Shadow Work and Ayahuasca Integration

Ayahuasca has an uncanny ability to dive directly into the depths of the psyche and unearth exactly what we need to see at a particular moment. Foremost among the things it brings to light is the part of our unconscious known as the shadow—the feelings, thoughts, instincts, and memories we dare not acknowledge; the parts of ourselves we hide or deny.

“We see things not as they are, but as we are.” — Anon.

Our shadow may include anger, sexuality, or fear; shame, judgment, or envy—or perhaps passion, curiosity, joy, or tenderness, for the shadow has a bright face as well. “The shadow is the seat of creativity,” wrote Carl Jung, who pioneered this perspective.

While our personal shadow, by definition, is hidden to us, it may be embarrassingly visible to others. Developing a relationship with these exiled parts of ourselves and bringing them into consciousness is a life’s work. The dark needs to be integrated into the light, not rejected, transcended, or compartmentalized. The ability to understand and work with shadow is an essential aspect of the integration process. In some mysterious fashion, shadow feeds the light, and it is by bringing the dark to the light of consciousness, loving it, and releasing it that we continue working with ayahuasca’s profoundly transformative effects on psyche, soul and spirit.

Tracking the Shadow

To find your shadow, simply look at your life. What shocks you? Disturbs you? What riles, terrifies, infuriates you … what thrills you, though you might not admit it in polite company? What feelings, experiences, or people do you go out of your way to avoid? The outside reveals the inside, mirroring your inner splits. What you see out there is a reflection of you.

What type of person do you dislike? Smart women, domineering men; loud people, quiet people? The same person can come across as friendly or nosy, self-confident or controlling, depending on your perspective. Certain qualities in people trigger us, and this says a lot more about us than about them. How you judge others generally points directly to your own shadow.

Take this exploration into the public realm (the shadow can be societal, national, or collective), and you will see how Obama, Trump, Bush, and both Clintons have all played shadow roles in recent years. Think of international shadow figures—not just Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, but also entire classes of people, like immigrants or fundamentalists. Wars are waged along the lines of these projections.

The shadow can show up in archetypal form, as Kali, Lilith, Shiva. It is found in taboo subjects like sexual abuse, race, homosexuality, domestic violence. Families have shadow themes: you may carry your parents’ shadow, or have it pasted on you, as played out in molestation or entanglement. Anger, sexuality, creativity, assertion, and so much more, can fall into the shadow of a particular family.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ― C. G. Jung

How The Shadow Is Formed

As babies we were born whole and self-accepting, free of judgment. But our early experience and environment—parents, family, school, society—taught us that some aspects of ourselves were unacceptable. Learning that we need to be good to be loved, we began to shut down and shut out these parts. Keeping them exiled was a matter of survival for us as children. Robert Bly famously commented that we all have a “long bag we drag behind us,” filled with unwanted parts of our selves. We spend the first 20 years of our life stuffing things into it, he wrote, and the remainder of our life trying to get them out.

Midlife comes as a huge turning point for many people, a time when shadow demands to be addressed. Turning to face these unseen parts of ourselves, we may find an unlived life shouting out for attention. If we listen, the resulting transformation can trigger changes in our profession, relationships, and living situations. If we don’t, we face a life of increasing limitations, often embodied in health problems.

We all have shadows, and we must meet them with consciousness, or else become their victims. Left to its own devices, the shadow can emerge as irrational behavior, manifesting as a funky mood, a slip of the tongue, destructive or self-destructive actions. Addictions are a prime example of shadow—misusing food, alcohol, drugs, porn. Abuse, affairs, blame, betrayal; a sarcastic comment that slips out sideways; blowing up at our spouse despite our best intentions—the more the shadow is ignored, the more likely it is to assert itself just when it’s least convenient.

Most often, we feel shame at this unwanted emergence. We do our best to deny it, papering over the aberrant feeling or behavior and moving hastily on. But the way through here is not getting over it, but down into it. We need to slow down, acknowledge that something is afoot, as much as we don’t like it—and be brave enough to look directly at it. Shadow work is very simply the process of making the subconscious conscious.

Romancing the Shadow

Here’s the miracle: it’s only through the shadow itself, what Robert Bly calls this “this expensive, damaging, wasteful, inaccurate form of mud-slinging,” that we can get back in touch with the vital energy we’ve locked away in that long bag. Counter-intuitively we must turn towards the pain and into the dark, moving deep into the source of negative emotion and finding the vital energy trapped within it.

The most powerful approach relates to shadow as a mystery, rather than a problem to be solved.

Brought into the light of consciousness, that energy can be used for transformation. When we work with it consciously, the shadow loses its compulsive quality. It becomes a compass needle pointing to what we need to complete ourselves. In this way our most loathed shadow figures serve as healers, carrying exactly the medicine we need.

Embedded with your shadow is likely a considerable amount of old unfelt emotion, buried feelings from the past. Be kind to these younger parts; listen for what they needed but didn’t get back then, and do your best to give it to them now—perhaps acceptance, or support, or patience; comfort, or a listening ear.

The attitude that’s needed here requires both courage and compassion, as well as commitment to a process that is neither quick nor easy, a process that will continue throughout your life. We never get to the bottom of the unconscious; we never truly ‘master’ the shadow. The most powerful approach relates to shadow as a mystery, rather than a problem to be solved. Shadow work initiates us into a markedly different way of meeting life, one capable of responding to difficult experience with consciousness rather than reflexively reacting to it as pain.

Practical Ways to Work with Shadow

Projections: Here’s a link to an exercise that can guide your exploration into shadow (bright or dark) as triggered by a particular person. You can journal your responses, or have a friend read you the questions and help you explore out loud. Either way, be sure to take your time to go deep.

The 3-2-1 Process developed by Ken Wilber and associates at the Integral Life Institute is a simple three-step recipe for owning your shadow, moving from third person to second person to first person:

Voice Dialogue, which facilitates conversation with internal parts, is an excellent modality for shadow work. Have an inner dialogue with an exiled part of you and get to know its perspective.

Expressing the shadow creatively, through writing, painting, music, dance, can hone in on this aspect of psyche and give it form. Feel into the darker emotion in your body, and start to create from that base. Fictional characters can express shadow in quite satisfying fashion (à la Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad) In the process, you can learn more than you ever knew you knew about your own unconscious.

Finally, compassion meditation is a valuable and necessary companion to shadow work—compassion for others as the target of your judgments, and especially self-compassion, to release you from any shame or guilt that can make it difficult to work with the dark side.

More Resources

Connie Zweig, Romancing the Shadow and the anthology Meeting the Shadow

Debbie Ford, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers

Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow

Robert Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche

Robert Augustus Masters, Knowing Your Shadow (audio)

Hal and Sidra Stone on judgment:

Sally Kempton on the shadow: