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I once had someone scoff at me when I mentioned the idea of shadow work.
The remark went something along the lines of: “We don’t need to analyze the ugly parts of ourselves.”
But the thing is if we want to evolve as enlightened, more loving and compassionate human beings, if we want to heal, if we want to learn to respond instead of react, and if we want to have true intimate relationships with others, we really do need to do the work.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we need to go down a deep spiral of guilt and shame and regret. Shadow work is not about criticising or judging our past selves. Shadow work involves stepping into a state of deep reflection with nonjudgement in order to examine our behaviours with curiosity. Shadow work asks us to be more conscious of the reasons why old trauma wounds get triggered, or to notice certain attachments that we find difficult to let go of.
Shadow work is learning about your attachment styles, boundaries, and what your basic needs are.
On the other side of shadow work, we learn how to find worth in ourselves without seeking outside validation. On the other side of shadow work, we can return to our authentic and sovereign selves.
Shadow work requires you to become the witness. To quote a line from William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
When we surrender to these sides of ourselves, accept our own shortcomings, and realise our own propensity for creating suffering, we can simultaneously also acknowledge that we have the power to make different choices in the future that are for the greater good. We can also see that sometimes the person who triggered us was only coming from a place of their own awareness created by their own set of external circumstances and experiences. Had we been put into those exact set of circumstances, it is likely that we too would have behaved in the exact same manner. And so the cycle continues until we allow pure insight and compassion to come into being through the continued practice of conscious awareness.
There is an endless array of meditation techniques—some ancient and some newly developed—but at the core of each meditation is the fundamental practice of continuing to return to the present moment. It is from this place that we can raise our nonjudgmental awareness and become the curious observer.
It’s a case of training our mind like a muscle, and eventually, we can step out of the regret and resentment of the past and move away from worrying about the future for extended periods of time. The more we train our mind to shift focus from thinking to awareness, the more we train this muscle, in time it becomes easier to hold the state of conscious awareness for extended periods of time by continuing the practice of returning to the present moment. It is in the returning, it is in the moment that we realise we were distracted, that gives us the power to shift focus.
It is from this place that we realise our full power. For it is in becoming the witness that we have the power to choose to respond with unconditional love as opposed to reacting out of fear.
There’s a reemergence of ancient meditational healing modalities that involve simply observing your emotions with the intention that if you just allow yourself to feel your feelings, they will eventually dissipate and you will no longer feel the intensity of those emotions. While this is a proven successful technique, the effects are not long-lasting. The reason for that is because until you deal with the initial reason for the emotion, you will keep getting retriggered until you understand and heal the reason for the base emotion. It’s not to say that this practice isn’t worthwhile or indeed necessary for healing, but until the source of the emotion is identified, you will continue to require a practice of releasing these emotions.
So how do we do it? What is involved in shadow work?
You can’t discuss shadow work without the subject of healing your inner child. Within each of us, still lives the free spirit we embodied as a baby and as a child. But we all have experienced some sort of trauma during our early years. It is while we are in a state of growth that these experiences imprint on us, and it is these exact circumstances that fundamentally make us who we are today.
We may not always be able to recall exactly what traumatic event in our past caused us to be triggered in the present, but what we can do is just communicate with our inner child as if we were that child experiencing the initial trauma. How would you make that child feel seen and safe? How can we reconnect with that child to the point where we realise that we are in fact that child in that state of trauma and we are the only one who, as an adult with a greater understanding of what is, can help that child see that they have worth and they are loved.
If we do have specific memories of people who have caused us harm, whether it be emotional, mental, or physical, how would you explain what happened from a nonjudgmental viewpoint without blaming anyone in order to help that child (your inner child) feel empowered and not weak and afraid?
Generally, we know that there is a cycle of trauma involved. It’s a case of hurt people hurting people. We can break the cycle when we realise that when people are reacting negatively, they are only acting out of a place of their own experience and conscious awareness. They are acting out of their own trauma and fear.
So to go back to practicing a meditative state of conscious awareness: once we have mastered the practice of becoming the witness to the point that we can step into that state of being in our everyday lives and in our interaction with others, we can truly realise how the emotions that arise within us can only be placated from a place of nonjudgement and nonattachment to the situation.
We can respond in that conscious awareness and communicate more effectively to understand the situation more clearly. If we are in that sacred space of nonjudgement and curious exploration, we can ask the questions we need to ask to determine another’s intent; we can decide whether there is value in engaging with another person or whether it would be in everyone’s best interest to walk away from the situation, and we also have the opportunity to unveil to the other person their own patterning and trauma reactions.
This is mastery that can be ultimately achieved on the other side of shadow work. And that, dear beautiful soul, takes practice. That is the journey. That is the work.
We are all multifaceted human beings. We have both the ability to love and to harm. The awareness of that powerful duality within each of us is what will empower us to step out of a place of suffering and onto the path of enlightenment.