Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” —Carl Jung, “The Philosophical Tree” (1945). In CW 13: Alchemical Studies. P.335
Human nature: what is it, and what does it say about us? The question has fascinated philosophers for thousands of years, perhaps since the beginning of sentient thought. Humans love to ponder themselves, questioning the nature of the soul, the mind, and the heart, and cataloguing the information for further exploration. Indeed, the very word “philosophy” comes from a combination of the Greek words phileo, meaning “to love”, and sophia, meaning “wisdom.” We are compelled by the notion that understanding ourselves will help us understand the universe and all of creation—and vice versa.
Some of the first schools of philosophical thought were founded for the study of human nature, of the mystery that is us. Mystery schools from various religions often explored the secrets of the natural world, the universe, the realm of spirit, and humanity’s place within all of existence. Tomes of thought, volumes of song and verse, reels of film and countless canvases of art have been filled in the pursuit of the timeless question: Who are we?
Humans are remarkably self-obsessed creatures, constantly pondering the who/what/why/hows, the ins and outs, the has-beens and the goings-to-be of our species. We seek to understand ourselves in the context of time and place; of culture and history; of is, is-not, and used-to-be; and of what we can be, potentially. We compare ourselves to each other, and to objects and species that are different from us.
How do the clockwork automation of our heartbeats and neuro-patterns, the complex overlay of our chemical reactions and the synchronicity of our internal processes compare with the circle dance of the Earth around the sun, the swirling of the winds and rains around the globe, the timing of molecular motion according to the laws of physics? How similar are our love songs to the mating calls of birds? How much of ourselves do we perceive in the subtlety of wordless emotion apparent in our closest animal companions? And (most importantly) what do these comparisons say about what it means to be human?
One of the most unique things about humans is our complex, multi-faceted nature. There are as many expressions of humanity as there are people in the world, or perhaps as many people as there ever have been, and are yet to be.
We define ourselves through comparison to other humans and common shared traits within our species. We understand animals, plants, and non-sentient forms in terms of how “human-like” or “inhuman” their behavior. We often crave human interaction, human connection. We place value on practices that we consider to be “humane.” This is all understandable practice, since official human history recognizes no interaction of humans with any other intelligent species. Who, but ourselves, have we to turn to for answers? Why us? Why are we different? And, as we grow to understand the world around us through science, and see in every encounter with the natural world a mirror—how different are we from the rest of existence, really?
As we narcisses have peered into the pool of the enigma of self, we often distinguish ourselves as different from the natural world, rather than focusing on how we are similar. We are still animals, after all, and children of the same earth, in the same galaxy, in the same physical universe. Yet for so long, humans have sought to divorce themselves from the natural world. We strived to set ourselves apart from our animal relatives, building civilizations based on law and virtue to put distance between humanity and the brutish impulses of animal instinct. We perceived nature to be harsh and chaotic, and survival was a ruthless battle that necessitated our cooperation. Hence, we created systems that would bring order and aid our collective efforts. A dichotomy was created: humanity, which we associated with civility and salvation — and nature, instinct-driven animals and all untameable natural processes included.
In our understanding, this universe is characterized by its duality, its pairs of opposites: night and day, light and dark, black and white, hot and cold, female and male, life and death, wet and dry, action and reaction, good and evil, love and hate. Because we could never fully succeed in eradicating our animal natures, we long ago internalized these matched pairs of opposites to understand our complex personalities. It comes as no surprise, then, that human nature, like the rest of the natural world, come with both “positive” and “negative” traits—positive traits being the ones we tend to value, and negative being those that we find chaotic and destructive.
Perhaps it is because we are a diurnal, or daytime, species that early humans first associated “positive” qualities with “light,” and “negative” qualities with “dark” or “shadow.” Prehistoric man was terrified by the fall of night, when nocturnal predators would hunt humans as they lay vulnerable in sleep. The association of death with darkness was ingrained into our cellular memory and has been passed from generation to generation through our shared DNA, and when combined with cultural conditioning that reinforces a fear of these phenomena, we have bred ourselves to avoid both internal and external conditions that bring about an encounter with this fear. So humans split the world down the middle, organizing life into a hierarchy of two: emotions and conditions that are “good,” and those that are “bad.” This, of course, lumped the “human” side of the dichotomy into the “good” category, while “nature” went into the “bad.”
Along with this segregation of emotions and behaviors comes the impulse to recognize one category and ignore or shun the other, thereby leading humans to completely disregard half of the spectrum of human nature—half of who we truly are.
Fortunately, as our species grows in intellectual sophistication, we often recognize that this world is far from one of simply black and white. Rather, there is a whole spectrum of value between the extremes, and value, if I can play with words a bit, is often a matter of opinion. For instance, there is no natural law governing the labels of “good emotions” and “bad emotions,” similar to what we would perceive with Newton’s Third Law of Motion, wherein for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What we do have is scientific evidence that the neurochemistry of “negative” emotions (such as extreme grief, worry, anger, or fear) and their subsequent bodily responses cause substantial stress on the body, promoting wear and tear on our endocrine, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, which in turn causes a plethora of health problems and dramatically impacts the quality of life for those afflicted.
Yet these are merely facts without a brain to interpret them against the value on longevity inherent in those living organisms that grapple historically with mortality. What I mean is, because we want to live a long time, we value physical conditions in our bodies that will promote long lives. Thus, we have a list of factors that fall under the category of “good health,” whereas any living conditions, diets, personal habits, etc. that bring the inevitability of death closer fall under the category of “bad health.” It is our perceptions that determine whether we label things as either good or bad, positive or negative. Without these value judgments, all events, emotions, opinions, beliefs, actions, etc. are essentially neutral.
The establishment of our values often finds its origins in the state of our physical bodies. Anything that causes discomfort in the body—whether the cause be emotional, physical, psychological, or spiritual—is interpreted by the body as unpleasant, causing it to send distress signals to the brain, which in turn labels the experience accordingly and prompts the individual to adjust his or her behavior to alleviate the discomfort in the present and avoid the occurrence in the future. Likewise, any stimulus that causes a perception of pleasure in the body is interpreted as “good,” and the brain prompts the individual to pursue more experiences that evoke similar bodily responses. Of course, there is some variation in this model, such as instances where unpleasant physical experiences can evoke a neural response of pleasure, depending on the unique psychological makeup of the individual, but for our purposes in this article, we’ll stick with the basic model of bodily response.
The point is, the classification of good and bad only exist as perceptions of the mind. All living beings share one common goal: to keep living. Anything that jeopardizes the fulfillment of that goal is to be avoided, and a pattern of continual avoidance leads to adaptation, which is step one on the path of evolution.
Culture of Repression
Evolution, by definition, is a process of movement. It requires adversity for it to function. Without adversity there is no adaptation; without adaptation, no growth. Yet the long path of evolution clashes with the immediacy of our modern consumerist culture, which strives toward simplification. With lives growing in complexity and the demand on the average human to multi-task constantly increasing, salvation lies in convenience.
We can see it everywhere: from the high speed of communication to the boom of the fast food industries, efficiency of time usage is of the highest value. Time is money, and the more time we have to make money, the better. Efficiency is defined by high productivity, and productivity often means contributing to the production of products in all industries that are convenient and, hmm, efficient.
So it seems that what we have here is a cycle of repetition disguised as progress—not evolution. Oh, sure, there are advancements. Yet all advancements seem to go towards maintaining the status quo. We can’t let the economy collapse! We need the economy to sustain our jobs, so that we can afford to buy food, and houses, and cars, so that we can continue putting money into the economy, so that it doesn’t collapse! We need the numbers to keep rising, in spite of the fact that resources are often dwindling, whether they be financial, environmental, or energetic. To the individual this often translates as a need to be a human machine, for productivity thrives on consistency, and human lives are too often erratic and unpredictable. So we must suppress exhaustion by masking it with caffeine; repress dissatisfaction by masking it with pharmaceuticals; suppress hunger by replacing healthy, nutritious meals with cheap, processed filler. We have created a culture of repression, where, like our business practices, we take only those qualities of ourselves that can increase profitability and discard the rest.
The shadow contains, besides the personal shadow, the shadow of society … fed by the neglected and repressed collective values.” —Michael Fordham, Jungian Psychotherapy
Repression is at the heart of what Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung identified as the “shadow.” The shadow self, according to his definition, consists of those aspects of ourselves which are rejected, denied, and buried deep within the layers of our unconscious minds. The unconscious ultimately influences all behaviors, reactions, and emotional patterns, illustrating that what gets buried in the psyche never really stays buried. All water paths lead to the sea, and all repressed emotions lead to the seen.
As long as we continue to ignore humanity’s biggest problems—especially those that find their origins in the human psyche—we block our own evolution and deprive ourselves of the opportunities to solve them.
Feels Are Hard
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 problem with difficult emotions is that they are uncomfortable—but in an effort to evolve past them, we must confront and learn from them in order to effectively transcend them. Yet our culture of repression self-perpetuates with a culture of distraction. Rather than take a quiet moment of reflection when we encounter an unpleasant emotion, we too often self-medicate with an overdose of television or mind-altering substances. YouTube has become the opiate of the masses. It is too easy to fall outside of ourselves and run from whatever is keeping us from feeling true inner peace. The glaze of superficial contentment is just an artificial mask without the scrubbing and sanding of the psyche that forms the foundation of our emotional beings.
The fault for shadow-neglect does not lie with the sources of distraction, but with the individual who allows him-/herself to be distracted by immersion in external stimulus, devoid of critical thought. At all turns, we must remember to pause and ask ourselves, what does this tell me about myself? How can I better understand myself and others and what it means to be human through this experience? Avoidance has a ripple effect of epic proportions, for when we avoid our own shadows, they go unchecked and often surface in harmful and dangerous ways.
The shadow can harbor a physical and emotional animalistic violence. When our unconscious impulses govern our actions, we take those impulses out on each other in countless ways every day—from a rude comment to a stranger; to a competitive edge in the workplace that prompts us to throw a coworker under the bus; a habit of talking trash about others; or an act of road rage where we threaten the lives of others with high speed and tons of steel, all for a moment of bruised ego. At worst, we can even find ourselves suffering from mental breakdowns when our overburdened psyches finally crack under the pressure of long-term repression.
We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases the patients themselves have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts.” —Carl Jung,“New Paths in Psychology” (1912). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology
Seemingly impulsive, destructive actions (a.k.a. projections) are, in essence, a self-diversionary tactic in which we essentially shun the responsibility for our emotional responses and dump them on someone else to deal with. “I am secretly dissatisfied with the life choices that I have made. But rather than exploring my emotions and coming to a place of acceptance and eventual empowerment, I’d rather just be an asshole to you. You deal with my shadow shit.”
Shadow Ripple: The Collective Unconscious Manifest
Because we humans are reactive creatures, these actions add up. With our bad habits of shadow avoidance, we play a global game of pass-the-buck to everyone else on the planet. That chain of interpersonal interactions creates a culture of emotional relationships that pervades our collective environment in a very real way. If you don’t believe me, just visit a city, state, or country that has a reputation for rudeness.
Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” —Carl Jung,“Psychology and Religion” (1938)
How we treat each other matters, and our treatment of others is determined by our relationships to ourselves. If we give ourselves love and practice self-tolerance and self-acceptance, if we exert the patience necessary to allow ourselves to heal from past emotional pains and traumas, we are more likely to extend that love and acceptance to others, because we will understand what they are going through, too. The global human shadow is vast beyond imagining, for there is so much suffering in the world, and it takes many forms. True healing is a global endeavor, and it is the responsibility of every individual to begin by exploring and healing his/her own shadow.
If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.” —Carl Jung,“Psychology and Religion” (1938)
Our inner work is aided by the fact that we humans are naturally inquisitive creatures. Our ancient ancestors invented philosophy, showing us that self-exploration is a part of human nature. Perhaps so many of us are restless and unhappy because we are living in an unnatural culture of repression and distraction. Yet just because we live in a technological age does not mean that our lives have to be artificial. We can make the best of our global connections by taking advantage of every opportunity to better understand ourselves and others. We can meet every experience with a critical eye, and come to understand how best to simply be in the moment. Our present awareness, as Buddhist philosophers and proponents of mindfulness and meditation will say, is the basis for inner peace. But we have to sort through the layers of shadow to find that peaceful core. We have to do the work. It isn’t easy to confront the shadow, but it is well worth the effort.
“The Untamed Self” category here on Radically Enlightened will provide a forum for explorations of the shadow. We will give a voice to that which is often smothered into silence, and express that which is often ignored. Self-censorship is self-imposed limitation. Why limit ourselves when so much in this physical world already works to hold us down? We can grow outward only when we grow up. Just as a tree’s roots will break through earth, rock and concrete as it continues to expand, so can growth be a destructive process. Our chaos is our beauty, and the shadow is our path to wonder.
She graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Creative Writing minor. She currently resides on Planet Earth, and therefore has a vested interest in the goings-on and goings-to-be around the place.
She's also really friendly, so feel free to drop a line: Jacquelyn@radicallyenlightened.com.
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