The Irrational Psyche and the Shadow.

The Irrational Psyche and the Shadow.

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.

The Shadow
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.

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Comments (9)

  • Chester Nason Reply

    I don’t agree with your analogies. From my limited understanding of the subconscious, it isn’t dark or immoral. It has no value, other than our basic needs for survival as a species. It is universal in every species. When as a member of a group, who are dependent on each other for survival, we developed an “artificial consciousness”. When the group goes beyond the most basic choices for survival, things go haywire. Our instincts are clear cut. When we begin to worry about the choices of our ” artificial consciousness “, we become the” shadow”. We worry and become ,neutotic, depressed, compulsive and a myriad other things. These become manifested in forms of immoral evils that you described. Not from the subconscious. Usually we end up worrying about mundane choices we make. However sometimes we do monstrous things, that would never occur to the subconscious or basic need.

    August 10, 2016 at 2:43 pm
    • Laura Lee Solomon Reply

      Just wait until you acquire a spiritual life, Chester.

      August 11, 2016 at 10:30 pm
      • Chester Nason Reply

        Laura ” when you define me you negate me”!

        August 17, 2016 at 1:45 pm
  • Dana H Reply

    Chester, it’s ok to disagree…However I suggest you familiarize yourself better with the subject and the language used, in order to understand it better.

    August 10, 2016 at 5:22 pm
    • Chester Nason Reply

      Than you for the input. I have much to learn in reference to the terminology and what is being discussed.

      August 12, 2016 at 3:23 am
  • Stephen Reply

    Chester thanks for the comment and thoughts. I agree with much of what you say. In particular that the unconscious has no intrinsic moral value; morality as you rightly point out, is the province of the conscious mind. What the article attempts to establish is that our conscious civilization, culture and sense of morality is complimented by a natural, instinctive and often brutal aspect of our psyches and our lives. That we should not be overly convinced of our own conscious sense of identity. This identity is provisional and must be seen in a larger perceptive. I think this is what novels such as Blindness (Jose Sarmago) and The Road (Cormack McCarthy) attempt to bring to our attention (i.e. into consciousness).

    August 11, 2016 at 9:25 am
    • Chester Nason Reply

      Thank you Stephen, I appreciate your response. I was only trying to tie in a limited understanding of what the unconscious is from my readings of Joseph Campbell. He references Carl Jung repeatedly and I just started reading “The Portable Jung” as a primer to learn more. For give my limited understanding.

      August 12, 2016 at 3:34 am
  • Gabriele Gray Reply

    I was introduced to Memories, Dreams and Reflections in the late 1960s and have read and followed Jung’s work since then.
    It has been my experience and observation that the unconscious seeks a relationship with the conscious mind, hence dreams and other tools we have discovered/developed. There is an innate fear of what we don’t know so most people approach the unconscious that way. It does not reveal itself so it must be hiding itself. It can torment us with horrible dreams and dread thoughts.
    But it can and does learn so as we make steps toward gaining an limited understanding of it, so we are given more access to what it perceives we will respond to. Those who were close to Jung often developed Active Imagination as a tool and teacher. It does involve putting opinions aside and accepting that the Shadow will probably be there as well, but it, too, can be a good teacher. Some analysts use and some specialize in Sand Play. I haven’t tried it but then I didn’t feel it would work as well for me as what I was already doing.
    What the author said about the unconscious not being rational must be kept in mind. You can not ‘plan’ your interaction with it. You can prepare by being open to tis workings through music, films which speak of greater issues (archetypes), works of fantasy which present alternate realities; the unconscious is where all these works come from. The logical mind can write a text book based on established facts but to go beyond, to dream, to imagine, to create, one must put the usual structures aside and allow the personal unconscious to develop within you so you can interact with it and let it teach you.
    What Jung called the Self is not yet whole within you so there cannot be a one-on-one relationship, and even when there is a relationship it is not one of equals. It is more a meeting of individual capacities for growth and expression which in time may come to be very close. Neither is the master, neither is the servant: such a relationship is not needed. Freedom is the keyword.
    Depth/Jungian psychology (or whatever one decides to call it) is not work for a young person. Yes, I was young when I started and fortunate that I was aware of many archetypes although I didn’t know them under that word. I knew what I experienced and that was what I wanted to understand. There were issues which were important to me and which most of my friends then had little interest. So my needs for that were greater than my need to keep up friendships based on simple, common interests.
    The wife of a friend of my husband’s once told me that I thought too much, that I should not bother with some things. It didn’t matter why a certain person would do something. She had made herself a very small world and wanted no responsibility for anything outside of that. And understanding anything about anyone else was outside of that. What she saw as security I saw as unending stasis.

    If you have a real personal interest in Jung’s work, then do pursue it. Don’t debate it until you feel you have a personal stake in it. It’s worth the work for the right person; for others it can be a passing interest.
    I had mentioned the semi-biography Memories, Dreams & Reflections. For a broad view I would also suggest The Portable Jung (a collection of essays). Some of the collected works are very dense and borrowed them rather than buying. I liked Barbara Hannah’s book.
    But I always found myself turning back to the pioneer himself, the trail blazer. He didn’t say his work was done, he did call himself more a pioneer than a founder of a school. He disliked the idea that people would call themselves Jungians.

    August 25, 2016 at 4:35 am
  • ChrisS Reply

    “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” – since when is capitalism something bad? After 100 years of failed socialism, why is it not on the list? Why should we care about “obscene wealth?” I care about social mobility, and I have overcome limited thinking such as “zero sum game.” Wealth is constantly growing!
    In our days, the greatest racists are the so called “anti-racists”, and it is sad that they project the content of their own psyche, the unprocessed content of their shadow onto others.
    Anybody who wants freedom, should read Frederic Hayek’s, “Road to Serfdom”
    Life has taught me, that few people reach the higher path!

    June 22, 2023 at 1:25 am

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