Mystic shadow, bending near me,
Who art thou?
Whence come ye?
And—tell me—is it fair
Or is the truth bitter as eaten fire?
Fear not that I should quaver.
For I dare—I dare,
Then, tell me!
-Stephen Crane, 1905
What is Shadow? How does it appear in dreams? These questions puzzled me for many years. The raging teen, the woman in a wheelchair, the homeless guy in the basement and the timid girl wiping up crumbs at my feet; were they each a part of my shadow? And if so, how was I supposed to work with them? What did it mean to ‘integrate them’ as Jungian theory proposed? Reading what Carl Jung wrote about Shadow only added to my confusion.
In some passages, his description of Shadow is so broadly defined it becomes either meaningless or overwhelming:
Before unconscious contents have been differentiated, the shadow is in effect the whole of the unconscious. It is commonly personified in dreams by persons of the same sex as the dreamer. Shadow is the dark aspects of the personality…composed for the most part of repressed desires and uncivilized impulses, morally inferior motives, childish fantasies and resentments etc.- all those things about oneself one is not proud of… [CW9ii, par. 14] … but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc. [Conclusion, CW 9ii, par. 423.]
In other writing, Jung portrays Shadow as a double, an alter-ego, much like Stephen Crane’s Mystic Shadow:
One has to become aware of its (Shadow’s) qualities and intentions…a long process of negotiation is unavoidable. This must lead to some kind of union, even though the union consists at first in an open conflict… it is a struggle that goes on until the opponents run out of breath. [Rex and Regina CW14 par. 14]
Listening to Jung in passages such as this, I am reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis, struggling to extract a blessing: But Jacob’s angel was fairly matched in size and strength, while the proportions of Shadow, swollen to include everything unconscious, are huge. No wonder Jung viewed the shadow as a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality. I believe the confusion stems from conflation of two metaphors – the shadow silhouette that follows us wherever we go, and that which is obscured in shadow – unknown. This conflation has resulted in important misunderstandings about which aspects of our unconscious are fundamental to who we are and which are symptoms of unresolved pain and trauma that can be healed.
Working with my own dreams, and those of my clients over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that Shadow is not a moral problem, but a compassion problem. The beating heart of shadow is not the ‘dark underside of the personality’ but the wounded self. And the work of integrating shadow is an embrace – not a negotiation or a fight.
Most of us have a difficult time accepting that we have wounds at all. As adults we hide behind a veneer of competence, avoid arenas that evoke any feelings of inadequacy and restrict our lives unnecessarily. The need to look away from our pain creates distortions in our perceptions, both of ourselves and the world.
Our dreams have the potential to help us heal. In our dreams, we may find ourselves alive without a heartbeat, with burns on our skin, pus coming out of our ear, unable to see, unable to speak. Sometimes the dreamer experiences these conditions first-hand, and sometimes the wounds are carried by other figures in our dreams: these figures frequently teach us how to live with our pain, to express our feelings and accept help. They help us recognize that we are not alone. These figures feel very real, they pulse with life, we feel them deeply when we allow ourselves to connect with them. Embracing these figures is the work of Integrating Shadow.
In Natural Dreamwork, we distinguish between the figures that carry our wounds, and figures of conditioning. Figures of conditioning highlight survival strategies: inflexible patterns of perception and behaviors that develop to help us survive in challenging circumstances. While these strategies once kept us safe, when continued they hinder our growth and healing. We find ourselves locked into rigid roles, unable to recognize possibilities for growth, while also carrying a great deal of anxiety that we are not ‘ok.’ Our wounds get cloaked in shame. Figures of the ‘wounded self’ remove the cloak so we can heal.
Figures of conditioning are qualitatively different from the figures of the wounded self: They exist to highlight a dynamic, show us stereotyped behaviors. They are ‘paper thin,’ without much life. Sometimes they are almost comic. These figures fade away as we embrace our difficulties. Figures of conditioning are not fundamental to who we are as people.
Here is an example:
‘Melissa’ is a woman in her 40’s, married with two college-age sons. She is very bright and articulate but struggles to find meaningful direction for her life. She suffers from intense self-doubt and is very critical of herself.
After working together for a year, she shared the following dreams.
A couple of months before the dreams, she had spoken to me about her insecurity picking out gifts for others. In her dream ‘Nadia’ fills this role:
Nadia asks if I got the crochet gift she gave me. I did and I say so and she says, “I thought maybe you weren’t here when it was delivered.” We’ve actually talked about the gift before so I’m surprised she needs to be told again that I got it. She’s holding it up now, “I hope you don’t notice the mistakes,” She’s pointing them out but what I’m noticing is the lovely details and crochet embellishments. It looks like something I’d like to make. Nina is wearing a blue crochet sweater and it’s hard to tell where the gift starts and the sweater ends. I say, “even the finest handcrafted things have small mistakes.” She says, “Oh well, I just wanted to make sure you got it. I thought you weren’t here when it was delivered.” I feel like she’s determined to stay stuck in the doubts and problems.
The dream highlights a pattern of behavior. ‘Nadia’ comes off as a caricature. The description of the dream figure’s insecurity is exaggerated to the point of comedy; the image of a string from the gift still attached to the one giving the gift is very funny. We had a good laugh together as Melissa shared this dream. She is on her way toward letting go of this pattern of anxiety, self-doubt and perfectionism that has plagued her. As she says in the dream, “even the finest handcrafted things have small mistakes.”
In the second dream we learn more about the root of Melissa’s conditioning. She dreams:
I’m in a bathroom with Nicky (a friend My mom once said was never going to be very pretty.) She’s crying. I’m standing behind her and can only see her grey polar fleece jacket that’s much like mine. It has a few flour smudges and strings from sewing on it. I can’t see her face in the mirror because her hair is hanging down covering it. she cries, “I always try to make my mom happy but no matter what I always disappoint her.” I turn her toward me and hug her. A powerful feeling of recognition runs through my body and it wakes me up.
‘Nicky’ feels real. We can see her, feel her, down to ‘flour smudges on her jacket.’ Her anguish is palpable, and she is able to express what Melissa has half-known but until this dream has been unable to express or fully accept: her struggle from early childhood to get approval and love from her mother. Melissa feels a powerful embodied recognition and wakes up. She embraces the wounded self, and with it integrates the wisdom and feeling this figure carries. ‘Nicky’ will stay with her, ‘Nadia’ will fade. This dream was a threshold for Melissa, one we will both remember for a long time.
As we connect with the wisdom and self-compassion of our wounded self, the rest of the ‘Shadow Work’ tends to follow in its course: we let go of outworn habits, feel freer to explore our feelings and develop capacities that have been overshadowed by anxiety and shame. Our shadow loses weight, becomes less burdened, and our lives enriched.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error! –
that a spring was breaking out in my heart…
So begins a remarkable poem by Antonio Machado, in which he speaks of the wonders of his nightly dreams, bringing water of a new life … and honey from… old failures. Machado speaks of this as a ‘marvelous error.’ If it is an error, how are we to understand marvelous? If marvelous, how is it an error? From a Natural Dreamwork perspective, the dreams themselves, as much as the dream content, are the water of new life, the bees making honey, the bright light bringing warmth and clarity. Our lives are greatly nourished by our dreams – even when the images are difficult, or seemingly mundane. If there is an error at all, it is only in the belief that one dream is going to do it, that one morning we are going to wake up finding ourselves suddenly transformed as it would seem from the surface of Machado’s poem.
There are still nights when I yearn for a BIG dream – the kind of dream that spurts up conspicuously, hands me a solution to a problem, knocks me sideways with awe or lifts the veil between this world and the Other. I’ve had my share of these dreams, and I am very grateful for them. I carry them with me always – precious jewels that they are. But most of the fruit of my dreams comes from loving attention to each dream, no matter how big or small. All dreams are valuable: aligning us more deeply with feeling, increasing our capacity for honest relationship, a flexible imagination and more secure connection to a ground of Divinity.
So often people tell me, “Dreams are so interesting, but I barely remember mine…”
As we talk some more, I often find that what is missing is not the dreams themselves but a misunderstanding of dreaming and how to prepare for our dreams’ arrival.We have to make space for them, give them time to settle in with us in the morning. We have to write them down.
It is very difficult to fully appreciate a dream rattling around in our psyche while rushing through breakfast, answering email or scrolling Facebook feeds. In writing down a dream, it takes on a fuller identity: like a folded textile from a distant weaver, it can’t be appreciated unless you spread it out.
When I enter a busy period, I sometimes neglect my dreams by not writing them down. I tell myself,” the dream is unclear, a throw-away, redundant.” There have been weeks when I have gone through my dreams like a box of chocolates, taking a nibble here and there, discarding most, in search of ‘the right one.’ Some days, I just can’t face the water pouring down my wall, the flies hovering in my kitchen – or even the baby left at my doorstep. I tell myself “I already know about this….” But not really.
Dreamwork is a practice, and we practice by welcoming and writing down) all that comes. We tap into the well, harvest the honey by our attention, and intention to feel what we feel as we contemplate each image.
Even when we are committed to a dream practice, there are still periods of dream drought for most of us. What then? There are many useful practices to help us recall our dreams. Many of these are well discussed in Kezia Vida’s Dream Blog. I would like to add three additional suggestions.
First: Read through your old dreams to allow them to come alive again.
Focus most on the images themselves, and what they evoke in you now (not what you thought or felt about them at the time). What you see, hear, feel and do in the dream is most important. You may find that you have a different response now than when you first dreamed the dream. That is the beauty of dream images – they are living presences that continually touch us, energetic entities that never expire. Dreams flock together: as you tend to one, more will ‘land.’
Second: Meditate daily. A short, gentle meditation practice – even 15 minutes – helps stimulate dream recall. When I sit comfortably with open attention, alive to the sensations, feelings, images and thoughts that move through me in waking life, I also increase my connection to my dreams.
Third: Write out waking experiences as if they were dreams: Slow down, pay attention to waking life encounters. Sink deeply into the feelings that are evoked in you as if that experience were a dream. It is a living dream. Record a snatch of conversation overheard while walking, a fight with your partner, a fox lounging in your back yard: It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is fully experienced. Each day is packed with encounters, so what we notice is meaningful. You could have chosen a 1000 other things to write about.
It doesn’t matter what you write about; but try to be brave. Make note particularly of experiences that rub against the parts of you that are rough or tender. Write these down in your dream journal as if they were dreams. If upon waking you have not captured any nocturnal images, write about a daytime event instead. Your dreams will find you. That’s a promise.
I dream: I am lying on a hospital gurney in a curtained room- like an Emergency Room or pre-operative suite. A young boy has just left the room, while the doctors search for an old man that is hiding in a closet.
Sometimes when we refer to a memory or an event in our history, we continue to tell it as we understood it at an earlier time, drawing on patterns of perception no longer congruent with our current understanding. This dream is no exception. I have told the story of this dream many times and only recently noticed that the meaning, and significance of the dream, as I was used to telling it did not include the richer resonances I would emphasize if I were to dream this dream today, or if one of my clients were to bring it to me to work with now as a Natural Dreamwork practitioner.
I dreamt this dream 25 years ago. I was 30 years old, a young physician and mother. The dream was an initiation, introducing me to the power of dreams. The dream prefigured an impending miscarriage, and took on additional layers of meaning, as I prepared to leave the medical world 5 years later. The fact that I view this dream differently now thirty years later does not detract from the importance it held for me at the time but I feel compelled to tell the story again, to update my experience of this dream.
When I dreamt this dream, there were no warning signs of my impending miscarriage. In the busyness of my life the dream was forgotten . Two weeks later, I noticed vaginal bleeding. A pelvic ultrasound showed a mass on my ovary without evidence of an intrauterine pregnancy. As my pregnancy test was still positive, there was a suspicion I might have an ectopic pregnancy, sometimes called a ‘tubal pregnancy’ . In this condition, the embryo remains near the ovary or in the fallopian tube, and never makes it to the uterus where it can grow properly. Ectopic pregnancies are life threatening emergencies because the ovary and fallopian tube do not have the capacity to expand as the embryo grows, risking rupture of the pelvic organs. This is how I came to surgery one Friday afternoon of an otherwise glorious day in June.
The surgery was unexpectedly prolonged, and when I woke from the anesthesia I was told of a tumor on my ovary(rather than an ectopic pregnancy).I had had an early miscarriage without realizing it. The grapefruit-sized mass was a Dermoid cyst:, a disorganized collection of epithelial cells -skin, hair, bone, even teeth. Dermoid tumors are usually benign, but occasionally they are malignant.
On the day following the surgery, I lay in bed shivering, uncontrollably anxious about the possibility of a malignancy. Suddenly my mind flashed back to the dream of the hospital gurney and my body quieted instantly. It was as if the dream spoke directly to my body, communicating in ways I had never thought possible. That the dream seemed to predict my upcoming medical issue was interesting, but what was most dramatic was that the experience of the remembered dream quieted my body and caused my anxiety to disappear in an instant. There was, to be sure a certain logic to my response(as a physician): Immature tumors are the ones that are malignant: but the child had left already. Only the ‘old man’ remained. The experience initiated me into a kind of knowing that went far beyond my rational experience and stoked my curiosity about dreams. When I prepared to leave medicine 5 years later, I took comfort in the dream’s symbolism foreshadowing my growing discontent as a medical practitioner : the new life ( soul child) had left the medical suite, and all that was left was an old man (outworn way of being) hiding out in the closet.
The dream had changed my worldview, opened my eyes, and given me permission to pursue areas of interest that had been, to that point in time, off limits. But the dream hadn’t changed me. I still struggled with the same insecurities, obsessions and relationship patterns that had tripped me up for much of my life. At the time I wasn’t able to experience the dream on a feeling level. Instead I treated the dream as a message to be decoded, rather than experience.
In Natural Dreamwork, in contrast , the focus is on re-entering the dream to feel the feelings contained ( though sometimes hidden) in the dream experience. Dreams are viewed as a portal to our inner world as much as or more than a concrete depiction of our outer life. This dream was not just about my impending miscarriage, but about the condition of my soul.
As I re-enter the experience of the dream now, what I feel most is loneliness, confusion and a certain numbness: I am lying alone without a clue to my predicament and without any support. There is a deep truth to this dream. At the time I was feeling very lonely and isolated, without even realizing this was so. I did not know how to express my needs, pain or confusion even to myself and held the mistaken belief that if I were to express myself I would not be heard: better to be self-sufficient and tough it out than risk vulnerability and exposure. Perhaps this was a legacy of my early life experience, repeated a second time during my medical residency. But the cause of the predicament is not nearly as important as the experience of it. Recognizing our needs, vulnerabilities and wounds is the necessary first step toward healing.
I sometimes wonder if the pace of my healing would have been more rapid if I had the opportunity to work with my dreams more deeply when I was in my thirties or if I simply have needed that much time (20yrs) to feel the depth of what my dreams have to offer. I have had to develop trust in the dream process, in myself, and in my dream guides (inner and outer) before I could really descend into the depths of difficult feelings. That takes time: a great deal of time and many dreams. The hospital gurney dream was just the first of many to follow in which I was shown to be the patient, not the doctor in charge, pulled deeper and deeper into the Mythos of the Wounded Healer. My predicament as a patient has, over time, been imaged in a variety of vivid and sometimes disturbing images ( bone deep cuts, burnt skin, failing heart, hole in the head.), which I have (mostly ) learned to accept and feel. It’s taken time to develop trust in the healing figures who visit my dreams (more frequently now), showing up with love and compassion, and not a trace of judgment.
I am still filled with wonder each time I experience synchronicities between my dreams and my outer life. I still find solace in my body’s capacity to take in dream content before my mind has caught up. But the most impactful, healing work with my dreams now comes when I re-enter my dreams as an experience, feeling whatever the dream evokes in me, doing my best to be receptive to the dream presences that visit me in my slumber.
Used judiciously, medical therapy is a great gift. But frequently, we reach for medication to quell our deepest longings and pains; especially when our feelings and needs are at odds with the breakneck pace of modern living. That this habit is not new is made abundantly clear by Emily Dickinson’s insightful and vivid commentary. This blog is the about connecting to the images that heal, enliven and nourish us deeply in a way that a pharmaceuticals cannot.
I hope to share dreams that have helped me and my clients(with permission) live more fully in tune with our nature, and also to heal places where tooth nibbles Soul. I will also share poetry that has inspired me and poems I have written as part of my own discovery and healing.
There are many paths to healing and I can only share experiences from those few I have traveled myself or witnessed up close. I write both for myself and for you as reader: I write to explore the terrain of my own inner landscape more fully, to recognize the connections between inner and outer worlds, and also as a way of paying forward the inspiration I have received from teachers, family and friends throughout my life. I hope that with time you will add your own voice to this conversation, so that the blog can become a rich dialogue, where a variety of viewpoints can be heard respectively. If you are interested in following all of my blog posts you can sign up for the newsletter below.
Keren Vishny originally trained as a physician, and practiced Internal Medicine for 10 years before retraining as a psychotherapist and NaturalDreamwork practitioner and teacher. Her exploration of her own dream has led to the re-emergence of her poet, in hibernation since age 14. She is affiliated with the CG Jung Center in Evanston, as well as the Marion Woodman Foundation.