These three terms are often used in conflated ways, especially by those in the realm of spiritual development. One of the reasons people feel some resistance to doing their shadow work is because of this confusion. This paper is an attempt to tease these distinctions apart and differentiate them in the interest of more loving integration in our individual and collective lives.
The polarity of light and dark has been most frequently associated with a vertical scale. The ‘light’ energies are defined as more spiritual and subtle, therefore ‘higher’ while the ‘dark’ energies are gross, material and lower. Hence dark is associated with the underworld, the dark side of the moon, and all places where the light does not shine.
As light has been associated since the renaissance with the development of consciousness then darkness has been associated with the unconscious, instinct and ignorance. Further, the dark has been demonized by adding the dimension of willful resistance to the light. In New Age spiritual circles we have ‘lightworkers’ battling against the ‘dark brothers’. The distinction is clear – light = good, dark = bad.
However whenever we favour one polarity at the expense of the other there is a price and a shadow. Dark is the colour of the earth and of the soil. There is a deeply nourishing and grounding dark, as necessary to feed the roots of the human tree as the light is to grow its leaves. We need soil and soul.
Soul was associated with the sun, Sol and all that is light. The sun has its own sun however – a centre which it circles and this ‘higher’ centre is dark – the black hole at the core of the galaxy. In spirituality this represents the void or emptiness which is the ultimate goal of traditions like zen and tantric Buddhism. In Christianity the Son ( Sun )must go to the Father ( pure spirit). This void is not the absence of light but its source. Spirit is as dark as matter and the soul, or light, burns brightly between - and because of - them both.
The dark is also a source of great power. Our modern solar civilization has made an asset of knowing, of reason, science, law and order. We fear and are fascinated by the erotic upwellings of the dark as well as the descent of the void, the mystery, because both of them are chaotic and threaten the sense of self, the ego. While we are still developing a sense of self then we keep the dark at bay. However when the self has been developed and is ready to transform then it is the dark in its higher and lower expressions that we need. From the dark comes the dragon fire which will burn away the old self and fuse a new one in the crucible of our lives. And the powers of the dark are largely in our collective shadow which means we are possessed by them unconsciously, creating a very materialistic world inspite of our attempts to transcend it.
Shadow is caused by a source of light shining on an object. Without the object there would be no shadow. Psychologically speaking, the object is an ‘I’, an identity, and where there is an identity - a self-concept - there is a shadow. This capacity for pure awareness to become identified with a particular body/mind ( and an internalized concept about that ) is what generates a ‘self’ – a separate identity. If I identify as a ‘man’ because I am in a male body then my inherent feminine qualities may enter my shadow. If I am identified as being a spiritual person, then my materiality and my selfishness will be gradually confined to my shadow. Alternatively if I think of myself as a pragmatic scientist then my imagination and intuition may be repressed. A career criminal will likely put their compassion and conscience in the shadow and so forth.
As soon as we form a self-concept we are limiting the potential of our boundless awareness, creating an object and inevitably a shadow. For most people by midlife the personal self has been well developed and so the shadow is also well defined.The identity has become crystallised and often feels limiting so that the work of ‘integrating the shadow’ brings more energy and a more balanced life. It also brings humility and compassion as we realize that we are also the ‘other’ we have denied or projected out. This phenomena of ‘projecting’ is important to understand when doing shadow work. When we repress aspects of our own nature, they are energies and these energies won't just stay quiet. They eventually cause upwellings from our unconscious or they are projected onto others in order to get our attention. If I have repressed my rage for example I may find myself very judgemental of people who express anger and may even call forth angry displays from those around me in order to reinforce my ‘belief’ that anger needs to be repressed.
While it follows that the dark and the shadow are related as both are often defined in relation to light, they are not the same thing. The shadow needs light to exist. Darkness doesn’t . The dark may be in the shadow but the shadow does not exist in the dark. It is also important to remember that aspects of our light are mixed in to our shadow. We don’t only repress our negative qualities but also our positive ones. The term ‘golden shadow’ applies to those parts of ourselves that we haven’t yet been able to acknowledge and that we project on others. For example idolizing a rock star or a spiritual teacher. Romantic love is also often associated with this projection of our unintegrated ‘other half’. Families, countries and civilisations also have shadow ( including golden shadow ) depending upon where their chosen values lie. This is collective shadow.
Good and Evil are polarites that have to do with assessment and the health of the whole. First there is the mental realm of judgement. At its best this is the field of morals and ethics. At worst it is fundamentalism, projection of shadow and prejudice. There is a subjective component ( evil is in the eye ofthe beholder ) and a relatively objective component ( what has been proven to serve the greater good over time ). The mental realm primarily concerns itself with assessment and discernment. In the biblical garden of eden there were two trees – The tree of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. When we eat from the first tree we use our minds to decide. The Tree of Life however utilizes the heart. The heart also needs to be developed through love as a centre of assessment but when the development is done, the heart serves as our guide in moving towards that which is life affirming and away from that which is life denying or inhibiting. This polarity is not good vs bad but more Life vs less life. 'Evil' is 'Live' backwards and evil in this sense is like a reversed current in the flow of the life force that ultimately serves to strengthen it. Life has a directional unfoldment through time and space, whether we call that God/Godess, evolution or creation. Life unfolds itself bringing Being into Becoming. Death is not the opposite of this Life but an inherent part of the cyclic process of the unfolding, so death is not evil. What is evil is entirely situational which is why the heart must be used as the guide and not just the mind. The mind likes to classify behaviours, ideas and worldviews. The heart instinctively knows what is life affirming in any circumstance. For example, resisting or prolonging the process of dying may sometimes be life affirming and other times life denying. Repressing anger in some circumstances may be healthy but making a pattern of it so that it internalizes and causes disease is unhealthy. Going to war may be a very ineffective way of supporting evolution but it may also be the life affirming act in a given set of circumstances. Giving up one’s own life for the sake of the collective may serve the good of the whole or it may be a wasted martyrdom to a belief. Only the heart can tell because the heart connects us to the centre of our own being and therefore the centre of all beings where life continues to unfold its mystery. The heart connects us to the wisdom of both the light and the dark.
Darkness, Shadow and Evil have coalesced in the minds of many because of the way civilization has progressed in the last couple of thousand years. In general what has been put into the collective shadow is the dark, the feminine and death. Emphasising one half of a duality can be life enhancing if it is developing needed qualities and capacities but can become ‘evil’ if it becomes entrenched as an absolute. So labeling the ‘left’ as ‘sinister’ in latin gives it an absolute quality. It is not just the unpreferenced hand but now the evil one. When we value masculine qualities like goal oriented achievement,competition and reasoned consciousness at the expense of the feminine qualities of compassion, cooperation and intuition they fall into the shadow. When we make menstrual blood biblically unclean we cut ourselves off from its life giving power and generations of women off from their dignity. When we value life as the opposite of death we avoid/ deny death and project/ export it in the arms trade so that is happening ‘over there’ and we need more security to protect against it.
Christianity also made our pagan roots ‘wrong’ and emphasized the move away from our embodiment, our sexuality and our earthiness – so that we could seek greater enlightenment and consciousness. But when the depths, the dark is labeled ‘evil’ people get gripped in a kind of superstitious aversion to the very thing that they need for balance. When God is in heaven and the Devil is in the core of the earth we keep trying to rise up. The result is most of live in sterile concrete and steel environments disconnected from our wild nature, inside and out, afraid of death and unable to truly Live.
The very place we need to go for nourishment, grounding and restoration has been forbidden us by collective edict. Going down has become evil. We can climb to the top of the mountain but we can't get back down unless we break the fundamental rule. This literal association of evil with a direction, belief, gender, race, religion worldview or any ‘thing’ is the basis of fundamentalism.
Even in the Christian story, after Jesus was crucified on the cross he went to hell for three days – to take back his power from the devil. This is classic shadow reclamation. At a certain point in our development our disowned power lies in that which we have cast away and demonised, our own individual or collective Devil. To reclaim it we need to go looking in our shadow - everything we have defined ourselves as ‘not being. In this way the “I’, our central identity, is humbled and contextualized, bringing it more actual power because it is not inflated with artificial aggrandisement.
The ego of humanity, developed particularly over the last two thousand years of monotheistic religion and shored up in its solar glory through repression of the dark is now desperately in need of shadow work. We see this process happening everywhere and if we are to avoid revolution then we need integration. The marginalised, disowned, dispossessed parts of humanity and the planet in general will no longer lay quiet and buy the belief that they will eventually participate in the great western consumer dream. It is obvious to everyone that the ego of humanity is rampant and is no longer a healthy part of the ecosystem we call earth. Transformation is not only desired but mandatory. Ironically it is the embrace of the dark in both its higher and lower aspects that we need and the refusal to embrace it is what is generating resistance to the healthy flow of the life current. The higher dark of the void or emptiness is the tantric goal of the transcendent traditions. This breaks down egocentricity, the narcissism of the ‘I’. It humbles us by showing us our place in the cosmic scheme of things. The lower dark is the nourishing depths, a healthy connection to our bodies, our sexuality and the environment. This ‘earth’s the electricity of our awakening and grounds us in the day to day reality of living as adaptable and yet vulnerable biological beings in a fragile and beautifully balanced bio system. By decoupling the dark, and the shadow from ‘evil’ we open ourselves to transformation.
The superstitious fear of evil is like those signs on ancient maps that defined the edge of the known world - “ Here be Dragons “. That fear is enough to stop most people from going crossing over the boundaries of so called civilisation but the signs were an encouragement to the pioneers, the adventurers and the courageous. It is just that courageous and adventuring spirit that humanity as a whole needs right now.
Darkness is not evil. Yet our fear of the dark may prove to be. Shadow is not evil. Facing and integrating our collective shadow when our very life on this exquisite planet demands and depends upon it. Well, that’s an initiation into a new world.