I had the good fortune of spending this last weekend with a group of some of the most amazing magickal practitioners I know. On the three hour drive down to Portland I had a really interesting discussion with a gal I was giving a ride down to the moot. We got onto the topic of our personal paths and that naturally took us to shadow work. I explained that a huge part of my personal path was hard self-examination and then taking the bits of myself that weren’t working and smashing them with a hammer. She was rather horrified. Her knee-jerk reaction was to say that such work is just way too hard and ask how I could possible do it voluntarily and on a regular basis. Her reaction got me thinking.
For me, shadow work gives me a chance to be heroic. In the modern world we don’t really face the kind of trials that give us a chance to make big leaps forward with our spirit. In ages past people had occasional large scale trials and rites of passage (first hunts, surviving in the wilderness, ordeals and rituals), giving people a way to test themselves and prove their worth. In our world we just don’t have heroic trials; we have the grind of daily trials (work, family, finances, etc.) that, when taken all together, are just as difficult but dealing with them just doesn’t give us the sense of satisfaction and self-worth that we get from single rigorous trials that we can actually defeat. Getting up every morning and going to work in order to pay the bills, giving up selfish desires for the good of the family, and playing nice with a co-worker we’d rather throttle all take courage and fortitude, but we rarely acknowledge them. Does facing down a wild boar take more courage than dealing with a relative that tears you to shreds every time you see them? I don’t think so, but it just doesn’t get our adrenaline going in the same way; it doesn’t engage our fight or flight response. Shadow work gives us back those heroic trials.
Sitting down to do serious shadow work is akin to the spiritual retreats of past days – we sit alone with our deepest most frightening truths and either overcome them or die. Once you’ve seen the sharpest cracks of your own soul you either do everything in your power to heal them or you give up and become a broken shell. When I say that shadow work is do or die I mean it. If you look too deep and you’re not ready to face those truths, to do something about what you see, serious depression and suicide are a real risk. If you are ready to do something, then you can vanquish the beast of your own heart and come out a true warrior of the soul. It’s not a quick and easy process, it takes time and hard, unpleasant work – that’s the point really, go through the fire and come out clean, with all the garbage burned away. You may have to walk through the fire a thousand times to reach the level you want to get to, but each pass brings you one step closer. A shadow worker is a hero that faces their darkest demons and comes out whole. (It gives you a whole different perspective on a stack of obnoxious paperwork, let me tell ya.)
Succeeding at shadow work will change how you see yourself and the world. If you can look at yourself with real honesty you’ll being to see everything else just as honestly – this is a great tool for becoming a better person, for understanding and compassion, but it isn’t always pretty. You’ll see all the beauty of compassion and love, but just the same you will see the anguish of relinquished hopes and broken dreams. It might not make you happy, but it will make you strong. It will make you a hero.