explore your “golden shadow”, that realm of disowned resources, talents, power, and abilities that you had to push out of awareness, for whatever reasons. It may surprise you to discover that it is often more difficult to reclaim your golden shadow parts than it is to acknowledge your unsavory characteristics. This is because your family, school, peer group, or religion probably didn’t celebrate or approve of your particular talent. When you explore the golden shadow, allow yourself to bring the same curiosity, open-mindedness, and willingness to be whole that you bring to your work with the darker side of yourself.
I recall a workshop participant who discovered a golden shadow part that represented a degree of competence she hadn’t previously imagined she had available. When she first experienced this part of herself, she was exhilarated. Soon, though, mixed feelings arose. As she explored her discomfort, she realized that to become more competent in managing her daily life she would have to shift her relationship with her father. No longer would she be his “little girl.” She hadn’t realized that she was worried about taking this part of herself away from him. As she explored her response further, she realized that it didn’t have anything to do with the present day. It was an old, unexamined response that no longer had meaning for her.
For a friend of mine, connecting with the golden shadow was an equally powerful experience. At first, he thought he had revealed a negative part of himself, because the qualities conveyed a sense of disowned entitlement. This was a person who always presented the image of being a “nice guy”, someone who accommodated others and rarely stood up for himself. Represented symbolically as a Zorro figure, this emerging part knew exactly what he wanted. My friend’s mixed feelings ranged from excitement to a fearful conviction that no one would like him if he became more assertive. As part of the journey of integrating a conscious awareness of his natural feelings of entitlement, my friend also had to resolve his insecurities around not being liked. This turned out to be a rich and satisfying journey for him, which is a response many people have when they discover previously disowned aspects of their golden shadow.
As you identify shadow parts and get to know them consciously, it is useful to track the shifting body states that accompany the process. For example, if you were to become aware of a previously unacknowledged part of you that was deeply suspicious, you might notice a sudden tension throughout your body that wasn’t present before. Connecting with disowned feelings of playfulness, on the other hand, might be accompanied by a feeling of expansion in your chest or excitement in your stomach. Sadness might bring a sensation of heaviness in your heart, whereas anger or fear might create a gripping sensation in your gut.
These physical responses are different for each of us. Tracking them as they come and go offers yet one more way to become familiar with the qualities and responses in those parts of ourselves we have pushed outside conscious awareness.
Also, attending to our physical sensations allow us to integrate awareness more powerfully. As you explore the disowned self, your shadow side, the more you can bring the experience into your body, the more fully you’ll be able to integrate these aspects of your wholeness. And, the more whole you feel, the more authentic you’ll be able to be in the world, the more comfortable with yourself you’ll be able to be.
Whichever aspects of the disowned self you address, the important thing to be aware of is that your goal is not to bring all the qualities in your shadow into active expression in your life. Rather, it is to experience psychological wholeness and self-acceptance in a real and dynamic sense. It is also important to stress that the point of reclaiming aspects of your disowned self isn’t to extend carte blanche acceptance to everyone or to behaviors that truly are destructive and unacceptable to you. In reality, there are people who do things that hurt others, that aren’t helpful, that are what we might call “evil”. There really are characteristics that you will not want to express or support in the world. Instead, as I mentioned above, an important outcome of doing shadow work is developing a greater ability to choose, moment to moment, how and who you want to be, and be with.
Make It Real
Identifying Disowned Parts
This experiment invites you to dive right in and begin to become increasingly conscious of the shadow parts of yourself.
- Make a list of people you absolutely cannot stand. They may be family members, friends, neighbors, people at work, famous people—anyone who causes a strong, knee-jerk reaction in you.
- Now, list the qualities you dislike in them. You may describe them as evil, greedy, insensitive, lazy, dishonest, or whatever it is about them that sends you up a wall. Also note what it is about the quality of what they express that is so upsetting to you. Take some time to describe it.
- For the guided meditation that follows, choose one quality you would like to explore, and imagine that the quality describes something about you. Notice how you feel about it. If you’re like most people, your first response is likely to be, ”I’m not like that!”
- Let yourself become aware of the judgments you have about this quality and notice the strength of your need to convince yourself it couldn’t possibly illustrate something about you. Wonder a bit about how you would feel if it were possible that this quality describes a part of yourself. Be honest with yourself. This exercise is just between you and you. There is nothing to lose. What you have to gain is a dynamic wholeness that brings a greater sense of self-acceptance and well-being.
- Finally, wonder how this quality, once accepted and understood, might be transformed into an unexpected and valuable resource, or into a greater awareness of impulses and responses you want to know about but not express.
Guided Meditation #1:
Discovering Disowned Parts
To begin this meditative journey, settle yourself comfortably and be sure to invite mixed feelings to come along. It’s natural to have them when dealing with shadow aspects, and you don’t want to leave out any part of yourself. As you settle in, give yourself a few moments to focus on your breathing. Pay particular attention to the ways in which your body settles even more when you follow your exhalation all the way to the bottom of the breath.
Allow yourself to become aware of the still point that exists between one breath and the next. There is no need for strain or struggle. Just notice the still point without demanding that it be either expansive or brief.
Now allow your body to continue to find its own level of comfort as your mind moves into your shadow journey. Imagine that you are walking along a path in a landscape that feels safe and supportive to you. It is a place where the sounds, smells, colors, and shapes all come together to convey a sense of being in the right place at this moment in time. If no imagery comes to mind, ask yourself what you would sense if you could be aware of moving along a path. There’s no need to see where you are; it’s enough to sense it.
Up ahead is one of the cages in which you have stored disowned parts of yourself. In this particular cage, there is a symbolic representation of the shadow aspect you’ve chosen to explore. It may appear as an object, a person, an animal, another kind of creature, anything at all. Be sure to allow yourself simply to discover what is in the cage, without any preconceptions or demands that it be this or that. If you happen to find that the cage is empty, emptiness itself is a quality and can represent an aspect of your shadow self.
What are your first impressions of the shadow part in the cage? Notice the shape, color, and qualities that come into your awareness, without editing or pushing away anything that comes spontaneously. Trust your unconscious to give you whatever impressions you need this time. Notice your reactions and responses to this part of yourself. Be sure to allow any mixed feelings you might have. Is curiosity one of the feelings you discover?
For just a moment, allow yourself to blend with the part of you that is in the cage, so that you can experience it from the inside. As this part, what is the first thing you notice about yourself? How do you feel about what you discover? What’s it like to experience this part of yourself? Spend a few minutes exploring your awareness as this part.
Now move outside the cage. What do you feel? Can you imagine the resource that this shadow part might hold for you? What if it were to provide you with the opposite quality of what you experienced when you first discovered it? For example, if it represented fear, might it become a source of courage?
Take a few moments to review your experience. You may want to think about what it would be like if you were to unlock the cage, if you haven’t already, and allow yourself to get to know this part better over time. Remember, there’s no rush. If you want to keep the cage locked, that’s fine, too. Just keep in mind that whatever has been locked away in the cage is part of your being, that you are less than whole—and have less than your full energy available—as long as it is disowned.
When you’re ready, begin to come back, knowing that you can return as many times as you’d like to get to know this part better. You may be surprised to discover that, even after one visit, a new and positive energy or capacity related to this part becomes more available to you, or that you feel more open, or stronger, in some new way.
Once you’ve reoriented to the here and now, take a few moments to wiggle your fingers and toes, to make sure you’re all the way back. Then allow yourself some time to write down your experience.
Identifying Golden Shadow Parts
This experiment builds on the one you did on the darker side of the shadow by asking you to explore the disowned parts of yourself that are desirable qualities and talents.
- Take a few moments to think of people you really admire. List their qualities, what it is about them that moves you the most. Now consider that these qualities may actually reflect disowned parts of you.
- Once you have identified these golden shadow qualities, ask yourself what family rules you will break as you bring these qualities more actively into your life. Notice, especially, any fears you have about the reaction of people close to you if you were to actualize these golden shadow qualities.
Guided Meditation #2
Accessing Your Golden Shadow
Follow the same format as the meditation for the darker side of the shadow, only this time choose a golden shadow quality you have projected onto someone. Allow the cage to contain whatever quality arises as you search for something that you know is a positive aspect of your being. Pay particular attention to what you experience in your body as you blend with this part of yourself. Notice, as well, the quality of your thoughts and emotions as you experience yourself from the perspective of this golden shadow part. Take time to imagine how your life might be changed by consciously embracing the qualities and abilities that become available within this part of you.
Shadow-boxing: Projecting Disowned Parts into Partners
Projection of disowned shadow parts really gets cooking in intimate relationships and family interactions. The people with whom we are most closely connected often receive our most powerful projections. In working with couples, I repeatedly see the ways in which disowned parts of the self are put into the other person—at which point the unconscious goal of the relationship becomes an ongoing effort to change the other by exorcising and eliminating the characteristics partners can’t own in themselves.
A classic example of how projection works in an intimate relationship was provided by a couple who had been together for only a short time. They had gotten married after a brief courtship and hadn’t really had an opportunity to get to know each other very well before they began living together. Early on, the husband discovered that his wife was more timid than he had realized. He found that, whenever wanted to take her on a skiing trip, or scuba diving, she didn’t show the kind of enthusiasm he wanted her to have. Instead she often expressed fear and hesitation about going on the excursions he so enthusiastically planned.
Initially he allowed her the benefit of the doubt. Love conquers all, and his rose-colored glasses allowed him to overlook his growing irritation at her lack of delight at his recreational suggestions. Eventually, though, he grew increasingly angry at what he called her “unreasonable fear.” He experienced her as a “wimp” and just wanted her to get her act together and come with him without comment.
It was only as he got in touch with his own disallowed fear that his reaction began to clarify. It turned out that, as a child, he had fallen into a lake and nearly drowned. Because of his father’s attitude about the accident – that it wasn’t any big deal and he should jump right in again and ignore his fear—my client’s initial response of terror got shoved into his shadow self. From that time on, whenever he met someone who expressed fear, he felt impatient with the other person—just as his father had with him. He couldn’t understand their fear and, more importantly, didn’t want to be around it.
After working on reclaiming his natural reaction to almost drowning, his irritation with his wife lessened and, eventually, he stopped pressuring her. Between them, they worked out vacations that allowed him to do the things he loved and gave her the option to participate or not, depending on how she felt at any given time. He no longer had to push her fear away because he didn’t have to push away his own. In addition, he began to acknowledge and experience more of his own fear and, over time, became less enamored of some of the riskier activities he had so hotly pursued early in his marriage.
Make It Real
Experiment #3: Identifying Disowned Parts
Projected into Loved Ones
In this experiment, allow yourself to review your relationships with family members, your significant other, and close friends.
- To begin, look for areas where you find yourself reacting intensely to any of these loved ones. Identify what it is they do that elicits your impatience, contempt, anger, hatred, fear, or sense of helplessness. Ask yourself the following question: If only they would change _____________________ or become ____________________ [fill in the blanks yourself], then I—or the situation—would be fine.
- Reflect on the descriptions you put in the blanks and then do the guided meditation on discovering disowned parts to find out if you have projected part of yourself into the other person. Chances are that any quality that evokes an intense reaction in you points to a reflection of a disowned part of yourself.
Shadow-boxing in the Community
We seek to kill off in the other what we cannot acknowledge in ourselves. The potential destructiveness of unconscious shadow projections operating on the collective level of communities and nations is truly stunning. Even a cursory look at the condition of world politics at this point in human history is enough to take my breath away when I pay attention to how many people are fighting one another over political ideologies, borders, ethnic differences, and religious beliefs, and how many people around the world are homeless and starving. I can’t help thinking that the human species as a whole is having a shadow crisis, a veritable orgy of projection of disowned parts.
As hard as it may be to do so, it is important for each of us to ask what part we play, as individuals, in this collective need to blame others for being different from ourselves. While there is no way one person can make a powerful impact on such a general and pervasive expression of human activity and consciousness, it is possible for each one of us to do our own work with the intention of taking at least some of the shadow pressure off the current world crisis.
In the experiment that follows, I invite you to become aware of your individual contribution to collective shadowboxing and offer you an opportunity to explore how you might reclaim whatever part of yourself you have put into the fray.
It helps to remember that we project aspects of ourselves that we fear or intensely dislike. We also project negative aspects of ourselves onto others when we are afraid of the difference that people or groups who are unfamiliar to us may represent. We manage many of our insecurities through this process, so allow yourself to initially be willing to be uncomfortable as you engage this process of tracking your patterns of projection.
Make It Real
Experiment #4: Reclaiming Generalized
- In this experiment, think of groups of people you dislike or even detest. Identify their characteristics and what it is about them that makes you feel self-righteous, angry, afraid, jealous, indignant, contemptuous, or whatever. Then, take those characteristics, one by one, into guided meditation #1 or #2.
- Over time, as you work with these upsetting characteristics in the guided meditation, notice any parallel changes you become aware of in your real-life interactions with people from these groups. Pay particular attention to those times when you no longer find yourself experiencing the kind of discomfort, judgment, or other negative responses you might have had before you took a look at your own issues.
Experiencing Yourself as a Kaleidoscope
As I mentioned in the Introduction, one of my favorite metaphors for representing the intricacy of psychological wholeness is the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope I have in my office has many pieces of clear glass. Only now and then do a few pieces of bright purple, blue, or orange glass appear. As clients turn the tube, pattern after pattern emerges, each different from the one before. Once in a while, the purple or orange pieces appear and change the quality of the patterns altogether.
For me, the important meaning of the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for wholeness is that at no time are new pieces added. Every change in pattern and color happens as a result of a shift of pieces that already exist, that already are part of the whole. Pieces that were hidden suddenly come into view and add their quality to the overall pattern. When that happens, other pieces fade into the background, their qualities less distinctive, with less impact on the pattern that emerges.
It’s the same with shadow work. As we allow ourselves to see the disowned parts of ourselves reflected in the kaleidoscope that is our being, we don’t add anything that hasn’t been part of us all along. All we do is shift what has been foreground and background. We bring characteristics and elements of our personalities that were in the background more directly into self-expression. Even when we choose not to act on aspects of our shadow self, our new consciousness of the qualities adds depth and character to our personality.
In the guided meditation that follows, you are invited to imagine yourself as a kaleidoscope and to acknowledge the fact that all the pieces of your whole self are required to create who you are at any given moment. Simply because some of them don’t show doesn’t mean they don’t add their part to your self-expression, if only behind the scenes.
Make It Real
Guided Meditation #3:
On Being a Kaleidoscope
For this meditation, if you have access to an actual kaleidoscope, take a few minutes to look at it. Turn the tube and notice the shifting patterns that arise from exactly the same pieces of glass as they are rearranged over and over again. You will experience the metaphor more powerfully if it’s real to you.
Take a few moments to settle yourself comfortably in a place where you will be undisturbed for about ten minutes or so. Focus your attention on the still point between one breath and the next, on the gap between your last exhalation and the next inhalation. There’s nothing else to do. Simply invite your awareness to notice the gap and explore what it’s like to linger there.
Next, bring to mind a kaleidoscope you’ve seen, or one that comes into your imagination now. Simply allow it to come to mind. If an image doesn’t appear, notice what you sense, what comes if you ask yourself, “If I could be aware of a kaleidoscope right now, what would I notice?”
Put the eyepiece to your inner eye and notice the pattern inside the kaleidoscope. Simply become aware of the pattern you discover there. In your imagination, turn the kaleidoscope now and notice how the pattern changes. Keep turning it and notice the ever-changing patterns as the pieces of glass shift.
Remind yourself that nothing new is added when you change the pattern. All the pieces of glass remain the same – they just change position.
Bring to mind your own complex self—all the parts of yourself that constantly shift and change as life presents you with opportunities and challenges. As you acknowledge and reclaim your disowned self, you don’t add anything new. You simply become aware of what has been there all along.
Take a moment to remind yourself that an experience of psychological wholeness simply means that you allow yourself to be aware of all your characteristics and qualities. It doesn’t mean you have to express them or show them to everyone. Recall that the kaleidoscope draws on all the pieces as the pattern shifts and changes. Take a moment to ponder what it means to you to allow all the aspects of your being to be available to you, all the time, whenever you need to access them.
When you’re ready, reorient yourself to the outer world, to your everyday consciousness. Bring with you whatever sense you may have of the importance that each part within you plays in creating an experience of wholeness and connection with yourself.
The Shadow Side of Spirituality
In a world characterized by wholeness, every aspect of life has its hidden side. Spirituality is no exception. I recall a Buddhist meditation teacher who, after many years of meditation practice, discovered the benefits of psychotherapy. He talked about the tremendous help he received when he combined the two approaches as part of an overall process of centering and deepening his consciousness. What he learned was the undeniable fact that to enhance a sense of wholeness, every aspect of our experience needs to be included.
For many of us, spiritual beliefs and practices enhance a daily sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. Whether we believe in an organized religion, find our place within a biological whole, or create our own spiritual approach, spirituality can be a powerful source of comfort.
Unfortunately—and not surprisingly—it also can become a hiding place. Shadow issues emerge in our spiritual lives in a number of powerful ways. For example, we may use our spiritual beliefs to entrench or justify a sense of “us versus them”, whereby we project our disowned self onto others with the added element of religious or spiritual conviction. If your belief system promotes an idea of “us versus them,” it is worth asking yourself how you can increase your awareness of the ways in which you may be using your beliefs to hide from aspects of your own shadow self.
Some of us find deep solace in our spiritual beliefs and practices, and this is a beneficial and life-enhancing experience. The shadow side of seeking solace, though, emerges when we refuse to deal with discomfort or conflict and escape instead into a “spiritual outlook.” For example, in my work with couples, I occasionally find someone who retreats into religion or spirituality when there has been an argument. People have different ways of expressing this kind of protective response, and one of the most common is by going off to meditate or pray, or by refusing to talk about difficult or charged issues and putting on a cheerful face instead. This kind of response allows the person to avoid the sometimes painful process of working through disagreements, which not only leaves the partner hanging but also prevents communication and intimacy.
You can tell the shadow is present when you use this kind of strategy and have the experience of feeling perfectly justified—in fact, self-righteous—about your actions. You really believe it is beneath you to get angry or to express “negative” feelings. As was true with my grandmother, chances are that your unconscious goal is to push out of awareness any anger, fear, or other intense emotion in order to maintain a state of calm. The problem is that this strategy is like trying to put the lid back on the proverbial can of worms.
The stillness and calm of meditation offer a respite, a place to settle and just be for a while. But meditation, too, has a shadow side when it is used as a way to hide from the tasks and responsibilities of daily life. In fact, expanded states of consciousness of all kinds can become hiding places—or the compulsive focus of an addictive response. I have known people who tend toward addictive behaviors—overeating, compulsive shopping, overworking—who create a meditation practice that takes over their lives. They overdo it, sitting for hours at a time. That’s fine when they’re at a retreat. It’s a problem when the rest of their life suffers because they spend every spare moment in an altered state of consciousness.
The sense of connection that emerges when we tap into expansive states of consciousness offers a profoundly nourishing experience that is further enhanced when we have a sense of receiving spiritual inspiration or divine guidance. These experiences can convey a feeling of never truly being alone, of having somewhere to turn when we are in need. The shadow side—a and there’s a powerful one here—is the belief of being special, superior to other people, because of the guidance or inspiration that is received.
When we fall into this trap, which actually is a natural development as we mature spiritually, we are usually unaware of the humbling fact that expanded states of consciousness bring a universal experience of being special, loved, and valued. Instead of understanding that we have personally experienced a universally available state, we draw on the feeling of being special to add further fuel to a sense of “us versus them.” Now, we can be the good, worthy, valued one and, conveniently enough, the others—the recipients of our shadow projections—can be unworthy.
Another area where the shadow emerges with potentially disastrous results is in the special relationship that arises with spiritual teachers or religious leaders and those who follow them. Under normal circumstances, these relationships offer invaluable support and guidance. When disowned aspects of the golden shadow relate to our own sense of personal power, though, we may find a feeling of empowerment and security only in relation to someone else. Our association with the spiritual teacher or religious figure then becomes the source of feelings of power and connection. It is all too easy to relinquish good judgment when we disown our own sense of personal power. One of the worst examples of what can happen when people project their disowned power onto another person is Jonestown, Guyana, where 900 people died at Jim Jones’s command.
I recall a workshop participant who had a spiritual teacher whom she deeply loved. It was only in the presence of her teacher that this woman found comfort and any sense of wholeness at all. During one of the exercises on reclaiming the disowned self, she found a part of herself that seemed to overflow with feelings of love. As the exercise progressed, she discovered that she could experience, in herself, some of the feelings she had thought possible only in relation to her teacher.
It is equally important to keep in mind that shadow parts can become resources once they are brought into conscious awareness. For example, spiritual pride—acting out a sense of superiority over others—has the potential to become a healthy sense of spiritual empowerment.
A relative of mine had a long history of following spiritual teachers. He experienced fervent devotion with each, only to become disillusioned and disappointed when each teacher revealed inevitable flaws. Over time, the spiritual pride that my relative had invested in his teachers became conscious. He realized he was seeking in them a sense of empowerment and connection that he didn’t believe he could attain on his own. Once this awareness was available to him, he began to explore his own spiritual power and capacities. Eventually, he found within himself the sense of belonging he had always sought from others.
Have you noticed that there is simply no place you can go without bringing your shadow along? That’s why the goal isn’t to get rid of it. What you do want to achieve is the ability to recognize and acknowledge it, knowing that the awareness you develop means you don’t have to live in your shadow.
Make It Real
Identifying Disowned Aspects of Your Spiritual Self
This experiment draws on the others that have invited you to identify disowned aspects of yourself.
- To begin, identify spiritual leaders you have known or read about who have a particularly powerful impact on you, whether positive or negative. You may also want to include friends or co-workers who express their spirituality in a way that has a notable impact on you.
- Pay attention to those people whom you feel have qualities you believe you could never experience in yourself and explore the possibility that they reflect a disowned part of yourself. Ask yourself if there were any childhood experiences or unspoken family “rules” that conveyed disapproval of these qualities.
- Then ask yourself what it would be like to express those qualities in your own life. You might want to return to the Golden Shadow Meditation with this issue in mind.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that the journey into wholeness invites you into a level of self-acceptance that is transforming. When you know and embrace your whole self, both you and the world are safer for it. When you allow yourself to know your spiritual strengths as well as your vulnerabilities, the journey becomes more comfortable for you and those who travel with you.
Guided Meditation #4:
The Spiritual Shadow
Settle in comfortably now before taking a journey into the shadow realm of spirituality. Spend a few moments simply noticing your breathing. Give yourself permission to travel with each exhalation to the bottom of the breath. Spend a few moments there, at the bottom of the breath, connecting with “home base.”
Now, take a moment to imagine that you are on a journey in a beautiful place. It may be an actual place you’ve seen before, or a place in your imagination that is beautiful in some way that has particular meaning to you right now. Notice that, somewhere in this beautiful place, you discover a mirror. It is a special mirror, focused on your spiritual development. It has the capacity to reflect two sides of you. On one side of the mirror is the aspect of yourself that is giving, loving, nurturing—all the positive qualities you can imagine about yourself. On the other side of the mirror are reflections of your spiritual pride, feelings of separateness or being better than other people—or any of the other potentially negative aspects of the shadow side of spirituality.
Allow the mirror to turn so that the reflection of the shadow side of your spirituality is facing you. Simply be open and aware. There is nothing to do, nothing to change. Just notice what you discover reflected in the mirror. The reflection may be a symbol, an image, a word, a color, a person, an animal, or anything at all that has meaning for you.
What is your first reaction to what is reflected in the mirror? Just notice whatever comes.
- What qualities are predominant in the reflection?
- What associations, thoughts, feelings, or sensations do you have in response to what is reflected there?
Give yourself a moment now to become the reflection in the mirror so that you can experience it from the inside. There is a part of your mind that knows how to do this automatically and perfectly. Just move your awareness inside the reflection now and notice what comes to you.
- What is your first impression?
- Does any part of your body draw your attention through either discomfort, comfort, or some other sensation?
- Notice any sensations in your body that weren’t there a moment ago. Are you calmer or more centered? Do you hold your body in a new way?
- What feelings, thoughts, state of mind, or perspective accompany your experience of being the reflection?
Take a few moments now just to be with your experience. Remember that you are bringing part of yourself into conscious awareness. It is part of your wholeness and you need to know about it. Be sure to allow yourself to be fully aware of any mixed feelings you may have.
Imagine that this shadow aspect of you has qualities that would make it a useful resource. You may not even be able to imagine, just now, what those might be. Just let yourself remain open to the possibility.
Now allow the mirror to turn to the positive side and experience the resource that is reflected there, the translation of the shadow part into something useful.
- What is your first impression?
- What feelings, thoughts, state of mind, or perspective accompany your experience of being this resourceful reflection?
- What sensations do you notice? Are you calmer? Do you feel steadier or more solidly centered in your body? Do you feel more expansive or powerful?
Spend a few moments exploring whatever has come into your experience. Be sure to allow mixed feelings and curiosity to accompany you every step of the way. Now, go back to the shadow side of the reflections and notice that you may be able to hold both reflections in your mind at once: the shadow side and the resource side. There is nothing else to do at this point. Just allow yourself to return to that beautiful place where you began.
- Take a few moments to review your experience of the two reflections and how you felt about each.
- How might your life and relationships be different if you were to shift from shadow to resource?
- What might you have to lose if you were to transform this shadow part?
Remember that you can return to this journey any time to look at as many shadow aspects of your spiritual journey as you want to discover and resolve. And, most important of all, remember that the journey into wholeness invites you into awarenesses that can make it safer for you to be in the world and that empower you to feel more centered and grounded.
Our Collective Shadow
One more aspect of the shadow requires our attention: the aspect of consciousness that is collective in nature. In the realm of collective consciousness, where we are both an individual and part of a larger whole, at some level we participate in everything that happens in our world. When we, as a species, refuse to look at our individual and collective shadow issues, they break through on a large scale and affect us in powerful ways.
For example, notice how many wars are waged on the planet at any given time. Skirmishes and conflicts abound around the entire globe so that, as a war is resolved in one part of the world, another begins somewhere else. It’s worth pondering what is going on in human consciousness that seems to require conflict to erupt somewhere all the time.
There are some people who say that we, as a species, unconsciously enlist individuals to express our collective shadow issues for us. If this were true, then those people who cause injury to others, who act in antisocial ways, who spearhead movements or activities that pit one group against another, may actually function in service to the rest of us by expressing aspects of the shadow we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves.
This notion may sound crazy, but imagine what would happen if you believed it were true. What would it be like for you if the person who robs you, or the serial killer who threatens whole communities, were viewed as an expression of your own disowned rage and sadism? What would you experience if you thought that the person who asks you to dislike another group of people because they are “inferior,” “less intelligent,” “aggressive,” or any other description, were viewed as representing a part of your own fears of difference?
A terribly traumatic story comes to mind of a man who viciously attacked a woman in Central Park in broad daylight. He went on to kill another woman and seriously injure two more before he was stopped. The reason he gave for his behavior was that his girlfriend had left him and he hated women.
I remember thinking at the time how this man represented, for me, an externalization of an unacknowledged vulnerability and rage that exists in many of us. His actions both frightened and saddened me. As a woman, I was reminded how precarious my lot can be in the face of a man’s uncontrolled rage. As an individual within a collective context, my conviction was reinforced that this man’s behavior reflected something present in both men and women whose pain and vulnerability have been disowned, pushed into the shadow, and then projected onto others who are less powerful. Seeking to destroy their own vulnerability, these wounded people vent their rage against the very same helplessness they cannot face in themselves. Even as I write, I know that “these people” are all of us—”they” are you and I, as well.
To recognize how an individual may express our personal shadow issues in these collective ways doesn’t take away that individual’s responsibility for his or her actions, nor does it lessen the outrage we feel in the presence of inhumane behavior. The point of this perspective is to emphasize the hard-to-grasp truth that doing our own individual shadow work has profound implications that extend far beyond our field of personal vision. For this reason, it seems to me that, as individuals, we must reclaim our whole selves in order to help heal our world, our relationships with our own species, and with other forms of life that share our planet with us. As each of us becomes whole and is willing to experience both light and shadow, our collective humanity may have less need to express the shadow on a mass scale.
And so . . .
At the beginning of our exploration of the shadow, I mentioned the metaphor of how light and shadow give depth and beauty to nature. Always, it is the combination of both that creates a context of wholeness. Increasingly, you can notice the play of light and shadow in all arenas of life. For example, pay attention to the people you care about, to those with whom you spend time when at work. Become aware of those who remind you of light, those who remind you of shadow, and those in whom you notice some of both. Let these people become mirrors for you, even as you recognize that part of yourself will always be in the shadow and part in the light. Remember that there is no way to be fully conscious of your whole self at any one moment. The creative solution is to be able to move through both light and shadow with openness and a willingness to be self-aware on an ongoing basis.
Living consciously from an experience of wholeness leaves out nothing and invites every element to be present. Total shadow can be threatening and frightening, while total light can be overwhelming or downright uninteresting. In the blend of the two you discover something much richer.
Allowing yourself and your life to be as rich and deep as possible requires that you adopt an attitude of self-acceptance, a recognition of your inevitable frailty and imperfection, and that of others. In the next chapter, we’ll explore natural companions to shadow work—compassion and lovingkindness.