Famed psychologist Carl G. Jung (d. 1961) wrote about one’s shadow self. In a nutshell, the shadow is composed of all the elements in one’s personality that lay dormant in one’s unconscious mind. In practical terms, these are complexes, hidden drives, unresolved issues, and emotional forces that shape our conscious mind, or persona.
In one sense, the entire spiritual journey could be described as draining the shadow of its vast influence over our thoughts, words, and behavior. How often are we driven to do or say things that contradict what we believe? This occurs when the unchecked shadow rules the roost.
For example, we want to love, but we hate. We want to give, but we take. We want to make friends, but we make enemies. Conversely, many times noble, altruistic qualities overtake us and we embody saintly characteristics that surprise even ourselves. Both positive and negative qualities lurk in one’s shadow.
These deeply ingrained traits tend to dominate our personality and cause us to think and act the way we do. The shadow’s enormous influence is difficult to rein in because we can’t readily put our finger on it. It is as elusive as … a shadow.
Rather than spending years in therapy attempting to untangle ourselves from the grip of our shadow, which is the modern Western method to attain individuation (i.e., psychological maturation and emotional stability), ancient Eastern methods go right to the source: cut off the shadow entirely and thereby attain freedom from its effects, both good and bad.
One such method is found in Patanjali’s Yogasūtra, which disregards the contents of the shadow (which are stored in one’s chitta – mind), and simply says: liberation is attained when all mental vacillations cease. What a refreshing idea! Instead of spending hours sifting through one’s mental landscape and micro-analyzing its contents, simply transcend those contents altogether by bringing their functioning to an abrupt halt. Had many well-known Western psychologists studied Patanjali, and had they far less ego, they could have spared the world reams of useless theory by cutting to the chase and liberating people instead of analyzing them and providing them with relatively superficial palliative coping mechanisms.
However, this is far easier said than done. When walking the spiritual path, we are attempting to extract ourselves from the Pandora’s box of hidden motivations and emotions that affect us. To gain the upper hand, we need to practice spiritual disciplines on a routine basis.
Some of the most effective practices involve concentrating the mind until it becomes totally focused on, and absorbed in one object alone, which shuts down the mind. These practices can be found in Catholicism (Contemplative Prayer), Theravada Buddhism (the “Contemplation” sections of the Noble Eightfold Path), and of course Patanjali’s Yogasūtra from Hinduism. Concentration lifts one’s consciousness above the realm where it is buffeted by the waves of the unruly lower mind and increasingly affixes it on our spiritual self, which is unaffected by such vicissitudes.
With continued practice, the impact of the unconscious influences residing within us is reduced. What emerges are our higher, spiritual qualities. We come to embody feelings of love, joy, profound inner peace, and a giving heart. The light that radiates from our luminous soul is far greater than the darkness cast by our shadow. We come to live in this spiritual light, which is the ultimate remedy to counteract and transcend our shadow self.