Friday, November 11, 2016

Light and Shadow

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular."  ~ C. G. Jung

The 2016 election cycle has brought to light many disturbing aspects of the 21st century human psyche. Racism, mindless nationalism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and I'm sure the list can go on... What troubles me deeply is that these issues are not in the least unique to this election, to this century, or even this nation. These have been struggles that have been with humankind since hunter-gatherer days when differing clans, tribes, and villages saw each other as... well, the "other."

These traits lurk in the collective and individual unconscious in the realm of what C. G. Jung called the Shadow. It is that shadowy part of the unconscious that seems to hide from our conscious awareness, whether out of fear or shame or simply an inability to admit that we might not be the people we like to imagine we are. The unconscious is what we don't know about ourselves, and the Shadow is what we don't want to know about ourselves. Unfortunately, all that stuff we don't want to know is what may be giving power to our fears and subsequent reactions to those fears, often in the form of anger.

What good ol' C. G. used to advocate was that this Shadow material be brought into the light and then reintegrated into conscious awareness. It's what he called "individuation." Obviously this process is easier said than done. However, we can take micro steps toward this kind of individuation every day, because the unconscious and the Shadow are almost always at play (and I use that word on purpose; the Shadow is also the realm of the Trickster). This means we have ample opportunities in any moment to become conscious of what might be driving us unconsciously.

So let's stay with the driving analogy and apply this micro process of individuation to our daily experiences on the road. Have you ever noticed that you are suddenly, and perhaps senselessly angry at another driver for some small reason? This could be a little piece of the Shadow peeking its way out of the darkness and making itself known. Now is the time to get conscious! First of all, notice that the anger is probably the result of fear. After all, we are actually in a somewhat dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation on the freeway, so the limbic system (that part of the brain that senses threat) may already be on the alert. Let's say the person in the car in front of you suddenly comes into the lane in which you are driving without signalling their intention. There will be a rapid spike in limbic system activity, and this could lead to a fight or flight reaction that might manifest in anger.

The next thing to notice is how we might "add extra" to this situation. Is the person driving a car with which we have prejudicial associations? Maybe it's a gas guzzler (climate change denier), or perhaps an electric vehicle (tree-hugging hippie), or worse yet, a motorcycle (outlaw hoodlum). Maybe we flash on the gender of the driver. Or they have certain bumper stickers or window decorations that make a statement with which we don't agree. These, and so many more micro-Shadow moments are happening constantly. And they stop having any power as soon as we bring awareness to them.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that by bringing awareness to these micro-Shadow moments we can understand their origins (e.g., why do pickup trucks bother me so much?). Nor am I promising that it will stop us individually or collectively from being so reactive and lead to everyone "just get along." It's a step. A seed. You take one step, and then another, and pretty soon you've come a long way from where you started. You plant one seed, then another, and another, and someday you have an orchard that bears sweet, nourishing fruit. And who knows? Maybe by poking around in the darkness a little bit we can eventually find the light.


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