What is the Shadow?

The shadow is the greatest teacher for how to come to the light.

~ Ram Dass

This question can be difficult to answer in a straightforward way. The shadow, by nature, is unclear, ambiguous, and unseen. Therefore, it is often best understood through story and metaphor. Imagine that you are a house and you reside within one or two of its rooms. Imagine that these rooms are different facets of yourself. As a child, you probably inhabited all of the rooms. Over time, you might have learned that some of these rooms are unacceptable (from family, peers, cultural messages, and more). You may even have forgotten that some of these rooms even exist. The shadow journey is leaving the rooms you know and opening the doors to the ones that you do not. Going into the darker, unknown places in the house (or yourself) requires a brave heart and skillful ways to navigate the dark.

Carl Jung named these inner unknown places the shadow. Over the years, many of us receive praise for certain qualities or behaviors and are criticized for others. We learn to hide the criticized parts of ourselves and to live out of the places within us that shine - the places that we know well. We collect what has been denied in the shadow. To live as whole human beings, we must go into the shadow to explore what lives in those unknown places. It is quite a journey to learn how to befriend one’s whole self, not just the known and “feel good” places. 

The shadow calls to us to make us whole. We don’t reclaim our wholeness by staying in what we know. Residing in the familiar places, inside and out, keeps us comfortable. There is nothing wrong with comfortable, but, in order to grow into who we are here to become, we must learn to traverse, not avoid, the discomfort that comes with the unknown. It is by entering the unknown, or inhabiting more of our house, that we become whole. This shadow recovery work is a lifelong journey of learning how to befriend oneself. 

Dr. Jenny Finn, Springhouse Head of School, gives a Ted Talk on the shadow.

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