An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Jean Adeler, Ph.D., writes on the interconnectedness of language and consciousness. She has also reinterpreted the Enneagram of personality as a structural model, Enneagram 2.0. See her website at After becoming immersed in consciousness studies, she created Psychotropology, which is a method for interpreting psychological structures and psychological discourse. Psychotropology is one of the tools that helped her develop Enneagram 2.0. She is a Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and is certified by Robert McDonald as a Destination Coach.

Shadow in Integral
Theory and Practice

Jean Adeler

My contrary understanding of shadow is that it is neither thing nor feeling.

Integrating shadow, a widespread psychological therapy, is one of the four essential integral practices enumerated by Ken Wilber et al. in their book, Integral Life Practice.[1] The other three main targets of integral practice are body, mind, and spirit. The authors note that shadow work is generally omitted from other programs of transformation and warn that, without shadow work, “the transformative process tends not to stick.”

Accepting the essential nature of shadow work, we should then ensure that we make our understanding of the concept of shadow as accurate as is necessary in order that it be useful.

Integral Life Practice (ILP) presents a summary view of shadow that in many ways is good enough for the author's purposes. Yet there are a couple of potential errors that I think are worth considering.

First, what is shadow? ILP doesn't credit Jung, but the authors are probably borrowing their ideas about shadow from the heirs and popularizers of Jungian analytic psychology, so I'll start there. For Jung, shadow is one of a variety of archetypes, which are “patterns of psychic energy originating in the collective unconscious.”[2] ILP doesn't identify the collective unconscious as the source of shadow, but neither do most Jungians emphasize that distinction, as far as I can tell. Jung himself talked about shadow and archetypes in ways that may give the impression that they are formations of the individual psyche.

So I guess we'll all take a pass on that one. Perhaps it goes without saying that individual shadow crops up with some assistance from the collective.

My real issue with the integralists (and many Jungians) is that they seem to treat shadow as either a thing—an entity—or a feeling. Here are some of the ways ILP references shadow:

  • the shadow [my emphasis]
  • “the 'dark side' of the psyche—those aspects of ourselves that we've split off, rejected, denied, hidden from ourselves, projected onto others, or otherwise disowned” (p. 41) [my emphasis]
  • “the 'repressed unconscious'” (p. 41)
  • “repressed unconscious drives, feelings, needs, and potentials” (p. 43)
  • something that can be contacted (p. 44)
  • a feeling, such as anger (p. 44)
  • a quality (p. 45)
  • “the split-off self” (p. 46)
  • desire or drive (p. 47)
  • “little renegade splinters of our personality running around in our unconscious … alienated 'others'” (p. 49)

My contrary understanding of shadow is that it is neither thing nor feeling.

To support the suggestion that shadow is not a thing, I turn again to Jung. Jung did not see archetypes essentially as things. According to Carol Schreier Rupprecht, writing in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism,[3] Jung

modified and extended his concept over the many decades of his professional life, often insisting that “archetype” named a process, a perspective, and not a content, although this flexibility was lost through the codifying, nominalizing tendencies of his followers.

As a form of archetype, shadow is “a process, a perspective, and not a content.” On the other hand, some of the characterizations of shadow in ILP, such as “the shadow,” “dark side,” “split-off self,” and “others,” are of the shadow as entities. I don't know whether the authors would agree, but I do not believe that “Tony” in their third example has an image of a monster residing full-time, year-round in his mind. I would think that this shadow figure was simply a vehicle he produced during a certain period of his life to represent his dream thoughts.

I readily admit that treating shadows as anthropomorphized entities is a useful shorthand, even if it is a fiction, and that we may not want to dispense with the idea of shadow-things altogether. Dreams as well as waking life are full of archetypal representations of thoughts, and making therapeutic use of such representations is time-honored psychological practice. ILPs 3-2-1 process for integrating shadow is a case in point. The authors present this simple yet profound method for recognizing and owning shadow through creating an image of a problem and holding an imaginary dialogue with it.

But even if we decline to reject the idea of shadow-things and continue to find it useful, there is one other aspect of ILP's shadow theory that I find more troubling. That is the assumption that shadow is made up of feelings.

Recall that ILP characterizes shadow as the “repressed unconscious.” It then goes on to summarize Freud's contribution to this subject as follows: “unacceptable drives and feelings are repressed from conscious awareness, where they surreptitiously shape your life” [sic] (p. 42). Freud probably said something like this somewhere in his vast and somewhat self-contradictory writings. But the overall substance of his thinking on this topic is this: it is always a thought (“ideational representative” of the drive) that is repressed, never a feeling, or affect.[4]

Else what would be the “mechanism” by which a feeling persisted in mind as an unconscious shadow? Thoughts can be held in memory because language and the structures of discourse make it possible. Has anybody proved that feelings can be so held? Certainly, the part of emotion that consists of thinking can be retained in mind over time and repressed, but can the same be said of the part that consists of bodily response?

Many today speak and write as if affect could be repressed, so the integralists aren't alone in this belief. But is it a useful belief? I think that treating shadow as thought instead of feeling produces more and better information. To illustrate, I will re-analyze ILP's “Sample 3: Tony Meditates with a Monster.”[5]

After a divorce Tony has repeated nightmares in which he is scared by a monster who hates and wants to kill him. Over four months' time, Tony regularly witnesses his fear of the monster during meditation. He is treating the feeling of fear as a shadow. Then he embarks on the 3-2-1 process. In the first part of the process, Tony faces the monster and feels the fear. In the second part, he talks to the monster. Among other things, the monster says he wants to kill Tony because he is angry with him. In the third part, Tony “becomes the monster” and proclaims that he is angry and says, “I want to kill!” According to the authors:

Tony realized that a fierce anger lurked behind his fear. After his divorce, he had dissociated his anger into a split-off shadow element, which showed up in his nightmare as an angry monster. Only by re-owning his anger could Tony reclaim his shadow repression and free up the power of a more integrated self.

Their interpretation is that by looking past his fear, which was an “inauthentic emotion,” Tony was able to discover his true shadow, which was anger. Anger was “the root cause of his nightmares and terror.”

My own reinterpretation is that in conversing with the monster image, Tony uncovers the thought: “I want to kill!” Now he has something to work with. Of course, he wants to kill his ex, who doesn't? But what in his past makes this perfectly natural thought that few take seriously so impossible of being entertained and then laughed off?

Ideas persist in memory. Feelings? Who knows? I think that feelings arise in the moment—at the moment an idea is thought. Not that troubling feelings are not important. They may signal the existence of shadow thoughts and give clues to their nature and origin.

For a further example of why matters whether we view shadow as consisting of affect or thought, let's take a look at ILP's generic illustration of affect-as-shadow. An apparently hypothetical child is angry at her mother. The anger is unacceptable: “But being angry with Mommy threatens my connection to warmth, food, comfort, love, security, and survival.” Consequently, she projects her anger onto others. Finally, anger is no longer even acknowledged as having anything to do with her. She becomes scared and sad over having to live in an angry world.

For me, something is missing in this illustration. What makes the girl angry? Why, really, can't she express her anger? Children express anger at their parents all the time and don't get cut off from nurturing. But if she had a thought about killing her mother and that was connected in her mind with something traumatic ….

Judgments, conclusions, negations, desires, and generalizations are thoughts and can thus be dealt with through various ego defenses. But unless the thoughts behind the feelings are revealed, no actual therapy is going to take place. It is not enough to acknowledge, “I am angry.” Under what circumstances am I angry, and why?

Finally, the chart on page 57, which is based on the same substitution of feelings for thoughts, could be counterproductive for some readers who use it as a substitute for doing the work of the process. The chart correlates symptoms to their “Original Shadow Form.” For example, according to the chart, anxiety originates in excitement, sadness originates in anger, and hatred originates in self-hatred. These generalizations might be helpful, but only if they can spur insights about the thoughts behind the feelings.

Wilber and the other writers of ILP are so right to make inner work a part of their evolutionary program, and the 3-2-1 process seems sound to me. But I suggest that the chapter on shadow needs to be amended for accuracy and improved effectiveness.


[1] Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, Adam Leonard, and Marco Morelli, Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening (Boston: Integral Books, 2008), 41.

[2] C. G. Jung, Collected Works (ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler, 20 vols., 1953-79) vol. 8:287, cited in Carol Schreier Rupprecht, “Archetypal Theory and Criticism,” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.

[3] Carol Schreier Rupprecht, “Archetypal Theory and Criticism,” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.

[4] Dylan Evans, “Repression,” An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[5] Wilber, et al., 55-57.

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