Award-winning author, depth psychotherapist, and guide Connie Zweig shows us encountering darkness is a necessary part of our spiritual journey. In the first half of life, we disown aspects of ourselves to fit in and navigate our world more smoothly. Over time we realize all aspects of ourselves must be recalled and befriended. Integration of these shadow aspects lays the foundation for spiritual awakening.
Through careful introspection, dreamwork, and self-confrontation, we can see beyond stereotypes and projections, avoiding the pitfalls of black-and-white thinking. Jung reminds us,
“…we shall, by carefully analyzing every fascination, extract from it a portion of our own personality, like a quintessence, and slowly come to recognize that we meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life.”
Navigating the complex psychodynamics between spiritual students, the teachers they choose, and the disciplines of the path they tread can be more complicated than most people imagine. The inherent power dynamics in many spiritual traditions can encourage students to dismiss their agency and silence their ambivalence. Idealizing their teachers through projecting the Self upon them or contracting to be unquestioningly obedient can leave students disoriented and vulnerable to exploitation.
Falling into moral idealism and accepting standards of spiritual perfection, students may split off essential aspects of their unique personality, hobbling their developmental progress. Spiritual bypass may be encouraged by certain spiritual teachers leaving the leader and the student blind to harmful impulses and minimizing destructive behaviors.
Confronting the flaws and failures of the teacher can help students place their spiritual center back inside themselves. Accepting the limits of many spiritual traditions may free students to rediscover their autonomous inner guidance.
Connie’s work can help us understand why some are drawn to charismatic leaders, unconsciously surrendering parts of their psyche to them or the system they represent. In worst cases, students suffer abuse and betrayal that alienates them from their spiritual instinct, blocking them from the very experiences they long for. Shadow work and depth psychology can be key tools in breaking free from denial, projection, and dependency.
With support, time, and corrective action, it is possible to recover one’s inner connection. Connie’s stories of renowned teachers like Sufi poet Rumi, Hindu master Ramakrishna, and Christian saint Catherine of Siena exemplify the different paths that can support spiritual yearning.
Meeting the shadow, internally or externally, is a painful but inevitable stage on the path to a more mature spirituality. We can use spiritual shadow work to separate from abusive teachers or barren traditions and reclaim inner spiritual authority. It’s about navigating the narrow path through the darkness toward the light, reigniting the flame of longing, and engaging once more in fulfilling spiritual practice.
Connie Zweig, Ph.D., is a retired therapist and coauthor of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow. Her award-winning book, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, extends her work on the Shadow into midlife and beyond and explores aging as a spiritual practice. It won the 2022 Gold COVR Award, the 2022 Gold Nautilus Award, the 2021 American Book Fest Award, and the 2021 Best Indie Book Award for best inspirational non-fiction. Her new book, Meeting the Shadow on the Spiritual Path: The Dance of Darkness and Light in Our Search for Awakening, is available now. Connie has been doing contemplative practices for more than 50 years. She is a wife, stepmother, and grandmother. After all these roles, she’s practicing the shift from role to soul.
HERE’S THE DREAM WE ANALYZED:
Two dreams with repeated Octopus figures, six months apart:
Dream 1: Someone is going to eat the eye of an octopus. The octopus is almost dead and blackish purple. Its eye is a pearl in the middle of its head; someone is trying to pry it out. The people trying to pry out the octopus’ eye are dressed in white hazmat or lab suits, with heads covered and faces obscured. The setting is a cold and sterile laboratory, and the Octopus is on a lab table with no water. I feel great sadness for the Octopus as it grasps the pearl eye firmly with its tentacles, resisting the prying. The person in the lab coat cannot get the eye out.
Dream 2: I am in a run-down aquarium with my close friend B, whom I have known for over 20 years. The ground is wet and flooded with a couple of inches of water spilled from the tanks, none of which are completely filled. Animals are neglected and not well cared for, especially a large, monstrous-looking white Octopus roiling around in one low, open-topped tank resembling a children’s touch tidepool tank. It is roiling and shows its undercarriage, all tentacles, and suckers. I imagine a monstrous squid-like maw inside. A patron is touching and interacting with the octopus, and the octopus appears to like it. I attempt to interact with the octopus, but it doesn’t want me to; it rears up and scares me off – it’s not ready yet.
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