My attraction to tarot is not only as a therapeutic tool and connection to Spirit, but it is a 78 card stack of symbolism; from the great archetypes of the majors, to the day to day of the minors, to the energetic embodiments of the courts, there is symbolism everywhere. I think that this is part of my attraction to poetry as well, symbols and metaphors that one must tease out. Poetry, like tarot, can have so many interpretations of a singular line depending on the experience of the reader. I might say, ‘this is about death’, but you might say, ‘this is about birth’. I think that is what makes poetry and tarot so spectacular, it’s a never ending well of symbolism to help us arrive at a universal connectedness as well as personal understanding.
I find that symbols need not come forward as objects, animals, emblems, etc. I find that a lot of symbolism for me comes in the shape of words. Words that come through people, license plates, poems, graffiti, numbers, signage. The first word in my current set of three that has been sitting between my palate and tongue is willingness.
Volition, free will, willpower. "The act of committing to a particular course of action" (paraphrased from Wikipedia). I realized through my own struggles with mental illness and lack mindset that I was without willingness for a long time. Sometimes willingness is not a choice, sometimes we’re so far down that the act of committing to change is totally unrealistic, but I want to talk about willingness as a choice; willingness as a choice with shadow work.
Shadow work is the deep investigation of our subconscious realms, it’s where we store our compartmentalised traumas, where we hide our internalised fears. Author and tarot genius Benebell Wen (who has an amazing course on this topic) says, “the shadow self refers to that aspect of who you are that you reject.” So shadow work is working on the shadow self and the shadow self is where we don’t want to look.
I have a phobia. It’s called ichthyophobia, ichthyo from the Greek ikhthus, fish. I speak on it often. I find that the more I shed light onto it, the more I am able to understand the core trauma that is associated with the phobia (that in itself is essentially shadow work). It’s a fear displacement, it’s like how Voldemort tried to kill Harry and when the spell backfired, part of Voldemort’s soul latched onto the only living thing in the room: Harry. I didn’t try to kill anyone but I did subconsciously choose an object in the room, taxidermy trout, and project my fear onto it. This isn’t magic, this is psychological. This is how PTSD works. It was a taxidermy trout because I was also in alignment with fish. This could turn into giant onion peeling back all the layers of how this particular phobia manifests, but what I’ll say is is that my phobia of fish represents my deepest shadow(s), my deepest triggers. Nothing on earth can trigger me more than fish and that is including all the other horrific triggers that exist in our world.
In order to begin breaking ground on shadow work we must first encompass the willingness. Willingness to take on a feat that is dangerous, triggering, soul wrenching and all over life changing. Willingness to acknowledge that there is something to be worked on. It’s not as simple as turning on a light switch, I can’t say, “I’m engaging in shadow work, I’m healed!” The willingness must be wholehearted and sincere because it’s a deep tunnel, the length of which one really doesn’t know until they've stepped into it. It’s not to say that one must be working non-stop, full time on investigating these deep wounds, but rather it’s like flood gates, once they’re open, they’re open.
When it comes to shadow work, we have to have the willingness to give what we give in order to unlock what’s been hidden. Giving can look like going to therapy, recovery meetings, getting sober, making amends to people we’ve harmed, starting a journal, taking active steps of accountability, reading tarot, being honest with ourselves that we are haunted by our pain.
We must also have the willingness to receive; receiving information that we once had safely stored in our unconscious mind, recognising our toxic patterns, hearing the other side from someone we’ve hurt, finding out about abuse that we never thought was possible. A huge part of shadow work is the reception of information that unbeknownst to our conscious minds we’ve been trailing around with us all these years. It’s so incredible the way the human mind, human psyche, emotional body goes on autopilot to protect us (see: dissociation, compartmentalisation). It’s incredible the way we can trudge through life with these burdens of secrets etched into our shoulders.
I don’t want to confuse willingness with ability because they are distinct. There are a lot of people who have resources and power that remain unwilling to examine aspects of themselves (and society at large, the collective consciousness also has a collective unconscious and it is loaded with shadows). There are also a lot of people who would be interested in getting into their shadows but lack the access to resources that would provide safe containers for the volatile and powerful emotions that inevitably come up. What do community resources look like so that we can give space for grieving and emotional understanding in a way that does not pressure or punish? What can we do at 'rock bottom’ do in order to find access to willingness out of love for self and not fear?
I also want to acknowledge that sometimes we are just not in a place in our lives where we can even think about doing deep healing work. Sometimes our lives are in danger, sometimes we're having PTSD triggers left and right, sometimes we're dissociated out of survival. There is no shame in not being able to be willing. I think that the issue comes when we're actively avoiding looking at ourselves and thus continuing patterns of perpetuating violence, abuse, and/or toxic behavior.
In reflection of Terrance Hayes's quote, "All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet/the flowers don’t quit opening.” I think that shadows help breed the emptiness we feel on an individual and universal scale, enough to cause us ongoing pain, frustration, and toxic coping mechanisms. At the other side of the quote, flowers, and if we want to take the symbolism and run with it, then we are the flower forever opening, forever rising, forever transforming.
This post is part of a three part post on willingness, excavation, and integration.
**cover photo by Peter-Paul Moschik via Upsplash