As I look back through my dream journals I discover that 2005 was a particularly difficult year featuring five painful traumas. Nothing out of the ordinary; just things we all eventually experience: serious illness of a loved one, loss, disappointment, death of a beloved animal friend. During the day I tried to stay calm, reasonable and balanced. At night, in a striking visual and emotional language, my dreams dramatized the rest of the story beneath my ordinary awareness: uncomfortable emotions like resentment, guilt and self-pity, ignoble thoughts like judgment and blame, and my old nemesis: soul-killing self-criticism.
Of course, there were times when my perception of the meaning of a dream added briefly to my discomfort; but, overall, knowing what was going on in my unconscious made me feel markedly better. Seeing a disowned quality in a dream enabled me to choose not to act on it in waking life, and the seeing and choosing were enormously self-validating. As I watched myself behaving with more self-awareness, acceptance, and self-control my heart swelled with pleasure. Unlike addictive substances which dull our pain, self-knowledge does not help us escape the reality of suffering, but simply expands our capacity for fully experiencing our lives so we can feel hope and joy even in the midst of grief. This is the blessing side of the double-edged sword of consciousness: joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.
The Western world does not recognize the shadow (everything we disown about ourselves) as being a natural part of every individual. Most of us are willing to admit to certain flaws, but for every one we bring to the light there are others of which we have no conscious knowledge. We can easily see our most despised qualities in others, and are usually only too happy to point them out, but rarely can we admit to their presence in ourselves.
This is not just psychologically ignorant, but dangerous. Our inability to understand and accept our personal and cultural shadows is the reason for our prejudices, hypocrisy, thoughtless and cruel behavior, broken relationships, crime, genocide, imperialism, war, and wanton pillaging and destruction of our precious Mother Earth. The only lasting contribution I as an individual can make to world health and planetary peace is to know my own shadow well enough to restrain it without projecting more darkness into a world that already has enough to destroy us all.
Carl Jung taught that a whole person is one who sees and accepts full responsibility for both the light and the dark within. He said, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”
And as one of my mentors, Jungian Robert Johnson , has written in his brilliant little book, Owning Your Own Shadow, “To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place — an inner center — not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one’s own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life.”
To help you understand why this is so, in future posts I will occasionally share insights my dreams have provided about my shadow. I hope my willingness to face and discuss uncomfortable issues about myself will encourage you to be more courageous and compassionate with yourself as you conduct your own self-explorations.
Owning our shadows is a spiritual practice, an initiatory rite that activates compassion, ethical behavior, psychological wholeness and enlightened consciousness. Our dreams are our guides on this healing, holy Way. It is no accident they occur at night. One cannot move into the light without first passing through darkness.
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave