The Life of Shadows

…they are spending their time in pursuit of things that don’t make them happy so much as they serve as a temporary relief from what makes them sad and exhausted.
– from a “Pep Talk” via Kameron Hurley’s excellent Patreon

Is there anything scarier than being alone with your own thoughts?

Little in my life has ever been so terrifying as when a friend of mine – a spiritual leader, author, and general Person-Smarter-Than-Me – suggested that I stop the frenetic need to do things, to get better, to adopt a new system of productivity and just sit there in the dark.

It was terrifying because I had, up until that point, been doing a pretty good job of distracting myself from the fact that the “dark” even existed. Jung would have called it “the shadow”, and it’s all the things we didn’t get as kids. It’s a bundle of “no”, of frustrated desires and unmet needs and shattering disappointment at the fact that we don’t always get what we want.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? No wonder so much of our worlds are oriented around trying to ignore that darkness.

The Shadow Will Be Heard

Like your actual shadow, it’s there whether you notice it or not. It manifests itself in shame, in overreaction, in overwork. It will rear up in the form of nightmares that wake you up and brain weasels that keep you awake, until you will literally do anything to get away from it.

That’s where the trap is: being the good person you are, you might decide that the way to avoid that shadow is simply to keep yourself so busy that you don’t notice it. You keep running until you literally are too exhausted to continue – and then you collapse in sleep, only to be woken again by nightmares. The shadow will make you pay attention, one way or another.

One of the ways to occupy your time is personal development, of course, and that’s where we can stretch the metaphor a little further: it’s easier to see your shadow when you shine a light on yourself.

The good news is that while it’s not pleasant, facing the shadow, it’s also not very terrifying. For most people it’s basically a neglected and scared part of themselves that just needs some nurturing, some attention, because ever since the first time you were denied something you thought you needed – food, affection, self-esteem, whatever – that shadow has been alone and scared. It’s been trying to get your attention, in whatever way it can.

It Gets Better, But Weirder

When I did start looking into the darkness inside my mind – through meditation, through journaling, through therapy – it was often hard. There were realizations of things I had successfully distracted myself from, and things that I just never expected to find. Insecurities and fallibilities and fears, oh, so many fears. I looked at them, I witnessed them, I even grew to understand them – and while they didn’t exactly disappear, they lost some of their power. I still woke early in the morning, but instead of feeling the need to get up and do something I could lay there, floating in the sea of the night, letting my thoughts roam and play.

The nightmares became weird dreams, like the one last night where corporations had started releasing life-size holograms as alarm clocks and Natasha and I had chosen a glowing mermaid as our wake-up call. But weird dreams are a vast improvement over nightmares, don’t you think?

Here’s the question I would ask, if you dare: why do you work so hard at keeping busy? Is it doing the things that you find joy and purpose in? Or is it a desperate attempt to never be alone and quiet with your thoughts?

And when you get your answer…is there anything you might want to do about it?

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