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
fixing that.

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”).

Duerer: Melencolia

Duerer: Melencolia

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.



6 responses to “Enlightenment and the Shadow”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Just a footnote to the above post. I decided to write up this post after reading Charles Eisenstein’s bio on his website last night. I could relate to it, and his curriculum vitae pretty much follows that of others, like Jean Gebser, who endured their own “dark night of the soul” of doubt, anguish, despondency, etc. Become resilient.


  2. abdulmonem says :

    In the Rumi poem quoted we read
    You must have shadow and light source both
    Listen and lay your head under the tree of awe.
    In Arabic tree means struggling ramifications. Diffusion of light radiations into radiations of darkness.
    God is not the shadow, god is the source of light, The devil is created to play the role of all the negative aspects in life, as the shadow that, we must try to understand and overcome. God can not be understood through questions, he is beyond the human comprehension and until we understand our comprehension, then we can understand him, that is why all initiatic traditions ask the human to start with understanding himself. We are his consciousness in a physical form, that is what Ibn Arabi meant when he said god needs physical support to manifest his presence, We are his presence but alas we are unaware of his presence despite his nearness, in the quran we read,, I am with you wherever you are and I am nearer to him but you feel not.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    I love how this essay peers deep into the Self. In this material world, this is certainly very refreshing.

    Yes, the Shadow is inescapable – or so it seems. I imagine, though, the remedy for it and the lessons from it are different for everyone. For me, the permanent escape door was “Seth Speaks.” It’s really strange, but before I read that book, this was how I felt on the inside:

    And after reading Seth……. this has been what it feels like on the inside 🙂

    Before Seth, you could say that the Shadow had a permanent grip on me, but after Seth, those bouts with the Shadow have become rare, and when they do come around, they last minutes or even seconds. To use Rumi’s analogy, you could say that for me Seth was the “overhead sun.” I also agree that there are many many lessons from dealing with the Shadow. Again, to use Rumi’s words, “Darkness is your candle.”

  4. abdulmonem says :

    Beautiful contrast, calm and fury. The human is ensmalled cosmos and the cosmos is an enlarged human. The micro and the macro mirror each other, however the inner journey is the foundation. Everyone has to do his own reading, benefiting from reading the readings of others,but has not to stop there but to do his own reading. In this time we do not need prophets because we are coming to realize that we have to be ourselves prophet in a world where the hair of Ak-khayam becomes very obscure and hard to find.

  5. Memetics says :

    “To face the Shadow, and not completely lose your marbles, requires faith. Your reason cannot help you.”

    Do you think that this is a feature of reason, or an effect of the Shadow? In other words, can philosophy not answer this “big question” or is reason just warped in the Shadow, as a descent into quasi-insanity?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Reason can easily fall under the power and the spell of the Shadow. In fact, it has. That is pretty much Gebser’s meaning in speaking of the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in “deficient” mode, or of Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay “Farewell to Descartes” (available online if you haven’t read it) or John Ralston Saul’s “dictatorship of Reason”. In fact, that’s what Gebser feared most of all — reason falling under the spell of the Shadow, which he called “the demonic”.

      Good question. The existentialists all faced this same question in their own way — Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, even Sartre in a way. There concern, whether it went by the name Nichtssein, Great Nothingness, Nihilism, Death of God, etc could be summed up in one word, really — “Desolation”. How to survive that sense of desolation — how to find meaning in life despite the sense of desolation (which is the Kali Yuga). They all tried to discover in the terms of existence a new faith or inspiration for humankind that would allow them to outlive or outrun this desolation and attendant self-contempt and self-loathing. And for Nietzsche, at least, that became the awakening of the Dionysian spirit and the goal of the “overman”, which is, ironically enough, a resurrection of the Christian project for history — history as the process of godman-making. In one way or another, all of them had to acknowledge “faith” as a genuine power of life, and a faith that life and reality were ultimately meaningful and purposeful despite the contrarian logic of the day that concluded that it was all ultimately pointless, purposeless, random, chance, meaningless — Nietzsche’s incinerating “stare into the abyss”. Reason, in and of itself, has yet to discover any “higher meaning” to existence. That’s the problem represented in Blake’s Zoa named “Urizen”, one of the four Zoas and who is the ruling idea or Zeitgeist of the Modern Era. Study Urizen, and you’ll then know why Reason alone cannot help here. As Blake also knew, you require other resources (read his manifesto: “There is NO Natural Religion”. It’s actually a fabulous insight into the present human condition)


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