07 March 2011

Shadow Work

I was doing a radio interview last week and the interviewer asked me to describe my personal practice.  I found myself rather stumped as to how to describe what I do in a 15 second sound bite.  I said that I focused on defensive magick and shadow work.  It was obvious that he had no idea what shadow work was, but there just wasn’t time to go into it properly so we moved on.  I feel the need to more adequately explain what shadow work really is.

Everyone has positive traits and negative traits.  A lot of popular spiritual practices really emphasize creating a positive mindset, generative positive energy, etc.  This is great for most people most of the time, but it isn’t so easy for some of us.  Some of us look at all that love and light and just feel a little nauseated.  Sometimes the only way forward is not to look at the bright side, but instead to examine the shadows – to stare in the abyss.  This doesn’t mean that you’re a negative or bad person; it just means that you need to travel a different path to spiritual growth.

The essence of shadow work is looking at what isn’t working, the things that are broken, and changing them.  For many, the hardest part of shadow work is recognizing what those shadows are: our fears, insecurities, incorrect assumptions, weaknesses, pettiness, and irrationalities.  Some people can deal with these by bringing so much positive energy into their lives that there’s no room for these negatives – not me.  I’ve found that I really have trouble finding the light by reaching for it.  Instead, I have to dive deep into the darkness and keep going down until I punch out the other side.  That’s one of the main reasons I’ve called this blog Black Sun Magick – because my light is black as pitch and it shines.

One of the fundamentals of my shadow practice is what I call “Looking in Dorian Gray’s Mirror.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a young man who wishes that a portrait of him would age instead of his body ageing.  Magically, this wish comes true and the portrait ages and bears all the scars of Dorian Gray’s soul.  Over the course of time Gray becomes more and more depraved and the portrait becomes so terribly and twisted Gray locks it away.  In the end Gray is confronted with the portrait, looking at everything he has become – being able to see with his eyes every twist of his soul – that he stabs the painting and ends up inadvertently taking his own life.  Shadow work is about looking into that portrait every day.  It takes time, discipline, and courage to look at oneself so honestly.  If you cannot see what you really are, how can you ever really change and grow?

Once you’ve identified the things you don’t like about yourself you’re not allowed to just sit there and moan about them, you have to do something about it.  This is where it gets really tricky, because some of those things you don’t like are genuine problems that need to be fixed and some of them are things that you’ve been taught to dislike that aren’t actually bad at all.  No one can tell you whether something you detest about yourself is something you need to change or if it’s just your way of looking at it that needs to change.  It’s something you have to figure out for yourself in whatever way works for you.  For me figuring this stuff outs is all about meditation, divination, talking to spirit guides and trusted friends, for you it could be any, all, or none of these things.

Once you’ve leapt that hurdle it’s time to forgive yourself for your weaknesses.  Don’t laugh, it’s important.  Most people that are actually motivated enough to do something about changing their lives and dark enough to do it via shadow work are really hard on themselves.  Whenever I find a new chink in my image of myself I tend to spend a goodly chunk of time wallowing in depression, bemoaning how horrible/useless/bad/etc. I am.  I allow myself a little bit of time to roll around in self-pity, and then I pick myself back and forgive myself.  Often I do this in a ritual where I call my goddess to witness my self-forgiveness and pledge to move forward – it’s hard to go back on something you’ve sworn to your god in his or her presence.

Then I will usually do some working where I work on “fixing” the problem.  More often than not it’s some kind of ceremony in which I embrace whatever the negative is.  What I mean by embracing a shadow is to allow yourself to have whatever feeling or though it is, but to then think about it rationally and not act on it unless it’s truly rational and correct to do so.  It’s really just a stylize way of reminding yourself to think before you act and to not get mad at yourself for not being perfect.  Sometimes the shadow is bad enough to really need to be excised rather than embraced, in which case I’ll do a personal banishing ritual just after the full moon and a confirmation on the new moon.

Shadow work is about being really, really honest with yourself and never being afraid to look in the dark.  Do it long enough and you end up knowing yourself really well and having a very good grasp of exactly what you’re capable of.  Sure, there are kinder, gentler ways of doing it, but sometimes you need a good drop-kick to move.  I sure do.

Proficiency in shadow work also opens up the world of shadow magick, but that’s a topic for another day.


  1. Sorry to harsh your metaphor, but Dorian Gray didn't kill himself... he tried to destroy the painting and ended up killing himself by mistake. Just sayin'.

    1. Killing yourself by accident is still killing yourself :)

  2. True it's not a prefect metaphor, but I think I'll keep it just the same :)

  3. Thank you for this blog, I keep trying to find information about how people work with their shadow in a practical way, so thank you for sharing this practical information. I too cannot just throw rainbows and golden rays of sunshine at my dark abyss.

  4. You're very welcome :) If there's any particular topics you'd like to to address just let me know.

  5. Thank you for sharing. I'm a college lecturer interested in Jungian psychology. I work with my shadow in order to improve both my teaching practice and student behaviour. I have converted my shadow dialogues into a series of animations which are available on my website http://www.gavinboyd.com Here is a dialogue with my inner rebellious teenager. Healing this part of my shadow had a positive impact in the classroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYL9EeBNUdM

  6. This has such good clear common sense and balance to it. Thank you.