These are some of the most complex and difficult parts of our experience to unlock and bring to life in a wholesome, connected way.
As human animals so much of our safety, self-worth and social standing are wrapped up in these things. It is also where our life force comes from and our deepest connection with life.
It is also some of the places we are most primitive and wild – where our rational brains stop making sense.
Most spirituality has dealt with this by shutting the door to it entirely and putting strict rules around what can and can’t be done (mostly engage with these things as little as possible).
In a historical context this makes sense – when society was more violent, less equal and less safe a lot of the expression of these things was harmful to people and it would have been a lot cleaner and simpler to have these clear boundaries to try and encourage better behaviour in people.
Not that this worked particularly well. Here is an extract from an article on the British Slave trade:
‘Thomas Thistlewood, an ordinary, bookish young Englishman who came to Jamaica in 1750 to seek his fortune, left a matter-of-fact diary of his three and a half decades as a rural overseer and small-time slaveowner. He considered slaves to be rational human beings and treated them as individuals.
In his diary are recorded 3,852 acts of rape or other forced intercourse with almost 150 enslaved women. Other than in the thoroughness of his record-keeping, he seems to have been entirely typical—if anything, relatively restrained—in his behavior.’
Rape, violence, misogyny and sexual assault appears to have been a pretty common part of life basically whenever anyone could get away with it until relatively recently.
Modern society, although a huge improvement, is far from safe. It is not often talked about openly in conversation, but I’ve never met a woman who has told me she has never been sexually assaulted.
Sexual assault statistics are notoriously difficult to get a good representation of – it is one of the most under-reported crimes and there are always questions around ‘what counts’. Some (relatively conservative) stats suggest that 1 in 6 American women will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. There can be very little support for people reporting or recovering from these crimes. (Here is a UN article on violence against women).
One of the biggest issues around this is that shame is a strange part of experience. Rather than responsibility being given to the perpetrator of a crime, shame is attached to the person with the least amount of power in a situation.
In the example above, where the power is so clearly split, Thomas Thistlewood clearly feels no responsibility for the damage he is causing but I can imagine with no doubts that the women he abused would have felt dirty and ashamed.
The power dynamics are more equal and subtle these days, but they are still far from removed. The Me Too campaign revealed so clearly how power plays a huge part in sexual assault and oppression of the victims’ voices.
This is one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so sticky and more traumatic than physical violence – shame gets loaded onto the victim and they believe on some conscious or subconscious level that there is something wrong with them.
In order to be able to heal from trauma, the traumatised parts of us needs to receive compassionate love. When we feel shame we are unable to open these parts of ourselves, because we believe they are unworthy of love, so they remain unhealed.
The unhealed trauma can have wide and deep impacts on every second of someone’s life, and can ultimately destroy any chance of happiness, peace or safety in life for someone.
Our societal shame and contraction around these issues also stops us talking about them and that ripples out, causing the continued allowing of these behaviours to go on out of sight.
A large proportion of sexual assault perpetrators were victims themselves. The cycle of abuse can easily get repeated.
But this also isn’t just a black and white thing of victims and perpetrators. Our entire society is affected by the ways in which we are contracted around these issues.
The issues run incredibly deeply in our society. Our subconscious is a tangled mess of fear around these topics.
Rejection is one of the most emotionally painful experiences that people can have – rejection from the tribe comes at huge cost to our physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Fear of rejection from people we love or desire is huge and drives a large amount of our behaviour subconsciously. So rather than show up in an open and vulnerable way, people play power games to try and build a wall that keeps them safe from the risk of rejection.
Risk of being physically hurt is also a huge factor – we are continually subconsciously weighing each other up to see whether we could win in a fight or escape. If we feel our safety is at threat, for example as a woman in any heightened situation with a man, we will bite our tongues and choose to keep the peace rather than aggravate a situation.
‘At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.’
The power imbalance between men and women means that for any woman to ever say anything to a man that might be taken as a personal criticism is basically a bad idea. Because this all remains hidden, men probably aren’t aware of the depth of how much this affects women’s day to day lives. They just don’t have to think about it.
When I opened my experience to the archetypal realm and subconscious part of our experience, I was smashed with endless layers of the tangled mess that is human desire, power, sexuality and creative life force.
As I waded through the confusion, reintegrating parts of experience piece by piece, I could see how these themes were playing out at so many different levels for myself and other people. How it affected how we treat men and women differently in society, how we treat ourselves and ultimately, how everyone is afraid of opening up because they don’t want to be rejected, get hurt or to hurt other people.
Through imaginal practice I was given a way of exploring these topics that was physically safe for me and other people, but that went into the darkest corners of the human psyche and emotional landscape.
Before embarking on this I had had a lot of experience of opening to shadow parts of myself, experiencing the transformational impact of this and seeing this process happen in other people.
When people have unleashed and subsequently reintegrated a shadow side of themselves you can see the change physically and emotionally. Their eyes are brighter, they walk taller, they speak more clearly.
I knew on a visceral level the process that you need to go through in order to get this result and I opened myself to it endlessly. I was essentially solely a trauma processing machine for months on end. I believed that there would be a bottom to the darkness, and there was, but it wasn’t what I expected and it was almost infinitely deeper than I could have imagined.
This has however given me freedom from contraction around a huge range of thoughts, behaviours and emotions that most of humanity is gripped by in every possible social situation.
More importantly it has given me the capacity to be able to talk about these things and to allow other people to open to them in my presence, both consciously and subconsciously.
When we have shadows, we are unable to allow other people to open to these parts of themselves too. We think these things are bad, so we reject them in others as well as ourselves.
This dynamic is essentially what karma is pointing towards – the endless cycle of shadows replicating through generations of people.
This is actually what stops people being present in the first place. When people say let go and be in this moment – the reason they can’t do that is because this moment is actually incredibly weird and full of lots of subconscious emotions and energies that are painful and difficult for us to let in. Your fixed idea of what this moment is is wrong. You have to be able to open to what is actually there and allow it to impact you.
This especially applies to opening to shadows because those are the parts of experience that we resist the most.
This causes them to come out in unhealthy ways. It is our shadows that drive us to hatred, fear, rage and greed.
The Archetypal Realm & Practice
As I mentioned at the start, spirituality has largely dealt with sexuality, eros, power and life-force by shutting the door to them.
My attitudes and experiences towards them were not created by philosophical, spiritual or religious ideas but by therapeutic practices.
Jung’s understanding of the archetypal realm, grounded in fundamental human sanity, radicalised how we understand and approach the human experience.
In order to understand and form these ideas, he himself spent 7 years navigating and opening to his own psychosis.
One of the key aspects to this is that the soul or archetypal realm is not something that you can understand intellectually. It is not a part of experience that is created or held by our minds, it is inherently abstract and mysterious. It can only be understood by our intuitions and opening to the side of ourselves that expresses itself creatively. It comes out in the process of expressing stuff.
The archetypal or soul realm does not arise from thoughts that are created from the mind, it is created from emotions, energy and the resonance that echoes through our societies and our beings. If you try and boil it down to something that the mind can fully grasp it loses its meaning.
However, one of the ways in which I was able to open so thoroughly to this part of experience was by applying Buddhist principles of non-self, impermanence and suffering to it.
In the same way that awareness is a shared experience that we are tapping into with our minds, the soul is a shared part of experience that we are tapping into with our intuitions. Our bodies are conduits for the shared Universal soul to express itself through.
By dismantling my personal boundaries and walls I was able to open to and allow the entirety of karma or the shared soul to express itself through me. There was no sense of identification with the content that was being expressed, which gave me a huge amount of freedom in allowing it. This is how I was able to get to the bottom of it.
The imaginal is a way for all the eros, power and sexuality to be expressed in a safe way – no matter how dark it is – and for that aspect of our being to be reintegrated in a wholesome way. Once we stop repressing a part of us, it stops being a shadow and becomes a part of us that is in service to connection with each other and the world.
I believe that spirituality needs to integrate some element of this part of experience in order to have any relevance or do any good in the world.
Our society and world is so deeply connected that there is no longer a way to disconnect from the impact we have and the impact the world makes on us.
Unless you are a monk or nun who lives on their own up a mountain and grows all their own food, your life is a chaotic mess of interconnectedness.
When we connect with things we take our subconscious behaviours, energies and resonance into every interaction.
Creating safe space to unpack, allow, explore and distill these parts of experience is fundamental to reducing our resistance to being able to connect with ourselves, each other and the world in a sincere, truthful and heartful way.
It’s also vital for dismantling systemic oppression and creating a society that isn’t based on who is the most physically powerful or most terrifying person in the room having the most power.
This has started to get some traction in the world of spirituality – the concept of waking down is becoming a thing that people are aware of and I hope that that continues to build.
This will open the door for people who have got trauma to access a sense of spirituality, without feeling like they are bad practitioners for not being able to sit still with themselves.
It will also offer a fundamentally deeper form of awakening. As well as connecting to the forces outside of us that shape our Universe we can access a radical level of acceptance that opens the door to experiencing the entirety of being human as a beautiful and joyful expression of life force.
In my experience, going through this process together with shared practices is also a lot more fun than sitting on a cushion beating ourselves up for not being able to still our minds.
The practice itself becomes a conduit for connection and joy.
“If we were all to sit in a circle and confess our sins, we would laugh at each other for lack of originality.” Kahlil Gabrin
The deeper we have reintegrated our shadows, the more we are able to access our life force, joy and connection. Also, the more we are able to hold space for other people to open up to the darkest parts of their psyche and emotions and connect with each other in that space.
Somewhere between the human capacity to heal, connect, be creative and be full of eros; and the meditative skill of being able to slow down, accept things as they are and be present with this immediate moment lies a magical and joyful part of experience that can be incredibly beautiful.
In this part of experience we lose our sense of self, not by destroying it, but by connecting into the part of experience where we are all inextricably connected to each other. By losing our sense of self-consciousness.
This is how we will access true joy in ourselves and create a fairer, more equal word for everyone. Not based on what our minds believe that we should do but based on our hearts innate and natural desires to exist in harmony in a community where we are safe and respected enough to become a full and satisfying expression of our life force.