When I look back on my life, I realize that shadow work was always there. I just didn’t see it because I had tunnel vision. When I studied cognitive neuroscience and psychology in undergrad, I learned so much about Carl Jung and his work with the unconscious mind. It came up again while I was working on my master’s degree and later when I was teaching courses as an adjunct professor at Penn State. As a result, I understood the impact of the unconscious on our body’s physiology and emotions, but I’ve never thought to use this knowledge for myself.
However, as I was researching the most effective ways to deal with stress, shadow work was staring me in the face again—I took it as a sign that I needed to learn more and really try it for myself.
I ended up reaching out to UK-based shadow worker Allison Kelsey, and I booked an appointment with her for the very next week. Kelsey and I did sessions together weekly or biweekly, for a year.
For a bit more context, “shadow” is just another term for the unconscious mind, which is at the deepest level of your psyche. It’s the moments that make up your personality. It’s the things that shape your worldview; it’s what makes you who you are as a human being.
For a lot of us, these unconscious processes are traumas. The reason this happens is something called a subconscious feedback loop. Every experience that you have is sensory—as you take in those senses, it internally creates a chemical reaction, your emotions. Those emotions create a physical reaction in your body, which is also chemical, and that physical reaction sends a chemical reaction back up to your brain in the form of a thought—that loop repeats over and over again.
For instance, many people are triggered by the holidays and spending time with their family because of unpleasant past experiences from childhood. That is your shadow: You may not even remember exactly what memory is triggering, but your body remembers.
Shadow work is the process of bringing up those memories slowly and intentionally, usually through meditation. Then, you work with a practitioner to interrupt that subconscious feedback loop and change how this memory exists in your brain. One way to do that is through breathwork because your breath can stop some of those chemicals from producing and interrupts that feedback loop in such a way that it can change the neural pathways in your brain.
During my own journey with this work, I released so much trauma and I learned more about myself than I can even begin to put into words. I was a different person within weeks. And by the end of the year, I didn’t even recognize the person that I was before.
After this journey, I started to shift my own practice to focus on shadow work. Now, I work with thousands of people every single year through group courses that I host, I speak all over the world about it, and I recently wrote a book called Shadow Work. My life is now completely different from what it was before my diagnosis. So while cancer is, in some ways, the worst thing that happened to me, it is simultaneously the best.