Shadows and Healing

Shadows and Healing

Outside my window, the branches of a coconut palm sway in a warm, coastal breeze like graceful, serrated green fans. 

For the past two weeks I have been in Honolulu, helping my mate prepare for the 36th annual Hawaii International Film Festival, in his role as Executive Director. Here in the islands, as I sit and gaze at the azure waters of the Pacific, autumn on the mainland with its cool air and falling, painted leaves, seems a world away, like something from a book or a movie. And yet as removed from the world as this emerald archipelago generally feels, even here the US presidential election and its aftermath weighs like a heavy cloud or shadow.

Indeed, “shadow” seems an appropriate word in many ways, as the repressed elements of America’s collective consciousness—a tsunami of anger, fear, racism, bigotry and greed—now rush forward and sweep onto the national stage. For two days following the election, I chose to abstain from any media news feed. My only exception was Facebook, where I briefly glanced at some of my friends’ posts, and selectively read a few insightful and inspiring pieces by people whom I admire or “follow” (or that my friends “follow” and have shared). And “shadow” was used in nearly all the posts I encountered.


Rarely do I speak or write about anything overtly political, and I refrain from posting my political views or opinions (which are decidedly “green,” progressive, and earth-centric) on social media. Partly this is because I think politics, in general, is reductionist; us versus them, red versus blue, Democrat against Republican, or Conservative versus Labour versus Green, etc.. While it is convenient to use such labels, what we are actually witnessing and attempting to describe is the interplay (and conflict) of differing levels of the intersubjective agreements we might call “worldviews,” which reflect a framework of value systems applied to sociocultural evolution.

Cultures evolve through a distinct set of stages, from lower to higher, as the societies and individuals evolve and integrate within them; each set of values is a response to solving the problems of the previous stage. On a level of politics, people will embrace a party or group that reflects their worldview’s particular level of development. The inherent challenge is that we cannot understand or grasp a reality or worldview more evolved or expansive than our own current level. Until our own circle of identity shifts (say from “egocentric” to “ethnocentric,” or to “nature or world-centric”), we simply haven’t the capacity to embrace more expansive worldviews than our current one. It is literally beyond us.

As I wrote in a post a few weeks ago: “In certain respects, our personal growth resembles rings of a tree; we become larger and more expansive than younger versions of ourselves, still containing those smaller circumferences but also exceeding them. At each stage, we may or may not even acknowledge that we are growing, and we don’t yet perceive the wider, larger Self and worldview that we will later embody. We might look back and detect the earlier phases and versions passed through and outgrown, but not yet the larger ones to come.”

Hence, a tribal culture in Afghanistan or traditional society in Iraq cannot leap ahead to a democracy; there are several evolutionary stages that must be navigated and passed through first, both on individual and collective levels. Closer to home, the Conservatives simply cannot understand most Democrats or progressives—let alone the Greens—because their worldview has not yet expanded to the wider, more inclusive circles of identity.

In a nuclear age and time of global shift, of course it matters who holds the reins of a country, but ultimately each of us must look within to find and create the change we seek. Amid the collective despair of the moment, we can easily become fixated on the idea that America’s national election is the most compelling and urgent story, especially for those of us who care deeply about human rights, the planet, and all its denizens. Yet the Larger Story of our collective evolution is bigger than this—much bigger—and rather than looking for salvation in a leader (or anyone else), the most transforming journey remains an inner, spiritual one. When our personal growth progresses and unfurls—very often through a soul crisis—it becomes transpersonal; collectively, our individual evolution (which MUST include “shadow work” and facing the demons in our inner darkness) also realigns the cultural worldview, nudging it slowly along the upward spiral. Too slowly, it seems.

Opinions of politics and evolution aside, I believe that most of modern Western culture, particularly America, suffers from a deep soul sickness. Evidenced by our addiction to money and technology, along with a pervasive ennui and lack of meaning in life, it is caused in considerable part by an absence of the sacred, alongside our pathological disconnection from what we might call wildness and Nature (despite that nature exists everywhere, right down to our cells and soul). An unwavering faith in science and “progress” has given us many answers and explanations, along with an increased comfort and ease, yet it has also robbed us of much of the magic and mystery that once underpinned human life, while turning the living world into merely an array of “resources” to be exploited.

Perhaps it seems overly simplistic to say that capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, and an extractive, corporate economy have resulted in the breakdown of society’s fabric, but many experts worldwide have persuasively argued exactly this view, and I am inclined to agree with them. Certainly it is nothing new for people to feel disenfranchised, ignored, powerless, angry, and disillusioned with their lot in life, and to express the related feelings as hate, bigotry, chauvinism, greed, or violence—acting out the lowest level of human behavior. Yet the fact that so many people are choosing to embrace such traits and expressions in order to espouse and support their “values,” reveals just how deep our collective Shadow really is. 


Mongolian shaman

Most indigenous, traditional people and cultures believe in the presence of spirits, and that malevolent ones can enter a person and take over in the form of “possession.” Traditional healers, medicine men, curanderos, and shamans use a variety of different methods for removing the foreign entity, employing spiritual or energetic measures as well as various plant medicines to literally purge the bad element from the body—as with ayahuasca ceremonies, where “la purga” (usually vomiting or diarrhea) caused by the medicine, constitutes an important part of the healing process.

On my own healing journey, I believe that the source of our woes is much more complex than simply evil spirits (though I know firsthand that they exist), pathogens, genes, incomplete psychological development, trauma, or energetic imbalance … or even politics. If only it were as easy as giving everyone a powerful emetic and/or purgative, or performing a “soul retrieval” or working with plant medicines, to restore us to some semblance of well-being and sanity.

Individually or culturally, there is no “cure” for our Shadow other than looking at what we have ignored, repressed or locked away as unacceptable. We must gaze truthfully into the mirror, accepting that the darkness or ignorance is not simply “them”—whomever we perceive those to be—for each of us is both darkness and light. As C.G. Jung commented when speaking of the Shadow, “I myself am the enemy that must be loved.”

Our society is very broken, rife with despair as its shadow runs amok. Yet as a healer and an “evolutionary”, I know it is only crisis that forces us to change, especially on a large scale. Evolution happens at the fringes, never in the status quo. We have only to look at nature, history, and the story of the cosmos to see that crisis is always the catalyst for previously inconceivable leaps forward in development. And this great upwelling of collective shadow, along with our impending crisis of climate change accompanied by the breakdown of globalization, may be the factors that push us past the tipping point into a necessary—and ultimately healing—shift.

In the meantime, millions of people currently find themselves in a state of shock and grief, both of which have real effects and repercussions on the bodysoul. Any overwhelming stimulus, especially one that seems potentially life-threatening, whether on an individual or world scale, triggers a traumatic response in our autonomic nervous system. As Americans now come to grips with a reality that was previously unimaginable, we must find ways to allow the trauma—for that is exactly what has happened for many—to discharge, unwind, and sequence through, so that it doesn’t remain frozen and held in the body. [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is actually previous trauma still held immobilized in the nervous system, and the right impetus or stimulus again triggers a well-patterned “fight or flight” response.]

Yet one of the ways we can begin to emerge from shock is to find appropriate ways to discharge the held energy in our nervous system. Crying might be a good start for accessing the grief, followed by exploring movement and sound, and seeking ways to put that grief (or outrage) into meaningful action. My “virtual” friend Ariana Saraha (whose hauntingly soulful music I’ve praised in a previous SAJ post, “The Wild Songstress: Daring to be Yourself”), recently wrote on FB and to her followers, “I will feel the grief and continue to sing, wail, drum, and pray for this great world, for this breathtakingly beautiful land, for indigenous people and their legacies of wisdom, for the scurrying-swimming-galloping-flitting-soaring-innocent things, for the humble ones who choose to serve rather than dominate, and for those who grieve in this time for the many, many pains of this world…” 

I find her words to be beautiful, insightful, and wise, for we can best help grief to heal if we actually allow it to move, rather than remaining held. And along with some form of embodied movement and sound, we can turn to Nature, for it is about the only thing big enough and “real” enough to hold the depths of sadness (or rage) as we work through to reclaim the heart of Love.


autumn-pathIndeed, Mother Earth is the larger story that holds and supports us all. Almost exactly a year ago, in a SAJ post called “Kneel and Kiss the Earth” I wrote: “Whenever I am out of sorts—blue, restless, unwell, disappointed—I need to touch the earth, feel it soft and yielding beneath my footsteps. Always it is the embrace that I must return to. Tell me what you love, it breathes voicelessly as the wind rustles the surrounding trees, and I will remind you who you are.” 

Just a week later, following the attacks in Paris, my heart heavy for a place that is dear to me, I shared: “It is good and right to shed tears for the world, I think, but may we weep also for its staggering beauty. Everywhere. And if you cannot find beauty in what surrounds you, go in search of it—or create it with your hands and heart, and then give it away selflessly. Freely. Madly. Even if it’s just a song. A poem. A story. Perhaps a garden. Or a simple supper for your beloved…” (from “A Heart Open to the World: Finding Beauty“)

Those words still hold true for me, perhaps even more today than when I penned them, now seeing America so bitterly divided. Friend, a larger story enfolds us than the headlines we see splashed across the newspapers or on TV,  and while surely these are challenging times, I continue to say that the path remains inward—into our shadows to unearth and embrace the heart of compassion and empathy, and to carry it back out into the world, offering what each of us may bring in service to something greater.

May the journey be a healing one. For all of us.

Blessed be.