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 started my shadow work before I knew what shadow work was. I called it “dismantling”. I had an abusive childhood and was raised in a Fundamentalist Cult. Left it behind and years later went through some traumatic experiences in rapid succession. (teen daughter raped, infant son in NICU, lost my jobe, became homeless. All of which I was able to deal with through the help of some really wonderful people. Unfortunately that didn’t stop the trauma from effecting me my mental health. I moved to another State, where I knew no one. I spent the next few years processing everything. And because I’m autistic I then spent the next few years sifting through my whole life and deciding what was for me and what wasn’t. Because of my intense religious background, I scoured the internet researching everything I had been taught and where it comes from. Which in turn allowed me to discard most of those beliefs. I now identify as spiritual but no longer religious. Never again religious. I also researched my emotional trauma and started utilizing tools I found to try and work through it. It took a few years but I slowly learned how to let… Read more »
Such an excellent article on shadow work, thank you. I realize I’ve been doing shadow work for years on my own, without knowing it. Reading about it helped me understand a bit more.
I’m a fiction writer and I write in the fantasy genre (Paranormal, supernatural, etc.). Now, to become proactive, I decided to incorporate shadow work in my stories and hope to spark some light in the collective shadows and the readers’ personal ones.
Thank you for exploring a topic that so many spiritual leaders avoid. There is no doubt that shadow work, and working with the collective shadow, is important. I agree with you that awareness and personal responsibility are key components of restoring balance to our world. However, I think it would also be helpful to look at how our attempts to “fix” ourselves and the language we use around that adds to the shame, guilt and blame we heap upon ourselves; and the density of our personal shadow and our contribution to the collective. There is nothing wrong with any of us. Nothing that needs to be fixed. We shame ourselves when we think we are “broken”, or less than, or lacking. We are life living and evolving in it’s endless dance. Essentially, each one of us is learning to live, evolving and discovering kinder and more collaborative ways to BE in this world. When we focus on being imperfect, or victims of internalized thoughts or societal conditioning, we invite shame and self-judgement to cloud our vision of who we are and who we could be. And, our actions, intentions and motivations are muddled. I think that the key to shadow… Read more »
This was fantastic!
You should have seen my “Hurts-So-Good” Face
*mouth puckered, eyes squinted, forehead tilted down, cool inhale*
Oddly enough, I enjoy Shadow Work. I want To KNOW … that’s how we get better!
Some of the ways I support shadow work is …
A) Say or have others repeat the word “We” when speaking of others.
B) Imagine how freed Darkness will feel once released from
Shadow Work Prison.
C)When it becomes too much to bear and something triggers me to the point of being judgmental, I say so out loud …
“I’m being judgmental.
‘The fat, old, Middle Eastern man that lives across the street,
who lives like a hoarder is disgusting to me … Grrrooosssss.
Please forgive me!”
Then I try to figure out why that is so disgusting to me.
or I’ll end a sentence with “cleverly disguised as a Child of God” when speaking of some a-hole.
I LOVED this article & I LOVED getting dirty.
Thank you for The Illumination!
This article helped so much. I just felt,while on my journey, so much pain and anguish just from being a black womanly in America. This article helped me see that I have a lot more and deeper work to do. The collective soul I’ve felt weigh on me for quite awhile. I didn’t know how or if I should address what kept coming up in my journals. This helped me a lot and thank you so much. For taking your time to address the issues. I guess in a way it felt like an apology and I think it was enough to forgive myself for being born in a society that hates me just for my complexion. I need to hear/read this. Thank you on behalf of my community thank you so much
I see the collective shadow of humanity as the collective, murderous unconscious. It is the lower ego, psyche, persona that believes in “eat or be eaten.” Shadow work, it seems to me, is the work we must do on our psyche’s propensity to our collective addiction to suffering. My experience on my own wisdom path, a path of heart that seeks to encounter, look at, resolve, learn from, and avoid spiritual “traps” born of the psyche, is found in the every day awareness of living as a soul having a human experience. I am human and have both a psyche and a soul. Random acts of kindness is one of many ways to take an actionable approach to overcoming the personal and collective human shadow in addition to fathoming and parenting our fragile psyches.
YES! I’ve been thinking about this for a while, frustrated by folks claiming to be grounded and spiritual who take care utmost of their personal mental health, yet seem completely incapable of aknowledging the suffering of others without blaming the others for it. If someone is using spirituality as a way to feel superior and to judge others, than I hate to say it but they’re doing it wrong. It’s a tricky balance, (I’m currently reading your Empath guide book), between feeling too deeply for the hardships of others and guilt for all the wrongs in this world, and being completely disconnected. I’d love to read a future article about walking that line. Thanks for this.
Very good article, I think this is an important topic that needs to be brought up more. Sure, we all have our own inner-works to do and stuff to improve within ourselves. But this collective shadow, darkness and evil in our world can’t be ignored either, especially since there’s so much going on in the world today! What saddens me is that while there’s so much of the bad stuff happening around the world that is obviously visible, still there are people who deny, dismiss or straight out ignore and only sees the positive stuff. And this benefits no one… And for example, look at climate change, clear facts are out there in the climate, in our eco-system and in all more and more occurring natural distasters etc. And yet, there are still people who seriously believe that real scientists, of whom has revealed all facts and knowledge alongside with telling more about how it all works and how we can prevent, that they’ve received the money just to research up the particular thing; “climate change is here”. This saddens me because there are actually real visible (and that can be felt too)facts out there about this for us all… Read more »
I just woke from the most surreal, cruel and horrible dream and did not know what to make of it. So I take the phone and bling, your article in my mailbox. Now it all makes sense. Thank you so much for making me aware of this. Your work is so valuable!
Wow…these beautifully expressed and written words really hit home for me. It got me questioning a lot of what I think, how I behave and what I’ve allowed myself to believe for a long time now. When you wrote about how some of the ways modern spirituality denies and contributes to the Collective Shadow, it surprised me to see how much I actually allowed myself to “willingly” participate in. All I can say is WOW…I have a lot of work to do!!! As I was reading the words, all these personal past behaviours or experiences came to mind. Like I was witnessing the areas in my life I really need to work on. Thank you for this awareness, and for the free Collective Shadow worksheets. Time for some shadow work… ❤️