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Shadow Work: Unpacking Baggage

"Everyone carries a shadow,

and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is."

— Carl Jung


I took a training in 2011 which invited 50+ international teachers to share their unique gifts by teaching a class in some form, not always asana. One teacher read an excerpt from Robert Bly’s ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’, which left an impression on me.

Bly focuses on what he calls ’The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us’, otherwise known to Jungian psychology as ‘the shadow’. The bag is filled with all the things we deny ourselves, our shadow parts.

Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school. This time it’s no longer the evil grown-ups that pressure us, but people our own age.

—Robert Bly

Ever since we were quite young, we’ve been learning what characteristics are acceptable (or not) in our particular culture. In India, I’ve witnessed teenage boys hold hands with other teenage boys, but not with teenage girls. Shoes are part of respectful attire in most churches, but shamefully disrespected in a mosque, dojo, or yoga studio. Even mealtimes among certain cultures have conflicting values and etiquette.

We begin placing what we’ve learned to be right/wrong or good/bad, based on our upbringing and culture and place what doesn’t fit into our invisible bag. A woman growing up being told she’s not beautiful may have banished her inner goddess. A man growing up may have been told to not tolerate weakness, so he tosses his compassion for himself and others in his bag.

The more you throw in the bag, the heavier the bag you drag behind you and the less that is left of you. Whatever is left that isn’t in the bag, is how you present yourself to society.

We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed. Suppose the bag remains sealed—what happens then?

—Robert Bly

What comes to mind for me is who I used to be before I became an Educator, versus who I would be if I didn’t. I was introverted, quiet and hated public speaking. If I didn’t choose the path I did maybe my confidence and my voice would still be in my bag. Who would I be? Maybe working in a corporate office hiding behind a desk. I would continue to regress. I’m not perfect and I definitely don’t have all the answers. My bag isn't as heavy or as long as it used to be, that is because I do make it a practice to continue to unload my baggage. I do this so I can continue to grow, because if we’re not growing we’re spiritually dying. In fact, a direct antonym for the word grow is 'shrink'. So, would you rather step into your light or shrink back into the shadows?

Shadow work, is a conscious engagement.

To retrieve those parts of yourself you need to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and revisit your past and/or current self that may be ugly, shameful or painful. This must be an act of self-love, approached with only the intention of healing those wounds or samskaras. Unload your baggage for the sake of awknowledging what you have deemed wrong or bad. Transform them into potential strengths, so you can use them as a force for good to learn from and contribute your wisdom to others so you may be a light on the path guiding others home. Home to remembering their true nature, that you are light and love.

There are ways you can be supported through your shadow work.

If it feels overwhelming to tackle your baggage on your own, you can seek out a therapist, social worker, or even a life coach. I encourage you to not speak with friends or family, as sometimes they can be a trigger and project their own shadows onto you.

There are also groups or communities that can support you.

For example, the Comic Con Convention invites people from far and wide to show up and dress up. When we wear a mask or dress up as our favourite character, for many we unmask parts of ourself that we've hidden away or don't have the courage to bring to the forefront. The quiet and timid teenage girl who’s a Game of Throne’s fan, dresses up as Khaleesi and owns the quality of fierceness and divine feminine. For a moment she steps into her power of whats possible, if she unloaded some of that baggage.

I challenge you this Halloween to portray a character that is the complete opposite of who you believe yourself to be, and notice in that role your acting what qualities were easy for you to embody. Caution: if it isn't obvious, please don’t go as Norman Bates and tap into your inner psycho, think Mother of Dragons or Superman… a character that is a force for good. Ya, digg?

What role are you willing to play out, for the sake owning your confidence or (fill in the blank) that has been regressing since childhood? Can you then drop the act and step into that role fully?

What are you willing to look at—up front, close and personal— for the sake of confronting the qualities that you have labeled as ugly, shameful or painful?

This is the work that is needed in this lifetime. To be willing to to the necessary hard inner-work so we may be the change we wish to see in the world.

xx. C

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