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Thomas Goforth, Tools of Transformation

Tools of Transformation: What the Shadow and the Shamans Know

Part 1: Chasing the Shadow

When my sister and I were quite small, my Mother taught us an unusual game. On occasional summer afternoons, when the shadows were long, she would encourage us to see if we could  run fast enough to catch up to our shadows and capture them. Since we didn’t know that this was impossible, we would run as fast as we could and try to rap our arms around our elusive shadows. Sometimes my sister would try to catch mine and I hers. The whole time we were chasing our shadows, we would laugh and laugh, screaming at our shadows to slow down and let us grab them. If we got frustrated, we would almost always try again. And here I am 66 years later, once again chasing my Shadow.

  Toby Landesman Copyright 1991

In this installment of “Tools of Transformation,” I hope to take you on a journey of exploration and recovery, a passage that will lead us eventually to the Spirit World of the Shamans. The purpose of our journey will be to recover lost parts of ourselves, parts that we rejected under the pressures of being civilized and socialized in our family of origin. We will search for parts of the self that seemed to desert us while we were in the midst of trauma, pressure, and ongoing distress as we were trying to grow up. My sense is that no one escapes these losses. I concur with philosopher-poet Robert Bly, who has affirmed on many occasions, that by the time we reach adulthood, most of us have lost at least half of the 360 degree self that we brought into the world.

Let’s look at what Robert Bly has to say in his “Little Book about the Human Shadow.”

“Let’s talk about the personal shadow first.  When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality.  Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche.  A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.”  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.  By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we were known as “the nice Bly boys.”  Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school.  This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age.  So the student’s paranoia about grownups can be misplaced.  I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players.  Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag.  My sons are going through the process now; I watched my daughters, who were older, experience it.  I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it.  Often my daughters seemed to make their decision on the issue of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.

So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice.  We’ll imagine a man who has a thin slice left-the rest is in the bag-and we’ll imagine that he meets a woman; let’s say they are both twenty-four.  She has a thin, elegant slice left.  They join each other in a ceremony, and this union of two slices is called marriage.  Even together the two do not make up one person!  Marriage when the bag is large entails loneliness during the honeymoon for that very reason.”

What Bly has suggested in other writing on the development of the Shadow is that because we have rejected so much of ourselves, when we meet someone and fall in love, we at first feel a kind of elation. It’s as if we have found something that we lost and are recovering it in this other person. Trouble starts when it becomes clear that this other person isn’t perfect and cannot make up for everything we feel we need. When these problems begin to develop we need to look to Carl Jung, whose work on the Shadow is the basis for Bly’s thinking. For Jung, the Shadow is where all the aspects of ourselves that we have lost or rejected are hidden. Here is one of the most important things Jung said about the shadow, “Whatever in myself I reject goes far away from me and starts a revolution on the periphery of my personality.” When I first read that sentence, tingling sensations started running from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I knew these words rang true for me.

Toby Landesman Copyright 2009 

So how can each of us identify what we have lost or rejected in ourselves? I believe that the first place to look is whatever causes us to reject other people. For example, let’s say that I notice that I am quite angry whenever I encounter someone who is inconsiderate. This kind of person really upsets me. Sometimes I go so far as to feel hatred for them. If I want to discover what I have hidden in my shadow, this kind of experience becomes a location for further inquiry. What is it that I hate about inconsiderate people exactly? What behaviors of theirs am I defining as inconsiderate? Perhaps I discover that I don’t like that they speak up and say exactly what they want, or that they compete openly with other people for attention. I realize that I don’t do those things easily. In fact, I feel quite uncomfortable speaking up, saying exactly what I think or desire. I also hate competing for the limelight. I might ask myself just why that is. In my case, the answer comes in memories of my Father lecturing my sister and me about consideration, politeness, and reserve. He saw calling attention to oneself as selfishness. He felt that prideful behavior was obnoxious. People who had too much pride, who called too much attention to themselves, were the object of his derision and disdain. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I had put those “inconsiderate” behaviors in my “bag.”

We can also look to our ongoing list of complaints about other people, even other places and things. I told my girlfriend when we first started to see each other that I only liked “meaningful travel.” I objected to travelling just for the sake of travelling. I was only interested in exploring places that I felt would have real significance and relevance to me. She was somewhat miffed by my declarations. To her, my statements implied that her love of travel was frivolous, and that she was materialistically collecting travel events that had no purpose. Being the kind person that she is, she told me she thought we should come back to this subject at a later date.

Here, in the ongoing search for my Shadow, is a perfect opportunity for further exploration. When we look back at an experience and discover that we behaved badly, or overreacted in what could have been a pleasant conversation, it’s likely that our Shadow is involved. What this situation points to for me is that something has to be meaningful, significant, and instructive for me to be able to enjoy it. Silliness, enjoyment for its own sake, spontaneous or frivolous activity, all may become subject to my imperious disdain. Interestingly enough, this isn’t even particularly true of me. I’m actually someone who loves silliness and frivolity. So finding the Shadow piece here is a little more complicated. What I believe I was defending against in this encounter with my girlfriend, was my having to travel to places that I didn’t want to go to for whatever reason. In my childhood, my family made a number of trips that seemed very long to me and were very boring and tedious. I was warning my girlfriend in advance, not to expect me to want to travel everywhere that she wanted to go. What I had unconsciously relegated to the Shadow was my ability to work out a compromise when our preferences differed. In my patriarchal, authoritarian family, what my father wanted was what would happen. Once his desire had been decreed, there was no going back. I decided that I wasn’t going to be like him, but that decision left me without adequate skills in negotiating differences in desires between myself and another person. I was letting my girlfriend know that she was not always going to get her way. Certain kinds of events were simply not going to happen.

My example points to some of the major clues that will help us identify our Shadow selves. These include our idiosyncratic preferences, prohibitions, and strong reactions. If the Shadow is present in an interaction, the experience will be often be uncomfortable, overly passionate, awkward, or incongruent. We will have trouble explaining ourselves. Something odd or irrational is happening within us, and we are likely to find ourselves becoming defensive, irritated, and even aggressive. Although we will have to practice a new behavior in order to remedy this kind of situation, it can be remedied.

I recommended the practice we need in these situations previously in one of my articles on healthy, loving relationships. (“Tools for Healthy Loving Relationships, Part 3,” in the July 2012 issue of Newtopia Magazine) That practice is our becoming aware of whenever we feel uncomfortable in conversation, and taking a little “time out” in which we can focus on our discomfort. By letting the person we are talking to know that we feel uncomfortable and want to check in with ourselves, we can head off awkward interactions that have a way of ending in conflict. Even more importantly, we can create an opportunity to learn what we have rejected in ourselves, and begin the process of reclaiming it. By doing “shadow work” in the examples above, I began to recover my ability to speak up, to ask for what I needed or wanted, and to compete for attention when it was necessary to do so. In the second example, I found that I needed to develop my negotiating skills in my relationship and friendships, when preferences that were different than mine were expressed. These matters are basic ingredients of successful human interaction. Even though these resources seem simple and obvious, without them I felt handicapped and inadequate.

When we reject a part of ourselves, that part goes into our shadow and lives on in the dark. We aren’t aware that we are not finished with this rejected pattern of personality. We have made up our minds and believe that we have jettisoned it. As Jung points out, it goes to the periphery of our personality and begins to start trouble for us. One of the ways that this trouble comes into being is through the phenomenon of projection. The way this works is that I begin to see whatever I have rejected in myself in other people. If I have rejected my anger, I begin to notice the angry people around me. Once I think that I see this problematic trait , I start rejecting it in them. “I can’t stand how angry Joe is? He’s virtually insane with rage!”                                                                                                                               Toby Landesman Copyright 2012

In his book on the Shadow, Bly suggests that our projections can be useful to us, if we will start to pay attention to them. In a section on how men can get their “Witch” back from their relationship partners, he suggests that when we are projecting some trait from our Shadow onto someone else, we may notice that the projection starts to rattle. In other words, it doesn’t fit the other person that well. That’s the clue that what we are up to has something to do with what we have rejected in ourselves. When that happens, as in when we men might call our “beloved” a Witch, we might notice that this is exaggerated and doesn’t fit her that well. It’s then that we will need to go to her and ask for our Witch back. Bly says, when she gives it back to us, we have to eat it! Here he is pointing out that we can take something we have rejected back into our personality, but we have to process it and digest it. You may wonder why anyone would want their Witch back. Bly says it’s because the Witch is the boundary setter in the personality, the one that says, “Don’t cross that line or I will turn you into a Toad,” and he promises that when a man takes his Witch back, the relationship will become more peaceful. I have seen this happen in my work with couples many times.

To summarize these notions, the important thing to remember is that what we reject in ourselves goes into our Shadow. What is in our Shadow we then project onto other people, and reject that aspect of ourselves in them. In order to retrieve what we have lost, we need to notice that our projections do not completely fit the person we are attributing them to. We then need to go to that person and ask them to give our projection back to us, so that we can ingest it and reintegrate it into our personality. This process, of course, is not always literal, but you will be surprised what occurs when you go to your relationship partner and tell them that you are aware that you have been projecting anger, neediness or whatever else onto them, and that you are now aware that the projection belongs to you. After they express their anger at having been characterized in a negative way, they will often be forgiving and understanding, and will take back a projection or two of their own.

Working with our Shadow selves has many benefits. It can help us recover talents and resources that we have lost. We may begin to experience renewed vitality as we reclaim more and more of our authentic self. We can also begin to feel an increase in our love and compassion for our relationship partners and our friends as we develop an appreciation for what happened to us in childhood. We may also find that we begin to feel understanding and compassion for our vulnerabilities. The message our Shadow has for us is how vulnerable and dependent we were as children; that when we were little we were ready to give up whatever we could to earn the love and protection of our parents, even if it meant having to surrender large parts of who we really were. Finally, working with our Shadow allows us to retrieve much of what we have lost and to begin the process of healing and reintegration of the lost parts of ourselves.

This process of recovering lost parts of ourselves can lead to creative expression, especially as these parts begin to assert themselves and find their voice. Here’s something Robert Bly wrote as he came to the end of a workshop he was doing on The Human Shadow.


Early in the morning the hermit wakes, hearing

The roots of the fir tree stir beneath his floor.

Someone is there. That strength buried

In earth carries up the summer world.

When a man loves a woman, he nourishes her.

Dancers strew the lawn with the light of their feet.

When a woman loves the earth, she nourishes it.

Earth nourishes what no one can see.

Toby Landesman Copyright 1991

Next month, in Part Two of this blog, “Following the Shamans’ Path,” I will explore the ancient practice of the Shamanic Journey, perhaps the most powerful way of recovering the lost parts of our souls. Thank you for your readership and particular thanks to my favorite collaborator, Toby Landesman, whose beautiful photographs can be found on the Web here: www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com

Article written by Thomas Goforth

Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.


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