Spirituality and The Suppression of The Shadow

By Abdi Assadi

The human shadow. Sounds ominous, right? It can be when it goes unrecognized, is dishonored, repressed or masked-over with the false pretenses of socially accepted behavior. The shadow is a metaphor articulated by the psychiatrist Carl Jung at the beginning of the last century. It denotes suppressed feelings that are not socially accepted, starting at a young age. But I am jumping ahead. Let’s begin with a true story about its presence in my life.

When I was in my mid-twenties I was still grappling with a deep and consuming rage that intensified as I explored spirituality. There were moments of union with everything and everyone punctuated by almost-homicidal rage. I have distinct memories of working as an acupuncturist with suffering and dying AIDS patients and being in an extraordinary space of transcendent love, then walking out of the clinic and immediately getting into a physical or verbal altercation on the street. It was the mid-eighties and I lived in a tough neighborhood in East Harlem. It took no more than a long look or small perceived lack of respect to start a fight. And fight I did, gathering a nice collection of cuts and scars on my body. It was the most divided existence, comical in hindsight: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Manson.

There were so many days walking to work or back home praying for the rage to be lifted before I seriously hurt someone or was hurt myself.

At this point in my life I had been a martial artist for ten years and was studying with the fervor that one reserves for a deep passion. There were many different fighting styles and teachers; a different training was available every day of the week. New York is amazing that way; a cultural supermarket for the obsession of your choice. All this training, like everything else in life, had two sides. On one level it was a useful channel for my rage. On another it allowed me to invite in energies that I was working hard to keep at bay and gave me permission to act them out. Or so it seemed. After one particularly nasty eruption of this rage, I decided that I needed to do something more “spiritual” and less violent with my time than learning to dismember people with my hands and assorted exotic weapons.

Yoga had not yet exploded into the mainstream consciousness. Yoga studios were not then as prevalent as Starbucks. I found a studio that was a good forty- five minute subway ride from my apartment after numerous train changes. I put my self-discipline to good use: I decided to back off from my extreme martial arts training and give the path of the yogi a chance. It felt good to open up parts of my body that I had never accessed as a martial artist and yoga seemed more in tune with my perceived role as a healer. And unlike the smelly dojos that I used to train in, everything and everyone smelled good and looked pretty. But I remember distinctly that as the months went by my rage just seemed to grow exponentially. I worked extremely hard at repressing it but all my attempts at the spiritual life of service and love were turning me into a ticking bomb inside. It was then that I came face to face with the human shadow.

As part of my selfless service, I volunteered for the overnight shift at a homeless shelter for men in a church basement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The job entailed serving the men dinner and then keeping an eye on them and the church by sleeping in a shared common area. It was hard to sleep there with the smell of the men, the snoring and the occasional sound of some of them having sex. That, and the ever-present fear of being attacked by a few men in serious need of anti-psychotic medication. After serving the men their breakfast and helping push them out on a cold early spring morning I made my way to the yoga studio. I was always on edge after those nights due to a combination of sleeplessness and anger at how a city as rich as New York sentences so many of its citizens to live such a degraded life.

After I finished my last pose and centering meditation, I made my way down to the belly of the subway station. Several levels down the heat felt good, but the dank smell of burnt trash and urine did not. I was feeling a mixture of spiritual pride for what I had done that night and my ever- present rage. But for some reason my rage was particularly hot this morning. There were not many people on the platform at this time and I stood close to the edge of the track, as I loved to do. An express train started to fly by and as I felt the rush of its mass passing me by I looked toward its tail and saw a blur coming at me. Wham, I was hit in the face and was floored by an intense pain. I knew this feeling well— usually the person that inflicted it on me would be paid back in kind—but there was no one standing there. As the flow of the warm blood covered my face and mouth I saw a two by four wooden block lying on the ground. Someone had thrown it out of the last subway car. I just started laughing. It was a burst of intense clarity, what Zen monks call a “satori moment”. I had this instantaneous realization that this was my rage knocking on the door. That there was no running away from it and no repressing it. No matter how much “good” I did or how “spiritual” I attempted to be, this rage had to be healed in a different way. It demanded to be brought forth, examined and acknowledged, not suppressed.

The powerful image of being underground and buried several stories beneath the earth to be visited by an unseen force was not lost on me. Why? The repression of emotions into the lower depths of our psyches always leads to their coming back to visit us with their fury. Just like the fairy tales where the warrior travels to the depths of the world to slay a dragon, we too must face our dragon, our shadows. Except that our dragons are nothing other than our repressed feelings and other disowned aspects of ourselves. The shadow needs no slaying. Rather it needs a befriending. This brings us back to the beginning of the chapter and the human shadow. Robert Bly wrote my favorite book on the topic called A Little Book On The Human Shadow. In it he pictures the shadow as a big, invisible bag we each drag behind us. As children, we unconsciously put the parts of ourselves our parents didn’t like into that bag. Due to our desperate want and need of our parents’ love and approval we felt compelled to disown and bury the parts of ourselves that might threaten that love. We attempted to become the perfect child to ensure receiving that love. And remember that a child’s need for a parent’s love is literally a lifeline of nourishment; different than our adult self, which can look for an alternate source. The burning need for this connection cannot be underestimated and too often is not fully appreciated by our independent, adult point of view.

The metaphorical bag of Robert Bly’s book keeps growing as well it with the parts of ourselves that are not accepted by the world around us. This can include our friends, teachers, lovers, neighbors, mentors, and so on. By the time we reach adulthood, our bag is overflowing with suppressed material such as anger, wildness, greed, rudeness, silliness, spontaneity, selfishness or sexuality. Any part that is not acknowledged or that we are shamed by gets dumped in. This unconscious act of hiding our socially unaccepted pieces can lead to a huge loss of vitality. Repressing an aspect of ourselves takes energy on two levels: it takes effort to keep the material repressed and the repression denies us access to the natural vitality contained in that part of ourselves. What’s inside that bag is as much who we are as the “nice”, or socially accepted aspects. It’s like somebody teaching us to be ashamed of our left arm, so we always keep it out of sight under our clothes. We act as if we have only one arm, which in itself takes energy, and at the same time we end up using only one half of our upper body strength.

Many of us place anger in the shadow. We are raised with the idea that our angry side is forbidden. Nice people don’t get angry. If you want to be a good boy or girl, and hence lovable; you’d better not show your anger. Anger in itself is not inherently evil; it has many uses. At times it can be a healthy response to particular situations. An assertive sentence fueled by anger can set up a useful boundary. Holding back anger is not in itself problematic either. For instance, screaming back at your boss is not the brightest career move. But denying anger does create problems. A deep imbalance due to a violation of self arises when we try to ignore this hidden bag of ours, when we try to pretend that it doesn’t exist, when we believe the stuff in our bag doesn’t really belong to us. Such repression is called not owning one’s shadow.

Why should you own your shadow? The basic reason is that the material in one’s shadow bag does not dissipate by itself. It stays with us and regresses into a destructive force. Like a piece of fermenting food long forgotten in a container, it degenerates more with every passing day. It becomes more grotesque, like the caged beings in the dungeons of the fairy tales. It becomes more and more hostile both toward others as well as toward oneself. Intuitively one senses that the more regressive and hostile it gets, the more dangerous it is to open the bag. So you try even harder to repress it, and vow to keep the bag shut no matter what. And the more you do that, the more it seeps. Like a pressure cooker, the shadow has to have an escape valve otherwise it will burst. It will not be denied and it will make its presence known. Whether it is violence, addiction or hatred, the shadow will find a means of expression.

One can easily be confronted with the shadow by the over consumption of alcohol or fatigue. As the knot of the ego control is loosened, the unconscious material oozes forth like pus from a wound. Be it rage or grief, it will erupt. We all know the examples well. After a couple of drinks we get aggressive with our colleagues, friends or family. Or after a hard day’s work someone else’s words overly affect us, leading to rage or grief. Usually the shadow catches us off guard and we don’t know where the feelings came from. These seemingly unconnected reactions are voices from a deep well that demand to be heard.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is a tale of the shadow. The nice, kindly Dr. Jekyll represses the twisted and dangerous Mr. Hyde deep inside. Jekyll and Hyde is a metaphor for the dangers of a repressed shadow. The more repressed Mr. Hyde becomes, the more work it takes Dr. Jekyll to hide this part of him. Eventually all of Dr. Jekyll’s energy goes into repressing Mr. Hyde. The same thing happens with repressing our shadow: it is an enormous energy drain. Energy that is our life force is being used to keep a part of ourselves down. Like a Fascist country where the taxes of the people are used to finance a police force that represses them, one is robbed of vitality and creativity to service this repression.

Let us look at some examples of shadows in our spiritual lives. One of the most prevalent has been the marketing of the “New Age” movement, particularly the cartoonish white robed, crystal-wearing aspect of it. The underlying idea that we are all connected on a deep level, and hence whole, is true; many schools of spiritual thought subscribe to this. The experiences of life, however, add a dimension that is not addressed by these spiritual practices. The marketing distortion pretends that by just honoring the love aspect of ourselves or seeking “the light” we are transformed. But this particular school of thought contains its own seed of destruction: the failure to honor the shadow. Jung put it elegantly: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

We are inherently love and light, but when we forget our inherent purity, our shadows run the show. As I always say to my clients, on a good day we are ten percent conscious and ninety percent unconscious. This means that all the repressed emotions and energies are running the show. How does that manifest? Well, we might have the intent to stop a certain destructive habit and yet in spite of ourselves we keep repeating the same pattern. We know a certain behavior or person leads to disharmony in our lives and yet we find ourselves compulsively pulled in their direction. Willpower is useless here, regardless of our good intention. Think for a moment about all those New Year’s resolutions, made year after year, that have no lasting effect. When we repeatedly manifest actions in our lives that are contrary to our conscious desire, it can be a sign that our shadow is in the director’s chair.

It has become commonplace for spiritual teachers of all denominations to be exposed in sex or financial scandals. Why? Because unless they have dealt with their own shadow, spirituality can be used to mask their underlying issues around anger, sexuality and greed. The social projection that a ‘spiritual person’ has risen above base emotions only adds more fuel to the fire, since it leaves no room for the person to deal with these energies openly. Of course, they will seep out in time, and their expression will be ugly—be it inappropriate sexual behavior or financial chicanery. No holy robe of repression is strong enough to hold these energies back.

It has always fascinated me in news broadcasts when psychotic individuals who commit horrendous crimes are described as ‘quiet’ by their friends and neighbors. Everyone is shocked that a person who was so seemingly balanced was capable of such heinous crimes. One can read with horror Alice Miller’s brilliant dissection of Hitler and leading Nazi officers during WWII. In their personal lives they were churchgoing, god-fearing men who had families of their own. Yet these same men were responsible for some of the most damning atrocities recorded in human history. Miller’s investigation and exposé of these leaders’ upbringings and childhood issues sheds light on the dangers of repression.

When our shadow fails to turn us into a dramatic figure like a mass murderer or a sexual abuser, it often chooses another door to hide behind. This is what Jung called “projection.” Projection happens when we unconsciously take those shadow images we most fear and project them on to someone else. Like a film projected onto a screen, we take these uncomfortable energies and project them onto another person, race or nation and react to them externally instead of dealing with the energies internally.

In the twelve-step tradition of addiction recovery they say: “If you spot it, you got it.” Whether it is some behavior in our lover, parent or child that enrages us, or a politician or race that we hate from our gut, it brings up the old adage: when you are pointing your anger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. The stronger the reaction to a person or group, the more powerful the repression of the issue it embodies. It is important to note here that it is the strength of the reaction that reveals what is simmering beneath the conscious mind. For example, we might not approve of someone’s expression of their sexuality through their language or dress. That is a personal reaction usually rooted in familial and social upbringing. But to succumb to a deep-seated rage toward their self- expression is a sign of unprocessed issues around our own sexuality.

So now that you are squirming, you wonder: how does the healing occur? Is it even possible? Jung called this part of the process shadow work. It involves reintegrating aspects of ourselves that we have disowned. By inviting these unconscious, disowned parts of ourselves into the conscious realm we release the negative charge that wreaks havoc in our lives. There are no special road maps here and, as one can imagine, this is not easy or speedy work.

The first step is to acknowledge that the shadow is in fact a real thing and that one possesses it. This is particularly true of “spiritual” or “religious” people who falsely think that their specific spiritual practice has somehow dissolved their shadow, when in fact the shadow has been further repressed. As Jung said, “To the degree that we identify with a bright persona, the shadow is correspondingly dark.” The power of this simple act of acknowledgment is profound. It opens a door of communication between the conscious and unconscious mind.

Next comes awareness of the repressed material through acute observation of one’s behavior, patterns, fantasies, reactions and dreams. How is our interior life aligned with our exterior? Does our life naturally express our beliefs or are we constantly using our will to enforce them? How is our fantasy life integrated into our every- day conscious life? In which ways is it totally alien to that life? How shocked would a close friend or partner be if we spoke of what goes on in those fantasies?

Such questions are all invitations to these energies to assimilate in a healthy way. The benefits of using an experienced therapist who has worked on integrating his or her own shadow cannot be overestimated. In fact, it can lead to amazing breakthroughs. One does not attempt to diagnose and treat a serious physical pain by oneself. Why should the psyche be different? Also, employing creativity of any type—especially writing, drawing or painting—can be useful in ushering the shadow into the consciousness. It happens that when we move the conscious mind out of the way, the communication with the unconscious becomes easier. Sort of like moving the jailer out of the way: it’s easier for the prisoner to get out.

In many indigenous cultures the shadow is honored and worked with by creating ceremonial masks and dance forms. In our culture today, Halloween is about as close as we come to this type of collective behavior. The rest of our cultural shadow work, if it can even be called that, is the passive observation of violent or scary movies, books and video games. As we can see from our collective behavior toward each other, different cultures and the environment, our shadows remain comfortably lodged in our unconscious. There is a desperate need for more active shadow work. This is not a luxury; it is a necessity for all of us.

In my own experience art was particularly helpful. I worked with an art therapist and a Jungian analyst for many years. By their encouragement, I found that making collages was useful and telling as to what was going on beneath the surface. A collage involves the pasting of images gathered from magazines, books and newspapers to form a new image. It is great for those of us who lack the innate art skills of painting or drawing. Anybody can get a pair of scissors, glue and a couple of old magazines. It is amazing what comes up in the imagery made when we allow the unconscious an avenue of expression. I also started keeping a dream journal. It never ceases to amaze me how loudly the unconscious speaks through dreams. Specific homework such as spending one day a week not shaving and showering or practicing helplessness by having my partner feed me a meal was amazingly revealing. As simple as these practices sound, they weaken the ego and its habitual need for control and gently allow aspects of repressed shadow to step forward.

The process of bringing my shadow into conscious- ness brought me back to my beloved martial arts. I realized that both for my own health and for my abilities as a healer I had to befriend my shadow. Before entering any martial arts class I would mentally invite in my shadow—the same for when I was on a track racing motorcycles and later, in cars. I would mentally call my shadow to be in my consciousness with me on the bike or in the car. This way I made a ceremony to make sure it did not bite me before I had a chance to invite it back into my consciousness.

I learned to view these aspects of myself as paradoxes rather than contradictions. The deeper one reaches into the “darkness,” the higher one can fly into the “light.” It takes consciousness to reprogram our knee-jerk reactions to ourselves or our projections on others. The fruits of our labor are a more whole personality, more serenity and more vitality. We feel more accommodating to others and ourselves. The judgments drop away and acceptance and tolerance take over. The reactions to life’s flow become less arduous and more manageable. The different aspects of ourselves come back to live together consciously under one roof. Like an estranged member of the clan invited back into the community, there is peace under the stars.

Abdi Assadi, M.S., Lic. Ac., is an acupuncturist and spiritual counselor. Born in Iran and raised in Africa, Asia and New York City, he has studied a range of healing practices including shamanism, psychotherapy and acupuncture. His work centers on helping his clients use their disease and dysfunction as a doorway to spiritual serenity. He presently divides his time between New York City and Upstate New York.