To be honest, I never even knew this was an actual ‘thing’. I didn’t have a name for it, I just knew it was what my workings with Lu largely consisted of. But apparently a lot of other people have gone through it and call it Shadow Work, based off of Jung’s Schattenarbeit (psychological shadow work), which fits rather nicely I think.
Others have noted that it isn’t really talked about within the pagan community—sure, there’ll be mentions about its importance here and there, but there are no guidelines or helpful tips on how to go about it. And that’s because Shadow Work practices are unique to each person’s needs. It’s an introspective practice that deals with our inner selves, so it wouldn’t make much sense for another person to tell someone how to go about it.
Shadow Work is a self-built process—it is ultimately up to us what we want to confront and what we’re willing to risk. That being said, this isn’t going to be a how-to guide. It’s only an overview of the broad expanse of Shadow Work as I have come to know it.
For some, Shadow Work may consist of confronting one’s own inner demons. Facing one’s fears is usually a crucial step in this practice. This can be potentially dangerous, not to mention traumatizing. Even our mental fears can have scarring effects. Others must make peace with the darker parts of themselves, their shame and regrets. Already, you can probably see why many would not be willing to share their own experiences with Shadow Work, due to the intensely personal nature of such work. Shadow Work tests limits, and seeks to break them.
You know those ‘difficult questions’ I always talk about? The ones that rip holes in the fabric of our spirituality, or that make us doubt that which we love and hold on to for support? Those are a part of Shadow Work too. The answers may not always be pretty, may not be what we want to hear, but it’s what we need to hear. Each one of those questions has the potential to tear apart the vision of reality we have built for ourselves, the ‘truth’ we cling to like a security blanket. We have the option of letting those questions haunt us or facing up to them. And on the occasion that they cause our truths to crumble around us, we have the choice of leaving it in ruins or attempting to rebuild it.
But it isn’t about morphing our fears into something more acceptable, or sugarcoating our flaws. It’s about owning up to them. Sometimes, we can even use them to our advantage. And it’s not always about overcoming or getting rid of our fears—sometimes a healthy dose of fear can be a good thing.
The end goal is not about defeating your shadow self. Those shadows are essential for spiritual growth. They are as much a part of our world as the more pleasant aspects. Instead, it’s about learning how to deal with them, living in a controlled sort of flux with our shadows. A balance, if you will. Comfort and security are nice, but fear keeps us sharp and aware. It is not a balance between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, or ‘light’ and ‘dark’.
And as you can imagine, not everyone reaches the end of some phase of their Shadow Work. Some might give up halfway, and it’s important to note that this is NOT a sign of weakness or failure. There are very real reasons as to why we fear things, why we hide away from some parts of our shadow selves, and sometimes the cons outweigh the pros in such situations. Emerging from the entirety of a phase of Shadow Work does not always equate with emerging a happier, stronger person. It isn’t a battle to be fought, with only two outcomes. If anything, it’s about how much you’re willing to ‘connect’ with the shadow. How much can you accept as a part of yourself, as a part of your reality?
I’ve heard the theory that we as humans cannot possibly hope to contain the amount of energy/knowledge/power/whatever that deities are capable of, because we would break under the sheer force or pressure. I see Shadow Work as being similar to that concept. Not everyone can delve as deeply into their shadow for fear of losing themselves or their sanity. There are very real consequences of Shadow Work that affect our mental and physical states, a common one being severe depression and/or suicidal thoughts.
So how do we know when to stop or keep going when it comes to Shadow Work? We don’t. But personally, if I feel that something is not worth the effort or I’m in serious danger of losing everything I’ve achieved thus far, I would stop. Sometimes we have to recognize when it’s prudent to cut our losses and move on to something else.
I don’t know how others reconcile Shadow Work with their respective deities, but for me, Shadow Work is mostly solitary. Lucifer oversees my progress, but he doesn’t play an active part in it. He does not ‘guide’ me in any way that might influence the end result. He has only once been an active participant in my Shadow Work, but that was because I was dealing with my Christianized fear of Him at the time. But even then, it was almost as though he was trying to dissuade me from making the choice I thought he wanted me to make. But mostly, he only initiates phases of my work by presenting me with questions or situations, and then leaves me to flail and deal with the consequences on my own. Then again, that’s just the type of mentor he is.