April 2016, by Giles Carwyn –
Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
– Zen proverb
It is incredibly common for people doing Shadow Work®, or any other personal growth work, to run into the same issues over and over again. I have heard countless people, myself among them, lament:
“Not this again!””I should be over this by now!”
“Why does it always come back to my mother/father/brother, etc….”
“I’ve spent so much time and money working on myself and it never seems to make any difference.”
Why is it so hard to escape our core wounds? Why do we keep coming back to the old painful stories, the same old shaming messages that we tell ourselves over and over again?
I’m not going to answer those questions, because I don’t think they are the right questions to ask.
Those questions arise from a point of view that assumes our personal “growth” work is something that we can “finish.” That point of view looks at the human psyche as if it were a crossword puzzle that once completed will be forever completed. I see Shadow Work more like a gourmet meal. No one would think, “I just made the perfect breakfast, I’ll never have to make breakfast again as long as I live.” I believe that Shadow Work, like food preparation, is an often joyful task that is done, as needed, over and over again for our entire lives.
MONUMENT BUILDING AND FIRE TENDING
The way I see it, there are two kinds of work: monument building and fire tending. Monument building is work that is done once, and if it is done well, it will remain done forever. Building a home, getting a college degree, writing a novel, winning a court case are all monument building work.
Fire tending is ongoing efforts that need to be done over and over to keep things the way we want them. Relationship maintenance, child rearing, weeding a garden, running a virus scan on your computer are all fire tending work.
Western culture values monument building work much more than fire tending work. Look at the way we view romantic love. How many times have you heard someone (perhaps that someone is you) say, “I just haven’t met the right person yet” or “why can’t I find the right man/woman/gender fluid hottie?” That is a monument building view of love. If you do it right, you only have to do it once, and you get to live happily ever after. That is the dominant romantic fantasy in our culture, but most people who have been in successful committed relationships would tell you that finding someone to love is the just the beginning of the journey. Love is ten thousand acts of courage, not a single triumph of shopping.
It is no wonder that people who arise out of our culture come to Shadow Work looking for a monument building experience. They want to find their wounds, heal their wounds, be done with them, and “live on easy street” for the rest of their lives. Just as people can feel betrayed by love if they expect it to last forever with no additional input or effort, people can feel betrayed by their personal growth efforts if they approach them as monument building rather than fire tending.
Shadow Work does have a monument building element to it. People find things in themselves they never saw before. Old patterns fade away. Our fears get smaller and we get bigger. My own life looks completely different now than it did five ½ years ago when I first discovered Shadow Work. But every few months I find myself needing more, just like every morning I find myself needing another breakfast.
I see Shadow Work, and all personal development work, as a form of mental/physical/spiritual fitness. Our spirits need to be stretched to stay strong just like our minds and bodies. There is always a temptation to ignore our emotions so we can focus on the task at hand. There is always a temptation to get lost in less intense psudo-emotions–annoyance, overwhelm, worry, impatience, self-pity, cynicism, mania, and hesitation–rather than feel the deeper undeniable emotions of pure anger, deep fear, genuine grief and unbridled joy.
We need practice naming our deep desires and finding the root cause of our struggles. We need practice acknowledging our fears, tapping into our depth of wisdom, and opening our hearts to give and receive a blessing. We need practice pushing through our internal resistance, surrendering to our depth of feeling, and reaching out for support and guidance. We need to consistently exercise the psyche to keep it strong, flexible, alert and healthy.
Shadow Work is a chance to get up off our internal couch and get the blood pumping again. It is an opportunity to reboot our system, to get the wheels moving again if we get stuck in negative thoughts, painful emotions, self-limitations, or unattainable expectations. If your back is out of alignment and causing you distress you go to a chiropractor to get things straightened out. If you heart or mind are out of alignment you can go to a Shadow Worker to get things back where they should be.
PERSONAL GROWTH IS REALIZING YOU WERE ALWAYS THE RIGHT SIZE
Life is a journey not a destination. The very idea of personal “growth” or “improvement” comes from a world view that says we are fundamentally flawed and need to be “fixed”, that we are not good enough and need to get “better.” A car is not broken because it needs an oil change every once in a while. There is nothing wrong with your dishes because you need to wash them after every meal. A relationship is not dysfunctional because there is often conflict that needs to be addressed. We are not “un-grown” or “un-developed” if we run into internal difficulties on a consistent basis. That’s just part of being human in the world we live in.
The goal of Shadow Work in not to get us to a place where were never feel helpless, mean, petty, discouraged, numb or judgmental. The goal is to know those parts of ourselves, appreciate them, and move through those difficult places as gracefully as possible. Looking at our shadows, understanding them, befriending them, is not something we do once and then we are done with it. Our shadows are an important part of us. We’re going to be spending a lot of time with them over the course of our lives. That ongoing relationship needs to be nurtured. Therapy, mediation, prayer, missions of service, time in nature, yoga, journaling, and Shadow Work are all ways to nurture that ongoing relationship.
I no longer think of Shadow Work as personal growth. It is a workout for our internal life. Like any good workout, it’s challenging. And… it feels really good afterwards. It is the chopping wood and carrying water that we all need to keep our hearts full and the fires of inspiration well fed.
Giles Carwyn is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Asheville, North Carolina. Read more about Giles.
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