You are here in this world for a purpose. Even if that purpose isn’t entirely clear to you, it’s very likely that you have goals and dreams that you’re reaching for—a list of things you want to experience, to achieve, to offer and to share. But perhaps you, at times, find yourself making choices and engaging in behavior patterns that leave you disempowered and doubting yourself rather than ready to set the world on fire. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt this way. As human beings, we are a delicate balance of strengths and weaknesses, of light and dark aspects. However, one of the biggest impediments to the growth and achievement we want, individually and collectively, is seeing these polarities as the enemies of each other.
What if you knew that the way to access the very best in yourself—the light side of your humanity—was by facing your darkness? What if you knew that your greatest power could be found in the hands of the parts of yourself that you believed to be the most shameful, or powerless?
As a Depth Psychologist, I am dedicated to helping people find a pathway into their own psyche, allowing them to gain new insights into who they are and what drives their choices throughout the course of their lives. Being deeply immersed in the work of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, I’ve come to understand the vital importance of investigating the function and mysteries of the unconscious. Our greatest opportunities for growth and transformation arise from its depths. Beneath the threshold of our day-to-day awareness, the unconscious holds the complex tapestry of the many parts of ourselves, of our personal traits—the ones we are aware of and the ones we are not—and our ways of being in the world. It is the journey of a lifetime to reconnect with the aspects of self that we have been hiding from or in denial of, or even afraid of, in the return to our essential wholeness.
The parts of ourselves that we subconsciously repress or disassociate from out of fear or pain (or both)—usually in order to adapt to our family and societal circumstances and dynamics—comprise what is known as the shadow. In Depth Psychology, the shadow is not seen as a concentrated image that is cast onto the cement below our feet, but rather a distinct part of our internal psychological make up. It is an amalgamation of everything about ourselves that we have lost, cut off, ignored, hidden, denied, and run from throughout life. One of the primary reasons the shadow is perceived as dark and threatening is because it holds the aspects of our nature that we judge as “bad”—as unacceptable or wrong in some way. In essence, the dark shadow is the deep well of our unwanted character traits. For example, anger and rage often live in this category next to jealousy and greed. Anything we do not like about ourselves, feel threatened by, or cannot accept gets thrown into this repository of fear and shame.
Every time we silently criticize ourselves and stare disapprovingly in the mirror, we are feeding the shadow. Every time we are mean to ourselves in thought or action, we are feeding the shadow. When we act incongruently with our value system and core beliefs, we strengthen the shadow. As an example, if lying goes against our value system, but we do it anyway, a small trauma takes place in our psyche. As we continue to be dishonest, these traumas start to collect like heavy stones, and before long we are weighed down, with less freedom of movement in life. Lying, controlling, manipulating—when not in alignment with our values and beliefs, these are some of the types of behaviors that lead to depression, anxiety, restlessness, and dis-ease of all kinds.
Carl Jung wrote of the shadow,
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.
The invitation of the shadow
One of the most powerful turning points in life comes when we begin to understand the shadow as a great teacher, one that serves as an integral part of our psyche rather than an enemy to outrun. Besides, no matter how fast we try to run, our shadow follows. As we grew up, the shadow grew with us. It has been our traveling companion for the whole of our lives. In darkness, it waits for the light of our own awareness—to be seen, heard, understood, and embraced.
When we negate some of our most vulnerable and fearful parts, they feel abandoned and act out in ways that are consequence-inducing in order to get our attention; in order to help us grow and evolve. If we continuously ignore or deny them, they can show up in the form of challenging people, patterns, circumstances, and events. Sometimes these are distractions that keep us from our true path, and sometimes they turn into powerful saboteurs that are capable of destroying the things we have worked hard to build in our relationships, careers, and other areas of our lives. The wise saying that “what we resist, persists” is at play in this dynamic.
Healing the wounds we have accumulated from past experiences of pain and trauma requires our attention and understanding in the present, as conscious, loving adults. As we learn to accept and care for the once-rejected parts of ourselves, an extraordinary thing happens: they become our allies. It is attending to the difficult or darker aspects that allows us to grow and evolve into our best selves. Learning to dialogue with the shadow helps to diminish its power. Gradually coming to love the shadow gives us access to the wisdom that it holds for us at its core.
Loving the shadow
One of the great callings in life is to learn how to love ourselves unconditionally. This asks of us to love the shadow as well. It may seem counterintuitive, but this imperative is derived from the ancient wisdom of most spiritual traditions. Think for a moment about where you have struggled the most in your life and what messages and lessons the pain of those struggles holds for you. There may be an addict inside of you that needs your love, a part of you that is hungry for kindness and care. Perhaps it is a fearful child, an angry fighter, or a powerless victim that is wandering through the depths of your unconscious. Pretending that these aspects of self don’t exist never works, ultimately. It leads to the kind of self-destructive feelings and behaviors that leave us feeling powerless and troubled about ourselves and other people, and wreaks havoc on our ability to relate well to ourselves and others.
Again, without giving attention to the shadow, it becomes a dominant energy that keeps us stuck in the past; an invisible force that is both cunning and aggressive in its actings-out through our behaviors, thoughts, doubts, and reactivities. So the healing then begins with self-inquiry:
Where do I start? How do I muster the courage to address the parts of myself that I may have buried under layers of defense mechanisms? How do I unconceal my biggest fears and bring them into consciousness?
The healing begins by forming a relationship with these parts of ourselves, where our loving attention and sincere willingness to engage creates a profound shift in how we view ourselves, others, and the world. This can happen in a number of ways, such as journaling, reading books about the shadow, and working with a therapist or other experienced guide who is well-versed in shadow work. Another way is to ask any aspect of ourselves, or dark or light shadow, questions like these:
“What do you need from me?”
“What message do you have for me?”
“What are you most afraid would happen if you put your guard down?”
“What action can I take on your behalf that would show my care for you?”
These and many other such type of questions, posed in a dialogical way to parts that scare us the most, can yield great wisdom, vision, and direction for us—and in ways we might not have ever imagined could come from shadows we deemed “terrifying.” Through dialoguing in this way, we integrate these dark shadows into our whole self, and their acting-out often abates, with them serving as a great helper in our lives.
Listening to the voice of your soul
We are not born in shadow. We are light beings who are born in and as love itself. We arrive fully connected to the divine energy of the universe, a consciousness that surrounds us and is within us. It whispers to us, always reminding us of the kindhearted joy that is our natural state of being. This poignant communication comes from our soul and is the voice of our most authentic presence. The soul is the pure essence that connects us to our spiritual selves, always helping us to remember the truth of who we are in a busy and confusing world. Our soul is the bridge that connects eternal love to our human form and fills us with the wisdom and insight derived from millions of years of evolution. Our soul is a great teacher that serves to calm the psyche when it is overwrought by negative thoughts or feelings. It sends us images in our dreams that help us rebalance when we are out of alignment. Through our thoughts, imagination, and heart’s desires, it leads us toward closeness, connection, and beauty.
The soul speaks to us in the form of our intuition and attempts to guide us away from the destructive patterns that can separate us from the depth of love and happiness we wish for. Sadly, most of us are conditioned to not listen to the voice of our soul. We’re taught to believe that suffering is our natural condition and joy is impermanent.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The soul is a balm to the under-loved and acting-out shadow, and it has the ability to diffuse the dark attributes that can hold us back from our true mission in life. This is where the tremendous power of belief comes in. When we believe something to be true it opens the door to unimagined possibilities. It is belief in our ability to heal through internal inquiry, dialoguing, and acceptance of the shadow that will ultimately turn the tide—stopping it from acting out and potentially sabotaging our lives.
Moment by moment, we have the ability to either feed the shadow (by ignoring, denying, or sublimating it) or listen to the soul. In making that choice, it will help to remember that the soul-driven life includes the shadow but is no longer weighed down or overrun by our ignoring it.
Accessing the soul through imagination and visualization
Unless there is significant abuse in the first stages of life, as children our relationship to soul is a playful one. We accept the wonders of our imagination as the truth, and what we imagine becomes real for us. As we grow into adulthood, our perceptions are clouded by a need to find reasonable explanations for just about everything. The magic disappears in a fog of doubt, disappointment, and pessimism. But we can restore our healing connection to both soul and imagination by making a practice of turning our attention inward. Let’s try it right now:
As you prepare to close your eyes, imagine yourself on a beautiful hillside covered with colorful wildflowers. The sun feels warm on your shoulders and you can hear a gentle wind blowing through the trees. The Dalai Lama sits next to you and places his hand in yours. Feel his wisdom and kindness flow to you and through your entire body. After a few moments, sense how your energy has shifted.
Visualization and meditation can be that easy. When you close your eyes and allow yourself to enter an alternate reality, you are dropping down into the unconscious part of the psyche where there are no boundaries to constrict your experience. This is also your reservoir for tapping into faith; the sacred resting place for your soul.
To practice visualizations like the one above is essentially to be in dialogue with your soul. In this instance, the Dalai Lama is one example of how the soul can appear in human form. You can commune with your soul in the outer world as well, which is the invitation every time you are moved by the beauty in and around you, like when you’re spontaneously filled with gratitude and awe as you watch a golden-orange sun slip behind purple clouds and slowly sink beneath the horizon. The psyche does not differentiate between an image in the physical world and one we see in our mind’s eye. In both cases, you are having a moment with your soul. And each time you connect with your soul, you’re casting a warm light on the shadow—gradually creating a safe and welcoming place for the return and integration of all of the parts of yourself that were once feared and rejected.
Your soul believes in you. It is a flame that can never be extinguished, a connection that cannot be broken, a voice that can never be silenced—speaking to you always of the profound spiritual being that you are.
Conclusion – the gifts of soul and imagination
One of the reasons that accessing the soul and activating the imagination are so healing in the therapeutic sense is that they can go where even the most effective clinical tools and techniques can only point toward. Beyond psychological concepts (no matter how useful), soul and imagination are real. They are alive. And they leave no part of you out of the equation in your quest for happiness and peace.
Your soul is the guardian of all of the symbols and stories that live in the collective unconscious. Words and images often show up to remind you of your intrinsic wholeness. When you have a great idea that resonates with your values and beliefs and uplifts you, it is your soul. When a beautiful melody or verse comes streaming into your awareness, it is your soul. In fact, I believe that every poem that has ever been written originated from the soul. Here is one from my soul to yours.
What do I believe? you ask.
I believe in magic,
That a finger is a wand,
And that rabbits are the real magicians,
Just look at their ears,
Imagine what they could pull out of them,
Little top hats, maybe.
I believe that our eyes are made from
honey and flower petals,
That our hands held many things
before we were born,
And that our chapped feet can see in the dark,
Sniffing the air like coyotes.
I believe that our ribs are a white picket fence
that holds in the stomach of our front yard
and lets out the schoolchildren from our heart.
What do I believe? you pry.
I believe that bullets
Should be made from raindrops,
So we can water the battlefields,
And watch as our own fertile bones
And lean like a thick birch forest.
I believe that hatred
can be pulled out by its edges,
Like a long, black cape,
Only to be worn at book burnings
I believe that children
should stomp in mud puddles,
Stick out their red tongues,
Lick the batter spoon,
And have bed head all day long.
What do I believe? You Demand!
I believe in silly hats
with polka dots, stripes and feathers,
Not to cover our heads,
But to decorate our thoughts.
I believe in open doors,
And iron tea kettles that whistle Mozart.
I believe that kindness spreads like apple butter,
And courage tastes like a plum.
I believe that farmers are holy,
And priests are full of holes,
That barns are prettier than churches,
And that fresh milk should be served at Communion.
I believe that power is best used to light Christmas trees,
That music has ticklish spots,
And that eyebrows are sleeping bags
for the wrinkles on our foreheads.
But what do you know? you whisper.
I know that we do things on purpose,
And that deep down everyone is good.
I know that we can find buried treasure,
And discover lost cures,
As we invent new twirls,
To old dance steps.
I know that suffering is optional,
That a smile lifts an anvil,
That time never sleeps in,
And that forgiveness lives next door.
I know that someday soon,
I will wade through the cherry blossoms
Declare crimson love,
I will know Heaven.
Carder Stout, PhD, MFT, is a Depth Psychologist and Licensed Psychotherapist who has a private practice in West Los Angeles, California.