Ken Wilber on the Shadow

Ken Wilber


How Sigmund Freud Got Interested In Shadow Work
By Ken Wilber
No Boundary
Chapter 7, Integrating the Shadow


“At the beginning of his career as a “nerve doctor,” Sigmund Freud traveled to Nancy in eastern France in order to witness the celebrated works of the hypnotist Dr. Bernheim. What Freud saw there was eventually to mold the main currents of all Western psychotherapy, from Adler to Jung to Gestalt to Maslow. In a typical experiment performed by Bernheim, the patient was placed in a deep hypnotic trance and then told that, upon a certain signal, he will pick up an umbrella from beside the door, open it, and place it over his head. When the signal was given, the patient did indeed pick up and open the umbrella. When the doctor asked him why he opened the umbrella indoors, the patient would reply with a good reason, such as, “I wanted to see to whom it belonged,” or “I just wanted to make sure it was working correctly,” or “I was interested in the brand name” or some such. Now these were all good reasons, but they obviously weren’t the correct reason. The patient was performing an act, but he had absolutely no idea way he was really doing it! In other words, the patient most definitely had a reason for opening the umbrella, but he was unaware of it — his real reason was unconscious, and he was being moved by forces which apparently were not in his conscious mind. Freud built his entire psychoanalytic system around this basic insight, the insight that men and women have needs or motivations of which they are unconscious.”


“This chapter is about the shadow, what it is, how it got started, and how to take it back. But one thing is certain: the great wisdom traditions, for all their wisdom, have absolutely nothing like this. I know, I’ve spent thirty years checking with students and teachers, and the conclusion is unanimous: an understanding of the psychodynamic repression, as well as ways to cure it, is something contributed exclusively by modern Western psychology. Many meditation teachers claim that they offer something similar, but when you look closely at what they mean, it really isn’t this. Consequently, even advanced meditators and spiritual teachers are often haunted by psychopathology, as their shadows chase them to Enlightenment and back, leaving roadkill all along the way. The good news is that this is fairly easily remedied.”

— Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality, Chapter Six, The Shadow And The Disowned Self


“The shadow is a term representing the personal unconscious or the psychological material that we repress, deny, dissociate or disown. Unfortunately, denying this material doesn’t make it go away; on the contrary, it returns to plague us with painful neurotic symptoms, obsessions, fears and anxieties. Uncovering, befriending, and re-owning this material is necessary not only for removing the painful symptoms, but for forming an accurate and healthy self-image.”

— From The Integral Vision, pg. 187


“Those items in the environment (people or things) that strongly affect us instead of just informing us are usually our own projections. Items that bother us, upset us, repulse us or at the other extreme, attract us, compel us, obsess us – these are usually reflections of the shadow. As an old proverb has it:

I looked, and looked, and this I came to see:

That what I thought was you and you,

Was really me and me.”

— From No Boundary, pg 85


“It should be apparent by now that shadow projection not only distorts our view of reality “out there”, it also greatly changes our feeling of self “in here”. When I project some emotion or trait as shadow, I still continue to perceive it but only in a distorted and illusory fashion — it appears as an “object out there.” Likewise, I still continue to feel the shadow, but only in a distorted and disguised fashion — once the shadow is projected, I feel it only as a symptom.”

— From No Boundary, pg 87


“So, in just this way, symptoms — far from being undesirable — are opportunities for growth…Through your symptoms you find your shadow, and through your shadow you find growth, and expansion of boundaries, a path to an accurate and acceptable self-image…It’s almost as simple as this: persona + shadow = ego.”

— From No Boundary, pg 89-90


“As you begin to explore your opposites, your shadow, your projections, you will begin to find that you are assuming responsibility for your own feelings and your own states of mind. You will start to see that most battles between you and other people are really battles between you and your projected opposites. You will start to see that your symptoms are not something that the environment is doing to you, but something you are doing to yourself as an exaggerated substitute for what you would really like to do to others. You will find that people and events don’t cause you to be upset, but are merely the occasions for you to upset yourself. It is a tremendous relief when you first understand that you yourself are producing your own symptoms, because that also means you can stop producing those symptoms by translating them back to their original form.”

— From No Boundary, pg 91