C.G. Jung and the Shadow

Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who lived in the 20th century. Jung was trained as a doctor in Basel and was an active clinical psychologist for decades, but his most important works seem to transcend the categories of strict medical or psychological science. Deeply interested in mythology, stories, alchemy, and Gnosticism – Jung’s brand of psychology definitely has as spiritual or religious edge to it, which makes his ideas hard to swallow for some people.

I think Jung’s most important idea is the notion of the Shadow, the dark side, the negative aspect that compliments the conscious ego-personality. The shadow is an aggregate of all the negative aspects of your personality that you haven’t yet acknowledged, or that you don’t even want to admit to yourself. In Aion, Jung says of the shadow:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.

C.G. Jung – Aion, Ch. 2

Here’s how the shadow works at its most basic level. Things you’ve said to other people that hurt them, times you weren’t your best self, thoughts about the world that are really dirty and nasty; these are parts of the shadow. You don’t like to think of yourself as hateful, your image of yourself is narcissistic and self-righteous; so the things you don’t like about yourself are suppressed, denied, pushed down. The people that you hate the most, the parts of reality that just irk you to no end; these are all contents of the shadow. Until you face these subterranean grottos of the soul, they will torment you and torture you and those around you to the ends of the Earth.

The psyche is split into irreconcilable halves, and this rift has been present since the dawn of Western civilization. If you can understand this at a deep level, you have surpassed the vast majority of humankind in psychological development, but be warned it is a task only for the strongest of beings and set along the path are all kinds of traps and snares. We can see the dichotomous split of good and evil in the Christian mythology, portrayed by the tensions between Christ on one hand and Satan in the other. In some traditions Satan is considered to be Christ’s brother, which is psychologically correct. Additionally this tension is carried to a more personal level in the concept of the fallen man, which goes all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve. We all feel like the fallen Adam and Eve, we feel as if we have been cast from paradise; we suffer, the scales have been cast from our eyes and now we stand naked, seeking redemption.

In the Christian paradigm, man is fallen, doomed by original sin to toil and suffer for eternity, cast out of the paradise that was built for him so carefully by God the Father. According to the doctrine of the church, this life should be completely devoted to rectifying that original sin and then maybe after you’re dead you’ll be lifted to a higher more perfect state. Nevertheless we are expected to imitate Christ, the most perfect of the perfect.

Recognizing the shadow in your own life, your own personality, can induce a profound shift in consciousness that is an enormous accomplishment along the path of psychological growth. All of Christianity went wrong when it declared that redemption could only happen for people after death. There is a spiritual rebirth that can be had in this body, in this life, the sacred water of life can wash you anew in every moment. Enlightenment is to see that you are always already free, in each and every present moment.

The goal of psychological growth and what psychoanalysts call “Shadow Work” is to notice that that tension between the conflicting ideals of perfection and original sin, being doomed to suffer but required to find redemption, goes on within the depths of your own soul. This is not a fight to be won against those you hate, or to manipulate reality so that it doesn’t bother you anymore, but to see that the flaws you so detest originate within you. Christ and Satan both dwell within your soul, as opposite psychic forces guiding you all your life. This reminds me of the quote from the Sermon on the Mount:

1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Book of Matthew, 7

Too see clearly one’s own inner demons and to fight with them, though a mountainous task to be sure, has been attempted with success by a few human beings. You have the power to do this within you right now. Every human being has the potential for divine wisdom within them, even you, no matter how much money you have, regardless of your life circumstances, and aside from any imposed restraints upon you. The divine spark, and therefore the potential to become a roaring fire, is such an integral part of your being that it can never be taken away from you. The path of awakening is simply to realize what you already are.

You might be telling yourself that it’s too scary, that it’s too hard, that it’s too difficult to face; but this is because you have not seen who you truly are. When you take a closer look, you’ll find that the fear and anxiety gives way to a deep shame; we are not afraid of our demons but rather mortified of giving up the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. To give up the stories we’ve told ourselves is to expose a childish and pathetic shame we’ve played perhaps for decades. To face the shadow, stop letting your weaknesses and fears hold you back. Reject the idea that just because you’re afraid that you shouldn’t act. Learn that you can act courageously under fear, despite the fact that you’re terrified. Understand that you are far more than you originally estimated. By relinquishing an old identities based in fear, anger, insecurity, or hatred you are stepping into an infinitely larger and more authentic identity.

Dharma + Modern Science

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