Shadow Work: Learning to See in the Dark


There’s an unsettling tendency in some spiritual circles to focus on all love and light. Yet there is a fine line between staying positive and being unaware of our own blind spots. Too much light can be blinding, and even young children know not to stare at the sun. The experience of being human contains both darkness and light, and all the grey areas. This is where shadow work walks into the room and hangs soft tapestries over the fake fluorescent light bulbs.

To know how to get somewhere else, we first need to know where we are at. Sometimes where we are actually at is not the pretty story we tell ourselves. There are always shadows. Things lurking in our peripheral vision that we haven’t faced yet. Fears, hidden motives, dusty things we haven’t been quite honest about with ourselves.

Life gets real when we face our shadows, when we welcome their dark and gnarled forms into plain sight. But this doesn’t mean bringing them out into the light where they will squint and shrink.

Shadow work is about learning to see in the dark. It means being aware of the hidden forces that affect our behavior. The moments in childhood that became prickly memories that shape our beliefs as adults. The heartaches from youth that tear the fabric as we weave a long term relationship.  

One of the most powerful shadow work exercises is to ask hard questions, and be willing to listen to the answers. Questions are the keys that open locked doors. What are my fears? What am I not doing that I want to do, and why? What have I swept under the rug in my life to make my house appear tidy?

Making the Unconscious Conscious

I keep a notebook devoted to self inquiry. On a blank page I ask a question and contemplate it for a short while, writing down what comes to mind. At the end of my notes, I set an intention to be able to see deeper into this part of my psyche. Show me. I don’t know how the lesson will appear, but there is a consistent magic to this process. Within a month or so, something will happen in my life that triggers one of those aha moments of insight, and I suddenly understand something about myself that was unconscious before.

That moment of insight isn’t always pretty. But like having kale stuck in my teeth, I would rather know than go about my day in blissful ignorance. Seeing my blind spots allows me to integrate the shadow parts so that I understand how they affect my mood and behavior.

I can’t cut the puppet strings until I realize where they are tied to me. Shadow work is my knife, it’s my tool for making my way through the overgrowth thickets in life and the tangled web of the human mind.

Shadow Work: Know Thyself

In the winter there is light

but it doesn’t warm my skin

like the things in life that I’m better off knowing

but it doesn’t make them any easier

In the winter the days are thin

and I wonder what nourishes me