Everyone has a persona template of how we see ourselves. It is generally a mixture of good qualities that we aspire to (I have a great sense of humor, I’m compassionate, etc) and self-deprecating habits (I’m ugly, I’m stupid, I can’t do that, etc). Most of the time we are completely unaware of this, until our emotions give an intense flash of loathing or admiration.
Have someone ever really pissed you off, but you couldn’t figure out why? Have you ever “lost control” and lashed out at someone? That is the shadow side coming out – the part that is suppressed. The more we ignore it, the more power it has over us, because it can suddenly appear, blindsiding our rational selves.
Shadow work is a fancy way of saying that you take time to look deep within yourself, traveling into that dark basement to peer through cobweb infested drawers and slimy, mildewed tins of self-knowledge. It is difficult, but ultimately redemptive, because after you climb out, covered in dust, you have regained a crucial part of yourself. Slowly (this is an ongoing process) your true self can be integrated or transformed. The odd flares of emotion are less surprising, and can be compensated for.
That is all quite fascinating, and there are many fantastic resources out there for getting started, such as this intro video by Olivia, but what I wanted to share with you are some tips that I have learned along the way.
Most of the time, shadow work is done through brutal meditation. It is like the difference between therapeutic deep tissue massage and a light, relaxing afternoon at the spa. You are ripping past the normal parts of yourself, tearing through them to get at the real motivation.
One of the easiest ways to do that is demanding “why” over and over. Don’t accept the logical response. You are trying to get past the reasonable part of yourself to reach buried truths.
Example: Why was I rude to Jenny today when she interrupted my lunch break?
I was trying to read my book, and lost my place as a result.
Why did that matter?
It was an exciting part, and I wanted to know what happened.
My favorite character was about to fall off a cliff!
Why does that matter?
Because I want her to survive.
Because she is like me.
Why does that matter?
Because I feel like I’m about to fall off a cliff.
I’m overwhelmed. I can’t get anything done.
Why does that matter?
Because I need to be perfect!
You get the idea – it keeps going from here. The point is, keep digging until finally the “why” leads to something that feels right and honest.
Fresh, Vibrant Flowers
Shadow work can be intense and depressing—you are learning about things that you’ve been hiding from, and often with good reason. After a session like the one described above, it will leave you feeling drained and lackluster. This can be dangerous, especially to someone with a predisposition to melancholy (like myself).
Always have some flowers or herbs around you when doing shadow work, and for some reason I find that only living ones work (silk flowers are pretty, but don’t have the same effect). Colorful fruits and vegetables are also helpful, like pumpkins, apples, tomatoes, peaches, etc. You might want to consider eating a fruit salad right after your session.
It sounds silly, right? Just trust me on this. It makes a huge difference.
Shadow Work Timing
I’m incredibly busy, so a daily routine is out of the question. That being said, I take a quick moment before going to bed when I do a quick rewind of the day to see if anything jumps out that needs to be addressed. If there is a moment that causes me to pause and ask “wow, why did that happen?” I take a few minutes to run through the questioning meditation, jotting down the result.
This was inspired by Emily Carlin, who has some fantastic defensive magick resources. The “clean slate” of dark moon energy is a perfect time for more serious shadow work, either using her suggested ritual, or one of your own devising. Even something simple, like lighting a black candle and taking a half hour to meditate and journal is enough.
Don’t Forget Your Hidden Good Qualities
Nicknamed the “golden” shadow by some psychologists, we also have positive aspects of ourselves that are suppressed for various reasons. Personally my shadow is comprised largely of the “golden” treasure. It took years of shadow work before I could look in a mirror and say “you are beautiful” and I still struggle with it.
It is easy to remember moments of the day where we got angry, but what about the times we had a sudden attraction to someone? I don’t mean in a sexual way, although it can be misinterpreted as that. For example, you might have a friend whom you admire because he is always thoughtful toward others. “I wish I was like that!”
Guess what, you probably are, deep down. That is why it is so attractive to you. Sometimes shadow work involves digging through and prying open locked chests, crusted over with debris, to let the light shine out.
When I uncover one of these hidden gems, I name myself with that quality. Speak it out loud, if you can, three times. Don’t hesitate, state it clearly and with intent. “I am courageous” “I am loved” “I am patient”
If you have been baptized in the Christian tradition, notice that a lot of the “Q&A” responses include affirmations like this. There’s a reason for that; it has power.
Upcoming Shadow Work Opportunity: Nativity Fast
Lent is incredibly famous as a shadow work time, but I’ve always been drawn to the darker parts of the year. Winter seems a more appropriate time to me for self-reflection. The only downside is having to walk past heaping plates of Christmas cookies for a month and taking it easy during Thanksgiving dinner.
I did the full version of the fast once, and wow it was difficult. I have newfound respect for anyone in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I vividly remember Christmas Eve that year, when everyone had brought an amazing array of delicious treats for after Mass, but of course that day no solid food is allowed until evening. It was torture!
The exact dates of the Nativity Fast vary, but 40 days before Christmas is a popular choice (November 15 – December 24).
Sacrifice of a Contrite Heart
Psalm 51:17 always comes to mind with shadow work. God doesn’t want a bunch of fancy sacrifices, he loves a “broken and contrite heart.”
The “broken” in the original refers to an act of shattering something into pieces. Some scholars have looked at other use cases of the word for context, and believe it refers to smashing something during a forging process—in other words ripping it apart in order to renew it as something better.
The context of this verse comes after King David seduced Bathsheba and murdered her husband to cover it up (ie an extreme example of acting instinctually from the shadow self).
He throws himself on the Lord’s mercy, pleading “restore to me the joy of your salvation.”
David can be a really horrible human being in the Bible, so why is he often held up as an example? My theory, and one that Romans 5 seems to agree with, is that David takes the time to face his personal demons. He looks at himself in the mirror and is able to go “yikes, that’s got to change” and has the good sense to ask for help from God to get it done.
The point of that ramble through the Bible is this: