The things that make us uncomfortable…

There is power in things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes they are the shadow element, the big bad wolf in the fairy tale, the predator that we run away from. In that situation they have power over us, but there is another kind of power too: the power of transformation.

For a long time I didn’t want to think about poverty. In my food research I wanted to focus only on the positive: healthy food, community food, local food… I didn’t want to think about corporations, exploitation, corruption, starvation, pesticides, additives, genetic modification, and so on. I figured there was enough focus on the problem. I wanted to focus on solutions, I still do, but one of the things I didn’t want to think about at all was poverty, and lately I can’t stop thinking about it.

Poverty is a wicked problem, that is, a problem with so many compounding factors that there is no simple solution. I didn’t want to think about food scarcity or hunger, only about abundance and how to create it in healthy, sustainable ways, but there is so much ignorance about poverty and so many frustratingly common ridiculous social prejudices that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Underneath all this there is an unearthing or my own childhood relationship with scarcity and powerlessness. When I was growing up there was always poverty around. For us, as a single parent family when I was very young and as a large blended family when I was a bit older, there was the ordinary struggle with finances, with scarcity, and so on, but, even though I had blood-sugar issues that made me often feel like I was starving, and even though I was neglected to the point of not always having lunch at school, we were okay. We were relatively privileged compared to the people around us – at the school we went to and in our wider family. My experiences of poverty through family and school were difficult and ugly. The overwhelming powerlessness tangled with my other childhood traumas into the psychological wound that was painful to touch. I didn’t want to think about it, but now I do.

The “Why don’t they just…” attitude to poverty is really pissing me off. The negative response that vulnerable people often get when they stand up for themselves makes me sick. There is no simple solution here. If there was, people would have figured it out by now. If it was simply a matter of choice, people wouldn’t so easily damn themselves by “making bad choices”, would they? No one wants to live like that.

I feel compelled to raise awareness of the complexities of these related problems. People who have never experienced this extreme powerlessness seem to have trouble relating and, therefore, little empathy. To me, this feels like personal transformation through the shadow.


Doing Shadow Work

I was about fourteen the first time I was introduced to the concept of the shadow through Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, in which Ged split off a part of himself out of a foolish desire to prove himself and spent many years running from his shadow.  Later, when I was sixteen, my counselor, Fiona (who was also practiced in Celtic shamanism) explained the shadow as all the parts of a person they don’t like – that they are afraid of – that they don’t want to deal with. She talked about bringing the shadow into the light of awareness and encouraged me to write a list of all the things in myself that fitted this description. It was easy to pinpoint external things: the things I felt guilty about, the obvious things I struggled with. It was harder to dig deeper than that, into the tangled unconscious web of depression and trauma that I wasn’t ready to face. I wanted to make things special and spiritual. I didn’t want to deal with the raw ugliness of reality.

The shadow is the realm of nightmares and the parts of psyche that are hard to face: pain/sadness, fear, rage, the horrific: too hot or too cold for comfort.  A friend of mine who was who was practiced at lucid dreaming was warned never to try to meet his shadow. He took that as a challenge and so one dream, while he was flying along, he decided to do it. Suddenly a figure appeared, a doppelganger of himself, but darker, with a malicious grin. The dream abruptly morphed into his worst nightmare and my friend, an arachnophobe, was being eaten by an enormous spider while his doppelganger laughed.

The shadow is a terrifying concept, yet compelling. We might know there is something there but we don’t know what, and perhaps there is another level of naivete, or several more layers, or hundreds. We will never know until we begin the arduous task of peeling them back. We may hope for specialness, for treasure, but that is unwise because it opens us up for unhinged delusions and losing our path.

I think of shadow work as stumbling in the dark, like the le Guin’s priestess in her underground labyrinth, there is danger in rushing in: the danger of being lost to the blackness, of starving to death. We have to feel our way, to edge carefully around the walls until we learn the map. Then we can be at home in the dark landscape of unconsciousness.   That is why the work is worth doing: because when you face the most terrifying parts of self, there is nothing left to fear and as if we can process these things in the light of consciousness, they don’t need to manifest externally.

The Predator Archetype (part two)

In my previous post about the predator archetype I didn’t go into the back-story of this universal archetype.  Of course such a dark character must have a story. According to Estes he is a fallen magician. A personification of the psychopathic wounded ego trying to be more than one is. Icarus flew too close to the sun and suffered the consequences and the this damaged part of the psyche over-extended in a similar way and exists in a state of permanent over-compensation.

On a personal level, the predator is a fragment of the shadow: the part of ourselves seeks redemption in all the wrong places. It has lost its own light and plots to steal the light of the psyche. It is our internal psychic vampire, pilfering our creative potential, holding us back with fear. This archetype offers a warning against the reckless pursuit of power.

On a wider social level, this archetype makes easy prey of women who have been trained since infancy to ‘be nice’, it seeps out of advertising. In the West it is disguised as the freedom to choose to be exploited, in more conservative cultures it is the invisible dominating force that women hide from.

Some people seem to unwittingly personify this fallen magician archetype all too well. I have met a few people who have tried to pursue the occult for power, either favoring hierarchical traditions or claiming to be far too unique, too special, too powerful to follow others. There was always something odorous about these people, something of the rodent in their appearance, a dangerous kind of cunning.

Anatomy of the Shadow

It’s the trick of the mind that makes you think there’s someone hiding in the darkness, the monster under your bed, the stranger’s footsteps echoing too close behind in the street at night…

Collectively it’s the enemy, the criminals we want to lock up, the rapists, sadists, murderers. It’s the incest inflictors, child abductors, perpetrators, pedophiles, predators. It’s the tragedies, the atrocities of war, the suicide-bombers, fanatics and shopping-mall shooters. It’s the foreigners, the Other, the people who look different: strange eyes, unusual skin colour, funny accents.  The shadow might be feminism, if you’re threatened by the idea of strong women or of equality. It might be gay people, they might disgust you if you’re afraid of your own queerness, of the queerness of being human.  It might be right-wing politics or bible-bashing gay-hating church groups. It might be drugs if you’re too scared to understand them.  The shadow is in fairy tales: the bad guy, super-villains  the evil step-mother, the dark sorcerer. In Disney he often has darker skin, she is ugly and wears dark clothes, he has a foreign accent. The shadow is always powerful and yet somehow defeated by sheer naive innocence, by love, by faith. If only it were that simple.

The shadow is always on the news, sometimes as a person, a religion, a regime, sometimes as a tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, a cyclone, a volcano, a flood. It unites us in our shared enemy, reassuring us that we are right, alright, okay. All we need to do is rescue our kind, lock up the bad guys, recover from the trauma. Maybe we can lobby for legislation change: harsher sentences, ban something in case our young are captured by it.  The shadow is in “rape culture”, it is violent culture, and yet we refuse to see the connection between socially acceptable violence and rape. Rape is sexual violence. Violence is abuse of power. How much more obvious does the connection need to be. Those violent video-games and movies are just playing out the same tired dance with the shadow because we are still too afraid to face it.

The shadow is the hardest thing to face, both in society and in ourselves. We don’t want criminals to be human, we don’t want them to be vulnerable, to be victims of circumstance, to have dreams or loving mothers; we want them to be vile, irredeemable, evil. We don’t want the evil step-mother, the warlock or the super-villain to be generous, to be kind, to shed a tear. When they do it’s always too late. They must be sacrificed, presumably at their own sword. We want to believe that evil devours itself in the end so that we don’t have to face it ourselves.  We want things to be simple, not complicated. We don’t want to see their humanity because, more than anything, we don’t want to see them in ourselves.  But really, we are the villains as well as the heroes, we all have the potential to do horrendous things, we have all had moments of frightening ourselves in rage – out of pain, fear, jealousy – of fearing our own potential to inflict harm and of inflicting harm deliberately. Even the monster under the bed is part of us, part of our minds. Unless we face this in ourselves personally and publicly, we will forever be walking faster and faster down the street at night, running from our own shadow.

Personally, my shadow is my guilt – of doing something wrong, having done wrong. It’s my shame of being wrong, not good enough.  In my childhood it was personified by my step-father, and he in-turn (or first) projected his shadow onto me. I was never good enough, spoilt, selfish brat, little shit, stupid, lazy, all the things I was called as a kid, the judgements I fear, naive, foolish, weak, victim, and deeper still: evil, malicious, defective.  It’s everything I’ve ever done ‘wrong’, every nasty urge I’ve ever had., every lie, every deception.  It lurks behind every bath-pearl stolen from a pharmacy when I was twelve, every bill or coin snatched from the purses and wallets of relatives when I was 13, every drop of spirits pinched from mum’s liquor cabinet when I was 15 and every biscuit taken from the kitchen at night when I was 8. I can feel it rotting inside me like the crumbs left in my bed: sneaking, devious, filthy, part of me. It’s every fear, terror, insecurity, being shamed-out, bad, dumb, losing control, being powerless.  It hides in my difference and in my sameness.

My shadow has hindered me, forced me to stick to the safe path, to protect myself, to find my tribe and stick closely to people who understand me, who agree with me, who I can relate to.  It has taught me to avoid situations that make me uncomfortable – like groups of macho men and male dominated spaces; mechanics workshops, some music stores.  It has taught me to moderate my behavior to suit the people I am talking to, so I don’t swing into full feminist critique in front of the bigoted dad of a friend. I can sniff out danger. My mother always taught me to avoid creepy men and I am not at all attracted to predators, but this shadow has made it difficult for me to trust men in general. Some of the most dangerous people I have known have been women and were once close friends.  I have learnt to cut these people out of my life. Some things are too scary to face and impossible to change.  I will keep delving into my shadow, walking through the dark, swimming through unconsciousness because I’m too scared not to. As Carl Jung said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious it appears outside of you as fate.” I don’t wast to take that risk. I don’t know what’s luring in the murky depths, but I’d certainly rather deal with it internally than allow it to manifest externally.