One of the terms that seems to be terribly popular in pagan circles these days is the notion of “shadow work.”
Like a lot of Craft terms that get popularized into becoming a sort of Witchy Chic, “shadow work” sounds super mysterious and cool, like something that John Constantine does in a comic book. And if you’ve been doing the Craft more than a minute, you know that shadow work is an important part of walking your path. As is often the case when serious Craft practices become part of the more popular vernacular, a lot of misapprehension ensues.
So let’s get a few things straight right out of the gate here:
No, doing “shadow work” is not something that witches only do once they’ve reached some kind of elite status.
No, doing “shadow work” does not mean you are exploring dark and evil magic.
No, doing “shadow work” is not about embracing your inner asshole.
Shadow work is really about the recognition that all of us as human beings have our issues. Whether it’s fallout from past or even ongoing traumas, or character traits and biases that have developed over time that end up damaging our ability to be effective in one or more areas of our life, none of us is perfect. Anyone who pretends that there’s nothing they’re struggling with in some way is probably lying to you. The path of the witch is one of continual learning, and sooner or later your path or your gods will demand that you address the darker elements of your soul if you wish to continue making progress. This is what we mean when we talk of “shadow work.”
There is nothing glamorous or sexy about shadow work. As a matter of fact, it’s quite painful, and has the power to shatter you completely. As I have discussed in the past, your shadow self is your unacknowledged darkness, and if you don’t grapple with it in a conscious and deliberate way it will take ahold of you subconsciously. Your shadow self is not your enemy, it’s a legitimate part of who you are. Your shadow self is actually a source of great power. But that doesn’t mean it should be allowed to run rampant through your life, knocking things over and corrupting your relationships and your endeavors. Sooner or later, you must confront that shadow self, and give it its proper place in your integrated self.
It’s grueling work that requires relentless honesty, a willingness to root around in your more painful memories and experiences, and a metric fuckton of compassion, for yourself and for others. It often involves magical techniques that assist with the process of identifying, unpacking, processing, healing and ultimately integrating the shadow self more productively into your life and your personal narrative. It is not safe work. You will learn things about yourself and people you love that you don’t like. You will have to break things in order to put them back together again. You will have lots of moments where you wonder why you ever tried to do this thing, because you really can’t tell whether you’re going to get to the other side of this gaping maw you’ve opened up in your life. And which threatens to swallow you whole. You are going to begin the process not knowing how its going to finish or if you’ll even be successful. You’ll spend a lot of time living in a state of ambiguity and learning how to be okay with that until things become clearer. That isn’t easy.
It also never stops. The truth is that you’ll be doing shadow work for the rest of your life. Because that whole thing about integrating your shadow self? It’s an ongoing process. You’ll do some of it now, experience a modicum of success, and then three years later something will happen and you’ll figure out that there’s still some stuff you haven’t worked out. There was a point in my past where I pretty much took a wrecking ball to my whole life. I did a lot of shadow work then. And again a few years after that. And even now, I am still finding some things that are remnants of unfinished business from the work I did in the time of the wrecking ball.
America has spent the last year in a reckoning that has exposed the shadow side of our body politic. And it runs deep. Whether it’s the long deep roots of systemic racism that literally built the nation finally being exposed in white culture in a substantive way, or the acknowledgement that we are a deeply divided nation that increasingly lives in two different realities, or grappling with a pandemic that not only has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, but has exposed the economic disparities between workers who are secure enough to insulate themselves from exposure, and workers whose jobs not only place them at risk of contracting the coronavirus, but are at risk of elimination when the coronavirus harms the economy. To put it in the vernacular, we don’t just have issues here in the good old U S of A — we have subscriptions.
It’s time for us to do the shadow work of the body politic. But what does that even mean? How do you do it? How do we do it when not everyone can agree on what our shadow side consists of, or seems interested in addressing it as a collective? How do you bring relentless honesty to bear when you can’t even agree upon basic facts? How do you have compassion for someone who seems incapable of acknowledging that you are as human as they are and therefore entitled to the same rights as them? How do you revisit painful memories and past events if you don’t actually agree on what those painful memories are?
I clearly have a lot more questions than answers. I also know that we can’t really afford to ignore the work we have before us. Darkness left to its own devices, will only grow stronger. We need to face our shadow self as a nation. And I can’t tell you how that process will turn out. But I do know this — America needs those of us who understand what shadow work is and how to do it to step up and be ready to help shepherd this work as it unfolds.
West Wing fans will remember the story of the hole told by the character of Leo McGarry, and it applies here. A man falls into a hole. He shouts for help. A doctor comes by, and the man in the hole asks him for help. The doctor writes a prescription and throws it into the hole, and goes on his way. A priest comes by, and the man in the hole asks him for help. The priest throws a prayer into the hole and goes on his way. A friend comes by, and the man asks his friend for help. He jumps into the hole. The man says, “Well, that was stupid of you, because now we’re both stuck here.” The friend says, “Yes, but I’ve been in this hole before, and I can help you find the way out.”
There are more questions than answers. And the prospect of what we’ll find as we start rooting around in our shadow self as a nation is daunting. We’re going to have to start on this path together, knowing we need to go somewhere, and yet having no idea where we will end up. I don’t know how this will turn out. I only know that having done shadow work before, that if you commit to the path, eventually, you get someplace better.