words and images by mk swanson
Shadow Boxing Gives Way to an Appetite for Life

Shadow Boxing Gives Way to an Appetite for Life

I am reading Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow because I have always felt a resonance with his description of shadow as “the long bag we drag behind us.” I think it is working, both in my writing and my living.
Shadow, as described by Bly and others, is anything inherent in a person (or village, country or culture) that is not acknowledged by its owner. Shadow is often thought of as darkness or evil, or at least baseness, but is none of this. It is us, and it is not bad until we disown it.
When we reject a part of ourselves, we cast it on others–sometimes our mother or father, sometimes another culture or group. If you want to see your shadow, look for it on those you admire or deride.
So, what happens then? What can a little shadow hurt?
Two things happen, and they hurt a lot: you lose the energy that went with the part of yourself you reject, and the other finds himself more and more burdened with your expectations. If you cast your “achieving” self on your sister, for instance, she may feel your need to achieve as a nagging, debilitating sense that she has not done enough. If you give the power of your anger to your husband, he may feel an overwhelming rage that seems to pass through him rather than bursting from him. You see your sister as a Type A or a failure, and your husband as a fearsome maniac or a pitiful weakling.
But this isn’t your sister or your husband–they are colored by your overbearing, unaccepted self.
Bly illustrates shadow by quoting his own poetry and by referring to the biographies of great artists, mostly writers. He says that an artist will not be great unless he is able to see his own shadow, and that as he ages, he must learn to “eat” his shadow in order to mature–and to continue to make great art.
He says that everyone needs to consume the shadow. If we don’t, we will slowly feel a creeping weakness and shallowness, reflecting the slight portion of our real selves we still have control of, and how that tiny self is not enough to power the explosion of creativity, goodness, and excitement we secretly know ourselves to be.
I have begun using his formula to reclaim the energy of my rejected selves. (I paraphrase), “Hey you (person I admire or despise), I know you have my (fear of failure, greed, desire for recognition, hatred of traditional religion). Please give it back to me, so I can regain my energy and quit damaging you.”
Last night, I saw my “others” in my dreams as their younger, happier, more alive (sometimes literally) selves. They looked brighter, lighter.
Today, I feel like I am recovering from a long fever. I am weak, but smiling. I am thirsty for something.
Maybe soon, I’ll get the courage to eat more of my shadow.


  1. MK–

    I love that I can see immediately when you post, now, if I'm on Slippers!

    So, totally weird that you brought this particular topic up: "But this isn't your sister or your husband–they are colored by your overbearing, unaccepted self," because Anna and I were talking about this very thing the other day AND YOU your own MK self were in a dream this morning. It was a very potent dream–"you" came with a lot of potent warrior energy. I don't remember much of it, just the "energy shadow" it left behind.

    Anyway, I'm going to re-read and digest this post. Thanks for talking about something substantive while I'm over across town talking about Scrabble.


  2. So much of the "recovery" of our creative self depends on self acceptance. And self acceptance depends on self knowledge. We don't want to acknowledge that shadow self so we project it on others and judge them for it. But we all are like the greek drama mask, half white and smiling, half black and frowning. My mother-in-law used to say, "We all have our little ways." I think that's one of the things I love about yoga. It encourages self-acceptance and gives us the permission and courage to examine those "little ways".

  3. Back again. This is a big idea of a post and deserves several and careful readings. Tonight, what strikes me is this: "He says that an artist will not be great unless he is able to see his own shadow, and that as he ages, he must learn to 'eat' his shadow in order to mature"

    Maybe I'm getting this more because my sister has reclaimed some of her shadow–at least part of what she'd foisted onto me.

    And maybe I'm getting this more because I'm writing more and approaching just the outskirts of my artist-self.

    Whatever. Thanks for your thoughtful digestion and presentation of Bly's ideas. Honestly, I like reading you much more than I do reading him.

    See you tonight!

  4. Yup. I'm at it again!

    So, now I'm struck by "you lose the energy that went with the part of yourself you reject." And I'm thinking about sexuality. There's a part of myself I've tried to hoist onto others all of my life. Not having role models (let's just blame my parents for the moment, okay?) that helped me to incorporate my sexuality, I haven't known what to do with it really. So I look for a man to tell me that I'm okay; how to act, sexually; and I'm not sure I really know where/how I am about it.

    But sexuality seems like a tough thing to claim on one's own. Or, at least right now while I'm typing this it seems so. I mean, how do I express it without a partner? It seems a shared experience–a natural place to look for a reflection of one's self.


    Any thoughts, MK? Or any idea what Robert Bly would say?


  5. My idea would be to examine who I am obsessed with from a sexual standpoint, either thinking too much of them "Angelina Jolie is the sexiest woman alive. If I looked like her, I'd be a sexual volcano!" or too little "that Angelina Jolie is so fake. Boobs, lips, butt-everything is all about attracting attention. She's ridiculous. I would be ashamed if I acted that way." if there is someone in my personal life I feel that way about, say an enemy or a girlfriend, Id substitute her. Then, I'd try the simple thing first: Ask her for my shadow back. Not personally, of course! In my imagination. Then, I would give the process a week or two to set without doing any more. Bly says it's important to reabsorb the shadow slowly, or it can overwhelm the psyche. From a girl perspective, I would pamper myself bigtime after asking for my sexual shadow back. Gentle yoga, long baths and good soul-feeding books.
    I can't imagine this would not pull some shadow back, based on my current experience. If it didn't, tho, I would question whether there is some other aspect of myself I am not reclaiming that affects my sexual self: who really bugs me? Why? I would try to figure that out, and then ask them for that aspect of myself back. Who's to say that the shadow we cast doesn't suck away our energy in many areas of our lives, seemingly unrelated?

  6. Yup. That is a lot of smarts your sharing right there. I will take my time and digest it.

    In the meantime, if you get a chance, wander over to Migrant Art Worker's blog and read Sally Schisler's comment about her own dark side (it's in response to MAW's post on "paradigm").

    You'll see that I headed Sally over to this post of yours for more stuff to consider.

    Your writing is astounding amazing gorgeous engaging rich compelling and beautiful.

  7. Jamie, your comment demands another comment! This stuff is really working for me, too. 
    My Bad Girl always wanted piercings, but instead, I bought totems–rings, stones, things that would remind me of who I was and who I had become.
    Oddly, I have been thinking about a dream I had last year. Here's the short version:
    I am getting married. White dress, big church, the works. There is no groom, but I don't realize it until after I wake. The minister begins a homily that starts to sound like a personal attack. I take him to task, stopping the ceremony. In solidarity with me, my family and friends walk out of the church. 
    I go to the social hall, and I realize I'm hot, sweaty. However, I feel great, strong, bigger than life–not fat, but like an Amazon. 
    I comment to my nephew that I hoped no one was mad I yelled at the minister. He says, "We just couldn't understand why it took you so long."

Comments are closed.