Shadow Bags

Yesterday’s Quest2015 prompt from Eric Klein, founder of the Wisdom Heart School is a long one–the prompt itself and the story that explains it. Because the prompt doesn’t make sense on its own, and because I have readers who aren’t part of the quest, I’m going to include both here. First the question:

How will you face your shadow bag and stop the stink, so you can bring forth what is best within you in 2015? What can you claim right now?

And now, the story:

The Question of Power (and where to find it)

I recently received this email from a reader of our Wisdom Heart newsletter:

“Can I harness my power and still be nice?”

It’s a wonderful question for anyone seeking to live with greater clarity, courage, and compassion. And the short answer is no.

Because, power is the ability to fully and authentically embody your values and create what matters most in your work and life.

So, what is nice?

Nice is a knife.

It’s a knife you use to cut off parts of your self. You started using the knife when you were young; cutting off the parts of yourself that don’t fit with family expectations.

It’s something we all do. It’s part of the human condition. It’s how we adapt, fit in, survive.

But, don’t worry; those dismembered parts of yourself are still part of you. 

The dismembered parts don’t disappear.

They go into, what Robert Bly, evoking the work of C.G. Jung, called the “shadow bag”. All the cut off parts of your psyche go into the shadow bag. 

Here’s how it works . . .

Imagine you’re a kid feeling the buoyant energy of Spring. You run into the living room whooping, leaping, and bouncing off the walls. You’re feeling pure joy. But, to your folks your behavior appears “noisy” and “crazy” and “loud”. They tell you in no uncertain terms to cut it out.

And, you do.

You cut out the buoyant, leaping, energetic parts of yourself and stuff them onto the shadow bag.

Year by year the bag getting heavier, filled with the unacceptable parts of your life. The parts of your soul, psyche, and self and were deemed unacceptable by powerful others” – parents, teachers, leaders, friends, lovers. The list is long.

Wonderfully, those parts aren’t gone. They’re in the shadow bag. You drag them behind you but don’t offer them to the world. You tip toe along. You modulate your voice. You’re . . . um . . . nice.

Every cut diminishes your power.

You can still proceed with your life with parts of cut off.

You can even do quite well – you’re nice after all – and people respond well to nice. But, there’s that bag and all those cut off parts dragging behind you. 

Sooner or later things start to stink.

You begin to notice a strange odor. At first it comes and goes. It’s bothersome but not persistent. But, if neglected for too long, the stink gets stronger. Soon, every meeting you go to, every conversation you have, everywhere you go, is permeated with that annoying odor.

What’s that smell?

It’s the odor of your cut off parts seeking to rejoin your life.

They’ve been reaching out to you all along but you were trained not to notice. So, you didn’t.

You were taught from a young age to hide your deepest longings, to deny essential and sacred parts of who you are. In your family, at school, in the world, you’ve been encouraged to act as if you are complete while simultaneously cutting of parts of your self and exiling them to the shadow bag.

When you cut off parts of yourself, you cut off the flow of your life.

To get your life moving in a powerful, authentic direction starts with reclaiming the parts of yourself that have been cut off. And reclaiming starts when you notice that persistent stink.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

The stink that’s pursuing you isn’t a problem to make go away. It’s a call to live more fully and contribute more completely.

Which all sounds great. But, honestly it’s not easy to face the stink.

So, before you face the stink of the shadow bag, you may want to try some air freshener.

You know what I mean? Maybe take vacation to recharge your batteries.

But, pay attention to what happens when you come back from vacation. If you find that within a day (an hour) of returning to the office that the stink has returned – be not deceived. The issue isn’t that you’re not getting enough time off.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a vacation.

There’s not. Same with exercise, yoga, meditation, and hiring a coach. All can be useful. But, if you use them to mask the stink and avoid facing the shadow bag – you’re avoiding the issue. This issue is whether you want to be powerful or nice. To create what matters most or wield the knife-of-nice and continue to amputate your life. 

Let me be the first to admit – I’d rather use air freshener than face my shadow bag.

I’d rather not face the stink. But, at a certain point, it becomes clear that turning towards the shadow bag is the way forward. The path to power travels through the shadow bag.

It’s not a matter of being either nice or being powerful.

It’s a matter of facing your experience fully. Truthfully. Without leaping to conclusions or solutions.

It’s a matter of life.

So, how can you proceed? 

Step towards the unacceptable places within you.

You don’t need to do anything else. Simply step with awareness towards the shadow bag. Take your time.

There’s no road map. No time table.

The path of power is a step-by-step journey fueled by willingness and honesty.

As you step forward, your experience of the stink changes. You begin to see how the difficulties you encounter (especially the really stinky ones) are precisely structured to call forth the cut off parts that are waiting to be redeemed from your shadow bag.

The conflicts that you face in work and in life point towards the un-integrated parts of your self.

Those parts that are calling  to return to life. To your life.

I don’t want you to think that this path is automatically strewn with flower petals.

But, I do want to encourage you to pay attention. Notice the stink. Step forward. And keep breathing. 

Yes, keep breathing.

Deeply. Fully. Breathe.

And soon you’ll notice something strange.

That stink  – which had been so noxious – is starting to smell like flowers.

Now, that’s nice.

So, how will I face my shadow bag and stop the stink, so I can bring forth what is best within you in 2015 and what can I claim right now?

My answer to this is simple. I have already been facing and reclaiming my shadow bag for years, especially in the last two since the death of my ex-husband, and the ending of a long-term, less than functional relationship (which happened two weeks apart). Nice is not a problem for me anymore, but I have kept the knife to help in severing one or two lingering toxic relationships and to cut through the haze that obscures my ability to discern true heart projects from passing fancies. I also sport a few cherished scars that will forever remind me never to use the knife against myself again.