How do unconscious forces affect what you do in your relationship? Is there a way to get in touch with those things lurking in the shadows of your inner self - so that they can become fuel for positive energy in your life? In today’s episode, we have a return visit from Dr. Keith Witt, integral psychologist and author of the new book Shadow Light: Illuminations at the Edge of Darkness, and we will dive deep into how you can harness your shadow as a force for good!
(If you’re curious to also hear Keith Witt’s other episode, you can check out Episode 13 - Resolve Conflict and Create Intimacy through Attunement)
Defining shadow: Shadow is the concept that there is a lot that influences us of which we are not consciously aware. For example, our nervous systems are always reacting to internal and external cues. Our nervous system processes information from the world within and the world without and sends this information, these stories, to our consciousness. As our nervous systems scan and determine safety continually, we navigate our world throughout the day 1-10 seconds at a time. 40-60% of the information we gather about the world comes from nonverbal cues- from the unconscious to unconscious. If our nervous system concludes we are safe then we are more able to be in the moment. If it reads threat, however, then we go into defense and protective reactions. All this happens instinctively and unconsciously. Our conscious awareness either notices or doesn’t notice. All psychotherapy and healing work is about growing awareness of the shadow self, becoming more and more able to notice and interact with the unconscious itself.
Developing awareness: Developing awareness of our shadow selves is a continual process. It is effortful and easeful at the same time. Difficult and simple. It can begin by simply focusing on our breath going in and out of our nostrils and down into our abdomen. This meditation alone increases our appreciation of the sensation of breathing, and begins to build the mindfulness muscles so necessary to stay in the moment and be with what is. We probably have to practice this awareness of breath 1,000 times before it is a go to resource for us, but it is critical to developing our perceptual awareness, and our ability and capacity to shift our awareness between our conscience and subconscious.
Take the reins: Imagine your unconscious as a group of horses. Our conscious self is the one that should have the reins - the one that chooses the direction if it is in control. You want to shift from the experience of the horses pulling the carriage in any direction (usually more directions than one!) they please, to a centered and directed approach. The conscious self has the potential to direct the development of our unconscious, the potential to choose how to consciously and authentically evolve. Be in charge of the interface between your conscious and subconscious - and invite shadow material to surface. You can do this by asking yourself questions and listening to the answers given by your shadow self (that which is under awareness).
Expect everything to be as it is: Are you finding yourself stuck in repetitive patterns either in your inner world, or in your relationship? If so, there is likely a defensiveness that is creating resistance and repetition. Look under the surface for a clue - ask yourself what fear or expectation are you protecting yourself from? A key to breaking this desire/disappointment cycle, and finding more authentic happiness, is to return to an expectation that everything is and will be just as it is. This shift will help increase authenticity and give the energy to better hear and see ourselves clearly.
Constructive and destructive shadow: As we become more aware of all that influences us at any given moment, we can learn to discern between the constructive instincts and the destructive instincts. Remember, as you do this, that we do not have inherently evil parts of ourselves, and that the parts of ourselves that react and behave in ways we deem destructive are working to protect us. It is critical to our interactions that we become responsible for noticing and naming ways that our more destructive shadow self is showing up in any given conversation or exchange. How are these protective parts of you creating or exacerbating escalations, conflict, withdrawal, etc? If there is a sense that the connection between you and your partner is degrading or diminishing than there is evidence that this protective schema is at play. Shift into curiosity and cooperation - how in this moment can you work with your own fears and pain in a way that allows you to move towards repair and connection? Couples that cooperative and are open to receiving influence from each other are stronger, happier, and healthier.
Don’t deny drives: In order to avoid deception, resentment, and the buildup towards an affair it is critical that you be honest about your instinctual drives, and curious about your partner’s. Do not deny them. Be receptive and creative in finding ways to meet each other’s needs. If you want to have a solid marriage, you must be willing the make sacrifices and make sure you allow your partner to be fulfilled, emotionally, erotically, relationally, spiritually, parentally. Long term relationships require will and effort and conscious acts of creation. If you are not willing to exercise that choosing and dedication, then fleeting passionate romance and affairs might shine brighter in your life and distract you from what is possible and waiting in your marriage. Turn towards the questions below to help clarify your knowing about why your partnership is worth the effort:
Ask questions to explore these 5 dimensions that are critical to intimacy:
- Is there erotic polarity between this person and myself?
- Does this person take care of their psychological and physical health?
- If I was in conflict with this person would they be able to get back to love?
- Would this person show up as a parent or family member?
- Does this person have something that is sacred to them that is larger than themselves and are they respectful of what is precious to me?
The hero/heroine journey- The last question above is so integral to a fulfilling relationship in that it reminds us that we cannot have a fulfilling love life if we ignore that which calls us forward. We are each on our own sacred heroic path, and our partner is as well. This journey must be celebrated, honored, protected, and nourished. Get in touch with what archetypal forces are influencing you- finding the ones that shut you down, or light you up- and begin to bring the concept of the hero/heroine’s journey into your long-term relationships. How can you use archetypal metaphors to understand each other better? How can you experience yourself as your own hero/heroine of your autobiographical narrative, and your partner as a companion, and vice-versa. Becoming clear about your sacred purpose is critical not only to living authentically, but also to loving authentically. Your partner may, at first, wish for you to choose them over your own sense of purpose and desire, however ultimately, you will be diminished, weakened, and likely lose attractiveness in their eyes if you do not dedicate yourself and follow your knowing. Trust, together, that following your truth and honoring your mission is one of the most loving things you can do to create a fulfilling and stable partnership.
Be a magical aide: Witt explains “if you have a partner that is deepening intimacy with you, you’ll feel that partner joining with you and supporting you on your quest. Your partner will become a source of magical aide for you, and one of your allies. And you want to be a source of magical aide for your partner too on his/her epic journey”.
Summoning the archetypes: Not sure how to identify inspiring or informative archetypes? Begin looking around, in your mind and memory, in your lived experience, in stories, movies, religious scripts, etc. in order to find heros. Identify their characteristics- what calls them forward in the world? Once you have identified archetypes that speak to you, you can find that part in yourself, and in doing so, find the parts of yourself that are stopping you, or afraid of being that big/bold/courageous/generous/etc. This “want” vs. “can’t” is an ordeal. There is something you want to do, but you have a fear that is blocking or protecting you from fully embodying these characteristics and doing that thing that you want (asking for a raise, learning to surf, asking your wife to explore sex more with you…). Whatever your ordeal is, if you take your ordeal on and do your best with it, you WILL discover more of your warrior self and strengthen your warrior self in that ordeal, and that leads you a little deeper. Have conversations with your archetypes! Find them in dreams! Do meditations! Spend time with them. Summon them as needed.
Illumination at the edge of darkness: Never ever say “that is just the way I am”. Even if you think this, do not say it! Say, instead, “I’ll work on it”. In order to build intimacy and grow your love life, move towards discovery. Become curious and learn about your shadow side and how it is influencing your desires or fears. Go to the interface between the known and the unknown. Be in this interface without judgment, but with curiosity and acceptance, and with discernment for what is healthy and unhealthy. Be in that interface between constructive and destructive shadow with caring intent, always working to reach towards health.
This, of course, is not as easy as it sounds and it requires effort and courage, however as we know, when we act with courage we discover more courage! Remember, as Witt explains, that “focused intent and action in service of principal, driven by resolve, is a human superpower!” If you have focused intent and action in service of loving your partner better, and you are resolved to do that, you are going to create better love with your partner. And if you both do it, you are going to create better love, and will continue to discover more and more about each other and the world. This is illumination at the edge of darkness!
Find the courage to share: We have a cultural dissociation around eroticism in the West, or maybe it is everywhere, maybe it is a human thing in that human societies tend to control people’s sexual choices. Either way, it is up to us to overcome this silence, and to be able to open to each other in order to keep erotically alive. One exercise to help with this courageous conversation is explained below:
Create a lust map: Try this exercise in order to help clarify, communicate, and celebrate your sexual desires. Get a big sheet of paper and draw a circle in the middle. Using colored pencils, markers, collage materials, etc. write and draw things around the paper that light you up or turn you off and draw lines connecting to the center circle, and to anywhere else on the page- building a web. Be specific! Write down activities, behaviors, thoughts, fantasies, longings, etc. Get big with it - make it a masterpiece. When you finish, take turns showing your maps to your partner, explaining the different discoveries you have made. This sharing inevitably wakes things up - good or bad. You may find yourselves more turned on and connected, or perhaps triggered and intimidated. If the latter, it may be helpful to seek a therapist together in order to be held as you navigate discrepancies that arise from differing desires. Ask yourself: “is there room for me to help you have a better time during lovemaking, or vice versa?” Know that this exercise, however vulnerable it is, has powerful effects.
What possibilities open up? The art of intimacy is really the art of believing that you can engage in relationships that have endless levels of intimacy. There are a zillion ways to have great sex! For example, what possibilities open up if we aren’t following orgasm? We are all wired for sexual satisfaction, however how we define this is very open to interpretation. In the West, we may have become too dependent on the dopamine rich climax result as our definition of sexual ‘success’. Tantra, for example, helps to break the unconscious sexual dissociation barriers that have become so pervasive. It helps us to open again to an expansive, inclusive, and spontaneous exploration of what defines our own sense of sexual satisfaction. This expansiveness inevitably leads to a more fulfilling, awake, nourishing, and conscious sex life. By committing to authenticity and transparency you will find that you are able to go deeper together into a space of more and more personal and erotic growth.
Interesting fact: The average time couple’s spend engaging in foreplay increased from 7 minutes in 1940 to 14 minutes in 2000. This is a doubling in 60 years.
Read Keith Witt’s new book Shadow Light: Illuminations at the Edge of Darkness and buy the workbook too!
Explore videos, resources, and more on Keith Witt’s School of Love website!
Read more about the concept of shadows in successful marriages on his blog!
Our Relationship Alive Community on Facebook
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of: