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There’s more and more evidence for Jung’s concept of the shadow

Vaiana confronts the shadow of alienated and daemonic nature, in Disney’s film Moana. When she confronts it with courage, she transforms it back into a kindly nature daemon

In October, I’m heading to the Amazon jungle in Peru to take part in an ayahuasca ritual at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light. I heard about it when I interviewed a novelist called Emma for The Art of Losing Control, who went there to try and help herself become pregnant after a series of miscarriages. She described ayahuasca as an incredible technology, a ‘Scud missile that goes straight to the heart of your neuroses’. And she also made the Temple sound a very safe place in which to undergo this quite full-on experience.

Indeed, before I could sign up for the nine-day retreat, I had to fill in two questionnaires – one for physical health, one for mental health. I then had a Skype interview with one of the therapists who works at the retreat, who answered some of my concerns. This preparation is crucial, I think – a lot of Westerners head to Peru or Brazil and sign up with the first ‘shaman’ they meet, and that’s when problems can arise, like sexual abuse or simply putting your mind into the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing.

Once I’d been accepted for the retreat, I was sent an email with an 18-page PDF called Preparation for a Workshop. The second section of this document is called Preparing to Face Your Shadow. It says:

Our shadow is everything inside us that we have disowned, avoided and kept in the dark. We all turn away from pain at some stage in our life, especially during our childhoods, yet whatever we have not processed gets relegated and hidden in our shadow. Our shadow is where our life force gets trapped and is no longer available to us. It is energy that is not integrated with the rest of our being, akin to pieces of us that have become compartmentalized, pushed aside and treated as an unwanted child. Shadow work is counter-habitual: we turn towards pain, not away from pain. We access that place of pain within us and slowly bring it into the open, become acquainted and then intimate with it, until the estranged pain is not a dreaded “it”, but a reclaimed “us”. Ayahuasca healing is a journey to the heart of what really matters – an opportunity to face and integrate our shadow, transmuting trapped energies and making them available for life-affirming purposes.

I was fascinated to encounter Jung in the Jungle. The shadow was, to my mind, one of the best ideas put forward by Carl Jung. He suggested that the shadow aspects of our psyche can appear in dreams and visions as a sort of angry daemonic figure – it might often appear as a tramp, a metaphor for all the parts of our psyche we’ve rejected and cast out as we try to construct a nice civilized persona. That’s how the shadow appeared in my own nightmares when I suffered from PTSD.

Jung thought that our shadow haunts us – in bad dreams, mood problems, restlessness, a feeling of emptiness or fatigue. And yet we run from our shadow, and project it onto others. The idea of projection is another of Jung’s great ideas. Look at president Trump, for example, who is a text book case of projection, as Oliver Burkeman has noted. So many of the insults he hurls at others in his Olympian tweets fit his own personality perfectly. Immigrants are rapist animals, says the man who boasts of sexual assaults. It’s much easier to project our shadow onto outsiders, and then use them as scapegoats. When we purge the body politic of the demonic outsiders we will finally become pure and whole and Great Again. Much harder to face the shadow in ourselves.

But Jung’s vision of the psyche is much more optimistic than Sigmund Freud’s – he believed we can confront the shadow, face it with compassion and courage, and then it can be reintegrated into a more whole, actualized and mature psyche. The angry daemon is transformed into an ally – a eudaimon (or ‘kindly daemon) and we can achieve eudaimonia, flourishing, a better flow of life.

The shadow is not an idea that gets much play in mainstream psychology. You’d be hard pressed to find it mentioned in a text-book of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example. Yet it’s been kept alive in transpersonal psychology – a somewhat fringe movement centred in California, which includes psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Stanslaf Grof and Ken Wilber. Transpersonal psychology distinguishes itself from other schools in its openness to the idea that the aim of existence is to transcend the ego, and perhaps to unite with some greater consciousness or spiritual dimension. Confronting the shadow is often considered an important stage in that journey.

One of the interesting things that’s happening in psychology at the moment is that the ideas of transpersonal psychology are becoming mainstream. That’s a big shift for western culture. Thanks to research in psychedelic science, in contemplative science, in dream science and in the science of out-of-the-ordinary experiences (like hearing voices), it’s becoming widely accepted that the psyche is bigger than just the conscious ego, that ego-transcendence is often good for us, that altered states of consciousness are often good for us. Jung’s idea of the shadow is also becoming more widely accepted and used by researchers.

Many leading Western psychedelic researchers draw on Jung’s concept as a central reference for what happens on trips and why they can be profoundly healing. At Johns Hopkins Medical School, for example, which has an influential psychedelics lab, Dr Bill Richards has said:

We often say that if, during a psychedelic session, some monster appears, you should say ‘Hello, monster, why are you here? What can I learn from you?’ If you go towards it, there is integration and healing. If you run away from it, it’s like running away from your own shadow. You can develop panic and paranoia.

I emailed Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College, and asked him if he thought psychedelic research has provided support for Jung’s idea of the shadow, and whether psychedelic research might lead to a return of the idea of the shadow into mainstream psychotherapy. He replied: ‘Without any doubt, I would answer your question in the affirmative – both aspects.’ A leading psychedelic therapist, Friederike Meckel Fischer, also draws extensively on the Jungian idea of the confrontation with the shadow – as you can see in this video presentation by her (see 4.45 particularly)

The idea of the shadow also crops up in contemplative science. For example, Dr Willoughby Briton is lead researcher at Brown University’s contemplative science centre, and runs a project exploring some of the difficult experiences people sometimes encounter in meditation. One of the most common difficult experiences people have is the return of suppressed negative memories and emotions – the shadow comes back, and meditators have the opportunity to bring these difficult experiences into consciousness and accept them with compassion.

I notice the idea of the shadow also appearing in the latest research on unusual experiences like hearing voices. Eleanor Longden started hearing a voice when she was an undergraduate, and it became more and more aggressive, intrusive and disturbing. She was hospitalized for psychosis, but this only made her voice more aggressive. Finally, through therapy, she gradually learned to change her relationship to this demonic voice. She writes:

I began to realize that, yes, he is a demon but he was a personal demon…his demonic aspects were the unaccepted aspects of my self-image, my shadow…The contempt and loathign that he expresses is actually to do with me in that it reflects how I feel about myself….Having realized that maybe I could trust him and be more trusting of him, in turn, he became more compassionate towards me.

She subsequently took a degree in psychology, wrote a successful book about voice-hearing, and gave one of the most watched TED talks. She’s a leading figure in the Hearing Voices movement, which is changing our cultural attitude to voice-hearers, and changing the attitude of voice-hearers to their own daemons.

Finally, I notice that Jung’s concept of the shadow plays quite a prominent role in some of the research on dreaming and lucid dreaming. This is not yet quite as established a scientific field as the other fields I’ve mentioned, but it’s worth noting the early findings. I read the work of Charlie Morley, for example, who is a leading practitioner of lucid dreaming in the UK. Morley, like me, gave himself mild PTSD through a bad trip on LSD when he was a teenager. Like me, the PTSD manifested in nightmares where he was pursued by a daemonic vagabond figure. Later, when he learned lucid dreaming techniques, Morley was able to confront this daemon, recognize him as an aspect of his own psyche, and accept him with compassion. The monster was transformed in his dream into an ally. Just one anecdote, but interesting.

The concept of the shadow, then, is re-emerging thanks to new research in psychedelic science, contemplative science, the science of dreaming, and the science of anomalous experiences like hearing voices. What I wonder is this: is the concept of the shadow cross-cultural, or western-bound? I can see it in some Miyazaki films, for sure – like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. Often, in such myths, the shadow is represented by an angry and daemonic nature who must be reconciled and made peace with – this is what happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries, where angry Demeter is confronted and the land is healed.

If the psychological mechanism is universal, then do other cultures have the idea of confronting and transforming your shadow? And what do the Shipibo indian healers who work at the Temple of the Way of Light make of it – how does Jung’s idea of confronting the shadow fit in with their understanding of how ayahuasca heals? I will tell you in three months.

No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi

With his unerring knack for the offensive, President Trump responded to last week’s Nazi rally in Charlottesville, in which a young woman was murdered, with a condemnation of the ‘violence on many sides’.

Trump’s unwillingness to condemn Swastika-bearing white supremacists shocked the world, and provoked condemnations from world leaders, his own party, even his own daughter and son-in-law. It also rapidly led to the mass resignation of his White House business council and arts council. Who doesn’t condemn Nazis? As Tina Fey put it, ‘I’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and I wasn’t confused by it.’

The question that has been troubling me, however, is this: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Because it sounds from eye-witness reports like there genuinely was violence on both sides at Charlottesville. I’m not saying both sides were equally guilty, not at all. Only one side drove a car into protestors and killed a woman, and only one side was marching for the overthrow of multicultural democracy and the triumph of white supremacy.

But, if eye-witness accounts are to believed, some of the anti-fascist protestors went there for a fight, and they got one. Some have argued that their violence was justified and necessary – one side is defending liberal democracy and the rights of minorities, the other is trying to attacking them. Some have defended anti-fascist groups as the heroic defenders of liberal democracy. Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University, opined: ‘when you go to cancer treatment, the radiation is tough treatment, but it is meant to remove the cancer.’

But is the best way to defend the rule of law really to punch a Nazi in the face?

In a later outburst, Trump condemned the ‘alt-left’, referring I think to the anti-fascist movement, Antifa. From what I’ve read, Antifa is comprised of small local groups, who turn up to disrupt right-wing and far-right events, sometimes violently. They often wear black, and they often wear masks. They sometimes smash property during their protests, as they did during Trump’s inauguration. They are anti-capitalist, anarchist, and sometimes reject democratic politics in favour of direct action and revolution. Like white supremacists, they are a tiny movement that get a lot of publicity. 

Antifa are not morally equivalent to the alt-right. Far-right groups have been responsible for many more acts of terrorism in recent years than the far-left, which was more active in the 1970s. The far-right is also responsible for more deaths in the US than Islamic terrorism, over the last 15 years. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74% of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2%. The far-left is clearly not as racist, patriarchal or homophobic as the far-right, although the far-left in Europe can be so anti-Zionist as to be anti-semitic. And the far-left has never had anything like the same power or proximity to power that the far-right has often enjoyed (including now). 

Still, the two sides have a few things in common. Both sides are made up mainly of young men and women – particularly men – in their late teens and early 20s, looking for a heroic cause to commit to. Both sides enjoy the feeling of marching together with their fellow warriors in a crowd, possibly for a fight. Here’s one Antifa protestor from Charlottesville: ‘We were marching down one of the streets, and energy was ecstatic. We were marching and chanting and engaged in this huge act of solidarity.’ And here’s an alt-right protestor reflecting after their torch march: ‘After the event and a long day of winning, we went back and threw an Alt-Right house party and celebrated our victory. We sang songs, laughed and most of all just enjoyed the mental high you feel after an incredible win.’  I imagine Antifa parties are a hell of a lot better, and might actually have some girls at them.

But here’s the key point. Both sides see themselves as engaged in a heroic struggle against a demonic enemy (fascism / multiculturalism), a struggle for existential survival that is so cosmically important it justifies violence.  Both sides seek to normalize street violence as a political tactic – and are encouraged by leaders who have recently come from the political fringe to the centre of power, like Donald Trump, who encouraged his supporters to ‘rough up’ protestors, or John McDonnell (a leading ally of Jeremy Corbyn) who congratulated his young followers for ‘kicking the shit’ out of Westminster during a protest. Violence is a rite of passage, a moral test, a rush, an act of will necessary to smash the old corrupt system and forge the pure new world.

Some in Antifa have told journalists it’s necessary to confront Nazis ‘in a language they understand’ – ie, violence. Perhaps you need a show of numbers, on the streets, to intimidate rather than allow Nazis to intimidate. Defenders of anti-fascist violence point to famous clashes like the Battle of Lewisham or the Battle of Cable Street (below is a mural celebrating it), where the far-right were supposedly beaten into submission.

I can totally see the argument for a show of numbers to prove there are more people opposed to fascism and racism than in favour. Numbers on the street matter – that’s why Trump is so obsessed with how many people turned out for his inauguration. However, surely large groups of people can stand up to fascists without resorting to violence. The Battle of Cable Street – a street-fight between communists and Nazis – was not a great day for British politics, it was a descent into the sort of extremist street-fighting that led to the collapse of Weimar democracy in Germany.

It’s not OK to punch a Nazi because it normalizes street violence as a political tactic, and when that happens, liberal democracy is real trouble.

I agree with Brian Levin, director of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, who has studied extremism for decades and risked his own life at protests. He says: ‘No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi. If white nationalists are sophisticated at anything, it’s the ability to try to grasp some kind of moral high ground when they have no other opportunity, and that’s provided when they appear to be violently victimized. That’s the only moral thread that they can hang their hats on. And we’re stupid if we give them that opportunity.’

Why let Nazis march at all? Are there not limits to what we should tolerate? Why should a liberal democracy allow extremist groups – Jihadis, Nazis – to preach violence against other groups and to call for the overthrow of liberal democracy? Perhaps – as Karl Popper argued – it shouldn’t. 

It’s a tricky one. It should be possible within a liberal democracy to consider and support alternative political systems, like communism, Islamic theocracy, or even ethno-states. In principle, one should also be allowed to put forward these ideas in public spaces. A famous legal case in the late 70s – National Socialists of America versus the village of Skokie – decided the American Nazi party had the right to march – a right the ACLU vigorously defended. But as soon as you’re promoting violence against other groups, a march should be shut down.

In Germany, neo-Nazis are still allowed to march, but it’s very carefully regulated – no Swastikas, no Nazi tattoos showing, no chanting, no military music, only one banner per 50 protestors, and no goddam assault rifles. 

When a neo-Nazi march is properly policed, you see the participants for the losers they are – two hundred pasty-faced nerds in polo shirts and chinos, carrying Roman shields. When it descends into a mass brawl, those 200 losers get the benefit of worldwide publicity, and it adds to the sense of liberal democracy breaking down – which is precisely what they want.

However, I don’t think the far-right will necessarily consider Charlottesville a success, once their euphoria has died down. The rally gave their opponents a martyr, Heather Hayer. The ‘Unite the Right’ strategy allowed the entire alt-right to be lumped together as Nazis. Trump’s apparent support for the Nazis has severely weakened him and may have led to the firing of his alt-right policy advisor Steve Bannon.

And it was a moment when far-right internet trolls finally showed their faces – they’re now being identified, fired from their jobs, hounded from their neighbourhoods, and are hopefully on the FBI list of potential terrorists. Rough justice, but what did they expect, this isn’t a game (although I think some of them think it is). 

When young white supremacists sob online about their careers and lives being ruined after they’ve been exposed, liberal Twitter laughs. But it is a tragedy when young people are seduced by a toxic ideology, and ruin their own and other people’s lives as a result. It’s a tragedy that 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub was seduced by Islamic State, and destroyed his own and countless other lives in Barcelona this week. It’s a waste of life, an increase in suffering, a failure of our society.

We can seek to control hate speech. We can shut down the accounts and internet sites where it’s allowed to proliferate. We can turn out on the streets in greater number than the extremists. We can identify and shame those who hide behind masks and online pseudonyms. We can help intelligence services tracking and infiltrating violent extremist groups. We can refuse to normalize violence as a political tactic.

But we also need to think how to defeat the arguments of extremist ideologies (far-left, far-right, Islamist), in order to save young people from throwing away their lives. One of the greatest tasks for any civilization is to pass on its values to its young men as they make the dangerous transition to adulthood. These young men think they’re defending western civilization. We need to explain they’re at risk of destroying it.

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