This is the sixth post in the Mythology and the Psyche series, and Part 2 of the entries on the shadow archetype. A list of all the posts in the series can be found here. Also, I apologise for the ridiculous length of this entry, but the shadow is so complex and wanted to give a full picture of how radical its lessons are.
I must warn you: the shadow is difficult. It is horrifically difficult, for the deepest ground of the shadow guards both our personal and collective notions of evil. Facing and assimilating the shadow requires that we not only “gaze into the face of absolute evil,” which Jung describes as “a rare and shattering experience,” but that we overcome all of our moral judgements by recognizing there is no separation, or indeed difference, between any of us, even the worst of us. This is as extreme as it sounds, but as Campbell warns, “the adventure is always reckless” (Pathways to Bliss). The shadow is created because the ego mirrors society’s need to separate your identity from its ideas of what’s unacceptable, intolerable, and corrupt. Assimilating the shadow (and, indeed, all the unconscious aspects of the Self) forces you to ask yourself, “Can the ego put itself to death?” Recall, the ego is the lens through which the phenomenal world is visible. In the Reality of the eternal, there is no duality whatsoever, there are no distinctions, there is only Oneness. Without the illusion of separation, there would be no world, no concept of self. The ego is the filter which reduces our consciousness to a pinpoint, allowing us to see and interact with the world, but so long as we are attached to our egos and the self-image it creates, we are blind to the divine and barred from reconnecting with the eternal.
Of course, the trouble is that deep down in your core, you know the world and the self are false. You know the ego made the world and that it’s all one grand illusion, simply the dream of the soul. You know we are all, each individually, and the eventually the world itself, turning toward our eventual dissolution back into the unmanifest. And the part of you that remembers the perfect, sleeping soul, safe in the eternal, longs to return to Oneness, but the ego fears its own disappearance. Much of the pain we experience here is the result of knowing, at a very deep level, that we have been pulled apart, constricted, diluted, reduced, forgotten, and shattered into the pinpoint of awareness we have in this world. We become infinitesimally tiny fractions of our true Selves, but because the ego (the seat of our conscious awareness) renders the eternal invisible, we come to believe that we are complete and identify fully with the ego. But the deep memory of Oneness remains a splinter in the mind, and while the ego is only vaguely aware of this, it often becomes possessed by the fear of its dissolution. The ego fights the opening of its consciousness to defend against its own gradual disappearance, and it does so by justifying its existence as essential so you remain ignorant of the choice you have to “put it to death.”
The ego seeks to convince us of the absolute reality of separation as well as pain. So long as we believe separation is real, the ego’s existence is safe, but the way to make ourselves ‘safe’ in the world of duality is through specialness. If we are right then others are wrong, and if the dissolution comes, it will be those bad, wrong people who deserve it, not Me. Of course, what we do not see, is that we are thus barred from knowing true peace, for the ego’s survival depends on the continuation of suffering. The ego does not particularly care how or in what way it is made special, only that it is recognized as unique and exceptional. If you are special enough, the hope is that you will be considered too precious to be absorbed back into Oneness.
The ego has many strategies by which is seeks to be exonerated from dissolution, but it is usually sought in the many guises of righteousness. The ego is a ferocious “right-fighter,” whether it is by debating, fact-checking, or humiliation. Some egos prefer to dominate everyone around them, for if they are in control, they believe, they will be able to hold off their own dissolution. Another one of the egos favourite tactics is victimization. Some egos latch onto any form of illness or marginalization as the key to its specialness. For by making itself small, pitiful, and weak enough, the ego hopes it will be overlooked or exempt from the punishment of disappearing. Now, this is not to say that society is equitable: societies are profoundly unfair (by design) and ruthlessly sustain various forms of systemic oppression. Opportunity is not distributed equally, and many are held under the iron heel of “upper classes.” It is not wrong to devote your energy to addressing these inequalities, but it only helps the greater good when we act from genuine compassion and not the egos addiction to and obsession with its own pain.
Another absolute favourite of the ego is by claiming moral superiority, for if the ego can disown the shadow, it creates a powerful argument to be spared. Likewise, the dogma of salvation is often hijacked as an ego delusion: that only a select group of “pure” people will live on in a paradise-like afterlife is the fantasy of the ego escaping its own dissolution and surviving even death. We are not afraid of the death of the body,which is constantly ill, ugly, and full of horrific surprises, rather, we fear the loss of the ego to Oneness, that ‘I’ will disintegrate, as if we never were. To paraphrase Jung, religion is often a defence against an experience of divinity. While the religions of the world do in fact guide you to break through the ego with teachings of loving our neighbours and non-judgement, the ego takes hold of morality and uses it to beat up everyone around you instead of actually hearing the message of forgiveness. Putting the ego to death means totally releasing its judgement. It means giving up righteousness (not easy to do, I know). As Campbell explains in Pathways to Bliss: “Just remember, Adam and Eve fell when they learned the difference between good and evil. So the way to get back is not to know the difference. That’s an obvious lesson, but it’s not one that’s very clearly preached from pulpits. Yet Christ told his disciples, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’”
The reality is, whether you wish to acknowledge it or not, the shadow exists within all of us, and it makes judging others not only hypocritical but self-delusional. We must be clear: the shadow asks us to look through the apparent duality of the world and recognize that even evil is an illusion. The ego believes its very survival rests on successfully rejecting the shadow, but assimilating the shadow does not bring about the ego’s dissolution. Certainly, it makes the ego more transparent to the eternal around us, but the ego remains. The gift of facing the shadow is that it loosens the grip it has over our lives, emotions, and reactions. When we can look upon our own shadows with compassion, we find genuine peace. It is not the addictive rush of righteousness, or the specialness of victimization, it is simply stillness. If we are to assimilate the shadow, we must overcome the moral problem of accepting it. It is only when we release the ego’s righteousness that we can the image of all of humanity, including all its disappointments, evils, and shortcomings. This requires a deep level of compassion for others, but also for yourself. It is only when we manage to incorporate the shadow into our consciousness that we understand there is no purity test to pass: you are already worthy, already complete, already redeemed.
It is not, of course, possible to eradicate “evil” and pain from the world. This is not something the ego likes to hear: so long as it believes evil can be overcome its belief in separation, specialness, and superiority can be maintained. But as Campbell reminds us, hell is created by a mind that is stuck on itself, and Satan himself is simply the penultimate symbol of an inflexible, unyielding ego which refuses to open. “The problem with hell is that the fire doesn’t consume you. … Fire is symbolic of the night sea journey, the upcoming of shadow – repressed biography, history, and traumas – and the burning out of the imps of malice. Purgatory is a place where that fire is turned into a purging fire that burns out the fear system, burns out the blockage so that it will open” (Reflections on the Art of Living). We find ourselves in hell when we do not allow the fire, which is “the upcoming of shadow,” to burn out the ego. The hero’s journey itself, which consciously seeks this transforming fire and to “put the ego to death” in order to reconnect with the eternal realm, is filled with the imagery of the “active door,” often in the form of clashing rocks through which the hero must plunge, risking death and dismemberment in order to cross into the land of adventure. This and the other various tests that await at the threshold of the unconscious realm – like the troll under the bridge, angry dragons or ogres, and unfriendly guards of all kinds, themselves are all spectres of the hero’s shadow – are all essentially an “image that communicates the sense of going past judgement.”
Now, it’s imperative to understand that recognizing the world and its morality as illusory is not a free pass to hurt others. As Campbell explains, “if your impulse is to assert your ego and your ego values in such a way that you are destroying other people, for you then to think, I am beyond good and evil and so I can behave this way no matter what happens to other people – you’re a dangerous person. You are a sociopath.” In this case, you are still being animated by the ego, by your personal superiority and specialness, not compassion. Assimilating the shadow does not mean that you act it out. The shadow neither asks you to hurt anyone, nor to condone anything, what the shadow asks of you is simply not to judge.
The truth is that life itself is horrific. Campbell explains the problem: “life lives on life. Its first law is, now I’ll eat you, now you eat me – quite something for consciousness to assimilate. … The organs of life [have] evolved to depend on the death of others for their existence. These organs have impulses of which your consciousness isn’t even aware; when it becomes aware of them, you may become scared that this eat-or-be-eaten horror is what you are. The impact of this horror on a sensitive consciousness is terrific – this monster which is life. Life is a horrendous presence, and you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.” The shadow is created, in part, when our egos reject and shunt down this awareness from the conscious mind. We cannot accept the ugliness of life, and more specifically, we cannot face the possibility that this horror is our own deepest nature. So we hide this away and the shadow is formed. The only reason energies in the psyche become destructive is they have been rejected and have become ingrown. In the end, “evil” is just something we refute is in us. As Campbell points out, there is nothing in this world that has not emanated from the eternal realm, and demons are simply gods we’re not yet open enough to accept: “Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach.”
This is absolutely as radical as it appears, make no mistake. Serial killers, terrorists, mass murderers, and all other figures who incite “outrage” of some sort or another are avatars of our collective shadow. When they arise in public awareness, the shadow is asking us to put aside our judgement and recognize ourselves, not condemn them. Now, I am not suggesting you are in any danger of waking up tomorrow as a serial killer, or a terrorist (unless, of course, you already are an impulsively violent person, serial killer, or terrorist). For neither the rejection nor the assimilation of the shadow take place in the world. What we’re talking about here is purely on the level of the mind: we all fall into the same ego traps, even if they don’t degrade to murder or egregious harm. At its core, all acts of “evil” are clumsy, desperate attempts to relieve pain. And we have all been hijacked by pain, we all, to one degree or another, act out “uncharacteristically” when we are stressed, sleep deprived, angry, and under the influence of a whole host of other painful stressors. This is just being able to acknowledge that you have the potential within you. The point is that you none of us understand precisely why we become one person and not another. None of us will ever know how close we came to being someone else – for good or ill. This is the crux of the shadow’s lesson: it’s having compassion and humility in the face of this mystery. The mystery, most importantly, of yourself.
Now, from the perspective of mythology – and this is where it gets difficult – because the visible world is essentially an illusion, and in the Reality of the eternal there are zero distinctions or separations of any kind, only Oneness, there is absolutely no difference between a thought and an action. Indulging in a revenge fantasy is no different than carrying it out (this is why you don’t need to act out your shadow to accept it). As even the Bible suggests in 1 John 3:15, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer at heart.” There are no degrees of reality within illusion. You would not, for example, argue that the dream you had last night was more or less real than the dream you had last week. This is what it means to overcome the duality of the world, to understand that you are not, in any way, superior to someone who acts out their shadow.
Of course, for example, the revelations of the corruption behind the Tour de France victories of Lance Armstrong were a shock, but we then proceeded to treat him as if the man had invented lying. We recoil in horror at someone like Bernie Madoff, again, reasonably, but our righteousness likes to pretend we are not ourselves capable of doing shady things for personal gain, or seeking any exploit for our own advantage. There’s no question it’s difficult to recognize the capacity for ugliness in yourself. The Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat and writer who spent 32 of his 74 years in various prisons and insane asylums, is famous for his pornographic and often violent writing. He also had the unfortunate habit for abducting and raping young women. Clearly, he was a man who acted out his shadow, but made an astute point about his critics who self-righteously denounced him as an inhuman pervert: “Evil recognizes evil, and the recognition is always painful.” De Sade suggests his critics were only outraged because they recognized themselves in the mirror of his work and were rejecting their own repressed desires laid bare by de Sade. Their disgust was never about him but themselves. Likewise, Dennis Nilson, a British serial killer, once suggested the same ingrown instincts that lead him to impulsively kill, are alive in the public obsession with reading about violent crime, following trials, and rubber-necking at car accidents at the side of the road. So I submit, as a warning, be wary: the only reason to thump a Bible is to drive out the devil. As Campbell suggests, the only reason you may not take the leap from thought to action, or out of the smaller scope of “sin” than what we consider morally grey area, is because you have been sufficiently “domesticated, civilized.”
But (because I haven’t sufficiently ruined your day just yet!), being “civilized” is not enough. Without assimilating the shadow, even positive qualities are open to hijacking. Empathy, for example, fosters social order and ‘civility,’ but it can also, rather easily, be a strong trigger for violence and general human ugliness. Be honest with yourself: what would you do if you got your hands on a member of ISIS? On Parkland shooter Nicolas Cruz? On former US Olympic gynamstics doctor Larry Nassar? If you cheered on Judge Aquilina as she told Nassar “I’d allow what he did to be done to him,” and took pleasure in sentencing him to 40 years in prison, a “death sentence” to “wither away,” you probably did so out of empathy for the innocent, traumatized victims he left in his wake. And yet, this was a shocking display of callousness and self-righteousness on the judge’s part. Likewise, you might shudder at the thought of ISIS beheading a British journalist, but if you’d have no problem seeing that same ISIS member beheaded himself, you’re being dishonest about what really lurks within you. Remember, on the level of the mind, your transgression of thought is equal. This is a sly trick of the ego, who convinces itself that its pure, pure motives make it incapable of corruption, and yet it proceeds to carry out the same cruelty it claims to be horrified by. Our precious morality claims to have zero tolerance for murder, but then, as a society we un-ironically execute murderers (and no one, incidentally, is held responsible for the innocent people who’ve been killed by the state). This is the alt-right being motivated by upsetting liberals because they felt degraded by the left for years. This is the extreme left using fascist tactics to denounce fascism.
Empathy is not equal to compassion. Empathy may foster compassion, but it is extremely vulnerable to the trap of victimization, which is, essentially, an insistence that separation is real. Compassion sees the all in one, and one in all. It does not see victims and perpetrators, it sees only pain: pain everyone shares. Compassion understands what Buddhism calls ‘pratityasamutpada,’ the teaching that all things and all causes and effects are interdependent. Everything arises mutually. As a violent person creates victims in a misguided effort to maintain his ego, so do victims who become stuck in their victimization equally support the ego’s belief in separation. Victim and perpetrator make the same mistake. Empathy which comes from a self which has assimilated the shadow becomes compassion. Empathy strictly of the ego is in danger of triggering these disproportionate reactions to the shadow appearing in our lives and puts us in danger of reacting violently, even if we’re motivated by ‘love’ (though really, our own righteousness). When we do not assimilate the shadow, we leave ourselves vulnerable to being possessed by it.
This is not, obviously, an easy thing to accept. But ultimately, what I’m trying to say is the only shadow you ever face or react against is your own. When you condemn a terrorist you condemn yourself, not them. The reaction – be it disgust, horror, revenge – is only possible because you sense at a deep level that what you see in another lies buried in you. This reaction is the shadow hovering at the edge of consciousness, threatening to break the ego’s illusion of control and superiority. Know that I’m absolutely serious when I tell you that you and I are no better, and no worse, than someone like Ted Bundy. Consider, if you had acted out every hate-filled, painful thought and impulse you ever had, you may may well best him. There is, spiritually, no difference between us and any “evil-doer” in the history of humanity. Nor is there any difference between us and any of the great leaders, icons, and inspiring figures in history, either.
We are often too worried about the “evil-doers” being punished to see that the punishment has already been rendered: every last one of them is trapped in a mind in so much pain it can find no other escape than to hurt others. I’m not sure we appreciate how horrific this is, and it is a true life sentence. Of course, as a society, the compassionate thing to do is to separate someone from their ability to cause serious harm (both for our sake, and theirs), but the penal system in much of the world is revenge focused, and therefore ego-centric, rather than centred on compassion and healing as it is in Scandinavia, particularly Norway. Again, revenge is of the ego, and it not only reinforces the ego system, but continues to repress the shadow and perpetuate the problem of the rejected shadow appearing in the world, and ourselves, as demonic. Part of assimilating the shadow is being willing to extend compassion to anyone we recognize as stuck in their own egos, or possessed by their rejected shadow, as we are.
Now, it’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask: why bother? If whatever you do here in this world makes no difference to your soul (and it doesn’t), and the prospect of assimilating the shadow involves facing such deep evil and ugliness in ourselves, and the ego will dissolve eventually anyway, what is the actual point? Why not just carry on as you are? Strictly speaking, you absolutely can make the choice to simply carry on, and you thereby neither condemn your soul nor save it. And look, it is well your right to do whatever you choose. But these forces are working on you whether you like it or not. We have formed societies to protect ourselves and each other from the worst potentials of humanity (as much as is possible), and to foster the brighter aspects of humanity. And of course, we each have a responsibility to uphold our end of things if we are going to remain peacefully in our chosen society. Doing so is what makes you, in Campbell’s words, “civilized:” you have accepted the rules of your society at the cost it demands. But, even though it’s in our collective interest to form social groups and police each other, this still requires each of us to suppress instincts and impulses, whole facets of the Self. Hence, we create and repress the shadow, but the energy required to reject the shadow takes a mental and spiritual toll. And here’s the thing: society seeks only to protect itself. It doesn’t give a flying fuck if you crack up and go crazy from this pressure and internal stress.
Society is ruthless with those who don’t tow the line, so if you do crack up, society’s acceptance will be withdrawn from you without a second thought. Those who are suffering and in mental duress are in direct inner conflict with the shadow and there arises an impossible choice: to heal means to assimilate the shadow which is not permitted (or at the very least respected) by society, or you reject the shadow again in order to rejoin your society, but make your cracking up again inevitable. Thus, as Campbell explains, the solution to the bargain society gives you is “not that one should not be permitted to go crazy; but that one should have been taught something already of the scenery to be entered and powers likely to be met, given a formula of some kind by which to recognize, subdue them, and incorporate their energies” (Hero’s Journey). The challenge is to learn to make the journey without getting lost in it, and if we do crack up, we know the way to peace. By beginning to assimilate the shadow and all the other archetypes of the Self, you have some sense of the way back from the edge, and we make the prospect of cracking up a lot less likely in the first place.
Realize that it is not the goal of assimilating the whole of the Self to dissolve into Oneness and thereby obliterate these internal divisions. This dissolution will occur no matter what we do. Rather, the point is to make these divisions transparent while we remain in this life. While the journey of self-realization is a microcosm of the path back to the unmanifest realm, from separation to connection, from shattered to whole, it simply isn’t possible to re-attain Oneness and remain in the physical world. The goal, then, is to live without being so desperately attached to your ego. You will not (and nor would you want to) defeat or get rid of the ego entirely: the reward of the journey is simply the expansion of consciousness, and becoming a fuller, more human person. Confronting the shadow successfully means recognizing ourselves, so you need not obliterate, wrestle, or exorcise it. You become willing to look at it and not condemn, judge, or throw the shadow away. This truly is as simple as being able to notice when your ego is mainlining righteousness, or seeking to justify itself as special. Take amusement in the ego’s games and power trips, and be willing to forgive the same game when you see it played by the egos of others. Are you willing to look at what you would rather condemn and say, “I, too, am sometimes possessed by my ego”? Again, you can and should stand for your principles and your beliefs, but recognize the difference between standing for something, and the judgement and condemnation nascent in standing against something.
So the only real difference made by whether you assimilate the shadow is to your own experience and the relative quality of your life. Now, the quality of your life has no bearing on the worth of your soul, for the soul is eternally unchanged, and is always and already whole. It does not need redemption, for there is nothing to redeem. But you are here in this world, and what assimilating the shadow, and the individuation process in general (that is, becoming your full Self), does influence is your peace of mind. Jung reminds us that “the difference between the ‘natural’ individuation process [simply moving through time and growing old], which runs its course unconsciously, and the one that is consciously realized is tremendous. In the first case, consciousness nowhere intervenes; the end remains as dark as the beginning. In the second case, so much darkness comes to light that the personality is permeated with light and consciousness necessarily gains in scope and insight. The encounter between conscious and unconscious has to ensure that the light that shines in the darkness is not only comprehended by the darkness, but comprehends it” (Answer to Job). This is having the courage to bring the light of awareness and non-judgement so deep into the Self that we see, as Campbell consoles, “Love informs the whole universe, right down into the abyss of hell” (Reflections on the Art of Living). Hell lies within us, but the light of its flames also illuminates the vaults of heaven.