Pagan Paths

The morning sun rising in the east calls to the Bright Youth in me, and the Bright Youth responds. The full moon calls to the Muse, and the waning and dark moon to the Dark Maiden who is a part of me. The earth I touch with my fingers calls to the Mother, in both her guises, Nurturing and Devouring. The bright green shoots rising from the earth and the green leaves on the trees on my street in the spring, these call to the Stag King, while the red leaves fallen to the earth in the autumn call to the Dying God. The spring storm that rises up suddenly in the west calls to the Storm King. The night sky, the dark space between the stars, calls to Mother Night, my death come to make peace. The gods-without call and the gods-within respond.

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Confronting our Shadow


In my last post, I described Neo-Paganism as a modern-day mystery religion.  Historically, initiates into the mystery religions experienced a ritual death and rebirth.  Some Neo-Pagan rituals follow this format.  The idea is that we die to our old selves and awaken to a new, more expansive Self.  In Jungian terms, the Self is the wholeness of our many disparate selves, conscious and unconscious.  But to encounter the Self, we must let our old selves, our egos, die.  This is a psychological death, but no less significant than physical death from the perspective of the ego.  For the ego, the experience can be as painful as dying physically, and some people would prefer physical death.  

The first stage of the death of the ego is the encounter with the Shadow.  Jung wrote, "When sacrifice is demanded it frequently implies the acceptance of our shadow-side."

In its most basic terms, the Shadow is any aspect of our personality that we are unaware of.  More specifically, it is those aspects of our personality that we are unwilling to consciously accept.  This is different than the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of.  To be ashamed of something, one must be conscious of it.  It is also different than parts of us that other people are ashamed of.  We may be proud of our sexuality, while others tell us we should be ashamed.  In such cases, sexuality is their Shadow, not ours.  Our Shadow resides in the unconscious, which means we are not conscious of it.  And it exercises power over our lives precisely because we are unconscious of it.  

Our shadow may actually include positive or constructive attributes, but ones which we are for some reason unconsciously unwilling to acknowledge.  It is to this part of our shadow, the "Bright Shadow", that Marianne Williams referred in this quote (often misattributed to Nelson Mandella):

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. ..."

How then are we to become conscious of our Shadow?  Other people can help us with this, including therapists and trusted friends.  While Shadow work can be done without help, it cannot be done alone.  This is because Shadow work is all about the withdrawal of projections.  The Shadow, while unconscious, manifests in our lives through projections.  We project our Shadow onto people who we do not like and events that seem ill fated.  In this sense, it is our enemies, more than our friends, who help us bring the Shadow into the light.  Jung explains:

"If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. … Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself ..." (CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, P. 140)

Let me give you an example from my own life.  I was raised my a mother who cultivated a victim-hero relationship with me.  I later played out the hero role in relationships with multiple women who I (more or less) unconsciously perceived as victims.  At the same time, I despised people who I perceived as cultivating victimhood.  When I left the church of my childhood, I was very angry and eager to enumerate the crimes I felt had been perpetrated against me by the church.  One day, my wife read me an article that said that sometimes people are mean because they feel they are victims.  She didn't indicate in any way that she thought the article was describing me.  But I remember responding to the article saying, "I am not a victim."  And though I had said it casually, it was as if I could hear those words ringing in my ears, and I knew instantly that the words were hollow.  I realized then that I had been cultivating a victim mentality with regard to the church.  And I began to see and accept the role I had played in creating my life circumstances.

That was an example of bringing my Shadow into the light by withdrawing a projection -- the projection of victimhood.  That particular realization came due to the goodwill of my wife and the grace of the Universe.  As I have described it above, it seems like an easy realization, but in fact, it was one that took me about four years to come to, and it is one that I still have to work on sometimes.

Shadow work can be done more deliberately by meditating on the people who we do not like, especially people for whom we have a dislike which seems out of proportion to the real negative attributes of the person.  We can also engage in active imagination and dreamwork to help us withdraw our projections.  In addition to projecting our Shadow onto people, it should be noted that we can also project it onto negative events, events which we experience as ill fated, but which we have in fact brought upon ourselves.  

We when successfully withdraw a projection in this way, we can memorialize it through ritual, like the rituals of the ancient mystery religions.  In doing so, we honor the death of a part of our ego and our rebirth as someone new.  We can also use ritual to make us more receptive to the process of Shadow work, and in my next post, I'll share one such ritual which we did as a family.  This is not a one time event, but a process that should engage our whole lives.  We must experience many "little deaths" as we come closer and closer to the wholeness which is the Self.  As Montaigne wrote, "You life's continual task is to build your death."

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John Halstead also writes at (Patheos),,,,, and The Huffington Post. He was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (, and the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John is also a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community ( To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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