Speaking of Shadows

Insight arrives in curious ways sometimes.

Recently, during one of my very limited online windows of computer and social media time, I responded to a ‘friend request’ on Facebook, a friend of a fellow writer//journalist/poet that I follow and respect. The woman who reached out to me is a powerful, evocative writer herself, a fiercely courageous soul who bleeds words, ink and poetry onto the page to conjure a deep healing of self and soul.

Reading some of her recent work, including a tough, angry, but ultimately compassionate piece called “Healing the Mother Wound,” my breath was tight in my chest, gripped by the fist of a truth teller. The kind that looks deep into your eyes with a jagged, bone-handled knife held to your pulsing jugular, and won’t let you go until you meet them fully in that undefended place of naked surrender.

Curiously, in a moment of comparison, I felt that my own writing in this journal was somehow superficial or lacking in emotional weight. (Admittedly, sometimes it is.) Yet in my brief, online exchange with this lioness of raw words, I realized that I have made a deliberate choice to offer nourishment, and to turn my vision and voice towards healing rather than heartbreak.

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Roman tunnel in Provence

I am no stranger to shadows. My adoptive mother, Suzanne, was a Jungian therapist, and conversations about archetypes, psychological wounds, the collective unconscious, dreams, and “shadow work” colored my California upbringing. She died when I was in my early twenties, and in the long, formative years since then, I have wished uncountable times that we could simply sit and talk about such depths now, after my own dark journeys and work with clients for two decades.

My birth mother, Katherine, whom I met in my thirties, along with her sister, the gently radical lesbian author, Celeste West, both took their lives, thus mirroring, if in different ways, their own father before them.

For as long as I can remember, I have wrestled with the dark demon of depression, fighting some invisible blood-family spirit. That I have managed to not be fully beaten in this match, I mostly owe to diligence with diet, exercise, spending time in nature, living my “dharma” through writing and healing work (my own and with clients), and an ongoing commitment to the creative soul. That said, there has been help from angels, both human and other, along with an ongoing, golden thread of mysterious grace. 

In my soul-based work with clients, whether on the bodywork table or in group format workshops and wilderness settings, my role has largely been to lead others into and out from soulful darkness … and helping them discover their own light. The abyss almost always hides and holds our deepest healing, something I have written extensively about in the chapter “Myth, Shadows and Light” in my recent book. Indeed, Soul Skill #4 in The Bones and Breath is “Face Your Shadow,” and its accompanying embodiment exercise is “Meet the Dark.” 

Yes, much of my work this past decade has involved working with shadows. And whether as a healer, an Underworld guide, or a consciousness scout, one can only lead someone else as far along the trail as he or she has traveled themselves.

It is powerful, shattering, and necessary work, this meeting our demons in the dark night or tangled wood. The slow and often painful process of uncovering wounds and finding the mysterious gifts of them, there is no shortcut or quick fix. And shadows cannot simply be wished away, ignored, or transcended by reaching for the light instead. 

Repeatedly, I write and say that there are some gifts, like the luminous pearl of moon, that can only be found in darkness. Similarly, the Welsh-born poet David Whyte in his poem “The Well of Grief” tells us:

Those who will not slip beneath

the still surface on the well of grief

 

turning down through its black water

to the place we cannot breathe

 

will never know the source from which we drink,

the secret water, cold and clear,

 

nor find in the darkness glimmering

the small round coins

thrown by those who wished for something else.

Sometimes, if we cannot find the trail or climb over the mountain, we have to tunnel under it, and it is a dark, cold journey. The shadows of night, earth and psyche can consume us utterly, our hands bloodied by groping along the passage in blackness, and we may think that we will never reemerge to daylight. At such moments, toppled headfirst into the depths, often what we most need is another’s light or their hand in ours.

The Well of Grief. The Holy Well. The sacred and profane are merely two sides of the same coin.

My heart tender after reading Leslie Caplan’s compelling work, and chatting just briefly with her online, I realized that my writing in this journal is not an avoidance of shadows but rather a conscious desire to create expansion and opening in the bodysoul. Perspective, perhaps. The practice of yoga has a concept of ‘pose and counterpose’; for each asana, there is an opposite and balancing posture with breath. Certainly there is heart-rending hardship and pain on our journeys — an essential, fecund, and devouring darkness — and yet what I wish to offer is nourishment, especially for the blind passages.

I want to send you a gentle breath. Or serve a warming meal by candlelight. I am the hand in the center of your back, the smoothly polished green stone placed into the palm to wish upon. 

moonLast night I sat outside on the deck’s steps, a favorite French scarf wrapped around my neck, watching the full moon seemingly rise to be held by the lacy dark fingers of trees. Bare soles on the cool bricks, my senses cast wide, l listened to the low chant of the sea rumbling in the distance and inhaled the sweetly intoxicating perfume of the nearby jasmine. Everywhere the night’s darkness was bathed in a cool, silvery moonglow and, in my usual way, I reached out with my heart’s field to touch and appreciate the ones I share this patch of earth with: rosebush, camellia, Grandmother cypress, jasmine, geranium, plum tree, lavender, rosemary, night bird, bats … and spirits.

Eat your shadow, allow it to consume and transform you, breaking you open from the inside out. For only when we have cracked wide or shattered do we emerge from the tight shell of containment into something much larger and far more beautiful. Only then do we discover our true shape, and that those appendages that have been pressed so tightly against our ribs are actually wings.

Like a lemniscate or figure 8, the descent into psyche, shadow and lower chakras reaches its nadir and then becomes the upward spiral of spirit, illumination and upper chakras, which then turns and descends again. The path of balance and wholeness is to not remain solely on either side, blind to the other, but to realize that the point where those paths cross over and become the same is in the heart.

Come darkness, come light. We each have our unique gifts to bring to the world. Here, my friend, is that small lantern in the lonely, cold night; a voice each week celebrating those little human moments of beauty, the ones we might string together to form a necklace or amulet of diamonds and stars. Remember that when we open to possibility, possibility opens … even in the Underworld. And just like the hand, the heart must be open for something of beauty to be placed gently within it.

Now, go into the dark and discover your own light — you’ll find it next to your deepest wound. 

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