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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.