It’s essential to face our shadows, explore our childhood wounds, and unravel the intergenerational trauma that we’ve inherited.
Don’t get me wrong.
But shadow work is a layered process. It starts with you, but it doesn’t end with you. Most crucially, it is also familial, societal, cultural, and global. And to truly dive deep, we have to keep going and peel back the layers of junk we’ve unconsciously absorbed.
In a nutshell, if we are interested in authentically embodying our true nature – our Heart and Soul – we need to also examine how we have internalized the racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, and other Collective Shadows that permeate all of society.
And to do that, we need to courageously and compassionately dismantle the toxic spiritual ideologies that we are conditioned to believe (more on that soon).
But first …
Table of contents
- What is the Collective Shadow?
- Collective Shadow Work: Our Biggest Blindspot
- How Modern Spirituality Denies and Contributes to the Collective Shadow
- 5 Ways to Deepen Your Shadow Work
- Download FREE Collective Shadow Worksheets!
- 1. Listen to those who lead different lives and have a different context from you
- 2. Observe your ingrained prejudice and negative conditioning
- 3. Ask yourself, “In what way am I othering that person or group of people?”
- 4. Take responsibility and practice humility
- 5. Connect with your heart and be proactive
- Final Words
What is the Collective Shadow?
The Collective Shadow is humanity’s dark side. It is the sum total of past and present atrocities, cruelties, tragedies, and horrors perpetrated by humankind and stored at a deep, unconscious, cellular level.
This darkness is not always glaringly apparent as it is so ancient and so ingrained into the fibers of our societies. But regardless of whether it is blatant or subtle, the Collective Shadow appears everywhere and in all groups of people.
Examples of the Collective Shadow include religious discrimination, racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and anything that “others” or condemns, rejects, or diminishes certain individuals/groups.
By the way, if you’d prefer to listen to the rest of this article, you can do that here:
Collective Shadow Work: Our Biggest Blindspot
At some point during our spiritual paths, we’ll be exposed to the idea of shadow work. There are so many teachers, mentors, and other spiritually-inclined folks out there who will encourage you to take a good, firm look at yourself and what’s lurking in the unconscious depths.
That’s great …
But there is a silence filling the spiritual community, and it is deafening. And that silence surrounds the importance of Collective Shadow Work.
Up until a few years ago, this was my blindspot too – I totally overlooked the importance and essential need to examine Collective Shadows such as ingrained racism and ableism. I didn’t connect the dots between what was going on in my internal world and in the society around me. So I’ll stand up, own this ignorance, and take self-responsibility. I’m striving to include these vital issues in my shadow work exploration now, although I’m not an expert on anything I’m diving into and I’ve definitely got a lot to learn.
And then, I looked around me and saw that this collective silence wasn’t just endemic to me, but a pandemic infiltrating most of the spiritual, wellness, and self-transformation circles.
No one was talking about it. (Or at least, apart from a very few rare and exceptional individuals.)
No one was talking about how our spiritual practice helps or hinders racial equality or justice. No one was talking about issues like ageism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and other ways of rejecting and diminishing our brothers, sisters, and fellow souls.
Yes, I could see a lot of feminist and goddess-type focus, but it was usually centered around rich, white women with enough cash and time to invest in expensive mala beads, yoga classes, and smoothie cleanses.
Not only that, but I discovered not just a total neglect of exploring the Collective Shadow (again, apart from a rare few exceptions), but also a flat-out denial of it.
How Modern Spirituality Denies and Contributes to the Collective Shadow
Let’s take a moment to breathe deeply, ground ourselves, and connect with our hearts.
My goal in this article is to come from a place of care, concern, and humility, acknowledging my ignorance, knowing that I have a lot to learn, unpack, and process – and always will.
I know it can be hard to read articles like this as they challenge us in a deep, visceral way.
But please know that this is done with compassion. It’s normal to feel ashamed, guilty, angry at ourselves, disgusted at others, reactive, and defensive when being challenged. So just be aware of these tendencies, reconnect with your heart, and keep going. Let the layers be stripped back with gentle surrender.
Here are some ways that modern spirituality denies and also contributes to the Collective Shadow:
- “Focus only on the positive” – The problem with this idea: it denies reality and shames those who have legitimate issues that need space and compassion.
- “Good vibes only” – The problem with this mantra: it denies the importance of anything going on around us that is “low vibe” and encourages us to escape into a spiritual dreamworld.
- “You attracted that situation” – The problem with this belief: this notion suggests that those, for instance, who get discriminated against due to the color of their skin, sexuality, age, mental/physical ability, etc. “brought it on themselves” – imagine how sociopathic that sounds when you say it to someone who is suffering.
- “That’s your karma” – The problem with this saying: such a saying is used as another way of brushing over and dismissing someone’s pain by attributing it to some kind of retributive cosmic force.
- “You manifest your reality” – The problem with this notion: such an expression is another way of saying that basically “it’s too bad you’re suffering, but it’s your fault” which is essentially a form of victim-blaming.
- “Everything is an illusion” – The problem with this idea: on an absolute level “everything is an illusion” may be true, but we’re also operating from a human level and that needs to be respected, acknowledged, and lived. To say that everything is an illusion is bypassing the importance of facing issues that are happening within ourselves and society.
- “Everything is love” – The problem with this saying: again, on an absolute level “everything is love” may be true, but from a human level we need to be careful not to discount the reality of our/other people’s pain – that itself is not love but avoidance.
- “Society is evil/unconscious” – The problem with this notion: this is a common philosophy held by many spiritual folks who use it as an unconscious excuse, ironically, to close their hearts and ignore the suffering of the world in order to make their lives easier to live by “avoiding society.”
- “I’m a lightworker, I don’t ____” – The problem with this expression: this excuse and belief is used by modern spiritual seekers who believe that Shadow Work in no way fits into their mission – that it’s all about spreading light and love. However, by denying the Shadow either personally and/or Collectively, they are paradoxically living in and perpetuating darkness.
- “Spirituality and whatever is going on in society don’t mix” – The problem with this belief: this definition of spirituality focuses on compartmentalizing and elevating spirituality above daily life. However, what use is spirituality if it doesn’t help us to deal with the realities of the world we live in? That is flat out spiritual bypassing and spiritual escapism.
I’m sure there are many other beliefs, philosophies, and sayings out there – so if I’ve missed any, feel free to share them below in the comments. Let’s educate each other!
5 Ways to Deepen Your Shadow Work
As Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who first popularized the concept of the Shadow Self, once wrote:
None of us stands outside of humanity’s black collective shadow.
You heard it. None of us.
We all carry the Collective Shadow inside of us and it’s our responsibility to unravel it.
In fact, the more lost in self-righteous spiritual labels, philosophies, and delusions we are, the more likely we are to spread and reinforce not just the personal but also the Collective Shadow.
We see examples of this shadow behavior in spiritual and self-growth spheres that culturally appropriate indigenous practices, exclude BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) from their groups, unknowingly perpetuate heteronormative standards, encourage sexism, price all their services at unreasonable rates that exclude the financially disadvantaged, and more.
Download FREE Collective Shadow Worksheets!
Go deeper with a Collective Shadow journaling prompt + printable meditation mandala!
So how can we tackle the huge beast that is the Collective Shadow?
Firstly, we need to realize that whatever has been internalized inside of us is ancient. We are never going to fully undo or purge all of it. The Collective Shadow is literally the sum total of all the darkness and all the atrocities that have ever been experienced and committed by humanity.
However, what we can do is start this work and keep at it. The benefits are many: doing this work keeps us humble, open, and willing to learn and grow. When we believe we’re somehow “perfect” or beyond this work, that’s where stagnancy and egotism set in. That’s where the darkness multiplies.
With that being said, here are five ways to begin incorporating Collective Shadow Work into your spiritual practice:
1. Listen to those who lead different lives and have a different context from you
Expand the bubble of your awareness. Put down the mic, move your attention to how others feel (and away from centering everything around yourself), and be receptive.
Listen to the stories of black and indigenous folk and what they undergo each and every day. Listen to those whose lives have suffered as a result of their sexual preference or identity. Listen to those who are neurodiverse. Listen to people with disabilities. Listen, listen, listen.
There are many ways of doing this – youtube is the first place that comes to mind. You can also listen to podcasts or if you’re a book lover, expand your book repertoire. If you have the chance and opportunity, strike up a conversation with someone who leads a different experience from you in your life. Doing so will enrich your mind, your perspective, and open your heart.
2. Observe your ingrained prejudice and negative conditioning
In what ways are you perpetuating old and unhealthy ideas and beliefs? Look at the people you listen to and follow, the products you buy, the people you financially support, the friends you have, the feelings you have toward certain groups, and any other area of life that feels contracted.
It’s extremely helpful to keep a journal when doing any kind of Shadow Work – and especially Collective Shadow Work. By keeping a journal, you’ll be able to refer back to moments in time where you observed the Collective Shadow emerge in your thinking or behavior. This will help you to learn and grow. Learn more about how to journal.
3. Ask yourself, “In what way am I othering that person or group of people?”
‘Othering’ is a term used in sociology that means treating another person or group as essentially alien and reducing them to a socially inferior stance to us. Essentially, othering is about creating an “in-group” (of which we are part of) and an “out-group” (of which they are part).
Often, othering involves projecting negative and ugly qualities onto “the other group” of people. For example, one country may project qualities of savagery, deceptiveness, and evil onto another country – and so these two countries eventually go to war. The same goes for many societies that value and elevate whiteness, for example, and devalue and debase blackness.
The problem with othering is that it comes from a place of pure ego. It is a way of separating the world that elevates us and diminishes other people. It causes us to disconnect from our hearts and mistreat/alienate others because, on some level, we believe that they essentially “deserve it.”
If you’d like more questions to explore your Shadow, you can go through our 30+ Shadow Work Prompts article.
4. Take responsibility and practice humility
When doing any form of Collective Shadow Work – that is, exploring how we have unconsciously internalized parts of the Collective Shadow – we need to be aware that we’re going to mess up. We’re going to make mistakes. We might offend someone or be unpopular. That’s okay. It’s okay to be imperfect. It’s okay to say the wrong thing. What matters is what you do after you learn that you’ve made a mistake. Do you totally shut off and stop doing this vital work? Do you react and get aggressive? Or do you practice humility, apologize, and take sincere steps to open your heart and mind even more?
Taking personal responsibility is crucial. It’s easy to point the finger at others. But it’s much harder to put the mirror up to ourselves. Remember that all changes, whether personal or collective, start from inside.
5. Connect with your heart and be proactive
When we connect with our hearts and do this work from a heart-centered place, that’s when it’s the most impactful. That’s when we can be the most proactive.
Do you need to go to every protest rally out there? No, not necessarily. Your Collective Shadow Work could mean a hundred different things. You might choose to amplify the voices of BIPOC creators on your social media platform. You might speak up against homophobia in your social circle. You might make your business more accessible to people with disabilities. You might journal or create art about the Collective Shadow. You might donate to and support movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ rights. You might read books, buy workshops, or listen to songs about these issues. You might honor the land you’re on and pay respect to the original indigenous landowners. There are so many avenues.
The important thing is to do something – because if your Shadow Work doesn’t also extend to the down-to-earth realities of everyday life, what the f*ck is it for anyway? (I say this with love.)
I’m not an authority on any of the issues I speak about in this article, just an observer.
I’m a traveler, a flawed human being, just as you are, just as we all are. While I am indeed a spiritual being having a human experience, I recognize that I am also a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class woman living on the stolen land of the Whadjuk Noongar people. The fact that I’m even able to write these words and get them out to an audience that is willing to listen is due to my privilege – and due to the Collective Shadow that I unknowingly contribute to, participate in, suffer as a result of, and benefit from.
I hope this article has inspired you to dive deeper into your Shadow Work. It’s not easy, but it is so crucial, so powerful, and so important. I cannot stress that enough.
To conclude, here are some beautiful, meaningful, uplifting words by Jeff Foster:
Every single day, all over the world, violence beyond comprehension. How to hold the world’s pain in your fragile heart? Ignore it? Deny it? Pass it off as “mere illusion”? Tell yourself, “It’s their problem, not mine”? Label others as “evil” and separate yourself from them? Close your heart even more? Was it not closed hearts and quick judgments that caused this devastation in the first place? Seeing the daily “realities” of this planet, you may be tempted to give up entirely. Give up on healing, give up on change, give up on humanity itself. What’s the point? There’s just too much hatred out there. Too much ignorance. Too much evil. We have passed the point of no return, you may say. A fair conclusion. Better to build our walls even higher.
And yet. And yet. Many have suffered the most outrageous injustices and carried on. Many have carried on, and grown, and healed, and transformed, and brought their transformation to others, and broken down walls. There are heartbreaking stories of unconditional love shining in even the most impenetrable regions of night.
Focus on what’s “wrong” with the world, and you may feel afraid, paralyzed, helpless, full of rage. Focus on what’s “right” with the world, and you may just be burying your head in the sand.
Beyond right and wrong, there is a field of indescribable light. Focus on the field. Focus on the light … Even a tiny candle can begin to illuminate a vast cavern.
If you have anything to share or add to this article, I’d love to hear it below in the comments. What are your thoughts, feelings, and opinions? Do you have any resources you’d like to recommend?
I want to thank you for this article. It was very well written & much needed! I agree that keeping our head in the sand about these issues is doing all of us a disservice. We must be able to face these issues head on, first inside of ourselves & then in the outer world, if we ever want to see real lasting change.
I suggest you form a coalition of spiritualistic groups to combat this common problem. I might recommend calling it United Spiritualists, US for short. Combined voices are more likely to be heard,
Wonderfully written. You are phenomenal.
I want to say that I see a lot of value in your article. Thank you for putting yourself out there and posting this article even though you claim you aren’t an expert in collective shadow work. On the other side of my appreciation, I have a criticism. Although clearly we’ll intended, I think that in places where you dismissed modern spirituality, you were overly focused on the negative perspective of these phrases. I prefer to see things from the negative, positive, and grey area perspectives to hopefully find a more well rounded truth. That’s my preference and by no means do you have to adopt it but because you clearly showed a desire for inclusivity, which I think of as making room for a lot of different perspectives, I thought I’d comment on that.