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Recovery of Our Shadow

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Healing Breath (Orbis Books).

A dimension of our existence that depth psychologists have called to our attention is that of our shadow. This refers to that “dark” side of our being buried in our unconscious that we would rather not see, that aspect which we would describe as negative, destructive, violent, chaotic, evil.

As we look around and within ourselves, we can see an interplay of opposites that make up our concrete existence in this world bound in time and space: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, pleasant and unpleasant, creative and destructive, light and dark, life and death. Faced with these parts, the “I” or ego-consciousness, which we posit as the standpoint from which we view the world, places itself on the side of the good, the beautiful, the pleasant, the creative, on the side of light and life, and takes an attitude of denying their respective opposites, of disidentifying itself from them.

The ego-centered consciousness which we posit at the center of our personality (from persona, mask, in Latin) thus tends to idealize itself and identify with the positive side of the pairs of opposites, in the process denying or dissociating itself with the negative side. It does so by a mechanism of suppression which is a “deliberate elimination by ego-consciousness of all those characteristics and tendencies in the personality that are out of harmony” with what is valued as positive, or by repression, wherein those negative aspects are simply allowed to fade into the background and become disconnected from consciousness. In doing so, however, in disidentifying or denying the negative side of the polar opposites, the ego-centered consciousness creates a rift right at the core of our being. This paves the way for these negatives to “lead an active underground life of their own with disastrous results” for both the individual and the community. In other words, the suppressed or repressed side of the polar opposites gathers momentum and comes to the fore with a vengeance, wreaking havoc on the individual as well as on society.

The bipolar nature of our existence as presented by depth psychology is dramatically portrayed in the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where the good and evil sides of the same person find themselves acting on different planes unknown to each other, manifesting what is known as a split personality. The unrecognized shadow can continue to remain active and undermine the very status of the good and bright side. We see how such a state of affairs can actually exist in cases where outwardly respected persons come to be revealed as having skeletons hidden in the closets of their personal lives.

Further, we also see how persons deemed to be good and upright citizens or church members, acting as the conscience of the community, can also be the most vindictive, the most judgmental, the most cruel toward those who are perceived as falling short of their moral standards. Such vindictiveness, judgmental stances, and cruelty, depth psychologists would point out, are the outcome of their vigorous efforts to deny the shadow side of their own existence, and this denial projects itself in their attitude toward those they associate with that shadow. “Scapegoating”-laying the blame on some identifiable culprit, whether it be an individual or group or type-is one mechanism arising from the way we humans deals with our shadow side.

On a grander scale, we can see the effects of such a denial of the shadow side of our being as resulting in the hideous episodes of our human history: the innumerable wars fought in the name of some rightful cause; the Crusades, with all their holy fervor at destroying the infidel; the Inquisition, with its religiously and legally sanctioned persecution of those who threatened the belief system of the majority, and so on. In our century, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Gulag, Tiennamen, Sarajevo are salient examples of horrors that we humans have perpetrated in the name of a dazzling ideal, be it “a superior humanity,” “aquick way to peace,” “democracy,” “equality,” “order,” “ethnic purity,” or what have you. Such is the pursuit of an ideal by our ego-centered consciousness, an ideal of the good with that it wishes to identify by suppressing or repressing its opposite or by projecting it on the Other.

Going further, we can also see how our global ecological crisis, an alarming state of affairs that we have wrought upon ourselves, is an outcome of our one-sided worship of the twentieth-century idol of progress. Assisted by its powerful ministers named science and technology, progress is identified in an uncritical way with everything that is good for our happiness, yet has been pursued in a manner that has totally failed to consider its destructive toll on Earth itself.

In short, there opens out a rift at the core of our being as we give ourselves to the pursuit of an ideal of the good in a way that is accompanied by the denial of the shadow side of our existence. Such a rift makes itself manifest in different ways, coming to haunt us in those abhorrent events and situations in our individual communal history. The brokenness and woundedness in the different dimensions of our being can be seen as a manifestation of that rift.

The denial of our shadow is but an inevitable outcome of our mode of living that lets the ego-centered consciousness have its way. In other words, as long as we live our lives with the I, me, mine at the center as the controlling factor in our lives, then we fall into that trap of tending to idealize ourselves and seeing only the good, the beautiful, the bright side of our being that the “I” wants to identify with. Consequently, we fail to see the opposite pole that is also part of us, either by just looking the other way or by wishing it away or, worse, by suppressing or repressing it.

This ego-centered consciousness functions not only on the individual level, but likewise on the corporate level, as we identify ourselves with a larger entity such as a nation-state, a financial corporation, an ethnic group, a neighborhood gang. Such a corporate ego-centered consciousness takes on the attitude of “we versus they,” wherein “we” are on the side of justice, truth, and the good, while “they” are the exact opposite.

We can thus see how a mode of living based on the ego-centered consciousness that also identifies with corporate egos on different planes leads to the situation of perpetual conflict we humans find ourselves in. Whether on the individual or corporate level, the ego-centered consciousness projects its own shadow on the Other and fights it there, thus contributing to its own destruction.

The problem of our own death is one important area that comes up in the consideration of our shadow. Death looms in upon us as a constant threat to our very being. In our attempts to assert our being in the face of the nothingness we associate with our impending death, we embark on all kinds of projects to reassert our being in its continued existence. Such projects, however, issuing from an attitude of denial of death, can be seen as no more than our desperate efforts to shield our ego from our shadow. They come from what we can term an “edifice complex” in us, where we are driven to build all kinds of make-shift structures that we can lean upon and that provide a convenient shelter for our threatened or wounded ego.

The only way to the healing of that wounded ego is not in our continued efforts to give it shelter from reality, a shield from our shadow, but to let it come face-to-face with this dark dimension of our being. We are called to confront our shadow, face-to-face. For example, looking death in the face is the only way to learn how to live with it and no longer be threatened by it. Paraphrasing the words of the Jesus character in the musical play Jesus Christ Superstar, “to conquer death, you have to die….you only have to die.”

The recognition of and reconciliation with our shadow is a crucial element in our healing. Recognition and reconciliation involve first being able to see that there is a shadow side of our very being and then being able to accept it as part of ourselves. Only in the recognition and acceptance of our shadow side can we become whole, integrated, reconciled, and therefore truly and fully ourselves.

This of course does not mean giving in to the power of the negative and destructive side of us, letting it have its sway over us until we become agents of destruction, chaos, and death. It simply means that we break through our mask (persona) fabricated by the ego-centered consciousness, the wall concocted by the idealized “I” that identifies only with one side, and allow ourselves to listen to the deeper dimensions of our own being, where the dark side lurks. In those deeper dimensions we will meet not only the good and the bright side that our ego-centered consciousness wants to identify with, but come fact-to-face with the evil, the chaotic, the destructive, all that constitutes the darkness and the negative in our historical, communal, and personal existence.

The practice of seated meditation in Zen, where we place ourselves fully in the here and now as we follow our breathing, enables us to become more and more transparent to ourselves and thus cut through our ego-centered consciousness to listen to the deeper realms of our being. There, as our practice ripens and becomes more and more transparent to ourselves in both our bright as well as dark side, we may be surprised by a voice-gentle, but clear in a way that leaves no room for doubt-telling us: That thou art. It is the hearing of that voice and our full acceptance of all that it implies that can liberate us from the ego-centered consciousness that wants to be identified only with one side, the ‘good side of ourselves, and thereby causes the rift in our being.

The hearing of that voice enables us to see in a new light not only the good and the beautiful that our ego-consciousness would have us identify with in a one-sided way, but also the evil, the ugly, the chaotic, the destructive, as an inevitable aspect and inseparable part of our very own selves-and enables us to take responsibility for it. Owning our shadow and taking responsibility for it paves the way for us to integrate it with the rest of us, and thus enables us to come to wholeness in our lives.

As we deepen in our Zen practice, we are enabled to reach down to the depths of our true self, touching that point where it is interconnected with everything in the universe. It is at this point where our bright side and dark side meet. It is also the point where we meet our shadow squarely, without having to oppose it or resist it, and simply recognize it, own it, take responsibility for it, and face its consequence with equanimity. This is the point where there is no more fear, for we have reached the realm beyond light and dark, beyond life and death, and find ourselves in the fullness of freedom, having overcome all opposites.

In the Christian creed, the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell, often glossed over or played down in treatment, can be pursued in this context as indicating an encounter and reconciliation with the shadow aspect of our cosmic existence. Zen practice can give us a key toward an experiential appreciation of this doctrine as we are invited to follow Christ in this descent to the netherworld of our being. Such a descent into hell is seen as a condition for the Risen Christ to be truly integrative power reconciling the principalities and powers, all the warring opposites in the universe, uniting all things, “things in heaven and things on Earth.” (Eph. 1:11).

The healing message of the Gospel can also be expressed in the phrase, “The glory of God is the whole human being fully alive.” The whole human being fully alive is to be understood as one who has integrated the light and the shadow sides of one’s being and thus come to salvation, to wholeness, and to holiness.

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