Continued from Part 6 – Developing Emotional Mastery
As you being your shadow journey, it’s common to find yourself stumbling through the experience, and I know this deeply personally. A lot of confusing feelings and thoughts tend to accompany these very vulnerable, intimate experiences that you’re now voluntarily putting yourself through.
Unfortunately, as you know from the start of this course, this isn’t easy work, and if it was everyone would be doing it. In time though, you’ll look back on these experiences very fondly. It is after all, only in the face of adversity that human character is developed in its truest and most robust sense. As you continue to lean into these experiences, you’ll find yourself feeling increasingly fearless about the world and facing the unknown in particular.
Family and close friends often remark that you’ve become fierce towards life in a way that they admire and that inspires them. Still, this is a long journey through your shadow and there are many adventures you can expect to meet, as well as obstacles and stumbling blocks along the way.
Many of these have to do with your response or reaction to thoughts and feelings as they arise, rather than the specific situation that you find yourself in. This is a really key point to remember and one that directs us back to one of the pillars of the right inner attitude to cultivate; that of taking ownership. Owning everything about who and what you are is at the epicentre of success for shadow work.
It’s only in the face of adversity that human character is developed in its truest and most robust sense.
There are numerous ways that you can harmlessly and not so harmlessly fall off the track when trying to do shadow work, and these are all fundamental to the learning process.
Life teaches us constantly through adversity and so making mistakes is absolutely necessary in this process. What’s more important is your attitude in relating to those mistakes, sincerely owning them, and returning to the path for another go.
Forgiveness and self compassion are your closest friends and allies over this tricky but fundamental terrain. So this chapter is about looking at some of the most common pitfalls that people tend to fall into, how to recognize them, learn from them, and slowly pull yourself out of them when it comes to doing your shadow work.
The first is interfering with the experience you’re having.
As you push yourself to the uncomfortable frontier of your experience, naturally feelings will arise to match this and as you’ve learned your first reaction may be to interfere with the experience.
From the last lesson you saw that this can take a variety of forms including distracting yourself like looking at your phone or changing the activity. ‘Bargaining’, that’s agreeing to be with the experience for a specific or desired outcome. Suppression, which is wilfully pushing it back down.
Depending on your level of mindfulness, your inner attitude, and your ability to surf your emotions, one or all of these could well take place during a shadow experience. All of these constitute interference with the experience and go against the core principle of being with those feelings of fear unconditionally.
Many of these interfering actions take place to begin with and it’s actually really important that they do so, so that you can see them, recognize them and detach yourself. This actually strengthens your mindfulness and emotional surfing capability.
Think of it as the first few wipeouts that you have when you try to surf. You’re learning the fundamentals of the environment and the terrain that you’re in. Nobody gets it right the first time and there’s very little value in cursing yourself or the situation that you’re in.
So treat these early falls as kind of experiential data points to learn from. Remember the apprentice mindset, you’re learning a new skill in shadow work and in soul encounter. Self-forgiveness and perseverance actually accelerate your learning far faster than blame or self judgment will, and these are of course, much more desirable qualities of character to cultivate.
Remember that ultimately shadow work is good for you. If you find yourself consistently interfering with your experience over a long period, it’s a sign that you need to pick something less intense to work with to build up. Nobody in their right mind tries to serve 12 foot waves when they haven’t stood up on a board yet(!), and it’s exactly the same in our emotional domain.
Self-forgiveness and perseverance actually accelerate your learning.
A second pitfall that people often fall into is the approach ‘radical exposure’. It’s particularly common amongst certain very driven people to approach this shadow experience ‘braced for impact’.
Often this is accompanied by a very ambitious approach to shadow work, going for radical exposure to all of your greatest fears right away. This is a perfectly understandable, but unfortunately largely ineffective strategy. What happens is you either increase the likelihood of the interference that we discussed above or you simply just freak out from the intensity of it. Neither response mean that you’ve integrated this fear.
It can be useful to have this experience once or twice as a reference point, but ultimately it just ends as a signpost to correct your inner attitude and return to something more manageable. In any event, it’s worth noting at this point that you may experience quite unfamiliar feelings when doing shadow work.
Strangely enough, it’s actually not uncommon to have the briefest sense that you’re dying when you’re doing shadow work, and this is just the ego trying to grab your attention out of fear.
In a way you are dying, but you’re dying into your true self. To embrace it and step into it is the process. As the spiritual guru Mooji says: “step into the fire of self discovery, this fire will not burn you, it will only burn what you are not.”
The other aspect of this radical exposure approach that doesn’t work out is that you need to be with the experience calmly as we spoke about in the last episode, you have to be relaxed to integrate the shadow. It’s a yielding experience, not a combatative one.
Just as the best tennis players, dancers, and yoga teachers are completely relaxed in their practice, so you should be when you’re working with your shadow. The body is in fact an incredibly useful marker for your surfing experience. If you find yourself tensed, consciously observe it, and yield into. Don’t try to relax deliberately or let go because that’s just more wilful effort. Just notice it and be with it. Don’t let it go. Let it be, and it will let go of you. Be fully embodied in the experience.
A third common pitfall is blame. When things get particularly difficult in life and our feelings are triggered. A first reaction is often to blame someone or something else. This is particularly true of shadow material because the feelings that come up can be really intense and unfamiliar.
They are usually in your shadow bag to begin with because of something or someone else that you listened to earlier on in life, so therefore your shadow aspects are really easy and justifiable for you to attach blame to.
A very common response is something like, “oh, I wouldn’t even have to be doing this work, or feeding this fear, or having this experience, if my parents weren’t so messed up and didn’t mess me up.” Blaming people in this way actually disempowers you because when you blame you’re refusing to acknowledge that you are the architect of your experience.
To blame is to ‘be lame’ of your innate ownership of the fullness of your experience. Blaming directs your attention and responsibility away from yourself and places it outside onto someone or something else. Instead the most conducive inner attitude here is actually forgiveness. Forgive yourself for blaming or forgive your parents or whoever it was for whatever it is for putting that shadow material in your bag.
Forgiveness is difficult, but it’s one of the most powerful things you can do because it restores the power for an event back to you and you’re taking ownership of your experience once more.
You can’t transform something if you don’t believe that it’s yours to begin with, and this is why it’s so important to gradually work through your shadow aspects. There’s little value in going to the heart of your deepest fears right away, not just because of the intensity of the emotional content that you have to process down there, but also because you’re likely not ready yet to take full ownership of it.
You can’t transform something if you don’t believe that it’s yours to begin with.
Another common pitfall is what we might think of as mindless expression. You see, a common approach to shadow work is to go down the path of outright expression of your feelings. It’s not unusual, for example, for feelings of anger to surface during shadow work and the temptation to scream and shout or otherwise find some other kind of outlet for it is really high.
There is some value of course in recognizing your feelings in this way and it’s certainly a step closer to acknowledging and appreciating your feelings as valid. But that said, you will likely find that irrespective of how good you feel afterwards, the effects are often short lasting and the shadow material still sits there. This is because the intention was good, but a strategy to deal with it was not.
The energy of the emotions that came up was expressed, but it wasn’t fully felt and witnessed. True healing requires that you really be with these feelings and it does not mean a flight to express it immediately.
In actuality, if you find you want to express yourself in this way, you’d be better off sitting down with the feelings for a short while and then when you feel that you’ve consciously observed the full depth of the feeling, you can get a find a really constructive way to do so. You’ll almost find that if you sit with the experience for long enough, the energy dissipates by itself and by the time you get up, you’ll have very little desire to act on it.
Many people feel that they get value from quick fire expressions of the shadow, but I encourage you in this to explore paths that provide you with longer lasting feelings of peace and integration by really looking more deeply into this emotional material.
Another common pitfall in shadow work is what you might think of as dumping or narration. As we’ve covered throughout the course, there can be a substantial amount of unprocessed experience in your shadow bag. Once you get into the work of bringing it up, it’s often the case that you tend to see more of it in yourself and in society.
There can be temptation to create this long story about your shadow, the journey, and the courageous steps you’ve taken to integrate it thus far. This is a really natural phenomena because we’re human beings and we make sense of everything through stories.
The thing to be mindful of when constructing this narrative about yourself is that it doesn’t become part of your identity. You know it’s not the case that you’re like, I’m this person who struggling with these fears because I went through this unique experience.
All of that is true, but the more you attach yourself to those mental stories and ideas about yourself and about your shadow, the harder actually is to be with the feelings underneath them unconditionally.
The stories and the ideas you have actually hang to the feelings and make them stick to you much more strongly and this becomes particularly apparent if and when you find yourself or others telling their shadow stories in public, perhaps without invitation and in sort of long, emotionally charged language.
This is what you might think of as dumping. It’s something we all do every now and again, but it is a strategy of the ego to externalize the shadow material and project ourselves as victims and look for outside support. None of which are really going to help in owning the experience yourself and moving through it. I just want to express that this is different from having an intimate vulnerable conversation with someone about your shadow experience, which I wholeheartedly encourage. It comes down in large part to the language that you use to describe it, being conscious in your language and owning your experience.
It’s both a powerful and a liberating truth that you are the architect of all of your experience, the good and the bad, and if you have difficult shadow material, the good news is you have it within you to process it by yourself.
Stories are useful as an overarching way to make sense of the experience like this course for instance, but where the real work begins is always in your feelings, so park your thoughts and place your attention into your felt experience.
Another common pitfall is what we might think of as superiority. As we touched upon earlier in this course, the acknowledgement of the shadow both individually and in western culture is actually relatively low.
If you’re reading this, you’re part of a minority proceeding on this path. It is a courageous act and one that will likely differentiate you from many people. One of the easiest pitfalls to fall into is subliminally cultivating an attitude of sort of spiritual superiority about yourself and the work you’re doing.
It’s easy to fashion the identity of a person that’s ‘doing the work’ or becoming enlightened and to look at others in a way that perhaps maybe even patronizes them for either ignoring their shadow or being totally unaware of it. Obviously, this isn’t a particularly healthy or desirable attitude to have, but a completely understandable one to fall into.
The depth of conditioning and the size of the shadow in society, particularly in the West, can be quite a lot to take in. At first, it can be difficult to avoid the response of admonishing society at large and wishing to have no part in it. But this is ironically actually part of your shadow to acknowledge the faults and the darkness of society and willfully re-participate back in. It is a fundamental bridge you need to go back over only through compassion and forgiveness for yourself and for others.
Can this really be possible? We’re all human and we all made mistakes and we’re all trying to do our best in our own ways. As soon as you recognize this, you look at life through a lens of deep seated compassion which will put you many steps closer to the integration of your shadow.
The last point that I really want to pick up on is that healing is a journey. We’re all human and we all want to be happy. Shadow work is uncomfortable. It’s counter habitual and seemingly at first in total opposite to that aim of just trying to be happy. So why on earth would you volunteer to for all of this discomfort?
Sometimes a response to this is often to set a goal and plough through your shadows fast as possible and come out the other side of fearless warrior ready to take on the world, but fortunately life has other ideas about this and the process. Reclamation is a slow, zigzag, and at many times confusing and often illogical path to self liberation. In the process of pain and suffering, it’s very understandable to set goals and timelines that try to get through it all as fast as possible.
It’s important though not to skip the small patient steps of progress that we need to go through to find peace. Just as a sapling doesn’t rush to grow into the tree, so you too need to appreciate that it’s a natural process that takes time. Lau Tzu said “nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” So filling your schedule with weeks and weeks of scheduled shadow work is not really going to work.
You need time to process events that happen and you need a dose of the unknown to catalyze these changes in your unconscious. It’s all part of the adventure. As Thomas Moore says, “a genuine odyssey is not about piling up experiences. It’s a deeply felt risky, unpredictable tour of the soul.” Equally important, your journey is not one to be measured by how good you feel.
True healing and transformation is not about feeling better, it’s about getting better at feeling.