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Joseph DillardDr. Joseph Dillard is a psychotherapist with over forty year's clinical experience treating individual, couple, and family issues. Dr. Dillard also has extensive experience with pain management and meditation training. The creator of Integral Deep Listening (IDL), Dr. Dillard is the author of over ten books on IDL, dreaming, nightmares, and meditation. He lives in Berlin, Germany. See:


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Problematic Aspects of Wilber's 3-2-1 Shadow Work

Joseph Dillard

Wilber’s integral Shadow 3-2-1 Process is a “gold star practice” in the Shadow module of his integral life practice.

If you are reading current integral literature or communicating with many people with associated world views, you are going to be running into “shadow,” a term coined by C.G. Jung to indicate unknown aspects of yourself, whether detrimental or positive. A detailed description of Jung’s understanding of shadow can be found here. In various forms of shadow work, those entities and experiences not consciously claimed as our own tend to be viewed as repressed or dissociated aspects of ourselves.

What is Wilber’s understanding of “shadow?”

Wilber’s integral Shadow 3-2-1 Process is a “gold star practice” in the Shadow module of his integral life practice. Every model that we build, including Jung’s analytic psychology, Wilber’s AQAL and Integral Deep Listening (IDL), is based on the ever-evolving perspective held by our sense of who we are, however we define it. That proximate self is made up of a multitude of perspectives, some of which contradict others. Wilber tends to agree with contemporary psychology and Jung and view those perspectives we adopt as interior to our sense of self. This view serves the advantage of ownership and taking responsibility, while having the drawback of being essentially grandiose bordering on narcissism: we are the author of our experience, which, when taken to its conclusions, is an expression of both the epistemic fallacy and solipsism. The opposite approach has been classically represented by shamanism and various forms of realism. These approaches assume all objectively perceived experiences, such as people seen in non-lucid dreams, really exist in some heaven, hell or other dimension. The drawback of such approaches, commonly affirmed by out of the body and near death experiences, as well as by normal waking reality, is that they externalize both power and responsibility while at its extreme, commits the ontological fallacy. We shall see that IDL honors both of these approaches while refusing to reduce experience to one or the other.

Ken Wilber and Shadow-work

How does Wilber’s 3-2-1 Shadow Work function?

Self transcends and includes subsidiary “shadow” perspectives as it evolves. Wilber discusses this in terms of distal selves becoming the proximate self. In terms of shadow work, distal shadow is incorporated into a broader, stronger waking sense of self. Consequently,Wilber’s shadow work starts with the assumption that we are in conflict with aspects of ourselves and that we project those conflicts out onto others and our environment. Wherever there is a disturbance it probably has something to do with you.

You begin with a “3rd person exercise,” in which you start by thinking about a person or situation that is upsetting to you. You are then told to describe why the person or situation is upsetting you. Next, you have a dialogue with the person who is upsetting you, either in writing or as a Gestalt two-chair type exercise. When you respond as the person, you are working with the “2nd person exercise” part of Wilber’s 3-2-1 Shadow process. You are responding as if you were the other, owning and honoring their perspective. When you re-own the projection as a part of yourself you are doing the “1st person exercise” of the Shadow process. Wilber would most likely view Integral Deep Listening (IDL) as a variety of the 3-2-1 process, in which he would also include “Big Mind” and Voice Dialogue.

Are we dealing with “shadow” or “emerging potentials?”

IDL agrees with Jung and Wilber that we are in conflict with aspects of ourselves and that we project those conflicts out onto others and our environment. Also, health involves recognizing, owning, and withdrawing these projections. This is an important topic, because it has to do with how we relate to both our disowned scripting and emerging potentials, on the one hand, and how we perceive “other interior stuff.” Is it all shadow? Is shadow the best term for any of it? IDL interviews both dream characters and the personifications of waking life issues. For example, if you have resistance to doing some work you can allow that resistance to become some shape or object, say a broom, or character, say a warthog, and interview it using the IDL interviewing protocols. These interviewed elements are indeterminate “Its,” even though they exist in the interior collective cultural quadrant of “we” and “us.” They may be disowned self-aspects, but, when interviewed, they are often found to be autonomous, that is, never owned and never, in at least some of their perspectives and values, self-aspects. Therefore, although they are interior image creations, they are not reducible to interiors of self. This is not a theoretical position but an experiential one, that anyone can determine for themselves by using the IDL interviewing process. For this reason, IDL calls interviewed figures, whether personifications of life issues or dream characters, “emerging potentials,” not only because they are emerging into our awareness, but also because they represent unexamined, unappreciated, or unincorporated potentials for awakening to broader priorities of life.

How did Jung use “shadow?”

As discussed in the above-referenced article, he used it primarily to represent disowned parts of self. Subsequently, “shadow” sets up an unnecessary and often oppositional/conflictual dualism between self and the internal other, something that is to be avoided if possible, because such dualisms divide us from ourselves. There is you, and then there is your shadow, and the various elements of your shadow.

Why is projection a problem?

The basic problem with this usage is that it is projective, which means that using it keeps us stuck in our waking perspective, which is doing the projecting. I am seeing something as a shadow part of myself. That is a projection. However, our waking sense of who we are is itself stuck because it is a limited and partial perceptual cognitive distortion. With projection, life is not viewed from the multiple perspectives of interviewed personifications of life issues and dream characters, but instead in terms of the evolution of the self line that climbs the developmental ladder. We are stuck in the perspective of a self identified with the level of development of our cognitive line, which creates models and our world view. Cognitive multi-perspectivalism is not experiential multi-perspectivalism, which is not based on our cognitive map or on who we think we are. Projections are psychologically geocentric, both in the assumptions the self makes and in terminology, with the result being that it is difficult to think in ways that are not self-centric when one uses such terms.

Is what we call “shadow” really repressed or disowned?

What we find in IDL is that most interviewed dream characters or personifications of life issues do not view themselves as repressed or dissociated, although some do. While interviewed angels, trees and toilet bowls will freely state that they represent this or that aspect of you, they will often demonstrate considerable autonomy and not view their reality as dependent upon you. If you ask them, “What aspect of you, (trees), do I represent?” what you will get will be answers that often radically reframe your sense of self. We find many emerging potentials describe themselves as springing from what Wilber would probably call our “overall” self, to distinguish it from our conscious, “proximal” self and our unconscious, “distal” selves. IDL does not use the terms “overall self,” “superconscious,” Self,” “Atman,” “soul,” or “shadow,” because they imply relatively autonomous perspectives that are part of some self sense, some self identity, whether recognized or not, which is an assumption and projection of waking perspective and bias. Interviewed perspectives rarely have need for this terminology, implying that it tends to needlessly confuse the process of waking up.

How do we know that what we assume to be shadow actually is shadow?

Have we asked it if it is a repressed aspect of ourselves, or are we just assuming? IDL views it as a presumptuous, disrespectful, and discounting assumption to simply assume this or that is shadow or self-aspect without first asking it if it sees itself as such. It can simply validate commonly held delusions to not respectfully enquire before drawing such conclusions. Therefore, IDL does not attribute interviewed dream lamp posts, or dungeons that may be personifications of our depression, to any self at all, until and unless that lamp post or dungeon says so. Interviewed emerging potentials may or may not so describe themselves when shown the courtesy of being asked. Such phenomenological tabling of assumptions in favor of inquiry is a matter of simple respect. For example, if you turn the standard question on its head and ask an alligator from a dream or a fire that personifies a back pain what part of themselves you most closely represent, they may produce a perfectly reasonable statement of autonomy. They may say, “You represent my window on the world,” or “you personify my way of making myself known,” or “you are the leading edge of my growth, what I depend upon to more fully know myself.” So which perspective is more accurate, yours or theirs? Is it your shadow or are you its shadow? Doesn’t your answer completely depend on which perspective you take? This is experiential, not cognitive, multi-perspectivalism, and to be understood it must be practiced, as must any dream yoga or integral life practice. It is an example of why IDL is a multi-perspectival approach, commonly associated with vision-logic, as well as the transpersonal, in that it does not assume the pre-existence of any self or make the self line that climbs the developmental ladder itself a reality.

Emerging potentials, as defined by IDL, are of indefinite ontology. A dream flying car may be 98% self aspect but there will remain 2% that expresses itself autonomously. Or some interviewed character may be 98% autonomous, in that you are absolutely convinced that your deceased Aunt Emma really did appear to you in that dream, but there will remain 2% of Aunt Emma that is a self aspect. In addition to not being reducible to a part of yourself, things that we view as “shadow” are not unitary selves in the sense of your waking identity, in that they are usually obviously imaginary, such as dream collanders or a fantasy gremlin that personifies your waking addiction to social media. Such perspectives are approached phenomenologically by IDL. That is, assumptions about their ontological status are suspended. Where Jung and Wilber views them as aspects of self, IDL suspends such assumptions until the element itself is interviewed. What does it say?

Is life about reclaiming the disowned or finding and incorporating life’s agenda?

“Shadow” assumes there is “us,” who we think we are, and then there is the inner “disowned us.” But the concept of disownership implies that something was once owned. Our dreams and life experience are both overflowing with emerging potentials that have never been owned. Are these shadow? That does not seem accurate, since they are not primarily, from their perspective, about us and our reality. They are about themselves and their reality. Such emerging potentials have their own agendas, and they may be very different from our own, yet not be a reaction to ours either. While life as about the evolution of the self is a legitimate perspective, that is not life’s perspective. From life’s perspective, growth, development, evolution, and life is about it, not about us. As Carl Sagan has said, “We are a way for the Universe to know itself.”

What are the advantages of taking a phenomenological approach?

So, how else could one view “not self?” IDL has the advantage of being a phenomenological approach, in that it suspends our assumptions and allows the “other” to speak for itself. It suspends assumptions of self, shadow and “other” and asks questions using a protocol reminiscent of the Socratic dialectic. It allows our pains, hopes, fears, delusions and fantasies to speak for themselves and to tell us how they view themselves. This minimizes the problem of projection while not denying its continued existence, as every interviewed perspective has its own interpretations and therefore its own projections. These perspectives are not God, nor is any one representative of Truth or Reality.

How do we know if we are fooling ourselves or not?

Of course, the common objection is that we are simply putting words into the mouth of the interviewed figure or are generating an outlet for shadow. Both of these objections are easily overcome by experience interviewing. Words come out of many interviewed figures that are radically not our own, from perspectives that do not see themselves as shadow. When we interview such figures what we find is that they may as likely view you as a shadow of them. You will also find that many of these “others” have not been disowned because they have never been owned.

Is it possible to take too much responsibility?

Emerging potentials are also projections by our sense of self, since life doesn’t call itself anything. However, these are projections that know they are projections and that intentionally set out to minimize the problems of thinking in terms of the self and its interpretations. Certainly there is no way the problem of psychological geocentrism, the idea that the world evolves around myself and that which defines me, can be avoided, but it can be minimized. The term “shadow” supports rather than works to dismantle, our identification with our self-sense. That self-sense keeps us from seeing ourselves as life sees us. While shadow work is a great tool for taking responsibility for our experience, there are limits to taking responsibility. Do you think it is wise to take responsibility for my thoughts? How about the weather or war in the Middle East? Are you responsible for the starving children of the world? How about sun spots and solar flares as caused by the negative thinking of humanity and therefore our responsibility? At what point does taking responsibility turn into an obviously grandiose and narcissistic fantasy? At what point does taking responsibility impair your further development because it maintains belief in a self-sense that must become transparent if you are to grow into the transpersonal?

Does Wilber believe that every place we feel stuck indicates a need for shadow work?

While it has been pointed out above that Wilber tends to agree with contemporary psychology and Jung and view those perspectives we adopt as interior to our sense of self, he could also point out that his holonic model does not take this position. Collective quadrants are not interior to individual interior consciousness. Your world view and overall sense of who you are and why you are here is a feature of the interior collective quadrant of your human holon, which is not collapsible into your interior individual quadrant of consciousness any more than your consciousness is collapsible into it. These interdependently co-exist in Wilber’s holonic model. If you or Wilber imply or intend that everything collapses into consciousness, which is the idealistic model, then you contradict the holonic quadrant aspect of AQAL, do you not? This is another important assumption that shadow work tends to make—that your pain is reducible to and the responsibility of, your individual consciousness. The holonic model, in addition to IDL, disagrees.

By all means, think in terms of “shadow” if that is helpful for you, but recognize that is an assumption until you ask that which you term shadow and see what it has to say. An example of an interview with shadow can be found here.

For more on the relationship between Wilber’s AQAL and IDL, in an essay from which this excerpt was taken, go here.

To learn about dream yogas in general and how IDL relates to other dream yogas, go here and here.

To learn about IDL counseling, go here.

To learn about the IDL coaching program, go here.

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