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The Dance of Ego and Shadow

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The Dance of Ego and Shadow

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and behavior of psychological Shadow. The word “shadow” has now entered mainstream consciousness – and is certainly a much-discussed topic in the New Age circles. Shadow, as we know, includes all aspects of our personality that we do not actively identify with, or own as “ours.”

When I read many of these New Age texts, though, I am often left with the feeling that a lot of the so-called “shadow-work” is really done from the perspective of, and in service to, the Ego. It is about “conquering,” “vanquishing,” “depotentiating” the Shadow. It is about becoming “pure” and “enlightened.”

While it is indeed possible to integrate aspects of our Shadow into our conscious personality, we need to tread carefully in this domain; lest our “shadow-work” become another ego-project in its relentless perusal of perfection! And as we will see later in the essay, the cost of such a project could be prohibitive for our soul!

Tree of Life and Death: from a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

The relationship of Ego and Shadow is magnificently depicted in a medieval illuminated manuscript (see image caption). In this image, we see Adam reclining, as if exhausted, in the center of the field. From his navel rises the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the side of the “good,” we see Mary – wearing the blue robes of purity and virginity – offering the “fruits of salvation” to a long line of penitents. On the “evil” side, we see Eve – naked and sensual – offering the “fruits of damnation” to her line of… shall we call them celebrants (as opposed to penitents)? Mary, in her pious act, is watched over by an angel; Eve is assisted in hers by Death!

If we take a moment to connect with the image more deeply, we see that Mary serves as the conscious “right hand” of Adam. Thus, she represents his conscious stance – his Ego. Eve, represents his unconscious “left hand” Shadow.

What this manuscript illustration tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that as we are busy picking the socially acceptable, even laudable, fruits – of service, good work and piety with one hand, the other hand, unbeknownst to ourselves, is picking other fruits (of whatever we see as our personal Shadow, e.g., greed, lust, neediness…).

It cannot be any other way.

Birth of shadow

In the Jungian worldview, Shadow is seen as the most superficial, the most reachable part of our Personal Unconscious. Thus, many aspects of the shadow are, theoretically, possible to be brought into consciousness, and thus “integrated.” Integration of Shadow here does not mean that they are necessarily acted out, but that we are aware of, say our inner thief, or our inner jealous lover. In fact, the more we are aware of these parts – the less likely are we to act them out, and the more likely we will be not to judge harshly when we see another person acting them out! True empathy is born out of knowing our own Shadow.

It may not be wrong to assume that we are born shadowless. Shadow, in all likelihood, begins to form as we develop an Ego – which is very much colored by our family and culture – that tells us what is acceptable and what is not. The child soon learns that if he smiles and follows orders, he is loved and fed and played with. If she throws a tantrum, she gets a time-out, or is sent to bed without supper. The child thus learns, quite early on, that obedience is good, and anger is bad. The child needs its parents for its very survival. So, the murderous rage of the infant moves into the child’s unconscious, and a piece of the Shadow is born.

My Jungian analyst often likes to remind me, “every object casts a shadow!” True indeed. But only in the presence of light. As long as we are in complete darkness, like a fetus in the womb, we are in participation mystique with the Mother, who represents for us the whole of the Universe. In this mystical-magical sense of oneness of the fetus/newborn with the mother, there is no separation of Subject and Object. All is one. Thus, there is no Shadow. But as soon as there is a dawning of Consciousness, of identification of Objects – inner and outer – as “mine,” these Objects begin to cast their Shadow. It is simple physics, really. Whenever there is light, and there are objects on its path, there is also shadow.

As we grow older, we consolidate our identity (“this is me, and that is not-me”) and find our place in the world. The more we progress along this path of “Ego Consolidation”, the more our shadow deepens. One can almost say that for us to become conscious, we have to cast a shadow.

Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, in his book “Owning your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,” uses the metaphor of a seesaw, or a teeter-totter, to describe the relationship of Ego and Shadow. As we go through the first half of life, where we are consolidating our Ego, we begin to accumulate things on one end of the seesaw that are “me” (Ego aspects), and on the other end accumulate the “not me” (the Shadow aspects).

Unfortunately, culture is only comfortable with a narrow range of attributes, and what goes into Shadow is not just what is negative, but also the things that are great about us. This so-called “Golden Shadow” will be the subject of another essay soon.

In any case, around midlife, when the Ego has been sufficiently consolidated and functions well in the world, there comes a time when we tend to get bored with our narrowly-defined, culturally-sanctioned and often-bloodless life. This is typically a time when the seesaw can flip, bringing on the famous “midlife crisis.” Thus, the perfectly mellow gentleman begins to collect fancy guns and go on hunting parties with buddies, taking savage pleasure in butchering innocent animals; and the stay-at-home mother-of-four begins a secret affair. This sudden shadow explosion can also be easily somatized as physical or mental illness. But that again is a subject for another day.

Shadow always first appears as projection

It is very difficult, some Jungians will say impossible, for us to meet our Shadow unmediated. We first “encounter” our Shadow (both positive and negative Shadow) as a projection on an outer “Other” – which could be a person, an institution, or even an idea or a philosophy.

So, one of the best ways for us to identify our Shadows is to see who or what triggers us. Any time we feel angry, upset or judgmental toward someone, or are overly in awe of someone, there are probably Shadow elements at play!

An interesting phenomenon often noticed is that our Shadow is most often projected on someone or something that offers a “hook.” So, it is easy for us to hold on to our righteous indignation and put the blame on the Other. They are the one who is bigoted, nasty or greedy! And indeed, a large part of the blame may correctly reside in the Outer Other. But, most often, not all of it belongs to this Outer Other. Thus, if we can find enough space inside us to separate our feelings from the Outer Other, we find that these feelings are our best “mirrors,” in which we first glimpse our “Inner Other.”

How do we “integrate” a shadow element?

Now, the most important question in this investigation. Now that we are aware of a Shadow element, what do we do with it? What exactly do we mean by Integrating the Shadow?

In Jungian terms, Integration of Shadow means integrating Shadow elements into Consciousness. We are now conscious of possessing that Shadow aspect and accept it as our own.

Of course, integration is different from willy-nilly enactment. Culture cannot exist if we all enact all our Shadows.

How do we then “integrate” our inner thief or our inner murderer?

The power of ritual in making the shadow conscious within a safe container

Ritual is a time-honored way to “enact” aspects of our personality that cannot be safely enacted in daily life. Ancient cultures had rituals to “sanctify” lust, for example, through various Dionysian rituals and temple prostitution.

Robert Johnson, the Jungian author mentioned above, draws our attention to the gruesome shadow imagery of the contemporary Catholic Mass:

“The Catholic Mass is a masterpiece of balancing our cultural life. If one has the courage to see, the Mass is full of the darkest things: there is incest, betrayal, rejection, torture, death—and worse. All this leads to revelation but not until the dark side has been portrayed as vividly as possible. If one went to Mass in high consciousness one would tremble at the awfulness of it—and be redeemed by its balancing effect. The Mass lost much of its effectiveness when it was modernized and made to serve the cultural process. One ought to be pale with terror at the Mass.”

It is interesting how the use of the world “awful” itself has been profaned in modern times. Our contemporary words, awful and awesome, originally meant "worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread." How different that is from this slice of pizza being awful, or awesome!

One of the great advantages of a ritual, participated in with full awareness, is that it allows a transpersonal container – a temenos – for the shadow aspects that will be too much for cultural cohesiveness, if enacted in daily life.

Our deep shadow elements have archetypal cores

There is an important fact that is often lost in the facile reading of what I have come to call “Jung lite.” Many of our deepest shadow identities – e.g., the Murderer, the Prostitute, the Dark Devouring Mother – are in fact archetypal images. Archetypes, if we remember, live in the Collective Unconscious, much deeper in our psyche than the Personal Unconscious. They belong not to us personally, but to the entire humankind.

Archetypes represent powerful, primordial instincts or “prototypes” of ways of being, that are then translated into archetypal images. It is important to remember that archetypes are not images - images stem from an underlying, eventually undefinable prototype of experience. An archetypal image may change with time and culture, but the underlying archetype stays rooted in the very depths of our psyche.

Another essential feature of an archetype is that it is always bipolar. If the smothering, devouring Mother is one pole, then the all-nurturing, all-absorbing Mother is the other. And if we really work deeply with any archetype, we eventually experience both its polarities. And therein lies its potential to balance (and thus “heal”) the psyche.

But this brings us to an important fact - one that we can ignore only at our peril. I will reiterate here. Archetypes are extremely powerful, potent, archaic instincts that we can never “integrate,” or assimilate into our conscious self-identity. These “instincts” of the psyche are so potent, that if we try to “integrate” or “embody” them in our day-to-day life, we risk what has been called “inflation.” In other words, our conscious Ego personality is then so completely overwhelmed by these powerful, “awful” images, that we dissociate and fragment. We go mad! Robert Johnson describes this situation as trying to run 10,000 Volts on circuits designed to carry 110 Volts!

To encounter these deep archetypal images, then, we need a “transpersonal container.” This is what makes rituals so powerful. A ritual provides an outer (physical) as well as an inner (psychological) space that is clearly demarcated from our daily life. Within this container, this temenos, we can “encounter,” and even briefly embody, the archetypal affects and images.

For a ritual to effectively allow us to become conscious of our Shadow without being overwhelmed by it, it is absolutely necessary for the participant to have a felt access to the transpersonal realm.

In olden days, this transpersonal realm belonged to God, or the gods.

The ancient Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat

We often talk about “scapegoating” someone, or someone being the family’s scapegoat, but few of us know that the word comes from an ancient ritual of the Hebraic people.

The original ritual of the scapegoat happened once a year on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Two goats were selected for the ritual. One was sacrificed (“made sacred”) to Yahweh. Its blood was then used to ritually purify certain powerful ceremonial objects. The other goat (the one “not chosen”) was then ritually designated as the carrier of the community’s sins for the entire year. After being laden with the community’s sins, it was cast out – scapegoated – into the desert (outside the communal boundaries). By carrying the sins of the community outside its boundaries, this goat ritually cleansed the community of its sins... until the next year.

It was understood that the goat would perish shortly afterwards – either due to exposure to the elements, lack of water in the desert, or to predators lurking outside the communal boundaries.

What was interesting, though, was that the realm outside the communal boundaries was also seen and experienced as a transpersonal realm – the realm of Azazel. According to the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text, Azazel was a fallen angel — one of the leaders of the rebellious Watchers in the time preceding the Flood. He taught men the art of warfare, of making swords, knives, shields, and coats of mail; and taught women the art of ornamenting their bodies, dyeing hair, and painting their faces and their eyebrows. He is also said to have revealed to the people the secrets of witchcraft.

Thus, the scapegoat carried the sins of the people – the Cultural Shadow – into a transpersonal realm – the realm of the deity Azazel. Etymologically, the name Azazel is composed of azaz (meaning “rugged”) and el (meaning “of God”). In other words, Azazel was the keeper or the manifestation of the Shadow of Yahweh, and thus, the appropriate recipient of the excluded “Other” – the Scapegoat.

How, then, do we sanctify our scapegoat – our shadow – in our time and place?

Unfortunately, most of us are not lucky enough to viscerally believe in an Azazel who will receive our offering of the scapegoat. How then do we relate to our Shadow elements that are just too potent to integrate in our all-so-human personality?

In the absence of communal gods with whom we have a viscerally felt connection, we now have the task to define, for ourselves, a sense of the Sacred that lives beyond our conscious personality (out in the desert, beyond our conscious boundaries). We do not need to be religious, but we do need a container, an image – for that which is bigger than our individual selves. Once again, this sense of the Sacred cannot be just theoretical, but it has to be felt - in our guts! In other words, it has to have numinosity. Numinous is a word derived from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. For an image to be numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (a sense of mystery that has the power to cause fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

What is this numinous transpersonal image for us – the “modern” human?

For some, it is still God. For others, it could be the psychological Self – the center and the totality of our psyche that encompasses a much larger range of experience that just our Ego identity. For others, it could be the Earth or the Cosmos. It could also be a particular piece of music, art or philosophy. It could be a “therapeutic temenos” held by a therapist, a mentor, or a counselor. It could be a modern image - such as Yoda or Galadriel, or Professor Dumbledore. As the psychologist Matt Licata says in a recent blog post, it could even be “a reindeer who has come from the moon!”

In the end, the specifics of the container does not matter. What matters is that it be able to serve as an alchemical vessel, a vas, during our encounter with the Shadow. It needs to be strong enough – in a felt sense - such that it will not shatter when the 10,000 Volts of archetypal energy flows through it!

Finally, a word of caution

As we discussed above, it is imperative that before we do any serious shadow-work, we must first find, and build a trusting relationship with, this ritual container – this “divine container” – in whatever way we understand (“feel”) the Divine to be.

In alchemy, there is a saying, “festina lente,” which means "hasten slowly." This is sage advice for anyone seeking to do deep shadow-work. One needs to ensure that one has a safe container to do the work, and then to proceed slowly, increasing the temperature in the vas only a bit at a time - so we can “cook” our soul instead of burning it to a crisp! In fact, this work is best done within a relational field - where another soul can watch over ours, while we are being fragmented and put back together.

So, here is the message once again. In any serious inner work, our first order of business is to be gentle with our soul. We cannot beat it over the head to “integrate” its shadow in a weekend workshop! The psyche has its own timeline, and it is wise to respect that. In fact, any attempt by the Ego to fast-forward Soul Time is a hubris that could literally kill us - at least psychologically and spiritually, if not physically.

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