Jung, the shadow, and synchronicity



I've spent a pleasant couple of days reading Carl Jung, looking particularly at his ideas on the shadow and how symbols can act as mediators between the unconscious and conscious. The reading is in preparation for a Radio 4 thing I'm doing tomorrow, part of its History of Ideas series. The theme for the next show is 'who am I?', with various people exploring various angles (Locke, Sartre, Descartes, and me on depth psychology).

I'm focusing on Jung's idea of the shadow, because I think it's such a great idea, and because it meant a lot to me when recovering from PTSD. Briefly, Jung though that civilisation and adulthood require us to construct masks to win the approval of others - which he called the persona. To create these masks, we repress and hide all the bits of us we think are shameful or primitive, which become a daemonic part of our psyche called the shadow. However, our psyche resists this dissociation, and the shadow ends up haunting us, tripping us up, and demanding our attention and care. We have to let go of our personae and accept our shadow-selves, if we are to move to maturity.

When I had PTSD, I couldn't handle being so traumatized, because it was a threat to my persona, so I hid it and hid myself whenever I felt down. When I was at my most dissociated, I had a series of nightmares in which I was pursued by a beggar / tramp / escaped madman. Eventually, I managed to 'come to terms' with this madman in my dreams, although it took me a lot longer to come to terms with my shadow-self in reality. In fact, it took a near-fatal accident for that reconciliation to take place.

In the months following that accident, I started to research this figure of the beggar / wildman / shadow, and its appearance as an archetype or 'transcendent symbol' in western culture. It's everywhere, and often appears as a symbol of our exiled or cut-off inner or spiritual life, at moments when culture is becoming obsessed with masks and appearances. Jung thought the psyche is self-regulating - if it becomes too artificial, the unconscious sends out archetypes to call it back into harmony. Something similar happens at the societal level - if civilization becomes too artificial and image-obsessed, nature sends out archetypes to possess artists, to call civilization back into a better spiritual harmony.



The great example of this artist-as-spiritual-thermostat is Sophocles. In his last play, he confronts the optimistic, polite, civilized, rational, extrovert Athenian enlightenment with its shadow - with the terrifying exile figure of Oedipus, who has been cast out from his society and who wanders old and blind in the wilderness. Sophocles made his society see that Oedipus, although the shadow of Athenian civilization, has some moral qualities which Athenian liberal civilization increasingly lacked - integrity, authenticity, respect for the Gods. If we lose touch with these deeper spiritual values, he warns us, we will become empty, morally lost, cut off from the deepest springs of our being. We need to see the good in Oedipus, overcome our fear and revulsion, recognize the shadow, welcome the stranger.

I'm not sure how I'm going to get all that into a ten minute radio discussion, but that's the broad idea.

Anyway, this morning, I dragged myself to church. It really took an effort. I don't like church much. I struggle with Christianity in general, the dogma, the certainty. I also struggle with the collectivism of church - who are these people? What do I have in common with them? Why can't I just meditate at home on my own? Well, I dragged myself along.

The vicar, Dave Tomlinson, gave a sermon that was all about the concept of the shadow in Jungian psychology, and how we need to welcome the stranger within us to become whole. Dave spoke of how the shadow might appear as the primitive, shameful or 'goat-like' parts of us, but how our inner goat often also brings great creativity, if we can integrate it without being overwhelmed by it - he illustrated this with the beautiful icon shown above, showing the Good Shepherd embracing the goat!. One of the service readings was a poem by Derek Walcott, about this idea of welcoming the stranger within us (you can read it below).

This sort of coincidence happens quite often. Two weeks ago, in my newsletter, I complained that the BBC never does any programmes on religious ecstasy. Two days later, radio 4 broadcast a great programme all about religious ecstasy.

What do these coincidences mean? Three possible answers. Firstly, and perhaps most probably, they're just coincidences. I often go to sermons and they're not about what I happen to be researching. Secondly, less probably, everything that is happening is a dream of mine - hence the strange concordance between my inner concerns and outer reality. You're all figures in my dream, and for all I know it I'm in a coma.

Thirdly - and this is the theory I'm most convinced by - reality is some sort of collective dream, in which the conscious and the unconscious are related in ways we don't fully understand. Consciousness, as Jung put it, is a small island on an ocean of unconsciousness, and this ocean of unconsciousness is collective - we are connected together, in ways we don't understand, though we can sometimes notice connections, coincidences, 'elective affinities', between people and places, and also between times - to the unconscious there is no such thing as past and future.

We are connected, our dreams are connected, just as Anna Karenina and her lover, Count Vronsky, happen to dream the same dream in Tolstoy's novel - their fates are connected. And what was the dream? A terrifying beggar.

Here's the poem by Derek Walcott. It's called Love after Love:

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.