Reve(a)ling In The Shadow

Updated: Mar 11

While looking for an image to accompany my previous blog post I stumbled upon the following essay about shadow exploration. It reflects exactly what I have been reflecting upon this year, and talks about the shadow side from two of my favourite ideology/philosopher ever: Buddhism and Carl Jung. What a treat.

By Jason Espada (

A Prelude to Talking about the Shadow

Looking at difficult emotions and held back elements in the psyche always has the potential to release a lot of energy. It’s been my experience that when an abundance of energy is released (on the way to integration, one hopes) chaotic events can unfold in the outside world. The feeling can be that these are not oneself, per se, but still we can feel that there is some relationship to the internal; and such things strange encounters, or accidents, or events involving the police, fire department and ambulances can take place.

My sense is that there is a parallel between the kind of held back, unformed energy that is released, and strange, unexpected, or out of control interactions or events. Somehow, their texture, or movement, or their character feels the same.

Once they hear about the value of shadow work, I know most people will probably ignore any preliminary warning, and just jump right in. Ok., fine. Should unpleasant events get set into motion, we can think of this as part of the learning process, instead of getting discouraged. We all need to learn our limits, and just reading or hearing is not the same as seeing for ourselves.

Shadow work in a safe container

There is a way to do safe and effective shadow work, looking into and transforming the held back elements. This involves gathering a wealth of supporting conditions. Create as much harmony, stability, goodwill and peace as you can, as a container for the

energies to be released. If there are some spiritual practices that you know work for you, set that as the foundation. If the energy should start to feel like it is overflowing, and that there is something of a chaotic character to it, then set the inner work aside for a while and increase the stabilizing elements in your life. Most of all, go slow. This will give you time to assimilate whatever comes up.

Besides that of the container, another analogy we can use is that of ‘the filament’. Our constitution has to be strong to look within ourselves and get in touch with difficult elements. Our body, mind and our emotions, or we can say, our constitution can be liked to the filament in a light bulb. Too much current, and the bulb will resist, or go out. We can tell when someone is frail, emotionally. Their voice trembles, and they avoid talking for long about anything difficult. Anger can be an escape, as well as distraction.

We all know, on some level, when we need to back off the difficult subjects in our life. We know, consciously or unconsciously when we are capable, and when we need more weight, so to speak.

The way we fortify our constitution is to be in touch with positive, nourishing things, such as art, beauty, nature, and peaceful environments and experiences. Then when we are ready, we can engage the deeper, and sometimes difficult things.

Ideally, shadow work is about more than just release. Deeper resolution is more than the discharge of energy, as valuable and necessary as that might be. We need then to be able to weather the effects of doing inner work. If we use a balanced approach as much as we can, I think we’re headed in the right direction.

The Shadow from a Buddhist Perspective

The shadow:

That which is held back, shunted away, denied, unresolved in our psyche; what opposes us in the totality of our ‘personal’ consciousness. An energetic phenomenon, that, like all other energy dynamics, has its own laws, rules, specific ways of functioning

First thoughts about the shadow

Reflexively, a self arises, right or wrong – an idea of who we are is formed, and from that we relate energetically to the world. We have wishes, wants, perceived slights, experiences of despair, shame, frustration and virtues too.

Everything that is held back, if its point of origin is still with us in some subtle way, makes up the shadow.

All that is held back, (such as ‘id energies’), all that we cannot express, either due to social constraints, or because it conflicts with some other psychological factor inside us, is repressed or gathered into the unconscious.

Note here that there are two kinds of factors that we hold back – the first is what we don’t say or do because of social discretion, and the second is also what we don’t say or do because it wouldn’t be appropriate, but that has a powerful inner component of willing to act or to speak in a certain way - the tension of these two elements together create the shadow factors in us.

To further clarify – sometimes we have the wisp of a motivation come up and, if we just wait, it passes without any sense of conflict created. Sometimes then, this same motivation, to speak or to act in a certain way has to be struggled against maybe even fought with mightily. The difference between these two reactions to the same impulse is that in the first case there are deep inner structures that support not striking out, not acting or speaking in a certain way.

It’s the role of education, acculturation in the best sense, and the cultivation of morals (at its best, the development and extension into the world of our natural goodness) that determines if the difficult things we meet with in life brings out a mild response or something we need to struggle with and repress – which, in addition to not dealing with the root cause of the problem, brings a whole range of repercussions.

Note also that when we call something ‘shadow’ it implies a degree of unconsciousness – either we reject or deny something because we feel it is too ugly or terrible to bear, or because it does not fit with the strong, persistent idea we have of ourselves.

Further, we have to say that often a shadow element will not just be rejected, but actually hated, which is much stronger than just rejection. The energy of hatred is powerful. It is not just that we dislike or push something away, but that we oppose this fiercely, passionately. When we hate, we exert great psychic energy to keep some things at a distance. This results in the energy pushing back, also powerfully, in some ways.

As long as these elements are energetically unresolved, they find outlets against our will, or in spite of our best intentions. We may deny that we are somehow the cause of these shadow manifestations, especially if we hold an image of ourselves as

entirely right, and there is no outlet to release the charge of shadow energies.

What’s as bad or worse than storing up such shadow energies, is that we then often then proceed to project the denied elements in our own psyche onto others. It sometimes happens that if we are angry, or petty around something, or dull, or confused and conflicted, and we see some occasion to blame, or to put onto others what we have in ourselves, we accuse them of what is actually our mind, reacting to our own (unclaimed) aspect of our psychological energies.

As Robert Johnson points out in his book on the shadow, we also project our own positive qualities onto others. It does not mean the person or situation doesn’t have the negative or positive quality react to, but that some additional factor is there that is usually not perceived, not taken into account and not ‘owned’ or taken responsibility for. We need to learn to distinguish what is ‘ours’ from what is there in the people and circumstances we meet.

Getting a handle on the shadow

I think of those people who do not say what they most want, and need to say, and the effects that has on their person. We call such people ‘bottled up’ – their energy gets physically blocked, and even ordinary feeling or communication becomes laboured.

Thich Nhat Hanh taught about the need to have what he called a healthy circulation of psychological energy, with an awareness of

what is going on, not rejecting anything in our experience, any thought, feeling, memory or desire.

For me, this assumes some solidity, and enough weight on the other side of the balance: a sense of what is right, profound, rich with virtue and positive life. If we try to be in touch with or accommodate what is wounded before we are capable in this way,

the result, consciously or unconsciously will be that we will be overwhelmed (knocked off-centre) and we will either give up too soon, claiming success, or pursuing distraction, or we will have our circuit breakers blow, which amounts to the same thing. We will not have accomplished the task of accommodating the difficult elements, so they can be transformed.

I think that in both Buddhism and in Jungian psychology, what is referred to by the term the shadow is an energetic phenomenon – one that can have the charge taken out of it to a lesser or greater

extent, and one that’s energy can be, and needs to be utilized, or else it will unbalance a person.

As physics will tell you, when it comes to energy, nothing is ever lost. These energies can be released and assimilated, to the strengthening and health of the entire person.

At this significant juncture, as I read it, Buddhism differs from Jungian psychology. The central point of Buddhism, for a person wishing to liberate his own mind from fears and afflictions, and help others to do the same, is wisdom. Without the teachings that make up Buddhism’s Wisdom Traditions, the teachings would only be about ethics, calming the mind in meditation, and cultivating positive states such as goodwill, and patience. What truly distinguishes the language of Buddhist teachings is that they

point to the cause of suffering, and teach ways to transform the base itself of our responses to life.

The reason I used the phrase ‘have the charge taken out of it to a lesser or greater extent’ is because when I read of shadow work involving such activities as writing a letter, using humour, or talking to ‘let off steam’; or performing a dance expressing some locked up feeling, watching a horror movie, or making a ritual of letting go of an emotion, I sense that there is a difference between this level of dealing with things, and getting at the root cause of what underlies these difficult emotions. The temporary, provisional methods are useful and necessary as far as they go, but I know we can also work on a deeper, more causative level.

The Wisdom teachings of Buddhism are straightforward, and can be described in a few words, but they are profound in their application.

Essentially, Buddhism teaches that what we take to be ourselves, habitually, reflexively, is not who we are, is not what is actually here. It teaches that our experiences are based on a mistaken concept of ourselves, and others, and this world.

As an idea, such words have only minimal value. When looked into though, the basis for our many difficult emotional reactions falls apart. No one can do the work for another, and words are not enough. This can have a profound effect on our whole life, but only if we do the investigation ourselves into who we reflexively conceive ourselves to be, and integrate that insight. The effect of integrating this dawning of wisdom in ourselves is that it is able to resolve and heal the past dynamics that were created out of ignorance.

As I read it now, I have the feeling that ‘shadow’ elements from the past are viewed as more fixed dynamics than they actually are. Perhaps this is true for someone who does not practice meditative disciplines, but it is not ultimately true.

The idea that every hurt, slight, unfulfilled motivation, wants and needs a kind of release or resolution for our psychological balance seems to me to be asserting some kind of self as a fixed point, relating to the world, striving, making mistakes, seeking redress.

If this ‘self’ as a centre were to change, however, what does that do to the shadow dynamics of the previously posited selves? They may remain for a while, but in one analogy, they are compared to a thief entering an empty house – they can’t cause one trouble. In fact, the emotions themselves release on their own, and are referred to as ‘self-liberated’.

If it happens that naturally the view of ourselves changes substantially from following the Jungian approach, this is not referred to specifically. Instead, their view seems to be one of a fixed matrix of experience that allows or prohibits different things in life. Teachings from Eastern traditions differ fundamentally in that they look at consciousness and the one who experiences himself or herself as being capable of changing.

Buddhism and Jungian psychology have a lot in common: they both aim for the health and wholeness of a person; they agree that mindfulness, self observation and being inclusive is always necessary, as an aim at least; and they both contain methods for catharsis, release and transformation.

Compare, for example, the methods described in Vajrasattva purification meditations, whereby on imagines pure light moving through one’s body (also imagined as being made entirely of light) and going down ‘nine stories’, feeding all we owe a karmic debt to; then there is the Chod practice, where one offers one’s body, imaginatively transformed into limitless light and nectar, to – whatever opposes one – including those we owe something to, energetically, thereby satisfying them completely; compare this with the active imagination techniques that are used to work out yet unresolved, unfulfilled energy dynamics.

Art and Shadow work

We can see also how reference is made to art in both traditions.

There seems to be an over-arching principle to all systems, whether they are psychological or what we call religious, and that is the innate will to find balance. We all have this inherent intelligence that will function if we only let it. Intuitive art can

accomplish this effectively. We all have the inherent ability to know when and where we are out of balance, and to create ways to adjust, to restore wholeness.

The poet Robert Bly spoke of an image or verse in poetry rising up to the surface of consciousness ‘soaked in psychic substance’, and therefore capable or transforming the experience of both the writer and the listener or reader.

And music is long associated with healing and transforming emotional states: Mozart uplifts, and the musics of Beethoven and Bach, to name just two, express in sound the process of transformation: from tragedy, struggle and despair to exaltation, a journey that a listener does in fact participate in.

Forgiveness is a revolution in consciousness

In this age, Westerners have an especially great potential for forgiveness. When we forgive, we no longer feel resentful and proud, like we are owed, and waiting, accumulating energy waiting for a chance to bust out and claim that we were wronged, and demand that we energetically be given our due.

For forgiveness to be deep and powerful, it needs to be based on understanding our human situation, and on having compassion.

We can let go of any and all claims that we are owed something, and have a truly clean slate – no balance due, no feeling of having been wronged.

Apology from our side, and the forgiveness we offer internally (regardless of how it is received) is a great gift we can give to ourselves as well. Because we understand that delusion, and inability caused their wrong actions, wrong values, neglect and harmful actions, we no longer have to carry the burden of resentment and injury. We can let go of seeking adjustment from others. We ourselves become freer, and we have more energy as a result of forgiveness. This can have vast, entire life enhancing value.

All this takes humility, however, based on genuine self-worth. Only when we know clearly our own value can we acknowledge our limitations, with the aim of working to improve ourselves.