Healing the Astrological Shadow
originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, June/July 2010
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Jung considered the shadow to be the guardian of the threshold to the unconscious, and a primary catalyst to individuation (1). The shadow encompasses some aspect of the psyche that is wounded and requires healing. This healing represents a lifelong journey that circles around what I call a core issue. Core issues provide a focal point for emotional, psychological and spiritual growth over the course of a lifetime. Though none of us would consciously choose to be wounded, wounding is an initiation onto a soul journey uniquely our own. As we deal with the consequences of our shadow wounding, we learn and gradually become whole.
Aside from the hurt of the initial wounding, the pain and suffering inherent in the shadow arise because it is mostly unconscious. Its true nature is not obvious. We dare not look it directly in the face for fear that we will be hurt again.
When the shadow is triggered, we get frustrated or angry, or experience another difficult emotion. We don’t see a source for these feelings inside ourselves, so we project them outward into our relationships. We blame others for our misery. We feel victimized and powerless.
What we don’t see is that some unclaimed piece of us – hidden in shadow – is undergoing a painful birthing process. The essence of shadow work is to shift our focus from whatever it is outside of us that is triggering our pain to whatever it is inside of us that is struggling to be born. This is largely a matter of taking responsibility for our pain and making what is unconscious, conscious.
The challenge is to realize that others are not causing our suffering, that we are not victims, and that we can choose a different kind of experience. As we go more deeply into the process, we begin to realize that the power we feel we don’t have is held by the shadow –that part of ourselves that we have given away through projection onto others.
Three Types of Shadow Wounds
In my experience, shadow wounds fall into three categories. The most common form – I call it a Type 1 shadow wound – revolves around a part of us that is rejected in childhood. The rejected piece is associated with some forbidden emotion or behavior and a message that we assimilate, because we need the love, acceptance, approval, respect, or cooperation of those who are rejecting us.
We’re told, for example, that “Big boys don’t cry,” or “only dirty little girls touch themselves in that way,” or “we don’t do that in this family.” A shadow wound of rejection revolves around a taboo, the breaking of which brings rejection, punishment, or shaming. We grow up avoiding, controlling, or censoring the emotion or behavior that evokes the rejection, punishment or shaming response. Some of these forbidden emotions or behaviors can be those that our parents or other significant adults personally found uncomfortable. Some stem from religious, socio-economic, cultural, ethnic, racial, or gender-based conditioning.
A Type 2 shadow wound arises from the projection of some attribute onto a child, who does not fit the projection, but assumes it must be true. The child of alcoholic parents, who encourage collusion at an early age, may grow up falsely believing himself unable to cope with his problems, except with the aid of alcohol. The daughter of a promiscuous mother, who constantly tells her daughter she is nothing but “white trash,” may develop a shadow wound around this false image of herself.
This type of shadow wound can also stem from a false positive, which causes pain because it creates ill-fitting expectations that are inevitably disappointed. Shedding the false image becomes a challenge because there is often some truth at the heart of the projection that is not easily dismissed, and because the projection initially feels like an affirmation of worth. When I was born, for example, my grandfather called me “the professor,” anticipating that I would go to college and rise to great heights of knowledge and wisdom. I made it as far as a master’s degree, before realizing I was living out his image of me. Yet in a much more unconventional way than my grandfather envisioned, I have pursued the path of a lifelong student of knowledge and wisdom, and “professed” what I have learned.
To heal this kind of shadow wound, one must find the truth inside that resonates with the projection – some variation of it that one can honestly call one’s own – and cultivate that.
Recently, I attended a workshop by Bill Plotkin – an insightful eco-psychologist and author of the book, Soulcraft (2). At the workshop, I learned about a third type of shadow wound. Plotkin’s idea is that the shadow can encompass what we don’t yet know about ourselves, but are meant to discover, at times through a rude awakening.
There are possibilities we never encounter in childhood because the adults around us have no clue about them. These missing experiences or potential aspects of our own being can become a part of the shadow – hidden from us, until we discover them later in life. This kind of wound may alternately stem from some vital aspect of our being that others fail to recognize, value or consider important. The Type 3 shadow wound is one of omission or neglect, intentional or not. The task is to discover what is missing and learn how to incorporate that into our being, often without guidance or encouragement.
The Shadow in the Birthchart
All shadow wounds are unique to the person who suffers them, and require some investigation. Using our knowledge of shadow theory and astrology, we can dialogue with our clients to illuminate what has been held in darkness. We can identify a signature for the shadow in the birthchart, explore memories related to key transits and progressions to the shadow pattern, and gradually piece together an intimately personal picture.
Identifying a shadow pattern can be complicated, since everything astrological – every house, sign, planet, aspect and planetary pattern – has its shadow-side, which may or may not manifest in a given life. It is potentially damaging to assume that because a given signature exists in a chart, it inevitably indicates shadow material. Conversely, absence of a shadow signature does not mean that some aspect of the birthchart might not operate in a shadowy way. We can speculate about where in a birthchart the shadow is most likely to manifest, but then we must look to the story for confirmation of our theories.
While all planets can function in shadowy ways, Saturn and Pluto are the most likely to symbolize the wounding process. Natal shadow patterns will generally involve at least three planets in mutual aspect – Saturn and/or Pluto, and at least one personal planet – Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus or Mars. Shadow patterns involving Sun and Moon are often the most serious and difficult to heal.
Neptune can sometimes be associated with shadow patterns in which a false persona – either personal or public – has been adopted to mask shadow material. This is most often the case when Neptune is on the Ascendant or Midheaven. Jupiter and Uranus don’t generally function as shadow planets, although when present in planetary patterns involving Saturn or Pluto, or both, they can.
Retrograde planets can indicate a high level of unconscious activity with regard to the functions associated with the planet (3). There is increased potential for shadow material in patterns involving one or more retrogrades.
In his book, Healing the Shadow (4), my friend, urban shaman, Ross Bishop says, “Pain is here to create awareness of the places where we are not yet finished, where we do not move gracefully with life. Pain is not here to punish. It exists to teach. Pain turns into fear and suffering when we are unwilling to listen to what is being asked of us.” This is the function that Saturn plays in our life.
Ultimately Saturn guides us toward self-mastery, where every aspect of our being is incorporated into a functional whole. First, we must become acutely aware of everything that is nonfunctional, damaged, unclaimed and undeveloped. On the way to mastery, Saturn exposes all we would prefer to keep hidden, so that we can cultivate a more conscious relationship to it, and bring it back into its rightful place within our psyche. This is a painful process that invariably invokes the shadow.
Saturn exposes our judgments about ourselves, most often those we absorbed from our parents’ criticisms, fears, and/or projected limitations. As an agent of wounding, Saturn most often triggers Type 1 patterns, where we learn to reject or repress some aspect of our being to win the approval and support of those who are responsible for our safety, sustenance, and well-being.
Saturn can also be involved in Type 2 patterns, when we are held to some inappropriate standard. These Saturn wounds will generally be those where we feel ourselves to be not good enough, unlovable, or flawed.
In mythology, Saturn was an ogre, who ate his children at birth so they wouldn’t usurp his power. Saturn-related shadow wounds are marked by self-repression, depression, lethargy, inhibition, and a lack of confidence.
The other primary shadow planet is Pluto. In mythology, Pluto is Lord of the Underworld, and of darkness, where the shadow dwells. Within the context of a shadow pattern, Pluto refers to the experience of evil, of darkness in the world and within ourselves. Pluto represents our capacity for destructive, violent, inhumane behavior and our fears of these same capacities when expressed by others. Pluto wounds can often involve childhood abuse – either sexual, or psychological, or both.
Where Saturn’s shadow wounds tend to make us feel inferior, or defective, or perpetually limited; Pluto’s shadow wounds tend to make us feel unsafe, vulnerable, or in danger of spinning out of control.
Pluto also represents the quest for personal power. From the perspective of shadow, this quest is fraught with ambivalence, because we cannot fully claim our power without claiming our capacity to destroy as well as create; hate as well as love; be mean-spirited, cruel, and hurtful, as well as caring, kind, and sensitive. All those things we abhor about human nature gone berserk are potential aspects of our own being too. To become whole, we must take responsible ownership of these dark qualities, as well as those we would more readily embrace.
When we fail to come to terms with the dark side, we can become victims of the abuse of power, and internalize our fears. Or we can become abusive to others, projecting our unowned darkness onto those we abuse in order to rationalize our behavior. History is replete with examples of this type of Plutonic shadow play.
Pluto can also be associated with Type 3 shadow patterns in which we must discover something about ourselves that we do not know – some internal treasure guarded by invisible dragons.
The Placement of Shadow Patterns in the Houses
It is a tenet of astrology that planets near the angles are more potent, and the same is true of planets functioning as shadow indicators – particularly those near the Descendant or Nadir, which can be considered the dark angles of the birthchart.
The Descendant in any birthchart is where the Sun sets. It is in the west, which in many cultures marks the place of death, and of return to the underworld. Metaphorically, the underworld is where the shadow lives and where you must go in order to heal it.
The Descendant is the angle at which we form intimate relationships with our spouse, or significant other, and our co-creative partners. In medieval astrology, the 7th house – of which the Descendant is the cusp – is also the house of open enemies. For many of us, our 7th house partners are “intimate enemies,” who know how to push our shadow buttons, and serve as a convenient screen for our shadow projections.
Where there are planets near the Descendant, they may be involved in the shadow work of taking back projections. When we reclaim these shadow planets, we begin to assimilate qualities in our intimate enemies that initially seem foreign to our nature, and we become more fully integrated, balanced, and authentic.
The Nadir is the other dark angle of the birthchart, representing the dark of the night, or midnight, sometimes called “the witching hour.” It is associated with the deepest recesses of the soul, and from the perspective of shadow, that which lies hidden within us.
If the Descendant can be associated with the dark emotions of jealousy, rage and blame, then at the Nadir, we are more likely to feel guilt, shame and embarrassment. Any of these emotions indicate there is shadow work to be done. At the Nadir, we are less likely to project, and more likely to repress those aspects of our being we feel are inherently unlovable, unappreciated, and unworthy.
Planets near the Nadir can indicate a Type 1 shadow wound, or a Type 3 shadow wound, where the challenge is to discover something within us that is unknown or is missing from our experience. Planets near the Nadir can represent a potent source of soul-based motivation that drives us toward a life of extraordinary accomplishment. To the extent that we give ourselves permission to express the energies or qualities associated with these planets more overtly (Type 1 pattern), or discover them and pursue their development (Type 3 pattern), that is, in fact what they become.
The other two angles of the chart are light angles. This does not mean that they cannot also be associated with shadow patterns, but their involvement is more indirect, or coincidental.
Planets near the Ascendant can describe the persona, the face that we present to others. We need a persona to function in the world, and having one is not in and of itself a mark of shadow wounding. But where the persona is used to protect the shadow it becomes a false mask that we hide behind to gain approval, acknowledgment, attention, love or appreciation, or to protect ourselves from further wounding.
Planets near the Midheaven are least likely to be associated with shadow patterns, since this angle is unequivocally in the light, visible for all to see. Sometimes planets representing Type 2 shadow wounds – where some false image is projected onto the individual by a parent or other significant adult – may be found near the Midheaven.
As a general rule, planets on the cadent side of an angle will be more shadowy than planets on the angular side. Cadent houses are where we assimilate the lessons life is teaching us. When the feedback that we are challenged to integrate in the learning of these lessons is in stark contrast to our image of ourselves, it can involve confrontation with the shadow.
Alternately, we can think of cadent houses as casting a shadow in relation to the angular houses that come immediately after them.
In the 3rd house is the shadow of the parent with whom we most closely identify – as represented by the 4th house. It is also the shadow that we bring to the process of parenting, and pass on to our children. In this house, too, are all the comparisons we make with siblings, particularly same sex siblings, and the beliefs that we develop about ourselves through these comparisons.
In the 6th house is the shadow we are most likely to project upon our partners in relationship. The source of these projections is often the residual hurts we have experienced in relationship, now crystallized into an expectation of further wounding. Where we become unwilling or are unable to take back these projections, in the 6th house, this undigested shadow material can literally make us sick.
Of the cadent houses, the 9th house is the least shadowy, although if planets in the 9th are stressed by hard aspects to Saturn and/or Pluto, this house can play an important role in the shadow process. In the 9th house can be found the shadow side of success: the price we pay for choices we make in relation to our career; the path not taken; the talents and abilities that remain undeveloped, because we are too busy living out 10th house choices.
In the 12th house is the shadow side of the persona, the mask we learn to present to the world to get the love and approval we need. Here is also where we must find our place in an imperfect world, subject to the same wounds on the collective level that we struggle with personally. In the 12th house our personal lives can be touched by the collective shadow – the horror stories we watch on the evening news. Anyone who spends their valuable energy ranting about the evils of the world may have 12th house shadow work to do.
Houses associated with water (4th, 8th, and 12th) can also harbor shadow material. Water represents the feeling realm, where psychological complexes evolve and dissolve in the alchemical cauldron of life. This is where we connect most deeply with soul, and where we encounter our most profound rites of personal transformation. In the water houses, we are most likely to contact the unconscious contents of our psyche.
Since the 12th house is a cadent water house, it is often an important indicator of shadow material. If you believe in reincarnation – either literally or as a valid metaphor for the soul’s journey – the 12th house is where the incarnating soul meets karmic residues from previous lives, and the core issues with which it will be compelled to deal in this life.
In the 12th house are the unspoken expectations that greet our birth and are projected onto us – the unrealized hopes and dreams of parents or grandparents, as well as their limitations and preconceived notions about the nature of reality that we absorb unconsciously. The contrast between who we are and who we are expected to be within the constellation of the family psyche is where the 12th house shadow can be found.
The 8th house is where shadows are encountered in other people, and where the emotional entanglements of intimate relationships become a catalyst to change and growth. In the 8th house, we are forced to confront our own shadow material reflected by our partners. If anger is part of your shadow, for example, you will likely encounter it in the 8th house in the form of an angry partner, and will experience your partner’s anger directed at you, until you reclaim your own rejected anger and take conscious responsibility for it
Within the context of shadow work, the 4th house is where we suffer most deeply, and where we take refuge from our suffering. Where there is shadow work connected to the 4th house, the task is to open to feelings that have been blocked or repressed or ignored in some way and allow them an appropriate avenue of expression.
Aside from the cadent and water houses, I have observed that the 2nd house can also become a repository of shadow issues, usually revolving around issues of self-worth and worthiness. Planets in the 1st, 5th, 7th, 10th and 11th houses are less often involved in shadow wounds.
As with the planets and houses, every sign has its shadow. There are a few signs that seem to be more closely associated with the shadow than the others, primarily when these signs are emphasized by stellium, when the apex of a shadow pattern culminates in one of these signs, or when a shadow planet sits in the 12th house close to the Ascendant in one of these signs.
The first shadow sign is Virgo. Where Virgo is emphasized in one of these ways, self-esteem is often a major issue. The person with concentrated Virgo energy can feel they are not good enough. They tend to suffer from self-judgment through comparison with others or against some unattainable ideal; and they will be driven to prove themselves worthy of something or someone. Placement of one or more shadow planets in Virgo can be a factor in Type 1 and 2 shadow patterns.
The second shadow sign is Scorpio. Where Scorpio is emphasized, there is usually some secret judged too horrible or shameful to reveal. Or there can be major issues around the inability to trust another – jealousy issues, fear of betrayal, rejection, abandonment, and infidelity. As a shadow sign, Scorpio can occasionally harbor memories of abuse – sexual, emotional, or physical – that have been blocked and now lay buried. When Scorpio is emphasized in a shadow dynamic, such memories can play a part in the aspect of self that has been repressed or rejected.
Jungian astrologer Liz Greene associates the sign Gemini with shadow material (5). In mythology, Gemini encompasses the archetypal motif of the twins, one of which is an embodiment of everything that is deemed good, worthy, and noble, and the other, an embodiment of all that is evil, reprehensible, and undesirable. In Gemini, light is paired with darkness, and one is perpetually faced with the inner enemy, who cannot be wholly conquered yet who must be eternally fought. Where Gemini is emphasized within a shadow dynamic, this archetype can play itself out through rivalry with a sibling. It can also manifest as an internal ambivalence that perpetually sabotages the best conscious efforts of the individual to actualize his or her potential.
Jung associated the shadow with the trickster, who according to Greene, represented “the mysterious momentum of the unconscious, sometimes destructive, sometimes humorous, sometimes terrifying; but always ambiguous and always fertile” (6). Where Gemini is emphasized as part of a shadow play, there is often a chaotic flux of forces beyond the individual’s control, and the energy of the trickster is tangible until Gemini is able to assume responsibility for its internal contradictions.
A Case Study
A poignant example of a shadow wound can be found in the case study of a former student (7). The chart for this student – whom I will call Mary – is presented below. Mary’s shadow wound is formed by an out-of-sign square between Pluto/Moon/Jupiter in the 12th house and Saturn at the Nadir in the 3rd house. Pluto and Jupiter are retrograde. Virgo is rising.
As Mary described herself growing up, she was "a talented and sensitive child who had been placed in a stifling and unresponsive family" (8). Her fondest memory before the age of 7 was “of joyously running around the house naked. . . and [her] mother affectionately laughing at the sight." One of Mary’s early teachers, who contributed to her shadow wounding (at Saturn’s first transiting square to the natal pattern) felt a need to “take her down a notch” because she was exhibiting “'too much self-confidence and . . . [her] opinion of [herself] was too high." This confident, talented, self-assured child, running naked through life with joyful merriment was reflected by her 12th house Moon/Jupiter conjunction in Leo.
Given that Mary’s Moon/Jupiter sits at the heart of a powerful shadow pattern, bracketed by both Saturn and Pluto, it was perhaps inevitable that this carefree, precocious wild child would experience a clipping of her wings. True to form, the initial wounding took place at age 4 (during transiting Saturn’s first semi-square to the pattern), when her father left. Before that, Mary was compelled to function in an atmosphere she described as "embattled." The tension between her parents finally erupted during the semi-square, with this breach in the marriage. While her father’s decision to leave likely had nothing to do with her, Mary blamed herself for his departure, and felt rejected by him. Mary projected the blame onto her mother, but underneath, she began festering a classic Type 1 shadow wound.
After this traumatic event, Mary became "the one who 'started things'. It seemed to be [her] role in the family to bring things out into the open at any cost. And yet at the same time, [she was] terribly sensitive to the others and would become tortured and depressed over their slightest disapproval or misunderstanding . . . [She was] a bundle of sensitivity and violent emotions with no idea how to handle them." This is her description of the shadow-side of her rising Moon/Jupiter retrograde.
Mary’s shadow wound was further exacerbated by her sisters, who invaded her childhood privacy and sought to humiliate her in front of family and friends. Mary’s 3rd house of siblings is ruled by Pluto, which conjuncts Moon/Jupiter retrograde and squares Saturn in the 3rd, forming the backbone of a potent shadow pattern in which siblings could be a catalyst. In Mary’s words, her sisters attempted to “squash any of [her] tendencies to stick out in both negative and positive ways." Since “sticking out” is what the Moon in Leo most desires to do, having these tendencies squashed was a negation of her Moon. Like Cinderella, Mary was “hardly ever allowed to be part of [her sisters’] plans or activities . . . [Yet they] were . . . the chief violators of [her] highly valued privacy." Within the context of her shadow wound, this violation of privacy can be understood as a denial of her right to exist.
After the age of 8, Mary withdrew and squelched her natural enthusiasms and talents. Previously outgoing, after the primal wounding, she became sullen, cautious and withdrawn, occasionally erupting in anger, despite her caution, as an attempt to create more breathing room for herself. This is the portrait of an intensely lonely child, for whom the world was not a safe space. In the face of this lack of safety (Saturn-Pluto), she (Moon/Jupiter) shut down and became limited, compromised, and distorted by her shadow wounds.
The Astrological Timing of the Wounding/Healing Process
Having identified the natal pattern related to Mary’s shadow wound, it comes as no surprise that the timing of events related to both the wounding and the healing process correlated with transits to this pattern. Since Saturn and Pluto are the agents of shadow wounding in this pattern, Saturn and Pluto transits (particularly by hard aspect) are potentially critical triggers to both the wounding and the healing process. In Mary’s experience, Saturn was the more potent trigger – in keeping with the fact that hers was a Type 1 wound.
Transiting Saturn was semi-square its natal position (and sesquiquadrate to the rest of the pattern) when her father left her mother, and the initial wounding by abandonment took place.
During another hard Saturn transit to the natal pattern, Mary found herself in the middle of a "desperately unhappy time. . .; [she was] miserable in [her first] marriage in which [she] felt trapped” by the Hasidic Jewish community to which her first husband belonged. These feelings of entrapment came to head when she experienced "serious complications" during a pregnancy. "[Her] husband didn't adequately care for [her] during [her] recovery . . . [She] felt terribly isolated and unable to tell anyone about what had happened." She was essentially betrayed and abandoned by her first husband, in a repeat of the primal wounding she experienced at age 4.
I began working with Mary when transiting Saturn was trine her 12th house stellium and approaching a quincunx to her natal Saturn, triggering the pattern again. She was just about to join her fiancé, a man 23 years her senior – a father figure, and a suitable stand-in for Saturn in an ongoing saga through which Mary sought healing for her shadow wounds.
At first blush, “John” appeared to be the perfect partner for Mary. As Mary described him, "he seemed to have a peaceful core that was not ruffled or bent out of shape no matter what [she] said or did. He was not one to be controlled or be in control, and he had a way of handing [her] issues squarely back to [her] when there was any conflict . . . [She] remain[ed] in awe of his ability to simply let the small stuff wash over and drift away of its own accord."
Despite John’s unflappability, Mary soon began to experience herself "without rights, means, or emotional support," and acutely aware of "all the constrictions and incompatibilities" she was “forced” to live with within the context of her relationship. What is more, John considered Mary’s desire for privacy to be an "ego game," echoing her early relationship to sisters who routinely invaded her space, shamed her, and then took delight in tormenting her when she got upset. Again, as in childhood and as in her marriage to her first husband, she began to feel trapped.
As the relationship became more claustrophobic, John began to express "the wish that he could be free of [Mary]," in conformance to Mary’s wounded expectation. During this critical transit, over the Christmas holidays, Mary nearly broke up with John twice. But she hung in there, at one point marveling that "someone with fixed Saturn at Nadir squaring that fixed stellium in the 12th house" could move into a childlike space of fun and play. Given that it was originally her Moon/Jupiter retrograde that was wounded, I took this as a hopeful sign that some healing had begun.
Mary’s shadow wounds cannot be easily dismissed by a positive interpretation of the difficult shadow pattern in her chart. Mary chose an arduous route. Both the identification of the shadow pattern in her chart and the tracking of the story line associated with this pattern bear this out. The good news at the heart of her story, and the promise of her birthchart, is her right to be here in all of her resplendent (Moon/Jupiter in Leo) glory, even in the midst of life’s most intense difficulties (Saturn square Pluto). This is a right that Mary would inevitably learn to claim, or not, as her natal pattern was triggered in various ways throughout the various cycles in which it participated over the course of a lifetime.
1) Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Bollingen Series XX, Collected Works, Volume 9, Part 1. Tr. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969, pp 21-22.
2) Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.
3) Sullivan, Erin. Retrograde Planets: Traversing the Inner Landscape. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 2000, p. 21.
4) Bishop, Ross. Healing the Shadow. Santa Fe, NM: Blue Lotus Press, 1989, p 7.
5) Greene, Liz. The Astrology of Fate. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1984, p. 191.
6) Ibid, p. 195.
7) Rodden data rating A, mother’s memory. The birth data is not supplied here to maintain confidentiality. The full case study can be found as Chapter Twelve of my book: Landwehr, Joe. Tracking the Soul With An Astrology of Consciousness. Mountain View, MO: Ancient Tower Press, 2007.
8) All quotes in this case study are from my correspondence with Mary over the course of our work together.
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