NEWS FEATURE: Encountering the shadow within

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Rage. Jealousy. Greed. Sloth. Lust. Hatred.

These are among the shadowy compulsions lurking within the hidden recesses of human nature that, if ignored, can emerge full blown into murder, theft, promiscuity, or drug addiction.

And, as almost anyone who has wrestled with such raw impulses can attest, the dark and light forces of life seem in constant battle on the soul’s terrain.

Injunctions against acting out self-destructive instincts are the very warp and woof of religion, such as the biblical commandments against stealing and killing. All civilizations over time have devised codes of conduct to determine”right”from”wrong.” But as the number of”fallen”heroes in politics, business and entertainment grows, both conventional religious teachings emphasizing sin and evil, as well as calls for a return to conventional morality, appear inadequate to guide people through the ethical complexities of the late 20th century.

That contemporary society is at an ethical impasse comes as no surprise to the authors of a new book,”Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul”(Ballantine). In it, psychotherapists Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf argue genuine morality cannot be imposed from the outside but only arises from the inner knowledge of self. “Our book follows in the footsteps of the late Swiss psychologist Carl Jung,”said Zweig, a Jungian analyst based in Los Angeles who believes Jung’s theory of”the shadow”should have earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.”Jung was the first to be able to articulate something about the part of the human soul that people think about in religious terms as the sinner,”Zweig said in an interview.”He was able to think about it psychologically, without condemning it as negative,”she added.”Unlike Freud, who spoke about the unconscious side of the human mind as a cauldron of evil impulses with no redeeming value, Jung made a second major statement, which was that there was gold in the dark side _ that that part of us that needs redeeming is in fact also the redeemer.” Just what is the”shadow,”and how is it different from the”sinner?” The shadow is made up of”parts of ourselves which we have come to identify as being unacceptable,”said Wolf, also based in Los Angeles. It is formed during childhood, he said, when”the child … understands that in order to feel loved by his or her family, certain characteristics are unwelcome.” A family that prizes the intellect, for instance, may frown upon a child with athletic ability. Or, a rageful parent may quench a child’s natural assertiveness, causing the child to grow into an adult with a politely controlled temper.

Cultures, as well, muddy the moral waters by their arbitrary definitions of morality. In a recent issue of the journal Parabola, for example, Jungian analyst Robert Johnson said of the shadow that”what one is applauded for somewhere, one is blamed for someplace else. If you murder, you are likely to end up in jail here. But if you murder the right person on the battlefield, you are given a medal.” These psychotherapists do not deny the importance of honoring one’s specific cultural or family values. What they insist, however, is that what gets banished doesn’t just disappear, it sinks into the unconscious and reappears later in a betrayal of one’s own ethics.

Indeed, whether its sex, anger, creativity or even love, it is the”split-off”part of the personality that if repressed, can come back to haunt a person, Zweig said. In her view, this is the psychodynamic operating behind the classic midlife crisis where the meek person suddenly erupts in a murderous rage or the faithful spouse visits a prostitute.

And while the religious person might interpret such behaviors as being”possessed”by the devil, Zweig reframes the nature of sin in a different way.”In a more psychological framework, it (sin) feels like a possession, but it doesn’t come from the outside. Instead, we are possessed by another aspect of our own souls that feels foreign because it’s not what we identify as who we are as ethical human beings,”Zweig said.

Thus, because the devil we fear is not the evil force we think it is, but an exiled part of ourselves, Wolf said, traditional religious attempts to”cast out”certain behaviors only make matters worse. Acting out, however, is not the answer, either. Thus, Zweig and Wolf counsel the middle way of reflection, or”shadow-work.” In shadow-work, a person is encouraged to cultivate a heightened awareness of unconscious compulsions as they arise, such as primal rage or forbidden sexual longings. Rather than dismiss these feelings as bad, they are”decoded”for symbolic messages they might contain. For instance, overpowering emotions may indicate that the soul is out-of-balance, or a long-neglected part of the psyche needs attention.

Zweig cited clergy who are required to take vows of celibacy as an example.”If people in the church would understand that by taking such vows their sexuality is being banished into the shadow, then perhaps they could consciously learn to work with those desires which are a natural part of being human. By honoring their sexuality in creative ways _ without breaking their vows _ they are in less danger of acting out destructively.” The Rev. Jack Welch, a Carmelite friar who teaches depth psychology and spirituality at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., agreed Jung’s notion of the shadow is a useful concept deepening the notion of sin. “It gives a name to things that if not named can be very destructive, such as unintegrated power or sexual drives. These drives can be described as the underside of the persona _ the mask we present to the world _ and are often the very opposite of who we think we are.”Thus, if we do not do the work of integrating these inferior aspects of ourselves, the danger is that they may get projected onto others.” At the same time, Welch said, it would be a mistake to think the theory of the shadow explains everything about sin and evil.”If evil were that explainable it wouldn’t be the mystery it is. It can’t be comprehended rationally.” But to Zweig, wrestling with the dark side of the soul is a profoundly ethical act leading to greater morality. “By learning to work with our own shadows we can prevent smaller transgressions from becoming larger ones,”she said.


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