The not-so-old parable reads like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Recently I sat in a ceremonial circle with my shamanic teacher for some ongoing learning, and I’m always thrilled at how much it refills my cup and re-inspires me in my work.
It’s so funny to me that this is how I do “professional development” now. This makes me smile. No more over-priced conferences sponsored by some corrupt corporation and hosted at one of those downtown hotels that looks pretty nice but smells a little weird. And better yet, no more sitting through a lecture to learn the latest approach to another individualistic theory of change from Western psychology. For me, all of that is more often replaced by drums and smoke and rattles these days.
And deep, DEEP, explorations into things like the nature of consciousness, our connection to the invisible field of energy all around us, the influence of our ancestors, and my own shadow work. My shadow work has become increasingly important as I start to witness the difference this work makes in my life, and I want to share a little about this with you.
Our shadow is that part of us that we believe to be bad or wrong. In large part it is the aspect that we can hardly even see, or stand to look at. It unintentionally hurts someone’s feelings; it judges and tells us we’re better or different than the other guy; and it bursts out of us in an unforeseen rage when we are already a little too tired, a little too stressed, and stretched a little too thin.
It’s the wolf we’re told not to feed in the parable. (Which, by the way, is inaccurately attributed to ‘the Cherokee’ but was actually written by evangelical minister Billy Graham from within his dualistic worldview.)
One of the most important shifts for me is finally realizing that shadow work is not about getting rid of the shadow stuff! I mean, it can be if you insist on making it about that, but then you’ll get exactly nowhere with it because the simple truth is that shadow is here to stay. None of us are exempt. Not even the ‘love and light at all costs’ coaches and “gurus”. It isn’t a fight, and there is no “winner”. We need the night to balance the day, and many of us need a nasty flu to appreciate our day-to-day health. This balance of light and dark is embedded in every aspect of life.
And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather give that wolf some scraps and keep tabs on him than try to go about my business with him lurking unseen and ravenous just outside my circle of firelight.
The difference is that when we accept our shadow as a part of us, we feel more whole and we become more “shame-proof”. By dropping the belief that I’m working on ridding myself of it, I no longer set myself up for deep disappointment when it shows up again. Instead, I think “yep, there it is, as expected” and I can respond without the weight of failure.
For me, getting to know my shadow has helped alert me to the areas where I need to proceed with more caution and practice being more humble. It has also helped to normalize experiences such as anger, so that I now express it rather than trying to stuff it back down and deny that it’s there (hello resentment and chronic illness). Finally, doing my own shadow work and accepting that the bad wolf is there means I am now so much less ashamed when I screw up. This has been huge for me. When I make an awful, hurtful, ignorant mistake (and I do) I can now beg forgiveness and earnestly learn from it without shriveling up inside at my terribleness or distracting and numbing to avoid the pain. And funny enough, this in turn means that I’m making fewer blunders in the first place. Whew.
Ostara, our Spring Equinox, is a wonderful time to acknowledge and honor this balance of light and dark, as the days are perfectly balanced with the nights. Ostara is the gateway from winter to summer: another harmonious and necessary balance of opposites. Take a moment this week to note where on your horizon the sun rises and sets… it will greet you in this same place at the autumn Equinox: Mabon. And the next time you rub up against a part of yourself that you can hardly stand to look at, take a moment to sit still in the discomfort of that. Breathe into it. Not to make it go away, but to give it a scrap and simply acknowledge that it’s there. Allow for pain. Then ask how you can best right the wrong; be curious about what you need to learn.
This is your shadow work. And it is so worth it.