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The Shadow (2)

By George Elder, 8/15/23

In my earlier Post on this topic, I focused on the negative side of the “shadow”—Jung’s name for the unconscious that builds up in the psyche during normal development But there are other aspects to this personally acquired unconscious.

It also includes “subliminal sensations” that are not necessarily negative but can be entirely neutral. Jung writes, “We see, hear, smell and taste many things without noticing them at the time . . . . But in spite of their apparent non-existence they can influence consciousness”—because they have not disappeared. (CW 18. par. 452)

Likewise, we find all manner of “memories” in the shadow. They may be disturbing—if, for example, one has had a difficult childhood—but they can be positive or neutral. We forget a lot, which only means that facts and experiences have left our awareness or consciousness but can often be retrieved voluntarily. Very often our memories arrive unexpectedly.

These two aspects of the unconscious famously come together in Marcel Proust’s long novel, Remembrance of Things Past. The adult narrator happened to taste tea in which he had dipped a piece of petite madeleine: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body . . . .Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?” Well, from his shadow—wherein lay a very pleasant childhood memory. And from that would flow seven volumes of stories.

A person’s undeveloped “typology” dwells in the “other side” of the psyche. Many readers of this post are familiar with Psychological Types, volume 6 of Jung’s Collected Works. There, he outlines a way of understanding one’s own psychological tendencies, preferences, prejudices. The two “types” of extraversion and introversion—and their accompanying four “functions” of thinking and feeling, sensation and intuition—are not meant to be a dogmatic classification of the limitless variety of human psyches. Instead, Jung said they are a guide to understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses.

Without defining these categories here, I merely note that confident extraverts are in their shadows shy introverts, while introverts carry in their shadows a desire to engage the world in an extraverted way. But it is rare to have both capacities available in equal strength or adaptation. Similarly, the thinker has lots of feeling in the unconscious but is not very good at it. The intuitive has trouble with the facts of sensation. This does not mean that our “typological” shadows are negative but merely weak.

This weakness or inferiority, however, deserves our acceptance, even compassion. We can extend that forbearance toward the typological weakness of others. We are all so different!

Occasionally in therapy I would meet someone with a “positive shadow.” I recall the case of a man who had lived his whole life as an extravert, but awkwardly so; and his failures (real or imagined) were one reason for being in analysis. We eventually discovered that his family “needed” an extravert, and he was chosen—against his own introverted nature. Thus, he lived sort of upside down. He was a fish out of water or a bull in a china shop—yet with self-knowledge, he was able to change that. He ended up, moreover, better “balanced” than most people who do not have to take such a detour to authenticity.

Still, it is the negative shadow—common to us all—that causes the most trouble. As Jung writes with some exasperation: “We just will not admit the shadow, and so the right hand does not know what the left is doing.” (CW 10, par. 653) Notice the “right/left” symbolism in this sentence—a symbolism that infects politics without any of the politicians (or voters) being aware that a “right leaning” shadow resides just below a “left leaning” conscious position, and vice versa. Indeed, even a little shadow-work on one’s own makes it painfully obvious that it is the projected negative shadow that lies behind political rancor, racism, anti-semitism, even war.

It is that simple, that “banal” (as Hannah Arendt observed but not without being criticized)—and yet so difficult to solve.

Religion used to remind us of the shadow; that is one of its important functions in culture. But the traditional religions are in ill repute these days—so Christianity’s “seven deadly sins” and Buddhism’s “three poisons” no longer carry the force of conviction. Yet Jung writes: “Man’s worst sin is unconsciousness, but it is indulged in with the greatest piety even by those who should serve mankind as teachers and examples.” (CW 9i, par. 455)

Today, we are on our own. Making use of what is left of Christian symbolism, Jung advises: “He must celebrate a Last Supper with himself, and eat his own flesh and drink his own blood.” (CW 14, par. 512) That is not meant to sound easy or pleasant. Tantric Buddhism tells the story of a great saint who sat for twelve years by the Ganges River eating fish guts left by fishermen cleaning their catch. It is not quite Buddhism’s point, but the imagery here is of “assimilation”—of somehow swallowing psychologically what is disgusting about ourselves.

At the very least, that means acknowledging the shadow. It may lead to improvement. It might mean the inability to improve and the necessity of carrying one’s guilt—but no longer projecting one’s own shortcomings onto others. In any case, Jung says: “To know where the other person makes a mistake is of little value. It only becomes interesting when you know where you make the mistake . . . .” (CW 9ii, par. 424).

For those called to the task, assimilating the shadow may require what Jung calls, “submitting in part,” or allowing one’s shadow to express itself deliberately—instead of unconsciously, involuntarily, against one’s better judgment. It is a dangerous procedure, since it is all too easy to answer the “voice of temptation” by merely acting out one’s sins—while claiming to be on the path of becoming more whole. I discuss this problem in my new book, The Self and the Lotus (176, 579). If one succeeds, however, one has the satisfaction of “shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day” (CW 12, par. 140).


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