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Our Shadows

A review of 3 excellent books

Book cover
Owning Your Own Shadow
by Robert A. Johnson
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For a long time we have been told to develop our gentle, feminine side. Now Robert Bly tells us to let loose the fierceness of the Wild Man. Women are afraid that this will result in violent anger. So are some of us. We are afraid of what we might unleash. We are afraid of our own Shadows.

Yet it is only when we own, rather than repress, our shadow side that we can become whole. When we recognize our shadow, when we bring it into the light of day, it loses its control over us. After all, it is a part of us, no matter how much we deny it and no matter how painful it is to look at it. When we do this, we can then show our fierceness and our anger in non-threatening and non-harmful ways. This is the theme of three recent books.

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991)(order on-line)

Robert A. Johnson, author of He, She, We, and Transformation, explores the issue of getting in touch with our shadow side in this fast-reading and captivating book. The process of civilization involves suppressing into our shadow side those traits and patterns that are not culturally acceptable. This sorting process is quite arbitrary. Individualism, for instance, is a great virtue in some societies and the greatest sin in others. But this sorting process is two-edged -- some of the pure gold of our personalities is relegated to the shadow because it can find no place in the great levelling process that is culture. Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides.

Johnson observes that we devote the first half of our lives to the cultural process -- gaining one's skills, raising a family, earning a living. In the second half we work to restore the wholeness - making holy - of life. Theologians point out that the word "religion" stems from rejoining, reunion. To Johnson, the process of re-joining with our shadow side is a religious experience. In a sense I wish he had used the term "spiritual." When we join together in sweat lodges, go on vision quests, or delve into the mythopoetic side of the "men's movement" we are delving into the spiritual dimension. But some are put off by anything labeled religious, while others restrict the term "religion" to a narrow set of Christian doctrines. In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell quotes Jung as saying that religion is the greatest barrier to spirituality. But religion is particularly apt word for the process Johnson describes.

Johnson points out that no one can escape the dark side of life, but we can "pay out" that dark side intelligently. The dark side will come out, whether we want it to or not. Johnson provides examples of some rituals for honoring the dark side. To honor it is to prevent it from blowing up in our faces -- for example, when we unwittingly take it out on other people.

In this book Johnson departs from his usual motif of weaving his insights around a myth or a set of characters from literature. With his lively and incisive writing style, the omission is not a loss. The concepts are simply and convincingly explained. Johnson calls this his most important book to date. My wife Bernetta and I both agree.

Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams (ed.), Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1991) (A New Consciousness Reader)(order on-line)

If Robert Johnson's Owning Your Own Shadow piques your interest in this topic and you want to explore the topic in depth, this book is the book for you. It is part of the Jeremy P. Tarcher "New Consciousness" series, as is Keith Thompson's excellent reader To Be a Man, reviewed in an earlier column. The articles in this book offer a comprehensive review of the shadow side in our lives.

The authors include such well-known names as Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly, M. Scott Peck, James Hillman, John Bradshaw, Sam Keen, Rollo May, and C.G. Jung. Some of the articles are excerpts from important, definitive works by Jungian analysts. But the fact that they are important does not make them enjoyable or easily understood. The anthology presents many other articles that are fun and fascinating reading.

There is an interesting piece on the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other articles challenge many of our standard beliefs. Brother David Steindl-Ross points out that, in contrast to other religions, Christianity has not done particularly well in cultivating a practical method for integrating the shadow. An article on the devil begins:

To hear him tell it, he quit his job and resigned from heaven. He said he deserved a better break; he felt he should have been given a raise and more authority. But that isn't the way others report the story. According to most accounts, Satan was fired. His sin, they say, was arrogance and pride. He had an overbearing nature, too much ambition, and an inflated sense of his own worth. Nevertheless, he had considerable charm and influence. ... But this strange beast within, which we project into the Devil is, after all, Lucifer the Light Bringer. He is an angel - albeit a fallen one - and as such he is a messenger from God. It behooves us to get acquainted with him.

Another author reacts to what he calls "New Age Fundamentalism:"

I went last night, as I have so many other nights, to one of these wondrous New Age gatherings. And I don't think I can take it anymore. I get sick. I must escape the torture of being blessed to death during evenings such as this. There is something frighteningly unreal about them that I can't quite put my finger on. All I know is that afterwards I want to scream profanities, drink whiskey out of a bottle, go to sleazy blues joints, and chase wild, wild women.

What is so maddening about the New Age Fundamentalists is that their judgments and moralizing are hidden behind facades of New Age doctrines that they represent the forces of light and goodness, while everyone else is duped by forces of evil.

This is not a book one would read from cover to cover. It is a fascinating book to pick up and read from time to time. I have been doing this for a month, and I am continually making new discoveries.

Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, Inc., 1988)(order on-line)

Robert Bly needs no introduction to this audience as a spokesman for the "men's movement," through Iron John and through what the San Francisco Examiner in a recent article disparagingly characterized as being "electronically canonized by Bill Moyers." We tend to forget that Mr. Bly is first a poet and dreamer of visions, and only then a spokesman on men's issues. A Little Book on the Human Shadow comes out of Mr. Bly's broader perspective.

He offers a powerful analogy on the role the shadow plays in our lives. We spend the first twenty years of our lives stuffing parts of our personality into a big bag that hangs behind our shoulders. Like Johnson, Bly states that we put the best and most creative parts of our personality in this bag in an effort to conform to society's norms. By the time we reach adulthood, the bag may be two or three miles long. We drag it behind us. We then spend the rest of our lives trying to retrieve our true selves out of this bag. Communities and nations have their own bags they drag behind them: the bag behind Bly's small Minnesota hometown in quite different from that dragging behind a Greek village.

The energies that we retrieve later in life are violent and enraged beasts when they first emerge. You would be, too, if you were stuffed into a deep, dark bag for twenty years. But all they demand is to be accepted for what they are, a part of yourself. Once this is done, they lose their demonic power and lend constructive energy to your own process.

One of the suggestions Bly has for overcoming the shadow's influence is "eating the shadow." This is a process of retrieving our projections of our own shadows onto others and lessening the length of the bag we drag behind us. One way is through the use of careful language -- language that is accurate and that has a physical base. Energy we have sent out is floating about beyond the psyche, and one way of pulling it back into the psyche is by the rope of language. Language contains retrieved shadow substance of all our ancestors. If language does not feel appropriate, then try painting, sculpture, or making images with watercolors. Every bit of our own shadow energy that we don't capture through language, art, poetry, or music remains floating somewhere in the air above the United States, where it can be picked up by politicians against Russia, China, Middle Eastern countries, or South American nations.

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