Celebrating the Dark and the Light
I’ve been going through a tough time lately – a bit of a dark night of the soul if I’m truthful. A whole series of events have slammed into me like a ten ton truck, leaving me in a very low place. I’m not the only one; it seems like so many people I
know have been finding life a struggle this year. People are often surprised that I will freely talk about feeling grim, about the black dog who sometimes nips hard at my heels. ‘But isn’t it a bit embarrassing to admit that you, of all people, can’t brush off the
tough stuff?’ they ask. ‘After all, you are supposed to be some kind of expert, aren’t you? Surely you can’t admit that sometimes life is miserable?’ Oh yes I can. In fact, I’d like to suggest that, if we’re going to celebrate our lives, we should celebrate the dark as
well as the light, the tough bits as well as the easy, the heart-rending as well as the heart-lifting.
We live in a society which has become obsessed with the bright, with the light, with the positive. Within this gleaming bright world there
is no room for shadow, for penumbra, twilight, darkness. We have turned our backs on the harsher, more difficult side of life - we just don’t want to know.
New Age consciousness has promoted a world of permanent sunshine, of bright colors, rainbows, smiles and hugs. Its buzzwords are love, light, joy, peace, beauty. Its key concepts are affirmations, angels and positive thought. We are
taught that we can ‘never afford the luxury of a negative thought’, let alone negative emotions or actions. The message is that our lives should be permanently sunny, happy and joyous; all our relationships loving; all our spirits coursing towards the light. We are expected
to be super-people, always up, always cheerful, always bright.
Is this natural? Is it realistic? Of course not. Virtually all of us have times when we feel down, depressed, negative. Times when we feel consumed with less than ideal emotions: anger, hate, jealousy, self-pity. If we were to
believe some of the self-help gurus, we would seek to expunge such emotions immediately, drowning them in positive affirmations and self-talk. But is this missing the message? Do we do ourselves a disfavor by ignoring the dark and seeking always the light? Do we miss the
subtlety of the moon’s shadows by always craving the clear illumination of the sun? By striving for perfection, for the ideal life, for a permanent high, we are setting ourselves up for misery and failure. No-one can live perpetually in the bright sunshine. Life is made up
of darkness as well as light. Our emotions too run into the shadows: fear, guilt, depression, anger. We cannot put a veneer over these emotions and simply hope they will simply go away. In fact, the more we disown these emotions, the more harm they will do. It’s like
finding a patch of nasty damp in your house. You could face it square-on and root out the cause or you could simply paper it over and forget about it. We all know what happens if you go the latter route: all looks fine for a while but eventually the damp breaks out again,
far worse than before.
We only have to look at nature to see that there exists cruelty, darkness, death. There are times of growth, times of decay. Sometimes day and light and the upward surge of life hold sway; sometimes we are in the grip of night and
dark and the death-hush lies over the earth. We are splitting from an essential truth if we seek to live always in the light. After all, in order to have a peak, a mountain, you must have a trough, a valley. How can we truly know happiness if we have never experienced
sadness and gloom?
By denying the dark we also lose the chance for genuine self-understanding and growth. There are many lessons to learn amidst the shadows, much wisdom in the darkness. We can and should sacrifice the idea of perfection because none of
us is perfect. We all contain within us both good and evil, light and shade. When we turn and face our darkness, our demons of the night, we may find revelations beyond our wildest dreams.
The ancients knew this and knew it well. In the Qabalah, the Tree of Life has a shadow image, a dark reflection. On it are all the sins and temptations known, the arch-demons of the soul. The qabalists realized that you cannot only
see the bright side of life, you have to accept the dark as well. Ignoring the dark, pushing it aside, is to give it power over you. In many cultures the gods and goddesses were not just pure and good but complex creations with as many differing moods and attributes as us
humans. Many initiation ceremonies demanded the initiate descend into the bowels of the earth or go deep into the forest or out onto the untamed sea to face his or her demons, to conquer fear, to embrace the dark and come out again, transformed, into the light.
I am not saying that affirmations and positive thought are bad things. They can be incredibly useful and worthwhile, particularly if you are the kind of person who constantly dwells on the negative. They are also valuable tools in the
first stages of personal development. But as you move on, you no longer need to put a gloss on life. Your work is to face the dark energy, to plumb the depths: only then can you truly scale the heights. One of the first tasks is to face and celebrate our shadow…
SEEKING OUR SHADOW
As children we were scared of the dark, of ghosts and ghouls, demons and monsters. When I was small I used to peer under the bed, petrified of the dark beast which lay (I was sure) underneath the bed. I had nightmares of a black
cat-like creature which stalked me, relentlessly throughout my childhood, through my teens and into adulthood. For years I sought to exorcise it, to avoid it, to ignore it and hope it would forget me and go away. It wasn’t until I started to study Jungian psychology and
become fascinated with art therapy that I dared face ‘my’ beast. For, rest assured, every dark creature of the night, every ignoble thought and deed, is yours and yours alone. In them lies a chance for huge reward and growth.
My black beast turned out to be something quite wonderful -- my own repressed animal self, my wild feminine energy, my sensuality, my inner ‘wild woman.’ She appeared as I painted: first a terrifying monster which I barely dared look
at, gradually transforming into a powerful Sekhmet, Egyptian lion goddess; a sinuous dancer; a delicious strumpet. I realized that here was a huge part of myself which I had always denied, always repressed. She contained my shadow material, my dark energy which craved
release. In Jungian psychology, the shadow is the part of us which contains our secrets, all the forbidden feelings and ways of
behaviour that lie hidden from our consciousness. The shadow comes most strongly to us in our dreams, as that frightening ‘other’ - usually the
same sex as ourselves. The harlot, the vicious murderer, the cunning thief, the loud-mouthed zealot, the overbearing teacher, the pathetic wimp, the down-and-out, the winging child. The shadow carries everything that we push aside in waking, conscious life: all those
qualities which do not fit with our ideal image of ourselves, everything which makes us embarrassed, shameful, small. The shadow is thus full of hate, rage, jealousy, shame, laziness, aggression, greed, lust,
untrammelled sexuality. If we do not pay attention to these dark
energies they take on a life of their own; they fester in our unconscious; they plague us in dreams, in unbidden fantasies and urges. Sometimes they surface dangerously as when we ‘lose it’ and hit out in a sudden uncharacteristic bout of fury, or we get blind drunk and wake
up next to a stranger, feeling stunned and horrified that we just ‘weren’t ourselves’ last night. We weren’t our selves - we were our shadow.
However we shouldn’t seek to destroy the shadow but to integrate it into our conscious lives, so its immense hidden energy can be used for our own good. Let’s look at how to uncover and celebrate this dark energy of the shadow:
Make a list of the people who annoy you most, who really irritate you. They can be close family, passing acquaintances, people on television, a huge celebrity or the woman at the corner shop. Why do they annoy you so much? Which qualities are
particularly irritating? Write down everything you hate about them. Take it further and think if there are any groups of people you really can’t stand; that you find frightening or repulsive or unpleasant. Be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t lie to yourself - even
if your thoughts seem atrocious. You’re looking for those qualities you just can’t stand in other people. ‘He’s so arrogant,’ you might say or ‘I hate the way she flaunts her body’. We project our shadows onto other people so, ten to one, the qualities you hate in someone
else will be exactly what is hidden in your own shadow. Think about it - is the hated quality something you possess in yourself, or that lies hidden within you?
Take notes of your dreams. Keep a dream journal and watch out for the shadow figures in your dreams. The shadow will always be the one who enacts the dark and the forbidden: the thief, the murderer, the rapist, the sadist, the prostitute, the beast.
When you have found some of your shadow energy, your shadow characters, you can start working with them. Try these ways to unleash and integrate shadow material:
Use the ‘other chair’ technique. Sit on one chair and imagine your shadow character (from a dream or a person you dislike) on the other. Start up a dialogue. Ask them why they behave the way they do. What do they dislike about you? What do they want to
say? What do you want to say to them? Try taping your ‘conversation’ so you can replay it later - you may find some big surprises.
Paint your shadow. This can be very powerful so don’t be surprised if unexpected emotions emerge. Use whatever materials you like. I found it therapeutic to paint large - pinning a huge sheet of paper on the wall and using cheap poster paints. You might
choose to work small with gouache, or doodle with felt pens. Sometimes the picture just seems to take you over and paint itself. You may find it helpful to paint in candlelight or the dark (the shadow seems to emerge more readily then in the bright light of day). If you
find it hard, you may want to close your eyes or paint with your non-dominant hand. Don’t censor yourself - just paint freely. Once you have finished try talking to your painting. Take the image and use the other chair technique or write to it, as outlined below.
Write to your shadow figure. Just free-associate and see what emerges. It could be a dialogue; it could be a narrative; it could be a poem or a play. Maybe the shadow figure itself wants to write - what would it say? How would it express itself?
Be constantly on the watch for shadow material. Listen to your dreams and keep the dialogue going. Watch out for those irritating people and analyze why they are so grating on your nerves. Who do you envy? Who envies you? Why?
What would you love to be able to say, but feel you can’t? What would you say if you had the chance? What would be the consequence? If you could change your life in any way, how would you change it? What are your deepest desires, your most wild, wanton fantasies? What
desires are you hiding when you over-eat, drink to excess, take drugs or over-work? What parts of your life are you denying?
These are the thoughts we dare not think because we fear that, were we to imagine the unimaginable, we would have to play out our fantasies. But that’s not the case. Often all our psyche needs is to air the possibilities, to find
small safe ways to unleash our shadow. Our inner wild woman might cherish a swim in the sea or half an hour lying on her back staring up at the clouds. Our inner warrior might need to unleash some energy in an aerobics class or kick-boxing or screaming out loud in a place
where no-one can hear. Simple things might fit the bill very well. If you’re not sure, ask your shadow.
PLUMBING THE DEPTHS
Sometimes we find ourselves in very unpleasant places. Life overwhelms us, we feel as if we just cannot carry on, we are consumed by grief or depression, anxiety or fear. Many people would say you just have to pull yourself together;
get a grip and get on with life. I’m not so sure. I think that life is a learning process, a quest for meaning rather than blind happiness. Happiness is a child’s pursuit and wonderful though it is, as we grow up we need more than innocent happiness. We start searching
for meaning, and meaning can be found in the darkest of places, in the most unlikely situations. Most of our lives are spent desperately running away from confrontation, from having to think, from having to face reality. We avoid ourselves in myriad ways - through overwork,
alcohol, drugs, being busy, watching television, going out, being with other people. We are scared of standing alone, quiet, naked before the vastness of the universe. We quail before infinity. We are terrified of looking at ourselves honestly and facing what gazes back
at us. Those who sink into darkness and gloom are perhaps just a little more honest - they peer through the curtains of illusion. They see the depths but just cannot reach out again.
Another mistake we make is to blame the past. We blame people, events, situations that happened years ago for our present misery. Yes, terrible things can have happened in the past and they can certainly affect us in the present.
But, if we want to grow we have to take responsibility for ourselves, here and now. We have to let go of the past and figure out what we need to do now to move forwards. Jung said, ‘I ask, what is the necessary task which the patient will not accomplish.’ He did not
seek the cause of neurosis in the past but in the present. Why waste energy dwelling on what has gone? The key is to learn how to forgive ourselves and others; to resist apportioning blame; to take responsibility for our own lives, not give it up to those bogeymen of the
past. By allowing the past to hold sway over us, we are relinquishing our own power, our own energy. Recognize that such recriminations are purely excuses, reasons we give ourselves for not claiming our own power and getting on with our lives. We need to find the courage
to stand on our own two feet and face the world, the universe, fair and square.
One way of doing this is to grapple with our darkest fears, our own dark energy. It is to follow the path of the old initiates and make a descent into the underworld. It is to face the worst that could possibly happen - the stripping
of everything we hold dear. Then, when we stand alone, forlorn and without all our worldly trappings, we can realize just who we are - how we have an essential Self which transcends all the glitter and ego. We can drop our vain and silly hunts for status and overbearing
wealth. We will have the confidence not to care how people see us, to drop the fruitless, impossible search for perfection. We get to realise what matters and what is totally unimportant. It is liberating and deeply transforming and, paradoxically, meeting and celebrating
the dark will end up giving you more bright light vital energy than you could ever imagine.
Read more of Jane Alexander’s work
on her website: www.janealexander.org
Copyright © Jane
Alexander. All Rights Reserved.
Jane Alexander is a UK-based writer on natural health, holistic living and contemporary spirituality. She is the author of numerous books on natural health and holistic living, including The Overload Solution (Piatkus), The Holistic Therapy File
(Carlton), Spirit of the Home (Thorsons), and The Detox Kit (HayHouse). Her website, www.janealexander.org
is full of tips for living soulfully.