June 24, 2021

Befriending my Shadow: The Power of Active Imagination.



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The Shadow is the thing in all of us we don’t want to look at.

It’s the part of the movie that scares the sh*t out of us because deep down it reminds us of ourselves. It’s witnessing something disgusting come out of our mouths or creep into our minds and immediately feel the pang of dreadful anxiety. The shadow is the bump in the night of our own subconscious and conscious realities lurking for a chance to cripple us. The sheer thought of my own darkness has, at times, been so unbearable that I regularly panicked with nowhere to hide from myself.

When I was finishing my undergrad in Psychology, I had the pleasure of taking a class on Jungian Psychology (side note: I refer to Carl Jung as Bae since he feels like a true soulmate). In this class, my professor led us through several different active imagination sessions in hopes of guiding us to greater awareness of our subconscious happenings.

Active imagination is a way of bringing the conscious and unconscious mind together in “waking” reality. Something that is usually left to be sorted out in dreaming. Active imagination was one of the only ways Jung felt a human could utilize to commune with their subconscious mind in waking life. This practice became a key component of his research and his sessions with private clients. Through active imagination, much healing can be done with identifying personal archetypes, such as:

Creator, Ruler, Sage, Innocent, Joker, Magician, Seeker, Caregiver, Lover, Outlaw, Hero, and Normal Person.

Although these are the typical archetypes, infinite archetypes are possible within each of us and span all time, space, and culture.

I have personally experienced my archetypes to be: Goddess, Queen, Feminine, Masculine, Wise One, Child, Mother, Father, Medicine Woman, Adventurer, Lover, Outlaw, Warrioress, Joker, and last but not least, Shadow.

In our active imagination sessions, we were guided to create a safe place from which to visit our archetypes where we could more easily receive messages and insights into our own unconscious processing. I was gifted many insights from this practice, but everything changed the day I met my shadow face-to-face.

Upon a large grassy hill, I overlook the winding river that runs horizontally along the width of my view. In front of me stands a statuesque snow-peaked mountain range. It feels like they are close enough to touch, but I know better. The sky is pure blue with poofs of cloud and the sun warms my face with nurturing rays. They always come from right up the hill and today is no different. One by one, my archetypes appear and surround me in a circle. I can tell there is serious work on the docket for the day because everyone is looking at me funny. The look of compassion that accompanies stoic eyes and serious pursed lips—a sign of impending discomfort and growth.

All of a sudden, I hear something terrifying. It’s the sound of gnashing teeth, Skeksis screams, the sound of being chased in the dark, and the fear that goes along with it—all of my worst nightmares in audible unison. I look down the hill to see a dark cloudy ball scrambling up toward me. I lean back into the circle to hide but am coerced to remain firmly in the center.

The thing continues charging up the hill at me until finally, I can see it more clearly. It’s grotesque—so disgusting I can barely keep looking at it. It’s a balled-up creature covered in oozing scabs and blood. It’s filthy and leaving a trail of muck behind it. It’s losing hair due to burns, wounds, and scars and has jagged razor-sharp teeth that won’t stop chattering with anticipation.

It’s snarling at me and coming at me with its claws sharp. My heart is racing and I’m so scared I can scarcely take it. I rush to my Warrioress archetype for sanctuary from the horror. She holds me before looking into my eyes and explains that this meeting must happen and it cannot wait any longer. I muster up as much courage as I possibly can, drinking in the love that surrounds me from all of my many parts, and I turn to face this demon.

It’s coming at me again, trying to scratch and bite me until I become angry and fight back. To my surprise, it cowers instantly and with so much fear in its eyes, it screams.

I realize at this moment that this creature is terrified of me. But I get the strong sense that it wants to be close to me and can’t help itself. “Oh my god, this is my shadow!” I think to myself as I begin looking closer and closer at the monster in front of me.

I recognize the pain behind its eyes and finally gather that I have been the one to inflict these injuries upon this poor spirit. This level of damage hasn’t only occurred recently, but also over the span of my life.

I have bullied, denied, ignored, beaten up, harassed, dismissed, and hated this part of myself. I stand in front of my shadow, taking in all of the pain I have inflicted, and yet see that it’s still desperate to be close to me.

Without thinking, I take the creature into my arms. There are three things I notice immediately:

1. It’s so heavy that I can barely lift it off the ground. It’s as if I’m picking up the weight of the entire world into my arms.

2. It stinks. Its smell is so putrid I feel like I’m going to throw up and can’t stop gagging; it’s the smell of neglect.

3. I’m still okay. Even with this thing in my arms, I’m still alive, and I’m still safe.

Somehow, I know what to do.

I slowly carry my shadow down the grassy hill, while all of my archetypes look on with pure joy and gratitude in their eyes. Little by little, I carefully deliver my shadow down to the river. I’m in the water up to my hips and gently lower my shadow into the river without fully submerging it. It clings to me with the trust of a scared child, and I begin to wash my shadow clean.

As I scrub all of the abandonment off its body, it begins to transform. Long oil slick silky black pieces of fabric are now floating in the river off my shadow. The more I clean, the more it changes until finally, it rises into the sky.

Before me is a gorgeous luminous robed flowing black spirit. It’s shimmering in all of its magnificence and my jaw is open in complete stunned awe.

“You’re beautiful,” I think, as it tenderly floats back down to earth and into my arms once more.

I put my shadow out to dry in the grass along the river bank and we lay together, wrapped in each other’s arms.

A glorious reuniting.

I feel so comfortable, safe, and at ease with my shadow, and enjoy the gratitude pouring between us. We lay there so long that my Mother archetype walks down to remind me it’s time to go.

But I don’t want to go. I’m finally home.

The three of us walk (my shadow floats) up the hill back to the others, Shadow and I holding hands. Now they all surround me again, and we come together to embrace.

All of a sudden, I hear the chime from my professor. It’s the signal to return to my body sitting at my desk, in my class, deep in hypnagogia.

I open my eyes and breathe in the shift of this experience. This first real meeting with my shadow was the curtain unveiling to a part of myself desperate for integration and acknowledgment. I no longer witnessed it as a part to be rejected and held as my secret hostage but as an aspect of my beautiful humanity and dignity.

I agreed to continue to grow in friendship with my shadow and to be open to its wisdom and medicine. With respect and admiration, it would now have the opportunity to bless my path and continue to gift me with profound insights.

All of our shadows just want to be acknowledged, cared for, and loved like any other part of us. They long for our attention and validation but will continue to haunt us until we look them in the eye.

All parts of us need to be seen because all parts of us are worthy of our awareness and patience.

Jung once had a dream where he was walking through the night and it was stormy and dreadful out. In his hands, he held a light that continually threatened to go out. All of a sudden he felt immense fear and turned around to gaze upon a giant dark figure close behind him. Terror almost overcame him until he realized the light he was still carrying needed his attention. He accepted the figure behind him and continued in the night.

Waking, he realized the light he was holding was the light within us all, the light we each carry through our lives. And the thing behind him he recognized as the shadow.

I interpret this as the awareness of both the light and dark aspects of the self, and the understanding that the more our light grows, so too must our shadow. So here are some thoughts I’m left with: 

>> Can we accept and nurture all parts of ourselves with fierce warrior compassion?

>> Can we not be so overcome with our darkness that we let our light go out?

>> Can we not be so focused on growing our light that we forget the ever-expanding shadow behind us?

>> Can we be courageous enough to knowingly walk with both and continue forth through the unknown?

Let’s find out.

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