Shadow-work: integrity for activists

I spent many years in my 20s as an environmental activist. That included closing down roads in London to throw a big street party, setting up camp in the woods to prevent a road being built through them and being politically active in the Green Party. They were years full of excitement, camaraderie and fun. At some point though I started to feel some discomfort at apparent hypocrisy that I was experiencing in parts of the movement. There was always much talk of inclusivity, respect and love, but the in-fighting was often bitter and anyone who didn’t agree with your point of view was demonized as being a bad person.

It was at that moment that I came across Ken Wilber’s work and Integral Life Practice. It made me realise that the world we create around us is intrinsically related to our inner reality and the quality of consciousness that we bring to our interactions with the world around us. This meant that if we were acting from hurt, anger or irritation in ourselves then we were likely to create a divisive reality around us. I learnt that our ability to generate wholeness and harmony in society is dependent on the amount of wholeness and harmony we have in ourselves.

I discovered that any irritation I felt in myself was not just about a problem with another person or something that was happening in the world around me, but also pointed to something that I hadn’t been able to integrate in myself. It is always two-way. Our shadow is the part of us that is normally hidden from our everyday awareness. In the journey through our lives we make important transitions from one phase of life to another phase of life. We experience all sorts of major events that impact us significantly whether we are aware of it or not. Some of those experiences are positive but some also impact us negatively.

We deal with the traumatic experiences that we cannot immediately handle or process by hiding them away in our subconscious, by splitting off that part of ourselves. The problem is that these shadow parts of ourselves do not just sit quietly in the background waiting for us to circle back and embrace them. They keep tugging at our sleeve trying to attract our attention through these feelings of hurt, anger and irritation. When they surface in our everyday interactions we are often surprised by them and have no idea where they come from. Suddenly we seem to be triggered by something and a part of ourselves surfaces that we wouldn’t normally identify with. Where did that come from?!

Furthermore, the more we push them away and try to ignore them, the louder they become in their attempts to attract our attention. What that part of ourselves is really wanting us to do is to give it attention, to see it, recognise it, and acknowledge it as part of who we actually are. It is actually that very process of recognition that helps the blocked energy to start to transform and reintegrate into our conscious lives in a positive and constructive way. We don’t need to try to change it, we really just need to be able to see it, greet it and allow it to decompress and find its way back into our being.

The trouble is that it is very hard for us, by definition, to see those hidden shadow dimensions by ourselves.  We usually need somebody else to act as a mirror and direct our attention to those dark behaviours and Shadowlands hidden deep in our subconscious. It is of course neither easy nor pleasant to face pain from the past. I know that I have often found many an excuse to avoid addressing some of those deeper traumas. And yet I have learnt over the years that engaging the shadow releases energy that is otherwise holding me back and preventing me from fulfilling my highest potential.

“The brighter the light, the greater the shadow.”

For those of us engaged in major projects to attempt to shift human society from its current suicidal trajectory, the shadow challenge is even greater. The brighter the light, the greater the shadow. The more noble our purpose and the higher the consciousness that we are trying to reach in order to bring more insight and compassion into the world, the deeper we are going to have to go into the dark depths of our subconscious in order to transform any shadow energy that is being held there into the power that we need to make that difference.

I discovered a couple of years ago that the words “pain” and “passion” share the same root. It made sense to me. Often we are most passionate about the things that somewhere we feel greatest anger or sadness about. That in itself is not a bad thing. It only becomes destructive if we remain unconscious of the pain we are holding as we attempt to channel our passion into positive change in the world.

None of us are likely to completely redeem our shadow in this lifetime. That doesn’t mean we should stop doing all we can to make a positive impact in the world. What it does mean is that we must become more conscious of our hidden hurt and work to reintegrate any parts of ourselves that we have tucked away so that we may have the energy, clarity and compassion to do work that comes from a place of wholeness and is therefore far more likely to contribute to a world of wholeness too.

See the earlier blogs on Self-Mastery and Mindfulness for related content.