With our annual Groundhog’s Day occurring at the end of this week, it seems to me to be an appropriate time to address the psychospiritual “shadow” phenomenon.
Carl Jung, a prominent early-20th-century neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, popularized the concept of one’s “shadow” in referring to an (often unconscious) aspect of the personality that the conscious ego either does not recognize in itself or finds unacceptable and therefore rejects. Thus, in Freudian terms, a person’s shadow aspects represents either suppressed or repressed personality characteristics that are (strongly) undesired. Many contemporary therapists, including myself, regard one’s “shadow” as his/her negative or “dark side.”
We can grow substantially by coming to recognize and accept the nuances of our shadow/dark side. Conversely, failing to come to terms with or to embrace our shadow nature has the effect of limiting self-development, personal power, relationship skills and spiritual progress. Denying shadow aspects of one’s personality tends to lead one to project a perceived character deficit or sense of inferiority onto another person, often seeing those or similar suppressed traits as amplified in the other person.
The 18th-century Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross described his 45-year period of suffering as the “dark night of the soul.” He came to realize his intense struggles as a journey toward union with G-d. Mother Theresa, a strong candidate for sainthood, endured an even longer dark night of the soul. Usually, a person experiences a much briefer period of suffering, feeling hopeless, alone and/or ashamed, ultimately discovering considerable growth as the adversity wanes. Benefits are specially likely to be accrued when one refrains from resisting the pain and instead seeks to be present to it and receptive to the ensuing lessons. Doing so typically requires great patience, faith and rigor.
I learned many years ago that the numerous “dark nights” I have encountered, both of short and relatively long duration, are ultimate blessings in my life. Such times have served to humble, yet strengthen me and to advance my mystical training. Therefore, I’m immensely grateful for those experiences and for my eventual courage to confront them head on, often after some initial resistance.
As an extended winter is often forecasted on Groundhog’s Day, each of us is inevitably due for more “winters of discontent.” May we learn to “dance gracefully” with our shadows and to extract the nectar from our negative traits, as well as from our harsh tribulations.