The Irrational Psyche and the Shadow.Stephen Farah
In considering the psyche it is important to take into account that the psyche is fundamentally an irrational entity. What I mean by this is that the psyche is not at heart driven by rational forces. The concept of reason is a cultural concept which whilst immensely valuable does not describe our psychology.
This was in part the great breakthrough that Sigmund Freud made. He saw through the illusion of man as a reasonable and respectable creature. Freud recognised that what motivated people and what caused neurosis in those that he treated had nothing to do with reason. It had rather to do with a very uncultured and primitive taboo that of infantile sexuality.
Now although Freud became in a sense fixated on two particular drives to the exclusion of all else Eros and Thanatos, and we don’t necessarily have to accept this rather narrow definition, what is clear is that he hit upon a great truth about human nature, that It is often times quite dark and does not conform to a polite a rational view of self in the world.
Our primary drivers, that which gives birth to our libido is instinctive and irrational, this is psychology 101. Only once you understand this very important distinction quite clearly can we commence on the path to self-knowledge and psychic wholeness.
This applies equally to what motivates us to good as well as evil. We come from the earth, we are organic beings. It may not be all we are but it’s certainly a substantial part of what we are. We eat, we sleep, we deficate, we copulate and we make our way in the world. That is the reality, not the virtual reality many would have you believe, not possibly the reality of polite society, but it’s the real reality that underlies it.
If this is not immediately evident to you as you contemplate yourself and your own drives you are living in an illusion of what makes you tick. And this state of not understanding your basic psychic make up, your motivating forces, makes it close to impossible to start on this journey to consciousness.
The most superficial consideration of ourselves, those we know personally and those we come into contact with and the world at large, reveals that under the thin fabric of civilisation darker more primitive forces are in operation. We have to concede that the devil is at least as active as God when we look at what is going on in the world currently, what has gone on since the dawn of history and what goes on in our own souls every day.
As we look at the world we see warfare, corruption, capitalism, pornography, abject poverty and obscene wealth, fascism, racism, the contravention of basic human rights and dignity.
What do we see when we look at ourselves? Although we may be less inclined to admit it I wager we see much of the same just in the personal as opposed to global context.
What drives us? Is it the desire to do good or to do well, to help others or help ourselves, to make the world a better place or to make it a better place for ourselves? What do we aspire to? Peace harmony, love? Well maybe in some part yes, for some people some of the time anyway, but these virtues are not our default position.
We have only to observe children at play to become aware of our all too human truths. What motivates them, self sacrifice or one-up-man-ship? I have two young sons 4 and 3 years old respectively. Naturally the younger boy lives to some extent in his brother’s shadow. Boy does he beam with happiness when he has one over on his brother. When his brother is in distress he positively shines taking on an almost angelic countenance.
Nothing makes my wife and I feel better than other people’s misery. When we are down in the dumps, the greatest tonic is to sit over a cup of tea and talk about how tough the neighbours have it at the moment.
As I sit here writing this in the Woolworths Cafe in Woodmead I am frequently distracted. What distracts me you ask? Well two quite exquisite, young, blonde, women sitting nearby. As a cultured man I appreciate their beauty in a non attached, aesthetic, sense; as a spiritual man I can appreciate the light of life of that radiates from their being, but as just a man, the man in who all these qualities converge and find their home, I would be less than honest if I told you that that was all I felt, and that was all I thought about, as I admired their beauty.
I am not someone to make categorical statements. Because I do not believe that our consciousness has reached a point where it encompasses all knowledge. As long as we concede there is much we don’t understand, then it is a slippery path we are on once we start making categorical and absolute statements. Nevertheless with that qualification in place let me say, I am as certain as I can possibly be when I say, we are incapable of true morality without making an earnest investigation of our own shadows.
I use the word shadow here in the sense that Jung coined the term. The shadow being the dark side of the psyche that is always with us, but often, much like the trickster character in fables, goes unseen and unrecognised, most particularly by ourselves. Not infrequently, much to our consternation, our shadows is better recognised by those with whom we interact. No doubt our closest friends could tell us much about our shadows, although of course this may lead to an abrupt termination of the friendship!
The term that Freud used to describe this aspect of the psyche, the clothonic, instinctive and uncultured aspect, is the Id. This is similar but not identical with Jung’s Shadow.
Disregarding your own shadow or being sufficiently arrogant to believe you don’t have one, is not only naive but dangerous. Dangerous for yourself and dangerous for others.
As long as the shadow remains unconscious and unrecognised it is at its most dangerous. Once we make the unconscious shadow conscious then we have the ability to work with it, to contain it and possibly even to transform it. It is consciousness which gives us choice; nothing can be transformed whilst it remains unconscious. So whilst it would be an overstatement to say that making the shadow conscious is a cure all, it isn’t, it is a hell of a lot better than when it’s unconscious. And this act of making the shadow conscious is a major part of the journey, the starting point for Jung and Freud, towards psychic health, and for Jung towards individuation.
How can we recognise the shadow operating in our lives?
1.Dreams; this is probably the most well know and best route to the shadow. To quote Freud, dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. It is in our dreams that we encounter many unsavoury aspects of life and shadowy characters that in waking life we may shy away from. We learn from depth psychology that all of these dynamics being acted out in our dreams are aspects of ourselves.
In our dream state the conscious censor is sidestepped and we see directly into the unconscious. Once we learn to interpret and understand our dreams (admittedly no mean feat, but doable with consistent application) we gain a direct line of sight on our shadows. Naturally we see a lot more than our shadows, but for our current purposes I will limit my comments to the shadow.
2. Projection; frequently, if not always, those characteristics in others that we most abhor are our own repressed and unrecognised selves. It is a tremendous burden to carry our own load and a great relief to unburden ourselves by placing this load on the nearest ass. What we fear, loathe, despise, crave, hate or covet in the other is often an unacknowledged aspect of ourselves.
In the South African context we have relatively recently emerged from the shadow of apartheid. Yet it is interesting to note that although there are naturally areas of significant divergence, there are also uncanny aspects wherein the African and the Afrikaner mirror each other.
During the apartheid years I had an African friend a man by the name of Michael. Once when we discussing the yolk under which the African man found himself at the time, Michael commented that the one thing he could say about the Afrikaner, as opposed to more liberal whites, was that at least you know where you stand with him. Where may I ask does such insight come from if not from the recognition of an aspect of himself in the Afrikaner?
3. Parapraxes; this was an early discovery of Freud’s. He coined this term in reference to the things which we prone to do accidently or despite ourselves. This could be misaddressing a person, saying an inappropriate thing or a host of those other small ‘unintentional’ things we do every day, from the trivial, forgetting someone’s name to the not so trivial ‘ crashing the car.
The above is by no means a complete of even extensive list, but it points out a few of the more well known ways in depth psychology by which we might recognise our shadows.
Some good news!
In true Machiavellian style I thought I’d save the good news for last . Despite everything I have said the shadow is not all bad . In fact on the contrary it can be very good. Meaning that it is not only the less pleasant aspects of ourselves which are therein contained, but also often unacknowledged talents. Talents which, for whatever reason, have not seen the light of day in our lives, nevertheless they exist and contain huge amounts of libido and potential.
Our shadows in both their light and dark aspects are reservoirs of energy, new life, sho shen (beginners mind) and unexplored lives that wait patiently ‘okay sometimes not so patiently- for us to come upon them. The journey into the shadow is filled with untold treasure and untold life for the traveller courageous enough to undertake it.
Finally it is not without consequence that we have a shadow. It is after all an aspect of who and what we are, to deny it is to deny ourselves. Authenticity, real happiness and wholeness can only be served by the integration and accommodation of our unconscious shadows. All of which is not to say that this journey should be undertaken indiscriminately. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Usurping our conscious, hard-earned, cultural, selves with our newly discovered Dionysian souls would be regressive to put it mildly. Rather what Jung suggests is that we may benefit and enrich our, at times lopsided and sometimes stagnant, conscious image of our selves by carefully examining what we have previously excluded from conscious life. When we carefully examine our shadows and pay attention to what we find, we posit an opposite to our conscious point of view.
This opposite point of view when appropriately integrated leads to a new and greater life one where the personality is greatly invigorated, expanded, amplified and brought to a higher level of consciousness.