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Abbey Bookshelf: Shadow Work

“But when the shadow is given conscious recognition we will find that it has much of positive value to add to our personality, often giving us the earthiness, or instinctuality, or zest for living, or humility that is exactly what we need to complement our personality and become a complete human being.” -John A. Sanford, Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language (originally found at lucy’s)

Tending Two Shops

Don’t run around this world
looking for a hole to hide in,

There are wild beasts in every cave !
If you live with mice,
the cat claws will find you.

The only real rest comes
when you’re alone with God.

Live in the no where that you came from,
even though you have an address here.

You have eyes that see from that no where,
and eyes that judge distances,
how high and how low.
You own two shops,
and you run back and forth.

Try to close the one that’s a fearful trap
getting always smaller, checkmate,
this way, checkmate that.

Keep open the shop
where you’re not selling fishhooks anymore.
You Are the free swimming fish.


“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.”  -Jung

My trip to New Orleans prompted me to reflect on our shadow sides — the shadow side of a culture expressed in racism and oppression, the shadow side of us as individuals expressed through those aspects of ourselves that we wish we could hide and pretend they don’t exist. Some of our shadowy parts may include the jealous self or the angry self, the guilty self or the lazy self.  It is any part of ourselves that we expend effort to keep others from discovering.  We see these parts of ourselves as broken.  But the more we repress our shadow elements, the more we act them out in unconscious ways.  We must approach our shadow aspects as a mystery to be explored, rather than a problem to be solved.  Walking down Bourbon Street I saw the shadow side active as well, a place where people come out at night to drink heavily and engage in sexual exploitation.  Although events like Mardi Gras and Carnival do serve as a container for expressing those darker energies which can be held within a community.

A classic text on this work is Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert Johnson. Concise and to the point, this is a great way to begin the difficult journey of naming your shadow. My two other favorite books on this subject is David Richo’s Shadow Dance and Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital, Authentic Life by Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf.

Owning our shadow is an enormous step toward healing and wholeness.  I am currently working with a Jungian analyst and so the shadow is always a part of our conversation. Dreams especially like to confront us with this part of ourselves.  If you ever wake up from a dream and cringe at what just happened, you were probably being shown elements of your shadow self.  As Jung says, what we keep divided within us will be played out in our lives and so part of the journey toward peace in our culture is each person making this difficult journey for themselves.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

** Make sure to visit this week’s Poetry Party **

** Come back for tomorrow’s Sacred Artist Interview
with Jan Richardson **

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4 Responses

  1. It was exciting for me to find out that part of my shadow side was actually kinder and more gentle than the me I was letting myself see, so intent was I on being right and on top of things.

    A beautiful picture, by the way. I swear, it seemed to change to a later time of day, a brighter background from one look to the next. Now that would be a real trick!

  2. Thanks Sue, your art therapy program sounds grand! Very exciting!

    kigen, thanks for this moving passage filled with vivid images. Such wisdom to be found in ancient paths.

  3. “We must approach our shadow aspects as a mystery
    to be explored, rather than a problem to be solved. ”

    A wonderful, wonderful spiritual direction, Christine!

    The Tao Te Ching is also a marvellous book to help explore
    places of hiding, and lowliness, as very good places to
    be, filled with gentleness and wonder. Here’s one of
    81 poem-chapters, all about flourishing in the shadows:

    Tao Te Ching: Chapter 15, translated by
    Ursula K. Le Guin (the great science fiction author)

    Once upon a time
    people who knew the Way
    were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating,

    Since they’re inexplicable
    I can only say what they seemed like:
    Cautious, oh yes, as if wading through a winter river.
    Alert, as if afraid of the neighbors.
    Polite and quiet, like houseguests.
    Elusive, like melting ice.
    Blank, like uncut wood.
    Empty, like valleys.
    Mysterious, oh yes, they were like troubled water.

    Who can by stillness, little by little
    make what is troubled grow clear?
    Who can by movement, little by little
    make what is still grow quick?

    To follow the Way
    is not to need fulfillment.
    Unfulfilled, one may live on
    needing no renewal.

  4. Oooh, this post drew me so much. Have been thinking a great deal about the shadow side these last few months. That quote by Jung punched me in the stomach, basically :)

    I start art therapy classes on Monday. Can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about it. She does dream work from a Jungian framework also, which makes me just about vomit with excitement hehe :)

    Great post Christine. That picture is delish.