When I was seven, I stole the cloak from Damien Kelly’s batman figure. I was jealous. My batman didn’t have a cloak. It was second hand and by the time the previous owner had passed it off, the cloak had disappeared. I remember him crying with the teacher, snot pouring down his face.
I stole different things as an adult – women’s hearts, men’s dignity. I just took what I wanted and ignored the pain it caused. I justified it to myself, I told myself I deserved what I wanted.
At some point I had to look at this ugly part of myself – the narcissistic me that would steal or manipulate to get what he wanted. It hurt. Because when I really looked, and named it, I had to admit that I wasn’t who I told myself I was.
I told myself I was a good man, a conscious man. I had high ethics. Integrity. I meditated for God’s sake. People who meditate are good, they don’t steal.
I think there’s always some part of you that knows. Something lurking below the surface, that knows you contradict yourself, that knows you’re not who you claim to be.
But better not to look if you can help it. It’s much easier that way. Then you don’t have to acknowledge that the story you tell about yourself actually doesn’t work. You don’t have to unpick the narratives, include the new data, and find a new story that fits.
Easier to ignore it all. Let it remain in the dark.
Just keep facing the other way, don’t look at the shadow you cast.
The Shadow is the dark that follows you
The shadow is the darkness that follows you. It is the shape that is made from the places where light cannot go – where you do not want to look.
Robert Bly likens it to a great bag that you carry around behind you, and inside it are all manner of things that you don’t want to acknowledge.
Some of the contents may even belong to someone else! Your father perhaps or your great grandmother. But you carry it all around with you nonetheless, and wonder why on earth life feels so very heavy.
The original benefit of this is that it kept you safe when you were too small to deal with the dark. Children are delicate.
As an adult the benefit is different.
You get to remain ignorant.
You can’t outrun your shadow
Have you ever watched a small child playing, trying to run away from its shadow? No matter what direction it moves in, no matter how fast it shuffles along, no matter how determinedly it tries to escape, the shadow remains.
It’s right there, behind you. Always. In the place you don’t want to look.
You can fool yourself into thinking you no longer possess it. This is achieved by removing the light source.
The child experiences this when the sun disappears behind a cloud, and its shadow is miraculously removed.
For you, this deception is achieved by removing the source of light that illuminates your own psyche, that is, the light of conscious awareness.
This can be achieved in all number of ways. In fact, the world has never contained a greater variety of ways in which to turn off the light of consciousness.
I am particularly partial to cheesecake and “ultimate fail videos” on YouTube. They work particularly well in combination. If I eat enough of the rich fatty cheesecake, I seem to lose the ability to stop the never-ending, dopamine stimulating cycle of video clips, each showing another way in which someone makes an ass of themselves. And I can watch, smug in the unconscious knowledge that I am in fact not the biggest failure on the planet.
You will have your own particular tastes. Perhaps you turn off the light of consciousness by working too hard. Or drinking too much. Or fucking too much. Or reading stacks of spiritual philosophy that assures you that you are in fact “perfect just as the universe made you”.
But you cannot outrun your shadow. Because as the child finds, when the sun reappears, the shadow reappears along with it. It was there all along, waiting for the light to reveal its presence.
Look where you least want to look
When you consciously and deliberately turn the light of awareness toward the dark corners and the shadowy recesses of yourself, you walk the path of the hero – you voluntarily face what is most dangerous, and are transformed by the event.
This is an old idea.
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” – Carl Jung
So where do you look? You look where you least want to look. The shadow is conspicuous by its unwillingness to be seen.
When I find something I don’t want to look at, I’ve noticed that my mind has this habit of going all cloudy. I try to look and I just see fog. “What did you ask me again?” I say, for it is as if my memory of where I was has been completely wiped.
Shame is a dead giveaway. Shame is the manhole cover that separates the sewers of your past, from the cleanliness of your present. Going down there is messy as fuck.
Or you could just send notes to all your ex-lovers and ask them what your most blind to. That will work too.
Name what you find there
In Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, Ged the story’s protagonist runs from his shadow. He travels across the entire known world trying to escape its malevolent intent as it seeks to hunt him down and destroy him.
But it is only when he faces the shadow and he names it that the pursuit and the battle come to an end. And its name? Ged. His own name.
As you look far off into the distance, you will see two figures. One is the strong and beautiful form of your higher self. The one that you become when you walk the path of consciousness. The other is harder to see, it’s obscured, vague. This is your shadow self. The one you become when you hide from the light of consciousness.
To become the first, you must name the dark. You must name what you find when you look into the murky corners of yourself.
“I’m afraid that my ambitions are made from hubris, and that I am in truth, ordinary.”
When I name this, and learn to consistently name it when it is present, I am illuminating what was hidden in the dark. I see the little boy who never felt recognized for his abilities. I see the youth, who used hubris to cover his insecurity.
Now I’ve named them I can choose another route. I take them by the hand.
“It’s ok. I’ve got you. We’ll do this together.”
By naming what is hidden, you bring it into the light.
Reclaim what was hidden to you
The shadowy corner is illuminated.
The dirty shame is purified.
The trapped vitality is released.
You reclaim what was hidden, and you integrate its power back into yourself. You become more whole. You enable capacities that were held in a karmic trust fund, waiting for you to reach your maturity.
For this is the archetypal test. Are you courageous enough to look where you least want to look, meet what you find there, and to take it into yourself?
The journey is what makes you worthy of reclaiming the treasure.