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Embedded throughout world religion and mythology is the psychological motif of the shadow. In the story of the fall of man, the shadow is symbolised in the snake that tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In modern times, the motif of the shadow can be seen in various superhero and fantasy films. Batman can be seen as the shadow of Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter’s ability to speak to snakes is a sign of his magical connection to the evil Lord Voldemort, and so forth.
Perhaps the most notable example of the shadow, however, comes in the distinction between the light and dark sides of the force in the Star Wars saga. Indeed it is the inability to recognise and come to terms with his own shadow that causes Anakin Skywalker to succumb to the dark side and become Darth Vader. Years later, Vader’s son, Luke would also battle his shadow, but, unlike his father, he would be able to recognise and ultimately overcome his own dark nature.
The shadow is an aspect of the Jungian concept of the psyche. The psychologist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) conceived of the human psyche as a self-regulating system comprised of many complex and archetypal parts. The ‘self’, therefore, is the totality of all the aspects of the psyche. It is the part of us that expresses a desire for fulfilment, that aims at goals, and drives us forward.
The Jungian concept of the psyche consists of the persona, the ego, the self, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious, the shadow, and the anima and animus. The ego represents the aspects of our psyches that we are consciously aware of. It is the part of our psyches that regulates and organises our memories, our thoughts, our feelings, our sensory experiences, our intuitions, and so forth. From the psyche, our concept of ourselves and our place in existence springs forth.
Standing in contrast to the ego is the Jungian concept of the unconscious, which can be split into the collective unconscious and personal unconscious. The collective unconscious refers to the deep-seated and archetypal memories and instincts shared by the entirety of the human race. The personal unconscious is developed through the interaction between the collective unconscious and personal development. Jung himself defined it as:
“Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness; all this is the content of the unconscious… Besides these we must include all more or less intentional repressions of painful thought and feelings. I call the sum of these contents the ‘personal unconscious’.”
It is from the collective unconscious that the shadow is grounded. This is because people are the product of both nature through the evolution of the human mind over millions of years (yes, this author is a believer in evolution), and their cultural heritage.
The simplest way of considering the shadow is to think of it as the part of your personality that you do not like. It is the part of yourself you have rejected because you consider it to be weak, flawed, inferior, or even disgusting. The Jungian psychologist, Aniela Jaffe (1903 – 1991), defined the shadow as the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the conscious attitude, are denied expression in life.”
The shadow emerges out of the essential need for choice and opposition in life. The shadow represents all those ‘unchosen’ choices. When we choose to be one way, we choose not to be the other way. As the British philosopher, Alan Watts (1915 – 1973) said:
“It’s always the devil, the unacknowledged one, the outcast, the scapegoat, the bastard, the bad guy, you see, the black sheep of the family. It’s always from that point, that which we could call the fly in the ointment, you see, that generation comes. In other words, in the same way as in the drama to have the play it is necessary to introduce a villain, it’s necessary to introduce a certain level of trouble. So, in the whole scheme of life, there has to be the shadow because without the shadow there can’t be the substance.”
Jung saw the shadow as presenting a “moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality.” Because it represents a side of ourselves that we do not like our instinct is to try and hide and repress our shadow. Often those who have totally rejected their own dark side will unconsciously project the dark or negative aspects of their own personalities onto people or entities that they do not like. The more we condemn the evil in others, Jung observed, the blinder we are to it in ourselves.
Understanding and reconciling oneself to their shadow is an integral part of self-enlightenment. One must make himself consciously aware of the darker elements of their own psyche without being an enemy to it, and then accept it as absolutely present and real. In doing so, it is possible for the individual to integrate the evil within themselves and place their devils in their proper function.