Western civilization’s most important claim to fame is our awareness (consciousness) of our self as distinct from others. The Greek and Latin word for the “I” of consciousness is “ego”. Rene Descartes popularized this notion with the expression in Latin, “cogito ergo sum”, I think/feel/am aware, therefore I am. Note that the word “ego” does not occur in the expression, it is understood to be the subject of the verbs “cogito” and “sum”. The ego can be likened to a small island rising out of the enormous sea which is “not me”, “otherness”, “spirit”, or in recent times “unconscious” by researchers in psychotherapy. It took several thousands of years for us to become aware of our uniqueness, and that’s a good thing. Actually that is what we have to offer Eastern philosophy and religion, the individuation process, which requires an ego.
During our development as humans, in the early phase we call childhood, there is some awareness of ourselves as discrete individuals. We feel, see, and hear others. Sometimes our parents and family do not experience these people. My granddaughter used to talk to these unseen people in the garden and the house and tell her mom and dad about what these people had told her. Sometimes she described them as faeries, other times spirits, real people dressed in the traditional clothing, the clothing of her ancestors, even the images of her departed relatives. Luckily for her, her parents treated these exchanges with the other world with respect. They could remember being children and having such experiences, so they could validate the meaningful interactions of their daughter. Since these images are usually private in nature, we can speak of them as coming from a dimension which is not us, not the conscious part of us, but a source of which we are not conscious. Jung coined the general term “unconscious” in preference to Freud’s spatially loaded term “subconscious”. For Jung the unconscious is not like a basement into which unwanted things are discarded or stored away, it is a dimension very different from consciousness. It is not a part of the ego and it can irritate and threaten the ego because it has a locus outside of the ego. Spatial terms really don’t apply to this dimension, so a spatially neutral term is to be preferred. The unconscious isn’t ego consciousness. It has a life of its own and often is trying to get us to relate to it.
Jung distinguished the personal unconscious from the collective unconscious. What is personal is unique to the individual. In interpreting a dream (which comes from the unconscious) we have to ask what the image(s) mean to the dreamer. They often have a very personal association which only the dreamer can supply. Take this dream for example, “I was going down the stairs to the basement where the toilet had overflowed. There was shit floating everywhere. There was a clog way back and I was trying to clean it up when my in-laws walked into the room.” So whose house is this? The dreamer’s? We have to ask because this is his dream. He supplies more context. It is his dad’s house, where he lived as a child. The adult ego is descending into his childhood home and there is a problem, a blockage “way back” in the sewer system. The expression “way back” could be temporal. Did something happen during childhood downstairs? Was your bedroom down there? No, the bedroom was upstairs, but there was a time when the foster children lived down in the basement and that was their toilet. Ok, so now we have been given access to the dreamer’s personal world, to the time way back when a blockage occurred. And if the dreamer trusts his counselor with his history, or perhaps I should say, if the inner child part of the dreamer trusts the counselor, he will disclose what happened to him down in the basement and finally have a witness in the here and now who can be his advocate. This inner child is part of the personal unconscious, his forgotten memories can be retrieved and the adult personality can attempt to integrate those memories and feelings.
But sometimes the unconscious speaks in symbolic images which are universal and cross-cultural. Perhaps we dream of a faerie tale, legend, or myth. Here the story coming from the unconscious is part of the collective history and experience of humankind. Having some familiarity with world religions and myths becomes essential in understanding such communications from the unconscious. That’s why wizards and sages are helpful. They can help us figure out big dreams. The story of the Egyptian Pharaoh and Joseph in the Bible comes to mind. Joseph was in prison, yet he knew that the Pharaoh was believed to be the same as Egypt and that the goddess Isis was symbolized by the horns of the cow. He interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream in a meaningful way and was given the power to actualize the dream. And it turned out to be a prophetic dream, foretelling the future. It came to the Pharaoh from the unconscious, but not his personal unconscious. That’s why he couldn’t figure it out. The symbols were bigger than him.
Now let’s return to the contents of the unconscious, of the collective unconscious, and let’s use the German tradition of capitalization. The Unconscious is everything not a part of the ego, which is itself unique to each human being. All of the psychic phenomena we experience, including the images of childhood, come from that other dimension which is all around us. Rather than call this Spirit, which is what the German romantic era would have done, Jung was a medical doctor and wanted to be scientific. He chose the term Unconscious, which he thought was neutral and all encompassing.
From his research on dreams and fantasies of his clients, Jung discovered that there are certain patterns which emerge from the Unconscious. These patterns are ancient. They have occurred throughout human history and have been recorded in literature, song, and ritual. He called these patterns archetypes, which is what Plato called them long ago. Literally translated this means arche (ancient) typos (pattern), so by using this ancient Greek term archetype, we have a cultural thread back into the origins of Western civilization. And the first archetype Jung distinguished he called the Shadow. The repressed attitudes of childhood have to go somewhere, so those parts of ourselves which weren’t considered acceptable by our family, friends, and cultural authorities are pushed into the Unconscious, more particularly the personal unconscious. Since these feelings and expressions have been exiled by the culture, there is considerable resistance from the ego to becoming aware of the shadow’s contents.
Jung says in Aion,
“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, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.” [These dark aspects] “have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality. Emotion, incidentally, is not an activity of the individual but something that happens to him. Affects occur usually where adaptation is weakest, and at the same time they reveal the reason for its weakness, namely a certain degree of inferiority and the existence of a lower level of personality. On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgment.” (pp.8 & 9)
Imagine a bar or tavern and people getting drunk. The first problem is that the shadow gets projected onto the other folks in the dance hall. And Jung accurately explains the difficulty in these situations. The person projecting his or her shadow experiences the cause of the emotion, “beyond all possibility of doubt, in the other person“. A neutral bystander observing the scene can usually see that the drunk’s perception is faulty, but the drunk is incapable of self-reflection and hits the other person. A fight breaks out. Now that is what Jung means by primitive. Reason is not king of the saloon, Dionysos is. And Dionysos is the Greek god of ecstasy, the god of altered states of consciousness. He is the god, whose blood we drink when we consume alcohol. He is taken inside us and it is He who transforms us from within. Dionysos is an archetype which facilitates the emergence of the drunk’s Shadow side.
And here is where I started with the Shadow’s mantra. The shadow has a kind of autonomy said Jung. That means the shadow has a way of its own. It is a law unto itself. That accounts for its possessive or obsessive characteristics. The individual doesn’t choose to get angry, he just is angry. The anger happens to him so to speak. The Shadow activates him. And feeling the hurt, the anger, and the rage, he strikes out against the perceived origin of his anger, which could be his father, brother, wife, or children, people whom, in his more rational state of mind, he would never hurt.
So the Shadow has a kind of autonomy. It acts without considering what the ego thinks is appropriate. And if the ego resists opening a dialogue with the Shadow, as Jung indicated above, the Shadow will use more and more forceful ways of getting attention. Hopefully it won’t cause a psychotic break and slay the ego, but that has been known to happen. We need a strong ego to relate to such a strong opponent. And that is precisely what Western civilization has to offer, strong egos. Perhaps they are too strong at times and feel threatened by allowing shadow material into consciousness. The ego can see that change will transform the personality, the old “me” will be no more, so the demand for integrating unconscious material into the ego will be experienced as a symbolic death threat. The ego resists.
But we have religious metaphors in our culture to deal with these processes. Consider Christianity’s use of the cross metaphor. The ego must bare the struggle with the unconscious shadow like the cross of Christ and believe that the death it fears might be followed by an enlargement of the personality, a rebirth in a new body so to speak. Slaying the ego isn’t advantageous to the shadow in the long run, because without relationship to the ego, the shadow has no one with whom to play. Of course it can possess the individual in a psychosis, but that isn’t much fun. The Shadow just goes on raving and raving. It would be a lot more exciting to have a strong ego take the shadow to Burning Man and rave out in the desert, to dance and sing and embody Dionysos, if that’s what turns you on. Make room for some richness and expand yourself. Make friends with the Shadow and grow. Evolve spiritually by accepting yourself, all of yourself, the dark parts too. No need to slay the ego, when it is willing to play.