Reposted from Resilience.Org
If you’re familiar with the work of early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, then you know about his concept of the shadow aspect. Commonly referred to simply as “the shadow,” it’s a mostly unconscious layer of the personality that consists of all our disowned traits. Everything that the ego refuses to associate itself with lies there. These repressed traits aren’t all negative; some of them represent “bright shadow” material. For example, one might feel compelled to squelch one’s creativity or feminine/masculine side for fear of how these qualities might be judged by others. Whether positive or negative, the stuff of shadow manifests in our lives in problematic ways, often leading us to vilify others by projecting our own perceived faults onto them. In order to heal the psyche and become whole again, according to Jungian theory, one must reintegrate the shadow, a process called shadow work.
Carolyn Baker is no stranger to shadow work. In her three-decade-plus career as a psychotherapist, life coach, author, speaker and educator, she has put Jung’s methods to work in helping many others achieve psychic healing and wholeness. She has also done the same for herself. Her courageous 2007 book Coming out of Fundamentalist Christianity, which chronicles her path from growing up in a rigid Christian home to eventually becoming a vehement advocate for social justice and LGBT rights—and thus boldly challenging core beliefs instilled in her as a child—is a poignant case study of shadow reintegration. In her current work, Baker helps others prepare emotionally and spiritually for the difficult future humanity faces as our ecological crisis deepens. Her latest book, Dark Gold, examines the role that she believes shadow work can play in this journey.
The book’s main thesis is that understanding and confronting one’s shadow is a necessary first step toward becoming a compassionate steward of the Earth community. This is because we inhabitants of the developed world have come to think of ourselves as separate from nature, even though we’re part of it, and this perceived separateness has enabled us to rationalize our unchecked exploitation of nature. Thus, to quote Baker, humankind’s predicament is “a horrifying testimony to the destructiveness of the shadow unseen and unhealed.” Nor is it only the individual shadow each of us possesses that must be addressed; humanity as a whole has a collective shadow that is in need of healing. Baker insists that shadow work holds precious treasures for those who undertake it, and it’s these treasures, together with Jung’s conviction that the shadow is “80 percent pure gold,” that inspired her to call her latest book Dark Gold.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a different dimension of the shadow in contemporary life. Chapters one and two anatomize the personal shadow, while the rest of the book probes the many facets of the collective shadow. Some examples of the latter include the shadows of war, institutional racism, the American dream and torture carried out by U.S. armed forces. Baker concludes every chapter with a list of discussion questions or suggested practices. For instance, at the end of her chapter on the shadow of racism, she asks readers to view Lee Mun Wah’s breakthrough 1994 documentary The Color of Fear, then journal about the feelings that watching the film evoked. The purpose of this exercise is to come to terms with the part of one’s psyche that is intent on “othering” those who belong to racial groups other than one’s own.
Othering, explains Baker, occurs when an individual or society projects shadow material onto a particular group of people or entities. Whether the perpetrator is a gay-bashing minister who is himself secretly gay, or an entire society like the modern industrial world pretending it has no use for nature when in fact it wholly depends on nature, the goal is the same. Projecting aspects of oneself onto others enables one to continue disavowing those aspects.
Accepting that we’re part of nature means admitting that we’re subject to natural limits, and herein lies the key to understanding why we’re so bent on othering nature. Doing so is a form of denial about the direness of our situation, a situation that Baker likens to being in a state of planetary hospice. (The hospice metaphor comes from the fact that human beings, along with innumerable other species, face the specter of extinction.) Yet Baker contends that no matter how fervently some may choose to deny our crisis, everyone grasps its reality on some unconscious level. And she believes that the cognitive dissonance arising from our staunch rejection of this fact we know to be true is making our culture insane.
If there’s one thing that Baker emphasizes above all else in Dark Gold and her other work, it’s the importance of grieving. She maintains that properly grieving over the annihilation of life on Earth is the single most important thing one can do right now. And while this next point might seem counterintuitive in a culture as averse to enduring emotional pain as ours is, she also holds that the more we grieve, the more we become filled with love and joy. In extolling the virtues of grieving, Baker invokes the eloquent image of a heart “broken open.”
She goes on to relate an experience of her own that caused her to become more compassionate through heartbreak. It involved befriending a homeless man named Buck. Over the course of her relationship with Buck, Baker had her eyes opened to the tragic realities of homelessness, as well as the fact that homeless people have a lot more in common with the rest of us than the prevailing stereotypes would suggest. In one keenly insightful passage, she sheds light on why so many people are intolerant of the homeless. “We know in our bones,” she writes, “that it could happen to us as surely as it happened to them. When we see a homeless person, we are, in a sense, viewing ourselves—an experience that for the majority of middle class human beings in our culture is abjectly terrifying.” Baker believes there are lessons for all of us in the story of her friendship with Buck, since the economic milieu into which we’re descending is one in which more and more people will become homeless.
The joy that comes of feeling one’s grief rather than suppressing it is but one instance of the dark gold to be mined from the shadow. Other forms of dark gold include increased self-acceptance, healthier personal relationships, greater control over one’s unwanted emotional reactions and access to previously untapped creative energies. Moreover, every gain that one makes in reclaiming his or her own shadow improves the overall state of the collective shadow, which in turn brings the Earth community closer to being healed. “Since the collective shadow is comprised of the projections of individuals,” writes Baker, “even minimal reclamation of our own projections facilitates harmonious communication and interaction within the human community and the planet at large.”
Baker stresses that the search for dark gold within the shadow is, much like the quest for literal gold in the physical world, an endeavor requiring great energy, time and patience. So it’s appropriate that the shadow-healing exercises located at the end of each chapter increase in difficulty as one moves through the book. They begin with a link to an article on the web about how to discern the personal shadow—through methods such as journaling, dream work and observing one’s behavior—in order to start the process of mending it. From here, the exercises progress to doing community service, consciously grieving, trying to learn tonglen meditation, undergoing a vision quest experience, seeking out various trainings on topics related to shadow work and watching/reflecting on films that offer insights into the shadow’s workings.
Toward the close of the final chapter, Baker comes to what is perhaps the most demanding of all her shadow work practices: taking a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself, such as one does as part of a 12-step program. This inventory is challenging because it can’t consist of blanket apologies, but must be a specific and well-thought-out accounting of all the harm one has done to others over one’s entire life. Baker is candid enough to admit that she’s hurt plenty of people close to her and that, as a result, her moral inventory has been a difficult and protracted undertaking. Yet she has some encouraging words of wisdom to others as they begin this step: “Remember that making amends is for your benefit as much as for the benefit of the other person.”
Dark Gold is one in a line of books that Baker has written over the past several years to help others prepare emotionally and spiritually for the trying times ahead. Writing these books is a calling of hers that began in 2009 when she first embarked on her own “inner transition,” as she refers to the process of coming to terms with humanity’s predicament. “I made a conscious decision,” she recalls, “to spend the rest of my life preparing for the collapse of industrial civilization and assisting others in doing the same.”* It’s a noble calling, and it will be fascinating to see what other illuminating books it will spawn in years to come.
* Carolyn Baker, “Preparing For Near-Term Extinction,” Carolyn Baker, May 7, 2013, https://www.carolynbaker.net/2013/
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