It’s fairly well known that shadow work is sort of a pain. It’s difficult to work through less-than-ideal parts of yourself or your life. It’s hard to figure out how to heal damage that has been done to you, and it can be challenging to fit such heavy work into what is likely an already jam-packed life schedule. Not to mention that the gods rarely give you a game plan on how to exactly go about performing your shadow work- in so many ways, shadow work is sort of a headache in the making. It’s really no wonder that many of us stall out very quickly on trying to figure the whole shadow work thing out.
On top of everything listed above, I think one of the largest pitfalls regarding shadow work is that many of us assume that we’ll get a list of things we need to work through, and then once we’ve managed to mark everything off of that list, our shadow work is effectively “done” and we won’t have to work on it anymore. But then we usually find out later that we’re regressing and falling back into old patterns and routines. And the next thing you know, the gods show back up and tell us to fix some of the same things that we thought were already addressed and handled. Like many things in life, shadow work is something that is more effective if you incorporate it as a sort of ongoing, long-term practice or procedure within your life, but I don’t know that the gods have made that very obvious or apparent to many us.
For this post, I’d like to explore some ways to re-frame shadow work into something that is more on-going and less of a one off sort of thing. I’m going to use two examples that make sense to me as a means to help illustrate why shadow work should be a continuous thing, not a one-time process.
Example one: Shadow work is like dental work
I know, I know. “oh gods, you’re going to talk about teeth??” No one wants to hear about their oral health, especially when discussing paganism, but hear me out. As most of you probably could guess, many people come into the dentist after long periods of neglecting their oral health. It’s really not uncommon for someone to come in and say “I haven’t seen a dentist in 20 years”, and you can tell by looking at their teeth.
Typically when a mouth is in that level of disrepair (as many of us who are starting on a heaping pile of shadow work often are), you create what we call a treatment plan as a means to address all of the issues of the mouth so that the patient can be put back into optimal oral health. There is a certain procedure/method that is used by dentists to do this, and I think it is useful when considering shadow work.
The first step in any sort of treatment plan is to get rid of the big fires. That means that you address the work that is preventing your patient from eating or chewing properly. Anything that is actively painful or rotting in their head gets fixed before you work on the more superficial or cosmetic parts of their mouth. As you progress through a treatment plan, you deal with the biggest issues first and work your way down to the smaller stuff. Of course, sometimes a patient really wants their smile to all be fixed right now, but that’s not usually feasible if you’ve been slacking on your oral health for a few decades.
Shadow work is the same way. Start with putting out the biggest fires first. What is the most crucial to your daily life? What are you ignoring that has the largest impact on your living situation? What can you fix that will lessen up everything else you need to work on? Start with that first.
But here is where the ongoing comes in.
Once a patient has gotten their mouth all fixed up and beautiful again, what do you think happens if they don’t continue to upkeep their mouth? I’ll give you a hint: what got their mouth into such a state of disrepair in the first place? The answer is, as you probably guessed, a lack of upkeep. Mouths are not things you can simply stop taking care of, and expect their health to maintain all on its own. Its much like any other body part- you need to keep it clean and maintained if you want the health of said body part to last. Your mouth is no exception. If you get thousands of dollars of work done in your mouth, but then never floss or brush or go in for cleanings, you can expect that your mouth will go right back into disrepair in due time.
And shadow work is no exception.
Example two: Shadow work is like owning a house or property
Another way to frame this discussion is from the perspective of a house owner. My grandmother owns a house on property, and on the surface, everything looks relatively nice, but when you take a look at the structure of the house critically, you can tell that she hasn’t done any maintenance work for a long time. Sure, some of the stuff is superficial and not very important, but there are other things that are turning into time bombs due to a lack of maintenance. Because of the delay in getting work done, what might have originally been a $50 job is going to turn into a $500 job.
Just like with dentistry, you often maintain a house by fixing the most important stuff first, and handling the less important, more superficial stuff later on. You may want to paint your living room walls, but I’ll wager that you’ll want to fix the hole in your roof before you bother with the painting. Otherwise, all of that paint goes to waste during the next rain storm.
And just like with a house or teeth, there are regular intervals for maintaining certain things around your house. In the desert, we all know that you should get your A/C checked out before the summer months hit. Otherwise, you’re looking at spending the first super hot weekend without any air conditioning. Almost every part of a house needs to have regular check-ups and replacements. Roofs need to be re-shingled. Appliances need to have regular maintenance done. Your air filter needs to be swapped out once a month. Things need to happen all the time in order to keep a house in good shape.
Bringing it all together: Balancing action with planning
So I’ve probably driven home that regular maintenance is a good thing. But how does this apply directly to shadow work? Here are some ways that I take the above examples and use them in my personal shadow work process.
I’ve always used a system where I have high points and low points. High points would be the equivalent of spring cleaning- we (me and the gods) sit down and look at what needs to be fixed, where I want to go, what the priorities are for everyone involved. When I’m trying to figure out what you want to do in terms of shadow work, I often ask myself some of the following questions:
- What exactly am I doing that is problematic?
- What parts of myself do I want to improve?
- What have I been putting off in terms of improvement?
- Have I been slacking on maintaining anything I fixed in the past? Am I regressing at all?
- What have others suggested I work on? Are their suggestions valid? If so, how can I implement them?
- What am I doing that is working? How can I ensure that I keep these practices up?
Once we figure out what we want, we then plan out how to get it. Though they probably did more of the planning in the earlier stages, because they were the ones running the show initially. The further I’ve gotten into shadow work, the more I have been included in what I want to do, and how I think would be a good way to go about getting what I want (or what the gods want). I think ideally, the gods want me to be able to do this process on my own without their help.
And then the low points are resting points. As I’ve said before, you can’t work all the time, and sometimes life is too busy for me to be doing heavy shadow work. But that being said, I always have to keep my eyes open to the status of my life and person. Like I mentioned in the house analogy above, I might not be able to re-shingle my roof right now, but I can be aware that it needs to be done, and that it will need to be handled. So I might mentally prep to address that during the next meeting with the gods, even though we won’t be touching it for a while. Due to life and its cycles, there have been times when we’ve had to shelf projects and shadow work. We’ve got times where I already know I’m going to be plowing through a bunch of crap all at once (the Mysteries is a good example of this), and so kinda like running a farm, I try to plan for those kinds of personal seasons. I know when I need to plant my seeds, I know when I need to harvest, and I can rest during the recession of summer if you will.
This is the basic structure for how I maintain my shadow work “practice”. I balance out actively working on what I want to achieve with planning for how I will maintain what I have accomplished through previous shadow work. It’s an ongoing process of action and rest that doesn’t really stop (though it can be put on hold for certain life events). I start each cycle by putting out the largest fires first (if any cropped up while I wasn’t paying attention) and then progressively work on fixing everything else as resources are made available. And I think that ideally, once everything is all fixed (I still haven’t really reached this point, but I feel like I’m getting there), the goal will be to maintain myself while helping others work on their “houses”.
The more I work on shadow work, the more I believe that it’s best viewed as an ongoing process. I’ve found that by going back and reevaluating what I’ve done and where I’m at, I can make sure that I don’t slide back into bad habits, and I can ensure that I’m going in the direction that I want to go in. Practice makes perfect, and by consistently addressing my more negative traits, I am better able to fix the things that I want to fix.
How do you approach shadow work? Do you think that shadow work should be an on-going process? Or do you feel that it’s better to only perform shadow work when you need to?
- What is it? How do you do it?
- WHat is it? What is it’s purpose?
- An ask
- Another ask
- Caring about Self-Care
- How does one start shadow work?
- What are some methods of shadow work?
- How to shadow work: a guide
- The Beauty of Pain