In the minute it takes to read the first few lines of this article, 20 people from across the planet will be newly displaced from their homes as a result of human rights violations, conflict or violence. In fact, we are experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record, where 1 out of every 113 persons globally is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.
Clearly, we are living in a time largely shaped by conditions of disconnect and disruption. These statistics—attempts at making immense numbers of people without homes, and with severed connections to place, culture, community and family somehow fathomable—represent just a portion of this great upheaval. Not as individuals, but as a collective body of humanity, we are being propelled to reconsider what it means to belong, to come home.
It is easy to distance ourselves from the big stories of suffering in this world. Yet, if we can steel ourselves against the ‘eyes-glazing-over’ impersonal nature of data, and instead let its weight settle us into the depths from which reflection can arise, we may see how we all are linked to the breakdown that is rolling across the earth like a gigantic wave.
The seeds of suffering, sowed and watered to create large-scale catastrophes, are kernels that reside closer to our individual hearts and experiences than most of us feel comfortable acknowledging.
It may be, as mythologist Michael Meade suggests, that archaic fears and hatred are inescapably surfacing while our “typical societal containers rattle and crack, becoming less able to contain the flood of extreme ideas, raw energies and dark emotions that surge through the world.”
Certainly, the majority of us would not consciously choose to add to the fear, divisiveness and rage that propel this metaphoric tsunami. It can be said that much of what is manifesting as crises in our cultural, economic and environmental realms is arising from the depths of our unconscious.
The Jungian shadow
If everything in the unconscious (the unknown of our inner world and internal nature) seeks conscious outward expression—if that which is latent seeks manifestation—then we know even the ‘dark side’ of our splintered personalities, often referred to as the shadow, will demand to be understood.
The 19th-century pioneering psychologist Carl Jung describes the shadow as everything we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves, but which is constantly thrusting itself directly or indirectly upon us. It is imperative, then, that we guide our hidden material out of the realm of secrecy, hold it up to the light of compassionate awareness, and from there, make cognizant choices about how we want to respond to the changes that are before us.
To do this, we can recognize the unconscious as being partially comprised of repressed yet painful memories, thoughts and feelings called the personal unconscious. These are not necessarily tendencies that we or our society have determined to be morally unacceptable (they might be normal instincts, appropriate reactions and creative impulses, for example), but they are experiences, nonetheless, that have somehow splintered off from and been deemed incompatible with our consciousness.
One way to understand the mechanism of relegating aspects of oneself to the realm of the unconscious is through the experience of trauma and shame. Fortunately, the devastating physiological and psychological effects of cumulative exposure to traumatic stressors, and the role that unresolved trauma—whether at the individual, cultural or systemic level, stemming from the past or the present—is playing in our current global state of chaos is now garnering much-needed attention.
Shame is one of the many debilitating emotional responses that can follow exposure to a traumatic event. There seems to be less interest, however, in delving into the ubiquitous yet profound nature of shame as a fundamental reality of the human experience. Each of us has experienced rejection and failure—simply being in a human body requires the experience of separation, as we discover and grow into our own individual essence and expressions.
Disowning part of the self
Shame-induced experiences often begin in childhood, when someone of significance fails to fully hear, understand and validate our needs (whether or not that need is eventually gratified). A crucial interpersonal bridge begins to break, and an awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way can begin to form (children naturally assume culpability).
If our developing sense of self deeply identifies with and internalizes the experience of shame, a process of disowning parts of the self ensues.
If our developing sense of self deeply identifies with and internalizes the experience of shame, a process of disowning parts of the self ensues. This split, fuelling an ongoing internal conflict with the disowned parts, is one way we attempt to restore a semblance of internal balance. As Gershen Kaufman explains in his book Shame: The Power of Caring, the conscious self is then, at least, freed from the unbearable, paralyzing effects of shame. Otherwise, Kaufman asks, “How is the self to cope with the ‘enemy within’?”
It is no wonder we have created innumerable ‘others’ in our lives to hold the space for this enemy. We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy pushing away the shadow, denying its existence or resisting the many difficult emotions that can surface to reflect the experience of the self as divided or wanting.
Without a strong resolve for self-knowledge, the proclivity to project undesirable feelings onto others, blame something outside ourselves, and push the seed of responsibility far, far away becomes effectively automatic. It can be surmised, therefore, that much of our world is unconsciously organized to cover up the painfully diminished sense of self that we each embody at some level.
The result of this, over generations and centuries of human experience, is the collective denial and despair we are now trying to break through and break down. It is the shadow, therefore, that we must look to for guidance on how to build our individual and institutional psychological capacities to explore unconscious material. For to open to our shadows is to open to our full selves—only then can we step into vulnerable, authentic relationships with others and the world around us.
Sometimes, shadow material needs to be gazed at and beheld to discharge the potentially destructive force of unacknowledged energies. Sometimes this process necessitates skilled therapeutic guidance. Often, we can begin through contemplative mindfulness-based practices that support our capacity to allow and accept all conditions of mind, body and emotion. These practices teach us to strengthen our internal muscles of awareness and to be compassionately present to these conditions, rather than becoming them and letting them blindly lead the way.
Over time, an internal spaciousness is created where all emotions and sensations—even the turbulent ones, even those that arise from ignored or rejected aspects—can reside together in a kind of tender cohabitation. From this place, we find that the journey home is a journey of acknowledging what is inside and establishing a conscious relationship with what we find. It is not a process of apathy or inaction, but a process of seeing clearly and rebuilding the intra- and interpersonal bridges that support genuine connection.
Another way to meet the shadow is through our sleep-induced dream activity, when our consciousness is at its lowest ebb and our unconscious can spontaneously manifest in the form of images and symbols.
As mythologist Joseph Campbell states, “dreams are the vocabulary of the unconscious speaking to the conscious mind,” where subject and object are the same, “self-luminous, fluent in form and multivalent in its meaning.” They act as an operator of sorts, harvesting from the depths for the benefit of surface consciousness, and seeding the depths with the commonplace experiences of the surface, so that they, too, will be transformed into something of value.
If attended to, this is a kind of spiritual alchemy designed to keep surface awareness nourished by the depths, ultimately revealing the actual nature of the unconscious as boundless Consciousness that ego has separated itself from.
The dream image
Over the last two centuries, the Western mind’s approach to dreams has been influenced largely by the Freudian manner of association, where a meaningful connection is made between the dream image and a past experience, and by the Jungian perspective, which involves seeing dream images as potentially originating from the collective human psyche and representing universal archetypes that are similar to what we find in religion, myths and fairytales.
From this latter approach, we can see dreams as a gateway into a realm of the unconscious that is made up of not only repressed thoughts or feelings acquired by the individual, but of inherited, omnipresent, transcultural instincts that form a deeper layer of the psyche, the collective unconscious.
These images can offer us insights into our own personal mythology through their relationship to a broader, ancient yet immediate wisdom and knowing. Jung states that here, “man is no longer a distinct individual, but where his mind widens out and merges into the mind of mankind—not the conscious mind, but the unconscious mind of mankind, where we are all the same.”
The process of active imagination encourages us to continue this exploration and encounter the dream image as an embodied reality that exists both in spirit and in matter. If arising from the depths of our souls, dream images are imbued with their own intelligence, and come to us on their own behalf, for their own reasons.
Similar to approaching our arising feelings and thoughts during mindfulness practice, meeting the living image requires openness and a certain curious detachment about whom or what will arrive. We step back into the experience of the dream with our waking mind, and pull to our awareness all of its sights, sounds and sensations.
Rather than concluding a predetermined meaning, however, our task is to watch, gather information and let the dream unfold as it will—to hold an inquisitive space of deep listening by asking, who is visiting and what is happening now?
A meeting between the conscious and subconscious
No matter how we invite a meeting between the conscious and unconscious, invite it we must if we are to survive as a human species. While the idea of returning home to the undivided Self—often described as the whole, awakened or Divine Self—implies a destination, it is the journey that requires our utmost respect, care and attention; it demands our willingness to be fully present to that which is at once mysterious and familiar, perfect and imperfect.
While the idea of returning home to the undivided Self—often described as the whole, awakened or Divine Self—implies a destination, it is the journey that requires our utmost respect, care and attention.
The open enso circle, seen in the Zen tradition as a symbol of enlightenment, reminds us that to be human is to be in the process of movement and growth, incomplete, while at the same time held within the perfection of all things.
Along our journey, we will be accompanied by innumerable companions, and it is the living symbol, arising from the imaginal activity of our psyche, that is perhaps most devoted and stalwart. We can engage the creative potencies inherent in the various forms of the round—for example, the ancient symbol of the uroboros, the circular serpent that embraces the evolutionary process of mankind—to illuminate a path that might otherwise be too dark.
Just as the snake has the power to shed its skin, so too must we engage our own primordial, instinctual forces to meet our shadow—shed our skin, as it were—and deeply, consciously re-embody the beautiful gifts that these forces have to offer.
This is an embrace eloquently expressed in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “The Tenth Duino Elegy”:
Let my joyfully streaming face make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters, and surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Though they are really our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen, our season in our inner year—, not only a season in time—, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.
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Ariel Bleth is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana.
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