Carl Jung and the Shadow – The Mechanics of Your Dark Side
Have you ever looked yourself in the mirror so deeply that the sheer notion of what you like to call self, dissipated in a vertigo of angst and abstraction?
It is a strange feeling.
A feeling a bit arcane but also kind of familiar.
Something that seems wrong but also right.
Something we are almost incapable of describing, but we also, somehow, understand.
Something that we feel it can alter the structure of our paradigm in a very fundamental way.
You know, lately, I realized that after years of immersing myself in the core tenets of self-development and after identifying that major philosophical and psychological concepts have become central to my being, I have been coming closer to my ultimate personal goal that is self-transcendence.
Self-transcendence can mean a lot of things to all of us, but, for me, the term has crystallized after I became enamored with how the duality between intellect and intuition can be manifested.
In my regard, intellect and intuition are not just two disparate terms. They are interconnected and intertwined. The one completes the other to the extent that the one becomes the evolution of the other.
Let me explain.
You know, when it comes to personal development and evolution, the major trait that characterizes exceptional individuals has always been their capacity to make strenuous acts seem effortless.
And this is something that has puzzled me a lot. I understand that the combination of intelligence and practice can lead to remarkable results, but I have also the feeling that we rarely ponder the nature of the state that leads to such results.
For instance, when you see that you reach a level of competence in a field, and whatever you do occurs almost intuitively, you don’t feel the need to overanalyze how you reached that level. You are there and you enjoy the feeling of being there. Your past and incompetent self seems so distant and so foreign that you have no intention of bringing him or her back to the picture.
However, you know that he or she is still there. Lurking in some dark corners of your consciousness, acting as an anchor to states that were an essential part of your evolution as a person.
This past self has many forms. He or she becomes a shapeshifter in your personal journey that allows you to explore different forms of perception.
He or she gets inspired by various archetypes that are embedded in the human psyche throughout our history as the homo sapiens species and chooses to resonate with the ones that he or she considers more pertinent to your current mode of being.
It is through this integration of archetypes that you feel the first instances of intuition in your life. And it is through these instances of intuition that you can start acting in a more intelligent way.
Eventually, you start to explore all the different nuances of reality through acts of intelligence and you manage, through constant experimentation, to allow yourself to act intuitively via the periodical assimilation of the nuances.
This is the magic of the relationship between intellect and intuition.
A magic that can only be manifested when your past, present, and future selves decide to unite, repudiate the idea of collision and embrace the idea of synergy.
It is a very arduous endeavor, but also one that is very rewarding since it seems to be the only sure way to self-transcendence.
There can be no self-transcendence without the unity of all manifestations of your self. For self-transcendence is predicated upon your capacity to overcome the limits of the individual self in spiritual contemplation and realization.
In every story, there is a hero and a villain.
In your story, you are both.
All the bright aspects and all the dark aspects of your persona orchestrate the melody of your song.
A song that you need to hear first, before anyone else.
But in order to hear it, you have to learn to listen.
To listen not only to what you want but also to what you are afraid of.
Your fears and your darkness aren’t detached from you. Do not eschew them.
Face them, analyze them, internalize them.
The shadow is always there and it will always be.
But the shadow can look big or it can look small, depending on the angle from which the light caresses you.
What is the size of your shadow?
Carl Jung and the Shadow
Carl Gustav Jung was one of the most important psychologists of the previous century. He is also one of my biggest influencers since he is one of the few that have attempted to bridge the notions of psychology and spirituality in an effort to discover ways to transcend the human condition.
Jung has traveled a lot to India and immersed himself in different spiritual practices. His work was constantly evolving and, for me, it was this evolution that produced comprehensive analyses on concepts like the ego, the shadow, the archetypes, and the anima and animus.
These terms constitute the main pillars of Jungian Psychology and I truly believe that one needs to at least familiarize him or herself with what Jung wanted to reveal through his research.
Although I can discuss Jung’s ideas ad infinitum, in this essay I want to pay homage to a concept I consider paramount to one’s personal development journey. This is the concept of the shadow.
With regards to the shadow, Carl Jung has stated:
“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. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.” — Carl Jung, Aion (1951)
The use of the word shadow wasn’t chosen unintentionally. Jung was always good at portraying complex ideas in a digestible visual manner. He used mental imagery in order to create anchors with concepts already familiar to human cognition.
The shadow is dark and elusive. It is impossible to catch, its size can alter depending on your position in space, and it is ubiquitous whenever light is present.
Ergo, one can form a somewhat basic understanding of the concept without the need to delve into arcane terms.
Another crucial thing to ponder is that the shadow itself, due to the darkness that it forms and due to the distance that it creates from the physical body of a person, becomes something not so many people are eager to connect with.
And this is one of the major ideas associated with the Jungian shadow. Although we usually see the shadow as an integral part of our existence, most of us are willfully blind to this existence.
Our dark side is concealed or camouflaged in a painful attempt to protect an image that fits the narrative we decide to espouse. Through social conditioning, we come to construct a façade that can keep the substrate of our constructed identity stable so that we can keep feeling safe.
Safety, however, is ill-defined in that space we inhabit. How can one feel safe when there is so much unknown territory out there that can at any given point in time convulse the foundations of our fragile constitution?
A person is as free as their mind allows and if the mind creates barriers between the reality of the person and the reality of the rest of the world, delusion and neurosis could take over.
For instance, when you see people operate in a state of enforced ignorance that attempts to preserve a certain status quo, then the shadow can only grow bigger. Enforced ignorance entitles the shadow to take over since the individual is incapable of controlling it because he or she is not even aware of its existence. We can’t control what we don’t understand.
The 20th century is full of examples where a conglomeration of strong individual shadows has influenced the collective unconscious. All the wars, regime changes and instabilities in the fabric of society are a result of different religions, dogmatisms, and ideologies attempting to impose their beliefs and desires upon the populace by taking advantage of the burgeoning shadow element.
We couldn’t really prepare ourselves for such a combustible chain of events. Our proclivity towards adaptability by an adoption of an experimentation-oriented philosophy can lead to unavoidable calamities that, somehow, orient us towards what is best for our nature.
Psychology was still in its infancy and the myriad of prejudices and biases we still encounter amongst our fellow humans were considered, more or less, a norm. Very few of us could explore the darkest aspects of our psyche in order to achieve inner balance and mental freedom.
Most were just trapped in an existential crisis where they would ignore everything outside the light of consciousness. According to Wikipedia:
“Carl Jung explains that the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognized as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, ‘The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object—if it has one—or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.’ These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world.”
Every aspect of your unconscious identity that cannot metamorphose into conscious judgment will perpetually impede your progress as an individual, for it is creating a fantastic world that cannot synchronize with the frequencies of the real world. In such a landscape, the real world, or at least whatever we can understand of it, becomes an egotistical battleground that leads to collision and madness.
That is not how our perceptions should meet. The world should be a forum for dialogue and constant experimentation where we strive to refine the moral imperatives that could alleviate our suffering. Everything beyond that should be viewed with skepticism.
If that seems alien to some people, that is clearly because the shadow element hasn’t been dealt with effectively. This includes animalistic needs, primitive instincts, sexual desires, traumatic experiences, and also positive aspects of one’s character that may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem, anxieties, and false beliefs).
Regardless of the idiosyncratic nature of one’s shadow, the process of assimilation has always been universal and it is represented by the following sequence:
Encounter -> Merger -> Assimilation
As you can see, assimilation can’t occur if the stages of encounter and merger don’t take place first. That is certainly a heroic act, for the angst entailed in this process is immense. We are not talking about watching a scary movie here or trying spicy food. We are talking about facing the deepest realms of our self. There is nothing scarier than that. But there is also nothing more rewarding than that.
Assimilation is a lengthy process that demands mainly psychotherapy, but also hours of introspection and constant reevaluation and recalibration of personal behaviors and beliefs.
Our cerebral makeup is quite plastic, but its plasticity is predicated upon our ability to showcase discipline and tenacity. We can’t just expect a divine force to rescue us from our suffering. We are our only chance for redemption and catharsis.
In an attempt to make the assimilation of the shadow a less onerous process, I came up with a narrative that I follow almost on a daily basis and allows me to be in a more aware mental space regarding my inner world.
This narrative is comprised of three significant questions I ask and whose answers can consequently lead to the state I seek. They are as follows:
How often do you question the nature of your reality?
I am sure that most of you have heard of the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The infamous phrase is inspired by the book “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” written by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. In it, he describes the life of a man who transforms between two personae: Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde.
The story was so powerful and it resonated with so many people that it entered the vernacular and whenever we encounter characters with an unpredictably dual nature, we almost immediately recall the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Most of us can cite events from our lives where our actions and our intent didn’t really align. We behaved as if we were different people. That’s a result of a plethora of factors that can affect our behavior and can result in a lack of congruency in what we think, feel, and do.
Social conditioning, latent desires, mental fatigue, and many more reasons can come to mind. The truth, however, is that our ability to fight them is within our control.
There are times in my life where I feel that I will go crazy due to the over-analysis of certain happenstances in my paradigm. I am not sure how to deal with specific scenarios and, more often than not, I tend to question the reality of those scenarios. My perception might be prone to certain biases and prejudices that cloud my judgment, so I tend to question the basis of every claim that I make.
Despite how awkward this process might seem it is a process that can yield tremendous benefits in one’s journey to assimilate the shadow. Your shadow, due to its dark nature, is constantly forming a cloud over your judgment. This cloud can never disappear, but it can certainly abate through meticulous introspection and cultivation of wisdom.
You need to have your eyes open to a vast array of influences.
Don’t let the monotony of everyday drivel and shallowness define what you are and what you do. Push back against anything that attempts to hinder your personal-development and orient yourself towards what is morally good.
How do you orient yourself towards what is morally good?
Some people have attacked me for my stance on the topic of morality since I hold a very concrete position on the matter. I never believed in moral relativism and I never thought that our moral problems could not be solved. By some strange technological and philosophical osmosis, we can create a universal moral framework that can be accepted by every soul on this planet.
This might sound ambitious, but, trust me, it is not.
Humans have always found ways to co-exist and respect each other because the notion of co-existence is central to our survival. Our evolution has created countless iterations of our species, but our bedrock is, more or less, the same.
What does not allow us to behave constantly in a respectful and mutually beneficial way is the shadow. When the shadow takes over, any discussion for a universal moral framework cannot find fruitful ground.
We negotiate and debate and exchange verbal tantrums in an attempt to defend our point of view and our position in the dominance hierarchy of society.
Some people do that in a more ethical way and in order to defend goodness, and I am a huge admirer of these people, but most just keep perpetuating banal attitudes and approaches.
And it is the banality and triviality of existence that needs to be dealt with in order to identify what is morally good. Actually, it is the combination of that and the ability to showcase common sense in the face of trivial matters.
With common sense, the discovery of a solution to most of our problems could be accelerated dramatically. Life might be an amalgamation of complex instances, but our cognitive apparatus is more than capable of making sense of them. All it takes is to offer clarity to our judgment and common sense is imperative in that respect.
Especially when it comes to orienting ourselves towards what is morally good.
How do you offer clarity to every facet of your existence?
Dr. Jordan Peterson likes to promulgate that life is suffering and that unless you don’t voluntarily accept this as a fact, suffering will keep manifesting itself in every facet of your existence. I like this idea a lot because it reminds me of how important clarity is when it comes to the betterment of our living conditions.
In order to ameliorate something, you need to understand its mechanics. Maybe something isn’t working well because a part that comprises the whole of it is actually malfunctioning. When we break down the whole in parts and fastidiously examine these parts, we can discover details about systems that are usually obscure. Then we can go back to the system itself and look at how what we discovered can improve the performance of the system as a whole.
A bottom-up approach is always more effective and usually more meritocratic, thus empowering the parts to work synergistically for a common cause.
Clarity manifests itself in that way. When you allow the part to discover all its nuances and all its capabilities, you end up with a reinforced version of it that can offer more to the whole.
Humans operate like that and the dawn of the Internet made that idea more vivid.
We experience a collective awakening that can, perhaps, lead to collective enlightenment. Information becomes widely accessible and we can improve our error-correcting mechanisms just by asking and gathering as many views as possible.
That right there is the essence of clarity. And its only obstacle is the shadow.
A person who clings to outdated and ill-defined views will only reinforce the shadow and stagnate in a swamp of confusion.
Incessant knowledge-seeking is the name of the game. A game we should all prepare to play.
I want to conclude this article with a passage from the Red Book:
“Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life…If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature…Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.”
There is not much to say after you read those words.
Only that there is so much madness in life.
But there is also so much truth in madness.
The best way to assimilate the shadow is by challenging yourself on a daily basis. In “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses” ebook, I have collected the most interesting challenges, inspired by renowned individuals, that aim to help you reinvent the way you approach life and focus on adopting physical, spiritual and mental practices that are not only feasible but also enjoyable and meaningful. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. You discover the challenges here.
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And for those who prefer a more visual version of the post, you can check out my video essay on Carl Jung:
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