Usually when we speak about the shadow, we're referring to less desirable experience such as disowned jealousy, rage, selfishness, and shame. Most often, the shadowy underworld is seen as the dark repository for “negative” aspects of ourselves, i.e., our phobia around intimacy, unacknowledged narcissism, and the full retinue of the ghosts of our unlived lives.
But it is not only negative aspects of the personality that we disavow, split from, and project. Many of us have lost the capacity to access and embody more “positive” experiences such as contentment, pleasure, creativity, sexuality, spontaneity, and awe.
Even the very organic, life-giving capacity to rest, to play, and to explore within the formless, less known areas of consciousness can come to be associated as risky and perilous in the psyche and nervous system, and therefore sequestered into the darkness of the psychic and somatic forests.
Especially tragic (and heartbreaking) is the reality that some of us have become disconnected from the simple experience of joy, cut off from a natural sense of elation at being alive.
I was once working with a man who was suffering from depression. Over time, we discovered together how unsafe it was for him to feel and express joy, how the experience of simple delight, spontaneity, and pleasure had become tangled in his nervous system with danger and threat, and the likelihood of unbearable, painful rupture with critical attachment figures in his life.
During our sessions, there would be times we would become aware of a very authentic, childlike, causeless joy coming to the surface, and how simultaneously some anxiety or even an annihilatory sense of panic would co-arise with the aliveness and the quantum, pregnant nature of what he was touching into.
In response, he would quickly change the subject, generate some sort of conflict between us, “leave” the room and go back into a prior conversation or nervously ask a question, or even just close his eyes and start to meditate. It had become urgent for him to disembody from that level of openness, spontaneity, and simple, playful elation at being alive, especially if he knew that I was witnessing that within him.
After this happened a few times, as the trust deepened between us, we were able to slow way down and become curious together and explore what was happening in those charged moments. Slowly and safely. With any judgment or shame, or some heavy agenda that he be fixed or cured or healed or any of that. There’s no safety in that sort of dense psychic agenda.
What was most essential was that in those moments he have the experience of being felt and understood, repairing those broken circuitries of love, empathy, presence, and warmth, so that he could feel again and express himself in a space of holding and trust.
In this field where he felt safe-enough, he was able access previously unmetabolized images, perceptions, emotions, and bodily sensations, as well as early memories of how his father reacted to the boy’s joy and excitement, responding with aggression and rage, dismissing and rejecting him, demanding that he “grow up” and stop embarrassing the family. And how in response to that, his mother shut down and turned away from him to avoid the conflict.
He felt so lost, alone, unseen, and disallowed to be who and what he is, a man who longs to know joy and to play and dance and explore his body and emotions and relationships – and even the Divine - from this open place.
He came to see how he had equated feeling full of life and natural states of delight, interest, play, and spontaneity with being judged and rejected. Over some time, he began to unwind this organization and was able to slowly re-awaken to this spectrum of experience and touch the natural joy he had disconnected from at an earlier time in his life (for very understandable reasons).
While the “shadow” is often associated with darkness and the unwanted, it is not only “negative” experience that finds its way into the shadow, but any psychic, emotional, or somatic material that has not found an attuned home within the relational field.
To retrieve the lost joyous little boy and girl is an act of love, really, not only for one’s self but for all of life.