I’m coming off of the rare pleasure of a weekend with friends, among them, the ever-wise Glenda Mackie. This morning before teaching, she asked if we knew why leaves turn color in fall. I actually had no idea. Throughout spring and summer, leaves are constantly generating chlorophyll, giving them their green color. As we shift into fall and the nighttime hours grow longer, chlorophyll production stops and other chemical shifts occur— revealing the stunning array of pigments we see in autumn leaves. From darkness, beauty. As always, the nature. Right there teaching us what we need to learn.

It feels so appropriate as I’m currently studying a form of shadow work, rooted in eastern philosophy and infused with techniques of Jungian psychology. In a simplified summary, as you grew up, your personality was formed over time as you unconsciously accepted or rejected parts of yourself based on what was valued in your family culture and peer group. Everything that didn’t go into your personality was relegated to your shadow. But here’s the thing. Those qualities and proclivities didn’t and don’t just go away. They are there, under the surface, driving you until you turn toward the shadow and explore, understand and integrate those lost and rejected parts of self. Like the leaves, part of the full-color expression of who we are is only found in the darkness.

We think that we have free will. We believe we are actively making one decision after another each day. But the truth is, we are mostly operating on auto-pilot, living out our conditioned self in the world. We keep re-creating the past because we’re just doing the same thing we’ve always done. We don’t just feel stuck, we are stuck. Samskara in action. Action – reaction- groove – rut – grave. We’re just doing what we know and what we’ve done before, instead of digging into why we are creating the same external scenarios again and again and wondering why it’s happening.

In American yoga, there can be a tendency to just focus on the light. It’s problematic because you can call in all the light of the universe, but Truth is not just held in the light. Truth is in the wholeness of reckoning with all that is, in both the light and shadow. When we move beyond the dualities of good, bad, right, wrong, we can breathe in the fullness, complication and exquisite beauty that it is to be human. Staying in the light is nice. It’s comfortable. It’s the lovely growth season of spring and summer. But it’s not permanently sustainable and definitely not the whole journey. We need fall and winter seasons in life to turn inward, to sit in the dark with fear and discomfort. When we do— when we spend that time in the darkness— we emerge more whole, more full, more complete.  From darkness, beauty. Shades of ourselves not seen before come into view. We can only be more ourselves when we actually know ourselves. And that requires some time exploring the shadow.

We are not on a journey toward perfection, where slowly, slowly, we are getting progressively better and more right, more clear, more open, more all the things. Rather, we are going through endless spirals and cycles of birth, growth, and death at both the macro and micro level, again and again. What could it look like to reclaim lost and rejected parts of self? What is poking around in the shadow making you so uncomfortable and what might be possible if you stepped into the darkness and brought yourself, full-color, back into the light?