What You Resist, Persists: Examining the Shadow-Side of Yourself
by Philip Goldberg

A teacher from the East, amused by Americans' obsession with psychotherapy, shrugged, "If you want to change your personality, do it now. When you're enlightened, you won't care." Many spiritual seekers think they can skip around their dark side and dash painlessly to the light. The tendency to ignore hidden areas of the psyche is reinforced in many spiritual communities, where certain emotions and drives are considered either sinful or unworthy of our attention.

Life does tend to get better when we embark on a spiritual path. Practices like meditation, yoga and prayer do smooth out rough edges and heal some emotional wounds, but some of our "stuff" is not so easily discarded; like cans tossed into the ocean, they keep washing up on the shores of our lives and messing things up. In the long run, most spiritual voyagers find that they can't accomplish all of their growth and healing by focusing exclusively on the spiritual dimension of life.

If, in the name of spirituality, we turn away from the challenge of psychological growth, we end up neglecting a vital area of development. Ironically, we can slow down our spiritual progress by continuing to create problems in our relationships, careers and other aspects of life. There are three excellent reasons why shying away from our shadow is not a good idea:

1. What you resist persists. The more you suppress the unwanted parts of your psyche, the more likely it’s that you will be unprepared when some buried part of your personality rises up, forcing you to deal with tendencies you consider ugly or frightening.

2. You imprison the good stuff too. It's not just harmful, undesirable traits that we hide, but also some of our gifts, our passions, our exuberance, our creativity, our unique talents and other qualities that can enrich our lives.

3. It can obstruct spiritual development. When, in the name of spiritual progress, we try to steer around the dark side, it can be like moving into the passing lane only to run into a traffic jam. Resolving emotional issues doesn't just help us become better adjusted; it can also liberate our capacity for love, joy and reverence. It's not easy to locate inner peace when your mind roils with anxiety, or open up to divine love when you hate yourself, or taste the rapture of holiness if you're sad, worried or blocked. And it's not easy to achieve wholeness when you're suppressing vital parts of yourself.

Unfortunately, we often think that moving toward the light means keeping our backs turned to the darkness. We are better served, spiritually, if we look into our shadows with unabashed honesty and usher whatever we find into the light. In declaring ourselves to be Spirit, we have to be wary of refuting our humanness. Every aspect of our selves-mental, physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual-moves on its own on developmental track. But they are also intimately connected, so it’s essential to make sure no part of the self lags too far behind or the whole train will slow down. For all those reasons, it’s imperative to shine the light of awareness on the hidden parts of yourself. Examine honestly what you find lurking in the shadow and place it in one of these categories:

- Toxic waste. This stuff is holding you back in one way or another, or might actually be causing harm to you and others. It has to be processed with the aim of eliminating it, bringing it under control, or reshaping it.

- Comic relief. Some aspects of the shadow are fixed personality traits that help shape your uniqueness. They may get in the way at times, but they are relatively harmless. Work toward accepting these traits and perhaps observing them with a sense of humor, as if they were characters in a sitcom.

- Buried treasure. These untamed aspects of the psyche hold the potential for adventure, passion, joy and creative expression. It can be liberating to explore parts of yourself that may have scared you before, and to expose yourself to experiences that evoke powerful feelings. Just be careful not to go so far that you lose control of the boundaries that separate enjoyment from over-indulgence and use from abuse Also, respect other people’s boundaries. Push the limits of your comfort zone, but make sure you can find your way back.

Making peace with the shadow is a crucial part of the spiritual path. "There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection," wrote Carl Jung. "To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness."

Philip Goldberg, author of "Roadsigns: Navigating Your Path to Spiritual Happiness" (Rodale Press), is spiritual counselor, Interfaith Minister and workshop leader in Los Angeles. The founder of Spiritual Wellness Associates Network, he works with clients in person and by telephone. For more info, visit: www.philipgoldberg.com, email: phil@philipgoldberg.com or call 310-827-8266.