At a gathering of student analysts eager for exactitude in definition, Jung, in an exasperated reaction, expressed that the shadow was simply the whole unconscious! If it’s not in the light, it’s in the shadow. And what lies in the darkness—that unknown part of ourselves—effects us profoundly, though we see it not.
In a dream, Jan and I are walking up a hill. It is night, dark and cloudy. Suddenly, I realize we are standing on slippery snow/ice and I lose my balance, falling, sliding down into the unknown, completely unable to see. I keep my composure but have no possible way to orient myself. I am truly in the shadow, without light. I awaken.
It’s the morning of June 21st, the summer solstice, Jeanne’s birthday. Jan has just emerged from a similar dream. Clearly, I am being shown that we are headed into the unknown—something that cannot be controlled. Can we get comfortable with the ride? Isn’t it really all preparation for the journey we all must inevitably take—our ultimate appointment with death? Isn’t it all about getting comfortable enough with the ride into the unknown so that we might find safe passage?
Isn’t it really our daily challenge to allow ourselves to go forward and grow, to become a new self as we integrate new truths of who we are into our lives? Or do we awaken stubbornly each day, insisting to reincarnate our familiar selves, grasping onto our familiar habitual attitudes and habits?
Jung resisted exactitude in definition because he respected the unknown and unknowable too much to assign anything more to a definition than a possibility or a metaphor. Rather than shirking scientific responsibility here, he was instead expressing scientific humility—a true scarcity in our modern world.
What Jung could hint about the shadow, however, was the compensatory function it served to balance our ego’s stranglehold over the unrealized or unconscious portion of the psyche.
In practical terms, if we consciously insist on attitudes or behaviors that thwart our deeper selves, the shadow will strike, as Freud observed, with verbal slips that reveal our heart’s true sentiment. In other instances, our shadow may have gathered enough steam to literally take possession of the ego as we find ourselves possessed by an intense mood or affect that takes control of our otherwise level behavior.
These states of possession can range from a profound depression to extreme acting out where ego control is literally obliterated. These are the extremes that lead us to fear the shadow, brand it as evil, and seek relief through a controlled life of goodness. Indeed, at an extreme state of imbalance the shadow might strike in an evil way.
On closer examination, however, we might discover that what we brand as evil—and may in fact be evil—is the compensatory action of the unknown part of ourselves, reacting to the falsity or limitation of our conscious attitude. Here, the shadow drives us to extremes to wake us up to grapple with other facts and truths within ourselves.
The more rigidly we cling to a one-sided attitude, the more intense must be the shadow’s counterattack to both balance us out and awaken us to introspection upon the truth of who we are, what we feel, and what we need.
Ultimately, the role of the shadow is to expand our consciousness by leading us into greater acquaintance with our unknown selves and our true reason for being in this life. We cannot, as my dream depicts, avoid our slide into the darkness, into the unknown.
Truthfully, what do we really know? What we think we really know is but the ego’s castles in the sand that, as Jan’s dream of Monday night depicts, will be washed away by the tidal wave of the shadow. The question that emerges in both of our dreams, and in the time of now, is: How we will take the slide or ride the inevitable waves of our lives?
Can we get calm in the midst of the unfamiliar? Are we open to discovering more of who we are as we glide into the unknown where even a compass doesn’t work?
Jung was wise to resist the exactitude of definition. Exactitude becomes another ego sand castle. However, Jung’s discovery of the mechanism of compensation provides a basis for relationship with our unknown selves.
Rather than get caught in the moralism of good and evil, or goodness and badness, we can suspend those judgments and shift to an appreciation for darkness as necessary to prod and challenge our ego self to broaden its purview into the vast unknown of the self with an attitude of respect and discovery.
In this respect, shadow is truly a friend yet also a foe that pushes us onward and keeps us honest.
Calm without a compass,