Enlightenment and the Shadow
You have no choice in the matter. At some point, if you have not already, you will have to face and undergo the “Shadow”, which is also called “dark night of the soul”, but which I recall as my Days of the Black Sun. In fact, it makes no sense to speak of “enlightenment” at all except in relation to this inner darkness. Insight into that inner darkness called “the Shadow” is a matter of casting light into that darkness — the light of insight and awareness. The darkness that is the Shadow is also the same darkness that is the Ulro, as William Blake called it — the world of illusions, appearances, and deceptions which we call “ordinary reality” or samsaric existence. The Shadow is what the Buddha called “Mara”, the Architect, for the Shadow is indeed the architect of the Ulro (or Samsara) and “Lord of the Ego”. And the frightful thing is, that what many call “God” is this very Shadow, which is one reason why the Buddha refused to answer the question put to him whether or not there was a God.
The Shadow truly is frightful, which is why “fearlessness” or the warrior spirit is often extolled as an essential quality and virtue of those on the path. This, however, is the true “jihad” or the true “crusade,” if you want to put it that way. The Bodhisattva or the Sufi descend originally from military or chivalrous orders, and the Buddha himself came from the warrior caste, the Kshatriyas. And rightly, Nietzsche says “in times of peace a warrior goes to war against himself”.
You cannot subdue or pacify the Shadow by hating the Shadow, for hatred comes from the Shadow, and so binds you ever much more tightly to the Shadow and its darkness. This is the reason for the teaching of non-aversion or disinterestedness, and also the law of forgiveness. Only insight subdues and pacifies the Shadow, and this is essentially what is called “enlightenment”.
Rumi also has a poem about romancing the Shadow,
How does part of the world leave you?
How does wetness leave the world?
Don’t try to put out fire by throwing on
more fire! Don’t wash a wound with blood.
No matter how fast you run, your shadow
keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front!
Only full overhead sun diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you.
What hurts blesses you. Darkness is
your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.
I could explain this, but it will break the
glass cover on your heart, and there’s no
You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.
When from that tree feathers and wings sprout on you,
be quieter than a dove. Don’t even open you mouth for
even a coo.
“Romancing the Shadow” is also called loving thine enemies, or “resist not evil”. It is not for any moralistic reason. It is for learning the ways of the Shadow and, in fact, liberating its energies from the darkness of ignorance. You must have compassion for the Shadow, too, for it is that part of you that dwells in the anguish of the darkness.
It is a common theme that many who have reached some level of enlightenment — a satori, as the Zen Buddhists say — have struggled with the Shadow in the form of bouts of severe depression, anxiety, self-doubt, anguish, fear, etc that can even induce thoughts of suicide or violence. The power that can bear you through this is called “faith”. This is quite different from belief. This is another confusion of our times that “faith” has been collapsed into mere “belief”. Faith and belief are strictly contrary, for belief draws you backwards and faith draws you forwards. Faith is the power that stays your hand from suicide when you have the sense that all is lost. Those who have attempted to plumb the depths and secrets of existence have all faced that darkness — Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss” or Camus and his thoughts of suicide. Their logic could not help them in this, for their logic told them that existence was absurd and valueless, which is the mood of the Shadow. Jean Gebser also endured his own “dark night of the soul” with severe depression, despiar, anguish, and thoughts of suicide. To face the Shadow, and not completely lose your marbles, requires faith. Your reason cannot help you.
It is usually the price for any true gain in consciousness. During the Renaissance in Europe, “melancholia” or “the Black Bile” was epidemic also. Physicians wrote books about the epidemic. The artist Albrecht Dürer even illustrated it in an etching which you probably know called “Melancholia” (in which I can’t help but recognise my own mood from the “Days of the Black Sun” as this same “melancholia”).
Any profound changes in consciousness also bring with them a dislocation of identity or transient dissociation leading to depression, anxiety, a sense of loss of self or feelings of desolation, and even despair of existence itself. This is what we call “chaotic transition”. In the Renaissance physicians referred to it as “the Black Bile”, but which we would, today, might call “neurosis”.
The emergence of the Shadow is also part of the “irruption” of the new consciousness structure identified by Jean Gebser as the strange “double-movement” of our times, and which was the theme of Stevenson’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story. It was the real life experience of the quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, too (as narrated in Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship and Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli). The emergence of the Shadow has also been called “the return of the repressed”.
The Jekyll and Hyde narrative is the myth of our time, really. The struggle with the Shadow, which is called “the demonic”, is what is being played out today on the world stage. The emergence of the Shadow is, in some sense, the crisis itself, but also the opportunity for insight. But to wholesale succumb to the urges and wiles of the Shadow, and to be drawn into the current of the demonic, will, indeed, be the catastrophe. The Buddhist practice of non-attachment, non-aversion, or “mindfulness” is, indeed, the best practice presently to avoid being sucked into the current of the demonic and falling under the power and sway of the Shadow.
Just remember, as the Gorgon is the Shadow of Athena, or Medusa of Minerva, and Hades is the Shadow of Dionysus, so “the Prince of Lies is the ape of God”. These are all references to the Shadow. And at some point, as truth seekers or seekers of knowledge, you are going to have to deal with the Shadow.