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Reply To: The Shadow


Mary – just over a month has passed since your post here; I hope some of those shadow energies you were dealing with have dissipated over that time (not that the Shadow ever completely goes away).

And thank you, James, for posting these clips, which seem especially relevant in these Shadow-driven times.

I love Campbell’s description in the first clip above of the Shadow as a blind spot for ego (ego being essentially ” I,” “me,” how I experience/perceive myself – the face of one’s waking consciousness, so to speak.). As Joe succinctly points out in the second video snippet,

“The Shadow is the rejected, frightening aspect of your experience of life which then gets projected on to people –  the ‘you’ that you are refusing to admit. It has terrifying, threatening qualities, but also encloses values, positive goals – values that you have not allowed to come into your life.”

That final clause is so important. “Shadow” does not  equal “evil,” though whether its contents be positive or negative, it’s generally perceived, at least initially, as threatening to one’s conscious ego. Thanks to Joseph Campbell (and even more so, Carl Jung), I have learned to embrace my shadow, and that has made all the difference in the world, deeply enriching my experience of life.

Of course, Shadow is indeed that blind spot, a part of me I do not see that drives my behavior when ignored (sometimes, in extremes, almost to the point of possession).

My ego tends to think it is in charge – king of my psyche, so to speak, making only conscious, rational objective choices – so it’s particularly threatening and disruptive to my sense of myself to think some other entity might be making decisions for me (not realizing that this “other” is actually part of me).

Usually my first hint of shadow-driven behavior comes when my wife brings up something I do that she finds annoying, or a friend makes a joke (“that’s just like Steve”) that is at odds with the self-image in my head – observations that sting. (At least now, when I find myself getting a mite defensive, thanks to Jung I eventually realize that’s a clue to something I’m ignoring about myself – and once I stop ignoring it, the sting goes away.)

But where it really kicks in is with the nightmare.

These dreams tend to follow a general pattern: I’m in a house, apartment, or other setting where ruffians, gangbangers, thugs, criminals, zombies, or some such fearsome folk, individually or in a group, are trying to break into where I am – and the “Dream Me” is running around in a fever pitch, frantically trying to close windows and lock doors before they come in (often the locks don’t function, or the doors are rickety and none too secure even when I do manage to close everything in time). These dream personifications generally signify memories, traits, inclinations, and tendencies that I have stuffed, repressed, or hidden away (usually unconscious, on my part), but are surfacing, emerging from the unconscious, because they are relevant to my current circumstances.

Whether good, ill, or a mix of both, these are particularly disturbing to my ego, so I do my best to keep them from coming up – but these dream images are so frightening and terrifying to the waking me that they chase me back up out of the unconscious and I wake in an agitated state.

Through years of recording and working with my dreams, I am much better than I used to be at staying within the dream and opening the door to these threatening figures (though sometimes it takes two or three nights of this recurring pattern before I stop trying to shut them out or flee). Lo and behold, once I do open the door and face what had been frightening to me, these figures change (e.g. a threatening Doberman morphs into a playful golden retriever, or the gangbanger I feared turns out to be a gentle friend who offers me a beverage), the nightmarish quality evaporates and my memory of the dream on waking is suffused with a warm glow.

Of course, that doesn’t happen because I consciously will a change within the dream; rather, I’ve generally noticed the shadow threatening me in the dreams I record, which clue me in that there’s something I’m burying – so I start working with that, journaling about it, working with and “talking to” that scary image, asking it questions, which gives me a sense of what I am ignoring. As what had been unconscious becomes clearer, breaking through into waking consciousness in the day world, that change is reflected in my dreams.

But confronting and embracing the shadow can be frightening and traumatic – and even more so when we don’t recognize our shadow as shadow, but project those negative qualities out onto others.

There’s a lot of that going around at the moment in the larger world (major understatement, I know). Shadow is all over the news right now, permeating social media (as reflected, for example, in the behavior of so many “Karens” toward those who are different), and so much more. So many racial incidents the past few years, culminating in the George Floyd murder, are bringing our collective national shadow into consciousness as we come to terms with a seamy underbelly to American society that we have long ignored. It’s not easy confronting the Shadow, individually or collectively, much less embracing it, which is why there is so much turbulence and turmoil loose on the land.

Also wrapped up in our collective shadow is the rejection of science and reliance on magical thinking, whether in regards to the coronavirus crisis, or climate change and global warming, not to mention all the bizarre, paranoid elements of QAnon conspiracy theories infecting so many otherwise previously normal folks. There are significant segments of society, starting at the very top with the individual carrying our collective ego (if there is such a thing) in the Oval Office, which would be horrified to admit that our collective shadow even exists (“all lives matter”) , much less be willing to confront and embrace it, so there are very active, determined, persistent efforts to stuff, repress, and deny the very shadow behaviors that have brought us to where we are today.

As I process what’s going on outside my door, I am trying my best to step outside the paradigm of good and evil (have to admit it ain’t easy!), and frame the social dynamic more as a tension between consciousness and the unconscious collective shadow.

I have been impressed with the expansion of conscious awareness during the protests in late May and June – so many people I know have had a striking satori of sorts, tumbling at long last to an awareness of the real world experience of those born with brown skin in America, and so many have as a result changed their attitudes and behaviors for the better. That’s why we need to be aware not just of the negative consequences of our collective shadow, but also be looking for those “positive goals, positive values” contained in Shadow. They really are there, if we look in the right places.

Nevertheless, there is a counter-reaction as well – so much  turmoil, anger, and active resistance to acknowledging that black lives really haven’t mattered much for so many of us born with the right skin color, along with resistance to the medical and scientific expertise on which our lives depend during the pandemic, and so much more. Ironically, many people I personally know who are among the most hostile, vocal, and vociferous in their responses are generally kind, well-intentioned, salt-of-the-earth people in most other areas of their lives. Most (but far from all) aren’t what I think of as evil in their interactions with friends, family, and neighbors in their day-to-day lives, but a great number could be described as, well, clueless to the unconscious dynamics driving their actions.

Their statements and actions reveal more about them than they know themselves (just as others can observe clues to my shadow in my own opinions and actions).

Is there a resolution in sight?

Hard to tell – but I don’t think the answer is to battle these forces to the death. Conquest of “the enemy” is itself a function of our collective shadow; the answer is not to fight (and, with no little irony, repress) those who exhibit these behaviors – that only feeds and strengthens our collective shadow. Yes, we should vote, we should be as active in our civic participation as possible – but what ultimately succeeds is not conflict, but the expansion of consciousness: bringing the shadow into the light.

I do wish I had a handy-dandy ten point program for doing that – but there is no quick, easy, and permanent fix. It takes commitment and compassion over the long haul to change that dynamic. And, though this, too, will pass  – we will get beyond the current crises – the Shadow will always be with us. Even if we come up with an effective vaccine and treatments for Covid, even if we “solve” racism and reverse the worst effects of the climate crisis, other issues will arise.

However, I am grateful to Campbell and Jung and so many others for expanding my understanding of these unconscious processes in terms of my self, and the larger society as a whole.

As Lamont Cranston from those old time radio shows would say, “The Shadow knows . . . “