My own awareness of my shadow began as a battle with chronic depression that started when I was only ten years old. I spent many years battling against this depression, first learning how to survive it, and gradually learning how to manage it. Yet I had no understanding of it as a signal from my subconscious or as an opportunity for deep healing. To me, it was simply ‘the enemy’. Then, in July of 2003, I had a transformational experience during a weeklong retreat at Unity Village in Missouri.
It began with a vision during a guided meditation led by Rev. Robert Brumet. What I saw was a vision of myself enveloped in incredible sweetness and light. It was beautiful, true and pure, and it smiled at me with such love. Then, after a moment, the image began to change. It started darkening around the edges. It started smirking instead of smiling, growing ugly. It seemed as though the being of light was a shining mask superimposed on top of a much darker being. I could see the darkness around the edges and through the cracks in the light.
At this point in the guided meditation, we were instructed to ask our vision, “What purpose do you serve in my life?” When I asked, the being of light tried to answer – “I am your true self. I am everything good and sweet and pure about you.” But the dark being also answered from underneath – “I am a mask you hide behind. I am a false front. The real you is dark and ugly.”
Next, we were instructed to ask “What do you need from me?” From the dark being I heard, “Validate me! Accept me! Love me!” Interestingly, the very same words were echoed by the light being. I wasn’t sure which being was talking, overlaid as they were one on the other. I wasn’t sure whether the dark being wanted to be accepted or the light being wanted to reassure me it was real and not just a mask.
Finally, we were instructed to ask, “What gift do you have to give me?” The answer came, again from both beings. “I’m real. I am your true self. I am love. Trust me. Believe in me.”
I had a powerful emotional response to this. One of my deepest issues over the years had been self-doubt. I had learned over many years and experiences that I could not trust in myself. I had come to believe that, at my core, I was flawed, broken. I had learned from a series of failed relationships that I was unloving and unlovable. I had learned through years of clinical depression that I could not trust even my own thoughts and reactions.
By July of 2003 I had spent many years working to grow past these experiences – working with psychological counselors, spiritual counselors, and myself. I had 10 solid years of growth and gradual rebirth under my belt. I had come huge strides in my journey from mere survival to Self-expression. But, I still had lingering doubts. And at the same time, I had this deep, unfaltering desire to believe in myself. So, the dual image I saw in that vision struck me as the truest picture of who I was in that moment.
Walking the Labyrinth
Later that week, I walked the labyrinth at Unity Village. If you have never walked a labyrinth, you should know that it is a meditative spiritual practice that dates back to medieval Christian mysticism and beyond. There are labyrinths worked in mosaic tiles in the floors of many cathedrals in Europe.
An intricate pattern is drawn on the ground, contained within a perfect circle. The pattern is a constantly turning, convoluted path that leads you from a point on the outside of the circle to an open space at the exact center of the circle. Unlike a maze, it is not a puzzle. There are no decisions about whether to turn right or left, no possibility of getting lost. It is a single path from beginning to end. The practice involves walking the path from the outer edge into the center of the labyrinth, pausing for a bit of reflection, and then turning and re-tracing the path in reverse until you arrive back at the outside of the circle. Typically, before you begin, you center yourself and then bring to mind a question or set an intention to hold during the experience. The walk becomes a meditation on that question or intention.
During this particular experience, I took up the question of my lingering self-doubt, my fear that this dark self was my true self, that the light self was only a mask. And I set the intention of ‘Wholeness’. (Apparently in a moment of bravery I had completely forgotten the old maxim, “Be careful what you wish for.”)
As I began the first half of the journey that hot July afternoon, following the twists and turns toward the center of the labyrinth, I was alone. As I walked, I reflected how in my self-doubt I had a tendency to isolate myself. As if in response to my thoughts, another person appeared and entered the labyrinth – my prayer partner from earlier in the week. Then more and more people came and joined me. I focused all my thoughts on the light being inside myself. I affirmed the highest truth of who I AM – an expression of God. My consciousness began to expand until it included all those around me. I started to notice trees and flowers and birds singing, and those seemed to be part of me too. My consciousness kept expanding, getting bigger and bigger until I felt I couldn’t contain everything I was feeling, and then it just kept getting bigger anyway. By the time I reached the center of the labyrinth, I felt connected to everything. I felt as if I were floating above my body, too big to be contained by it any longer. I radiated light. On that inward journey, I had literally transcended my body and experienced a state of complete Oneness. As I stepped into the open center of the labyrinth, I felt a huge space open up within me that was grounded in me, and yet went all the way up to infinity. It seemed to contain everything light and good and beautiful that ever was or ever will be.
I stayed for a moment in the center, simply experiencing this Oneness. It was a time beyond words, beyond thought – pure bliss.
Then I turned and began the long, twisting turning trip from the center back to the outer edge of the circle. After a while, I heard a faint voice in my mind asking, “Do you still doubt the truth of who you are?” I ignored it and continued to walk. The question came again, “Do you still doubt?” I kept walking, and the voice began to repeat, “Do you doubt?” “Do you doubt?” “Do you doubt?”
I waited for a big resounding ‘NO’ to well up from the depths of my being. Of course, I didn’t doubt. After that blissful experience, how could I? “Do you doubt?” But the answer didn’t come. “Do you doubt?” I tried forcing a ‘No’, but it sounded false in my own ears. “Do you doubt?” I walked all the way to the end of the path trying to force that ‘No’, but I could not. I finally stepped out of the labyrinth and walked about 5 feet away from the entrance and stopped with my back to the labyrinth. I stood there with my eyes closed arguing within myself, trying to force the ‘right’ answer to come. Finally, before I could stop it, another voice inside my head spoke up and said calmly, “Yes. I doubt”. The argument went round and round, ‘me’ against ‘myself and I’ – “Do you doubt?” “Yes, I doubt!” and “No!”
Finally, after several minutes of this internal wrestling, I surrendered and admitted to myself, “Yes, I doubt.” The response was immediate. “Then turn around and go back into the labyrinth.”
I must admit, my first thought at this point was, “But everyone will think I’m stupid!”, followed rapidly by “It’s too hot” and a whole litany of excuses as to why this was a dumb idea. It takes a good thirty minutes to walk the labyrinth once. I certainly didn’t want to walk it twice on a hot July day! But to each excuse came the response “Do you doubt?” Finally, after what seemed an eternity of standing there arguing with myself, I gave up, turned around, and began my second trip into the labyrinth.
I felt so completely defeated. Less than a half-hour earlier, I had what I was sure was a true and real ‘mountaintop’ experience. But in spite of that, I still couldn’t honestly say I believed that being of light was my true Self. I felt like such a failure. As I walked into the labyrinth for the second time, I found myself saying, “This is the ‘me’ that doubts.” “This is the ‘me’ that fails.” I began a litany of every aspect of myself of which I was ashamed or angry. “This is the ‘me’ that…” and fill in the blank with one more thing that I hated about myself. As I named each thing, I became that thing. I sank lower and lower. My whole body posture changed as I sank into a morass of self-hatred. Outside I was crying and inside I was raging.
About halfway through this second inward journey, I began to run out of emotional steam. My rage subsided into a quiet misery. And then, for some reason I may never understand, I happened to glance up and notice the trees. I remember feeling surprised that I could even see them. I said to myself, “This ‘me’ can see the trees, too.” I continued walking, and after a while, I noticed the flowers and birds, and I saw that they were still beautiful. “How funny. This ‘me’ can see beauty, too.” Then it hit me. “This ‘me’ can see God, too” followed by the stunning revelation, “This ‘me’ is God, too.” I literally stopped in my tracks, I was so stunned. I just stood there for a moment, absorbing the momentousness of this revelation. I realized, this dark side of me is also from God and a part of God. I realized that I had been so busy trying to release and let go, that I had never claimed this part of myself. My shame was too deep to admit that this ‘me’ is real and valid.
After a moment, I continued walking, making my way toward the center of the labyrinth. And as I walked, I began to claim for God each part of me that I had named in shame before. “The ‘me’ that doubts is God, too.” “The ‘me’ that fails is God, too.” And on and on, “The ‘me’ that …” fill in the blank, “is God, too.” I claimed every part of me as an expression of God.
When I arrived at the center of the labyrinth for the second time, I paused just before stepping into it. I consciously and purposefully set the intention that when I stepped into the center this time, I was bringing all of me, the light and the dark. As I stepped into the center of the labyrinth, I again felt a transcendent oneness with all that is. This experience though was different from the first. As before, I felt a huge space open up inside, but this time, it went both all the way up and all the way down to infinity. This time it contained everything light and good and beautiful, and also everything dark and mysterious and fearful.
My mind went back to the vision I had earlier in the week. In my mind, I now saw the two sides of myself, dark being and light being, facing each other, me standing on the side of light. I asked my light self, “Can you love this darkness?” The answer ‘yes’ came back easily – too easily. I realized, I was asking the wrong question. I turned to my dark self and asked “Can you love me?” The dark self looked back in astonishment and wonder at even being asked. Then, it reflected for a second, smiled tremulously, and answered, ‘yes’. And I realized in that instant that I was forgiven. I shifted my conscious awareness into the dark self and felt the love and forgiveness there. I shifted to the light self and felt the release of being forgiven and the sorrow at having tried to push this other self away.
And then…the two selves merged. I became the being I had seen in my vision – light and dark together in one being, neither being alone the true self and neither being a mere mask. As I stood there, I knew that light and dark were not enemies locked in perpetual battle, but two halves of one transcendent whole.
As I walked back out of the labyrinth for the second time, I gradually and slowly returned to my body, returned to my sense of self in the world. I became ‘me’ again, and at the same time, I was new and utterly changed. I brought with me the knowledge of the universe of light and dark contained within me. I brought with me the Truth that light and dark are both faces of God, two halves of a whole. I brought with me a sense of wholeness that goes beyond words or even thought.
The Road Less Traveled
Our culture teaches us to fear the experience of the dark, especially that inner darkness that is our shadow self. In fact, we have grown so afraid over the years that we have labeled it as ‘evil’ and have built an imaginary wall between us and the darkness. We have developed rituals and psychologies and religions and pills to distract us from the darkness. We have focused on the light, seeking to eliminate the darkness, if not in this life, then in the next. And yet, in the end, the darkness is always there with us or around us, waiting.
However, if we learn to step through that fear, there is another possibility – another road, less traveled. On this road, we learn to accept the darkness, to engage it in dialogue, and to use it as a tool for our spiritual growth. On this road we learn that darkness is not the enemy of light, but simply the other half of light. We learn that our goal is not light, but wholeness. We learn that true spiritual wholeness is not a denial of the dark side of ourselves but rather an embracing of both our inner light and our inner darkness into an integrated, healthy, transcendent whole.
My experience in the Labyrinth was only one step in my journey. In the years since, I have worked to develop a growing awareness of the signals from my shadow self. I have worked to see these signals, not as something wrong, but as pointers to areas of potential healing. I have developed a variety of emotional and spiritual skills and tools to process, release and heal. And, I have come to understand this is not a journey to a destination. Rather, it is a life-long practice.