One of the most powerful psychological skills we can possess is the ability to turn adversity into an ally. The Synthesis Institute explore compassionate approaches to Shadow Work.
To ‘grow through what you go through’ means using pain to fertilize productive perspectives and personal growth. This type of mental training is at the core of many contemplative traditions including various Buddhist lineages. Conscious and compassionate approaches to cultivation can provide a crucible for transforming the raw material of our experiences into the gold of self-realisation.
The Shadow Self
We can liken this mind-body relationship to weight loss approaches… Crash diets rooted in self-loathing adopt self-punishing strategies that are unlikely to be holistic or sustainable. Starting from a place of self-acceptance and self-love can foster healthier attitudes to change. Instead of wanting ‘to lose weight’, the goal may become ‘to feel better’, ‘to nourish myself’, or ‘to improve my fitness.’ This shifts the cultural attitude from one of ‘no pain no gain’ towards ‘no pleasure no treasure’, adopting a pace, process and progress rooted in longevity.
There are no tablets we can take, or dietary guidelines we can follow, to erase our mental baggage; but there are skills we can build to release its nourishing insights. Shadow work offers us an opportunity to integrate the hidden and lost parts of ourselves into our conscious psyche: fostering significant emotional release, self-awareness, emotional attunement, and ultimately a more balanced, authentic, and fulfilling life.
Shame-based and self-critical thought patterns linked to the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) can become rigid and entrenched over time. Both psychedelics and contemplative practices such as Loving Kindness Meditation can loosen these filters and judgements, providing fresh snowfall that allows new pathways to be cultivated. In this sense using psychedelics can be a practice – much like yoga, meditation, or therapy. They may provide a route to ‘inner work’, defined as the ritualistic use of methods and guides for creating spiritual growth and holistic wellbeing that extends beyond the self.
The Societal Shade
Esoteric Psychiatrist Carl Jung saw the shadow as part of a larger societal phenomenon, where collective shadow or the collective unconscious manifests as blinding cultural norms and binding biases. In acknowledging our personal shadows, we not only embark on an individual journey of self-discovery but contribute to the healing of our collective psyche.
We can start to appreciate the depth and complexity in others once we learn to embrace it within ourselves. This fosters empathy and tolerance, and in the words of W.H. Auden, you can learn to “love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.” Shadows are not short-comings or fundamental flaws, but patterns of behaviour or emotional responses rooted in something deeper. They are the moments of self-reflection where we wonder “was that really me?”
Soulful Somatic Shifts
Patterns to consider are those that negatively impact our ability to address our deeper needs, and to communicate. Establishing an ‘empathic shield’ is a metaphorical barrier that provides space for us to self-empathise with these elements before becoming lost in them. This strategy requires a delicate balance between loving-kindness and self-compassion on the one hand, and the ability to use our emotions firmly but considerately on the other hand – for example in setting healthy boundaries. Getting comfortable with discomfort requires integration, rather than letting go.
Simone Weit, a psychologist specialising in somatic psychotherapy, uses “compassionate and conscientious non-inclusion” as an orientation to setting boundaries that is informed by a vision for holistic wellness in systems. Boundaries set consciously and compassionately are different from the polarizing boundaries established via exclusion or hierarchy because they create space for the wellbeing of all involved. This dynamic encourages collaboration, education, support, and healing resources where “being able to say no makes yes a choice.”
While the shadow concept is easily tied to negative connotations, at its core – it is really about conditioning and the expectations we have internalised at the expense of something authentic. This is based on the reciprocal relationship between nature and nurture, or self and environment. The shadow also encompasses positive traits that were suppressed during early development due to societal or familial pressures. For instance, a person might suppress their artistic talents because of communal attitudes towards more ‘practical’ professions. Staci K. Haines, a leading figure in the field of somatic shadow work, describes these conditioned tendencies as “the automatic and intelligent adaptations we acquire to cope with the pressures of the world that we embody, even when we do not agree with them.”
One way of breaking out of these adaptations is through inner work. Developing a dialogue with emotional depth can involve journaling, art, poetry, and music. Some say that a wandering mind is an unhappy one, but it is also vital for creative processes like day-dreaming and imagination, which are visually healing. Tapping into states beyond ‘ordinary waking consciousness’ enables us to transcend the confines of the ‘suffering self’ and access something beyond.
In a conversation with Maestro José López Sánchez, a Shipibo healer and curandero, Synthesis JEDI officer (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) Angela Ruiz explored approaches to healing in Shipibo culture. The Shipibo-Conibo are known for their use of Ayahuasca and their deep understanding of Icaros – the songs of the plants. They raise several important themes including continuous self-directed learning; respecting other traditions and cultures; and approaching the path with love, humility, discipline, and gratitude.
Embodied insights are not a destination or an achievement, but an odyssey across the spectrum of the more-than-human experience. As we can only meet others as deeply as we have met ourselves, a central reward with shadow work lies in deepening our intimacy with the unknown, opening ourselves up to a reality that is rooted in the heart and not just the intellect.
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order” – Carl Jung