Learning From the Shadow

No person or cabal set up the Santa Clause and Easter bunny compliments to our holidays we looked at in the previous posts. I, for one, am rather impressed with the way these things are used to increase the consciousness of youth. Granted, if I were to design a teaching solution to address our innate gullibility it would have been more honest and forthright. It would not have needed to use parental hypocrisy to get the lesson across. It would also likely fail to implant the teaching at the right depth in the childhood psyche.

That which forms the features of our social interdependence is not ours to consciously direct. There is some sort of deeper intelligence involved in the way symbols and institutions accomplish their work. The same thing can be observed in individuals. This is what Carl Jung referred to as the capital ‘S’ Self. He postulated an aspect of the whole person that was more attuned to the reality of the world and how consciousness evolves than what we are able to grasp with our ego alone. He tried to document this non-linear growth pattern he found again and again as he worked with patients, observing their dreams and the therapeutic art work they developed. Something bigger than what the patients consciously understood seemed to guide the psyche towards ever greater awareness. That something communicated in the language of symbolism and repeated themes found in mythological tales.

In non-psychological language the Self is what is referred to as god, nature, dharma or the Tao. It is the underlying reality we can evade and lose sight of in our cognitive delusions but can never actually extract ourselves from. Carl Jung was interested in healing people with serious psychological illnesses. His concept of the Self was a means of remaining scientific while dealing with what had traditionally been considered religious issues. He had no choice. What he found was that those patients that achieved a lasting healing inevitably followed a process that made peace with their culture’s religious heritage. This should not come as a surprise. The religious arena is where many of our ancestors distilled the meaning of their lives and from which they drew the strength to carry on. Within the interpersonal mythological stories of our sacred traditions the Self is revealed and concealed. Making some sense of our past is a necessary ingredient on the path of the individual coming to terms with their social and physiological inheritance. This, anyway, is the hypothesis guiding depth psychology.

The previous posts about how holiday archetypes address human gullibility were made to point out a couple of things. One is that the types of things the ego might think it needs to mature are often mistaken. Individuals always follow what seems right in our eyes yet there are inevitably times we find we have been mistaken, that we were wrong to believe what we believed. This is what we study in archetypal or depth psychology: how the ego matures, or not, by its confrontation with that which is greater than itself.

For example, one of the more unexpected findings concerns how the darker aspects of our persons, our complexes, are often the very things that are protecting our individuality. They protect it not with great skill, but with great determination. A teenager taking up smoking could consciously be joining the “cool” crowd but unconsciously by that very act also be learning they are no longer powerless to fight back against the toxic side of their development story. However ill advised from a health perspective, the overall effect could be the positive one of learning how to comfort oneself when the people in the teenager’s world are unable to. The new habit will bring with it all kinds of its own problems but it also might make the difference between them flying off the handle or not, making it to work or school on a downer Monday morning or not, avoiding suicide or not. This is captured in the saying that the shadow archetype is 90% gold, 10% evil. It is working for our survival as individuals and does so often as the trickster. Only by plumbing the twisted highways and byways of one’s own heart is a person able to empathize with another human being. Familiarity with crushing pain opens one’s eyes to the reality of other human beings with the same hope for happiness living right alongside the existential wounds. If a person really understands what is entailed in the process of individuation, they have a foundation on which to build real compassion for oneself and others. Real kindness.

Knowing how easy it is for us to be fooled, and to fool ourselves, leaves us with a choice. We can rage against this feature of our conscious experience, hating the fact that what we are so convinced is true when we are young rarely, if ever, remains so convincing. Or we can recognize that the previous beliefs we held dogmatically are without merit and learn to appreciate the role of evidence in the formation of our opinions. Then wisdom might grow as the years go by.

I have been at pains to point out how susceptible we are to delusion. There are times we are quite sure we know what is real beyond any doubt. We hold a handful of beliefs dogmatically. The problem is that what we are so sure about when we are 6 is not the same as what we are so sure about when we are 20, or 40, or 80 years old. The truth of the psychological life is that following the path of maturity and refusing to remain with childish thinking all our lives entails changing our minds about things. (By the way, this is why common tradition warns people against taking blood oaths when committing to any dogmatic systems. They terrorize those taking them when the time comes to change one’s mind about things.)

As a society we are being confronted with the same challenge. Until now the ideas that have inspired and guided our social relations have taken for granted that a future of increasing technology, powered by fossil fueled heavy-industry, was the best and only way in which increasing numbers of the suffering masses of humanity could be given lives of dignity. With each passing year the evidence that this is not the case accumulates. Here and there individuals like ourselves are turning a critical eye on these myths of progress. We find they are without merit, that the evidence does not support the belief. We have changed our minds about what the good life entails, how we might be of assistance to our fellows and where the way forward is to be found. The question is whether or not such a change of thinking is going to be allowed into the collective conversation.

It just might. Have you heard the phrase concocted by the spin masters for demonizing climate science that is gaining popularity of late? Climate science, and ecological concerns generally, have been misrepresented and mangled as ‘The War on Coal.’ That sound byte sized thought-stopper has all the earmarks of dark devilry I look for to indicate the coming to consciousness of that which had been previously repressed and left to fester in the unconscious. Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is the king of carbon pollution and war is exactly what is involved. Many times when dealing with the devilish it pays to turn things around. What is Coal’s War? The one in which we kill our children and their children for the sake of our short term profits.

The fires of Moloch are alive and well in our time. Who knows? Seeing this war so clearly, almost anyway, just might lead us to that Abraham moment where even though our gods are asking for the sacrifice of our child, we stop the knife mid-air and say “no.”

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