Hosting Shadow

According to Jungian psychology, shadow is a part of the unconscious mind – and I would expand that to say it is part of the unconsciousness in a group’s field (team,organization, network, community).  Shadow consists of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts.  Everyone carries shadow to one degree or another.  It is part of who we are as human beings and it is part of what we collectively bring as we are in relationship with each other. It is often the underbelly of the things we love about ourselves, others, the work we do, the organizations we work in and the communities we support.  We don’t want to talk about it because we want to focus on the light and the things we love.  We want to pretend it isn’t there and in so doing we actually give it energy and life of its own.

Jung wrote, “the less shadow is embodied in an individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”  And the less we embody it and acknowledge it in our groups, the more it impacts.

Jung also said, “shadow is instinctive and irrational and thus is prone to projection onto others.”  We don’t so easily see it in ourselves but we do see it in others and in our group dynamics.  Because we instinctively project it out and onto others, it becomes difficult to speak about or to own and it seems simply easier to try to ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, believe we are better than it.  The more we try to ignore it, the greater the likelihood it will take root in us and in our group dynamics, ironically doing exactly what we have been trying to avoid: slowing down work, getting in the way of successful results, harming interpersonal relationships, feeding judgment and frustration and just generally wearing us down til we decide anywhere else is a better place to be than here.  We become dismayed and discouraged when we leave and shadow follows us to the next group or situation we find ourselves in.  Or when someone else, whom we are sure is responsible for the shadow,  leaves but shadow doesn’t leave with them.

What if we just knew that shadow exists and acknowledged it, making it normal for people to name, explore and be curious about?  And, what if, in our curiosity, we could throw ourselves open to what can be learned from shadow as it shows up and, in the process, disempower shadow’s potential to derail us, our work and our relationships?  What would it take to open up to this exploration?

These are beautiful questions for many of us who host and co-host facilitation, consulting, change or training processes.  In the Art of Hosting field, one of the mental models we use is the four fold practice.  The first of these is to be present or to host oneself.  When we do this well, we grow our capacity to host others and to host group processes where difficult conversations often show up or want to show up.  We shift the shape of our experience and the experiences of others.

Asking questions like: “Where am I willing to go? or not willing to go?” and “What are my parameters that may or may not get in the way of this group?” can be important to opening up a pathway to clearing some of our own shadow as we hold space for group process.  It is difficult to take a group where the host and/or hosting team is not willing or able to go.

When hosting teams try to hold back a conversation because of their own fear of going there one of two things often happens.  Either the group conforms to the will of the hosts and shadow builds in the conformity or we have mutiny over the host team if the group doesn’t conform.  Both of these situations create potentially explosive interpersonal dynamics in a group.  Often we feel we don’t have time to diverge to the conversations that are wanting to happen because we believe they just get in the way of reaching our goals or outcomes or just plain actions.

Sometimes we just need to clear the agenda to enter into the unspoken conversation and to do that we need to do to be present with it, create the opportunity for things to be spoken, experiences to be validated and clearing to take place.  What if, instead of fearing shadow, we  normalized it?  The real breakthroughs in our work and relationships come from the tough conversations.  Being able to navigate our way through these conversations is what makes a  group tight – the group learns to trust itself when it comes through the fire.

Jung believed that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this,the shadow is the seat of creativity.”

There is a rich reservoir of learning for hosts and host teams on the topic and experience of shadow and how to shine the light of our individual and collective humanity on it in a way that illuminates strength, compassion, creativity and potential for all, creating a depth of connection much more likely to move mountains and shift the shape of the world we live and work in.

(My thanks to my good friends and Art of Hosting colleagues: Christina Baldwin [co-author of The Circle Way with Ann Linnea], Martin Siesta and Nancy Eagan for stimulating conversations on the topic of shadow that have inspired this writing.)

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Contemplating Joy

Byron Brown, in Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within, asserts that compassion, strength, love and joy are essential soul qualities.  He says that ego – or our internal judge or critic – would have us believe this is not true, that we are in constant search of these qualities and that usually they are unattainable, maybe because we believe we are not worthy.

A constant search for these qualities would always have them in the future and, while we may have fleeting glimpses of them, they are elusive.  We are thus, by default, relegated to a life of strife and striving, doomed to be ruled by the internal judge or critic who, when we are not doing well admonishes us that we can do better and when we do well, first congratulates us and then says, “How long do you think you can keep that up?”.  Stepping out of this habitual, ingrained pattern in our thoughts and in our life takes conscious, intentional effort but when it happens we experience moments of freedom – even joyful freedom.

Of the essential soul qualities, it is joy I am contemplating most frequently at the moment.  Joy because, as the shape of my world has shifted, I feel joyful – often.  I wake up in the morning feeling joyful, go to bed at night feeling joyful.  I don’t necessarily feel joyful every moment of every day but at least I’ve become aware of my emotional journey and am living into it – rather than walking through it as if it was happening to someone else – or, maybe, happening to just a shadow of myself rather than the multi-coloured range which has become more available to me over the last couple of years.

Joy feels freeing and expansive.  It is fed by gratitude and appreciation. It is fed by noting it and sinking deeper into it – surrendering to it, letting it seep into all my pores, breathing it in with every breath and back out into the world so other people can also feel the expression of joy – even if they do not know what it is they are experiencing.

And as I notice joy and joyfulness in my life, in any given moment, every now and then I also notice the little voice that says — yeah, sure it’s summer now, but what about the fall?  How do you know you are actually going to keep your business busy enough to sustain yourself in the fall?  You should be worried about that now!

Hmmm, you should be worried about that now.  Sounds like the voice of my internal judge wanting to be heard – in fairness to it, it does want to keep me safe and financially sustainable, but it has a limited range of options with which to do that and they all include struggle, worry and fear – emotions I am very familiar with – as I am also familiar with how constricting and how limiting they can be, shutting down the capacity of the soul to be in full expression – which includes full manifestation that comes from a place of trust.

Most of us have learned that life is full of struggle and if you want to get ahead you have to work hard, really hard – and even then there are no guarantees.  We have learned that life is not handed to us on a silver platter, we have to work in order to live and adversity makes us stronger – you know that phrase – that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Okay, so there may be some truth in that but I declared awhile ago (a bit more than a year ago in fact) that I was welcoming ease into my life.  I’ve had varying degrees of success with that over the last year and a bit – it takes intentionality and really paying attention  in any given moment, and, for now, it seems to be more and more a characteristic of how I am living my life and what is showing up in it.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t difficult things or moments that show up. My father’s diagnosis of prostate cancer is a good example, the uncertainty of this story as it unfolds over the next 6 months to a year and the impact on me as his main source of support in his health care.  Or my mother’s journey with dementia in a long term care ward.  Or entering yet another new phase of my life as both of my older children prepare to depart to different provinces in the fall for University.  But it does mean I entertain these stories, events in my life, with a different kind of graciousness which invites ease into how to hold them them.  And it doesn’t mean I can’t feel joy or be in a state of joyfulness as I experience the ebb and flow of my life and the ebb and flow of the lives of people I care about.

I am welcoming ease, welcoming joy and welcoming the full array of what all needs to show up in my life, saying no to worry and to fear, yes to presence and to calm.  I am aware that fear, worry, frustration are waiting in the wings some days, some moments, but I am no longer expecting them and no longer inviting them – consciously or unconsciously.  Every moment will take care of itself.  And, if I believe that, it is a far more playful and fun way to show up in the world, a world of joy and joyfulness.

If it is true that the other shoe will drop, why can’t it look and feel like the first one rather than the one we allude to: the heavy handed, heavy-hearted counterpart to joy, love, compassion and strength?

Immoral Power or Powerless Morality?

I am still basking in the glow of my ALIA Institute experience last week (my 5th one, by the way) and this morning find myself pondering concepts offered by Adam Kahane from his new book Power and Love.

Kahane said, power properly understood is nothing but the strength to bring about purpose and love is the drive to unite the separated.  Both power and love have generative and degenerative sides.  What makes power degenerative rather than generative is the absence of love and what makes love degenerative rather than generative is the absence of power.

The idea of this continuum for both power and love makes absolute sense to me.  The idea of experimenting with the blending of power and love with greater awareness has me on the edge of my seat.

I was particularly struck by the expression: immoral power and powerless morality.   We have come to believe that power corrupts, is held in the hands of a few and is the source of much that is bad in the world.  We believe that people who sit in the place of love are ineffectual and weak – other than a few prominent examples like Mother Teresa or Ghandi whom most of us have trouble identifying ourselves with.

While we  may believe the antidote to power is love, when we swing too far in that direction it often becomes inaction and ineffectual.  How many of us have avoided stepping into our power out of fear and the belief that power is bad?  How many of us have self-righteously sat in the place of love waiting for it to right all the wrongs of the world – or have just given our power away?

Kahane says it is not a choice but a paradox.  We can’t choose just one.  We need both.  We just need to find the balance between power and love.  In any given situation, what is needed of me?  If there is too much power, act with love.  If there is too much love, act with power.   When we work with this consciously and intentionally, then power and love  gradually overlap and we find our place of greatest effectiveness and greatest movement for any given situation.

Shape shifting, shape shifting,in a soulful way, leaning in, claiming it back, leaning in, growing open, shape shifting, shape shifting in a soulful way” – some of my  “blues band” lyrics that just spilled over onto this page as I consider the journey of power and love I have been traveling the last 5 years.