Jungian Psychology Series: Consciousness and the Problem of the Shadow

Just as the projection of one’s shadow (the disowned part of our personality) is a fundamental process in the psychology of people, it is an aspect of the psychology of groups of people. Like the individual, groups are organized around a certain identity and purpose. This identity is the foundation of the group’s persona. It is their understanding of who they are and of their role within the larger community. Although we like to think of ourselves as being independent and free-thinking, the fact is that there is a very strong tendency to fall in line–like cells in a body–with the prevailing psychology of our “group.” A powerful example of this involves the country of Germany following its defeat in the First World War. Within a year of the war’s end, Carl Jung observed what he called, “a peculiar disturbance” in the unconscious of his German patients “which could not be ascribed to their personal psychology.” He went on to explain, “The tide that rose in the unconscious after the First World War was reflected in individual dreams, in the form of collective, mythological symbols which expressed primitivity, violence, cruelty: in short, all the powers of darkness. When such symbols occur in a large number of individuals and are not understood, they begin to draw these individuals together as if by magnetic force, and thus a mob is formed. Its leader will soon be found in the individual who has the least resistance, the least sense of responsibility and, because of his inferiority, the greatest will to power. He will let loose everything that is ready to burst forth, and the mob will follow with the irresistible force of an avalanche.”

Of course, Germany found its new leader in Adolf Hitler, a man whose drive to power was fueled by an unconscious sense of inferiority. But Hitler could not have ignited the conflagration he did had there not been a corresponding psychology within the nation itself. Indeed, we could say that Germany–stinging from its humiliation in WWI–was itself suffering from an inferiority complex. Unable, or unwilling, to accept their country’s defeat with humility and as an opportunity for learning and growth, many Germans instead nursed a compensating drive to power and thirst for global re-assertion. When sufficient numbers had rejected their sense of failure, vulnerability, and human weakness, it was inevitable that these attributes would be projected upon others. The “others,” in this case, were the Jews. The Jews became the rejected shadow of a power-hungry nation, as the split in Hitler’s personality reflected and resonated with a similar split in the psychology of his country. Individually and collectively, the German people sought to exterminate what they refused to acknowledge as a part of themselves. Although some people in Germany were conscious enough to see through the madness that was unfolding after WWI, their numbers and resources were insufficient to contain the psychic epidemic that had been unleashed through the process of projection.

The atrocities of WWII are sometimes used as examples of the moral depths to which humanity can sink, a reminder of our capacity for evil. In Nazi Germany one can see how human/personal evil (e.g., greed, arrogance, revenge), arising from man’s egocentric nature, can become the conduit of a more transpersonal and autonomous force of destruction, what depth psychology refers to as “archetypal evil.” Jung recognized a psychopathic force within the psyche and universe which challenges and attempts to undermine life’s creative and healing energies.

Perhaps especially in the New Age movement, there is a tendency to minimize and deny the dark side of human psychology. Although most of us readily accept the reality of deadly viruses and cancers, and of deadly creatures such as sharks and alligators, we sometimes have difficulty accepting that the psyche–which is itself a natural entity–has its own array of predators and diseases. It is as if we want to believe that if we just embrace our “lightness,” our limitlessness, our sacredness, our oneness, and the power of our good intentions, then our darkness and that of the world will just fall away. In this regard the following story is instructive. A woman had a dream that helped her to make sense of the suicide of a male acquaintance. In the dream she and the man’s wife (her friend) are standing on the shore of a lake. The man is waterskiing back and forth in front of them, smiling, waving, and showing off. Unfortunately, he is also entirely unaware of the hungry sharks swimming close behind him.  If ignorance (unconsciousness) is bliss, it can also be quite costly. Jungian psychology cautions against a naive understanding of the psyche; a one-sided identification with the positive aspects of our spiritual nature only sets us up to be unconscious instruments, or victims, of its darkness. Jungian psychology encourages an objective awareness of both the light and dark within ourselves and life.

Two films that grapple with the problem of archetypal evil are “The Terminator” and “No Country for Old Men.” In The Terminator a young woman must battle a cyborg (a robot with human skin) which has come from the future–a time when machines rule the world–to kill her. The cyborg is virtually indestructible and, like evil, has an uncanny ability for regenerating itself. Carefree and naive in her view of the world, the heroine has a difficult time accepting her guardian’s warning that the Terminator “can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Her denial is understandable, to an extent; who wants to acknowledge such a force within the universe? We think to ourselves, “Well, I have a conscience, certainly everyone must.” And yet, this psychopathic force does flow through society–through back alleys and boardrooms alike. It also flows quite freely through certain individuals in society, and, thankfully, much less freely through most of the rest of us.

The movie warns of the dehumanization of people in an increasingly production-oriented and materialistic world. It suggests that we lose our souls and become machines when we buy into the notion that quotas and material wealth should take precedence over human relationship. Corporations and companies that over-emphasize profits ultimately pressure their employees to become automatons (which, of course, are easier to manipulate). But perhaps more insidious are the ways that we turn ourselves into machines by placing the values of the ego over those of the soul. We crush our individuality and turn ourselves into clones when we over-conform to the ideals of society at the expense of our inner nature. The movie indicates that consciousness must replace naivete if one is to survive the onslaught of the psychopath.

In “No Country for Old Men” we encounter a Vietnam vet who stumbles across a case of money from a drug deal gone bad, an emotionless killer who wants the money back, and a jaded sheriff who reluctantly tracks the killer. The killer is a symbol of archetypal evil, and the Vietnam vet, who is a hunter and expert marksman, symbolizes the way we usually try to deal with evil. Our ego does not comprehend the nature of the force it is dealing with, and we return aggression with aggression. If you are physically attacked, you need to fight back, but physical aggression is not the usual way we encounter evil in life. Most evil is far more subtle and does not wear a name tag. The encounters occur less often on darkened city streets, and more often in the dimly lit corridors of our own mind. They are the thoughts and attitudes that, like a thief in the night, steal awareness of the value and deeper purpose of our lives.

In the movie the killer executes one man by shooting him in the forehead with an airgun used for killing cattle in a slaughterhouse. The implication is that, when it comes to archetypal evil, most of us have the insight of a cow. (Perhaps it is time to separate from the herd?)  The movie ends with the sheriff’s recollection of a dream about his deceased father (a former sheriff).  “We were both back in older times an’ I was a horseback [riding] going through the mountains of a night, going through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on going. Never said nothing going by, just rode on past. He had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do. I could see the horn from the light inside of it, ‘bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead. He was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there.” The dream (and movie) try to provide some guidance for dealing with archetypal evil. The campfire and the light in the horn are symbols of consciousness, a level of consciousness that we have yet to achieve. The father’s preparation of a campfire and the expectation of their reunion, underlines the importance of human relationship to our lives. Consciousness and love provide some protection and warmth on life’s dark nights, when the cold wind blows.

Copyright © Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.
Excerpts may be used provided full and clear credit is given author with link to original article.

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