Of all the transformation techniques, I can’t think of anything more powerful than facing one’s shadow. Sure, it sounds scary, but simply by acknowledging what's there, you can feel great relief. That's because it takes a huge amount of energy to suppress parts of ourselves we don't want to advertise, so once we're free to use that energy in other ways, it can bring about profound change, both mentally and physically.
When I saw that Ford Peck and Juna Mustad were holding a workshop on the topic, I thought, ‘wow, I can’t think of two people I’d trust more to lead me through such a healing experience.’ Both implicitly calm, compassionate and grounded, together they have decades of experience in various types of therapy, body and mind work, mindfulness and meditation (and for a more complete bio, check them out on our events page). So, in anticipation of their upcoming Shadow workshop at Sol Studios in Fairfax on Saturday, I asked them some questions to find out what’s in store:
SFY: First off, what is ‘The Shadow’?
JM: In my experience, shadow is that which is within us that we consistently turn away from, don’t want to acknowledge, and don’t want others to see in us. It can be a mixture of our maladaptive coping strategies, our reactivity, unexamined beliefs we have about ourselves like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t matter’. It can also be feelings like shame, undigested emotions, judgement, an inner critic, disowned power and strength - ie. things we see in other people that we’re not able to own in ourselves - anger, fear, guilt. We all have a shadow, and that’s why working with it in a group can be so transformative - because you’re not alone.
SFY: What inspired you to do this workshop?
FP: Shadow work is very powerful. Our goal is to make it simple to do this work, to give people steps they can take when they want to address something causing difficulty in their lives. Often, we tend to judge ourselves strongly [in these areas]. But judgement actually fixes these things in place. If we meet our shadow with a sense of compassion instead, there can actually be a gift, an insight, a latent power that’s not being expressed in a way that serves us well. It’s all about unlocking our own capacities through self-compassion and exploration.
JM: For me personally, it’s been an important topic for a few years now, in large part, because I did everything in my power to stay away from my shadow, and it didn’t really work out for me. For a long time, I thought personal growth meant getting rid of your shadow, but what I started to come to realize is true personal growth is about integrating our shadow, learning to love and accept ourselves. It all came to a head last winter with my husband wanting to exit our marriage because of some shadow parts I’d been unwilling to face. Finally, we decided to give our marriage another shot, and that meant both of us facing these aspects. The transformation that’s taken place since has been incredible. I led a workshop at Esalen a few months ago and I found that people weren’t necessarily familiar with the term ‘shadow’. People don’t talk about this topic enough, and I find it to be an important one.
SFY: Of course, facing the shadow doesn’t seem as fun as, say, making a gratitude list, but it’s SO transformative, and results are profound. Can you offer some words of encouragement to those of us who may feel overwhelmed by the idea of a workshop like this?
FP: It’s helpful to learn that there’s nothing that needs to be fixed or gotten rid of. There’s nothing that’s bad or wrong within us. And there can be a tremendous amount of relief that comes from acknowledging what’s present. So much effort often goes into trying to deny our shadow. So once you see it for what it is, the payoff can even be quite quick. I’ve been a teacher primarily in Yoga Nidra meditation for the last years, and I’ve really seen how every time I sit with my students, it’s a form of shadow work in that as soon as we settle into ourselves, in those first few moments, there’s often resistance, discomfort or tension that we hold in the body that we’re distracted from most of the time. Often, we must work through it to continue to sit. As we sit longer, though, there’s an opening as we draw through it, welcome all of it, and land in a reliable quality of well-being and develop a sense of trust. It’s well worth feeling whatever’s inside of us because then there’s this basic connection with ourselves that feels so good. Through the meditation work we do, we develop a sense of grounding, safety and stability within ourselves, first and foremost.
JM: People come who’ve done this work before, and some are brand new to it. I feel the work is so important because as a culture, we’re so conditioned to turn away from any discomfort or conflict. So it’s kind of a radical thing to support people to turn toward the uncomfortable. There’s a sense, in our culture, that if we turn toward our shadow, we may feel consumed by it. But if you look at what’s happening in the world today, you’ll recognize that if we don’t start to face our shadow and get to know it, that’s actually how it consumes us. When we do learn to face it, we can disarm our shadow.
SFY: So…what if I don’t want to tell a group of strangers about, for instance, how I self-sabotage? Will we be asked to share vulnerable parts of ourselves with the group?
JM: I’ve found that often some people choose to share, not everyone. But one of the most profound things is that even one person choosing to share helps all of us remember we all have this stuff. It’s a powerful moment of feeling connected to other people in our most vulnerable places. Shadow work is really powerful.
FP: Sharing is always optional. There’s always a sense of safety and confidentiality in the group. It can be very healing to give expression to something in community that we haven’t had the freedom to do before. My sense is that mostly this is an opportunity to work with ourselves and have more compassion with ourselves. There’s support there, if you want it, with partner or group sharing, in terms of both self-compassion and from the group. People can use that to the degree that feels right for them.
SFY: So once you acknowledge your shadow, how does change take place?
JM: Once we learn to see something, we’re much more likely to identify when it comes up in everyday life. For instance, I have a control pattern that comes up when I get afraid. When it was sparked in my relationship, there was a controlling-ness that would come out in me that I wasn’t seeing. But now, when fear arises and I’m around my husband, I start to feel that old coping strategy but I have greater capacity to see the pattern as it’s happening in the moment. And so whenever it comes up, I find I’m able to see it, feel more space, and choose to do something different. Something I like to do with my clients and students is to pull apart those moments where the shadow is most likely to arise, and have people imagine choosing a different scenario. It starts in the imagination, and then translates to the actual moment.
SFY: How does the physical body factor in?
FP: Even a small amount of tension chronically held in the body over time can decrease the health of that area. Yoga practice helps with this of course. And Yoga Nidra meditation is another level of subtlety because whatever we feel consciously within ourselves tends to relax and open up. This is true of physical tensions, emotions and core beliefs.
JM: What I’ve noticed working with myself and clients is when we suppress anything, it has the chance of manifesting physically. For instance, it wasn’t until I learned how to feel the uncomfortable emotions in my body, that my digestion issues started to go away. It wasn’t until I started to channel and move my anger in a healthy way, all my neck and jaw issues started to heal on their own. I very much believe that we can hold things in the body and the body is an ally in noticing when something’s off. And this isn’t always the case, but it can be. It’s really powerful when you see results.
SFY: In my post last week on Kaypacha, he referred to this election as the ‘shadow’ election, thanks to a major astrological aspect that points to the shadow on November 8th. Are the events going on in the media an example of shadow run amok?
JM: What’s going on in the political arena is a magnification of our society’s shadow. It’s celebrated by some and villainized by others. When shadow comes out like this, it’s an opportunity to say ‘hey, do we want to choose these unconscious parts or choose to be more healthy?’
FP: Anytime you have a strong sense of divisiveness or making another group wrong, that’s all shadow. It’s all projecting things inside of us that we’re not at peace with onto another group or person. And it could play out horribly on the external if it’s not worked with consciously on the internal. So there’s opportunity, in this case, to release and express things consciously and constructively. The more each of us does our own work internally, the more we can influence the whole field in a positive way - think globally, act locally. Though this workshop is just an introduction to shadow work in ourselves, this example also points to how we can use triggers initiated in ourselves by others to point us back to what we need to work on in ourselves. I’ve always found it to be true that if someone really gets under my skin, it’s pointing to something in myself that I’m not at peace with. Coming to terms with that can really shift the dynamic of a relationship and bring about more compassion.
Ford Peck and Juna Mustad’s workshop will take place this Saturday, November 5th at Sol Studios in Fairfax. For more information, check out our events page.
Photo: Ryan Moreno
Post written for SFYogaMag.com