Post-Historic Man and The Shadow: Fake News and False Memory
I know some Buddhists who are almost always at some retreat or another. They’re always retreating, retreating, retreating. I know what they’re retreating from. Themselves. More specifically from the Shadow. Unless these retreats are fortifying them for eventually facing and confronting the Shadow, whose name is the demon Mara, those retreats are a waste of time and money. Much money. They will never be successful Buddhists until they do come face-to-face with the Shadow as Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree, or as Jesus did in the desert.
The Shadow is real. It has valid psychic or spiritual reality. I’ve witnessed it. It’s just as real as you are because it is you, although that’s something of a paradox. The Shadow is also called “Prince of Lies” and is implicated in this current epidemic of fake news and false memory, of post-truth and post-reason, and those who warn that the Shadow is irrupting in our times are not just speaking metaphorically. So, the time has come to tell you of my vision of the Shadow, which I’ve kept long to myself.
Many years ago, I was practicing Jung’s technique of “Active Imagination“. I won’t pause to describe it here. You can find information on it in other places. It’s simply a meditation technique that involves a high degree of what Buddhists call “mindfulness”, but in relation to the flow of energies and images in and out of consciousness.
One evening of intense practice, I found myself in vision. It was just as real as ordinary reality though I knew I was in vision. Everything in the room appeared normal, although there was a hint of the magical about everything, and I even witnessed myself in a state of deep meditation lying on the bed. I formed an intention to leave through a closed door, but as I formed the intention to move to the door, a dark mass of nothingness with a humanoid shape surged up between me and the doorway. It was truly an abysmal sight. It was an abyss. The shape was like that of a human, indistinct as to gender, but its interior was a deep black pit of endless nothingness.
I froze. It then made an unforgettable and terrifying gesture indicating that it would not permit me to pass through the door, and that it would annihilate me totally if I persisted in trying. It was guarding all the doors and all the exits, and it was directing the entirety of its malice towards me. I have never experienced such terror in my life, and my body on the bed, in distress, groaned loudly. That was the signal that ended the vision.
The meaning of the vision was clear. No one passes through the door without first facing the Shadow and somehow overcoming it. Buddhism doesn’t teach “detachment” for no reason. Somehow, you have to develop the resilence, the strength, and the courage to face the Shadow without losing your marbles, just as the Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree when he entered into spiritual combat with the demon Mara, or as Jesus did during his sojourn in the desert when he was tempted by “Satan”. Both Satan and Mara are names for the Shadow.
Rumi knew this Shadow as well. It’s the theme of his poem “Shadow and Light”
How does a part of the world leave the world?
How does wetness leave water? Dont’ 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 you, 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 your mouth for even a coo.
That poem is very meaningful to me. But, for much the same reason, so is W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming“, for the “rough Beast” is the Shadow.
Gebser does not speak much about the Shadow in The Ever-Present Origin except to refer to it as the “nocturnal” side of man. It is strange that he pays so little attention to this “night side” of the psyche even when it is so much implied in much of what he wrote — the polarity of Athena and the Gorgon, of Medusa and Minerva, of Hades and Dionysus, and though he apparently acknowledges Jung’s “theory of the Shadow” as valid.
The second I formed an intention to pass through the door, the Shadow intervened, and threatened to annihilate me if I moved towards it. I would have been swallowed up by the nothingness. Blake knew that nothingness. He knew it as “the all tremendous unfathomable Non-Ens of Death”. I think I know why the Shadow threatened me so. Beyond that door was the Light, and passing through that door would have been its diminishment, for the very reasons Rumi gives in his poem on Shadow and Light.The Shadow, after all, is yourself too. It’s fears are your fears. It’s malice is your malice. It’s rage is your rage. Robert Louis Stevenson got it exactly right in his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That came to him complete as a dream, which he transcribed in three days. And it came to him at a time when the Shadow was beginning to irrupt into the collective consciousness — the culture — particularly with the repressions of the Victorian Era.
The Shadow threatens to become the totality of man’s identity. That’s the irruption of the “demonic” that Gebser writes about. That’s the mood of nihilism that prevails today. Don’t forget, it is part of your identity, even if it is the nocturnal part, and it feels very threatened, again for the reasons Rumi gives (and also Gebser). As Leonard Cohen put it, too, “there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The great paradox is, your fear of being swallowed by the nocturnal side of consciousness — the Shadow — is the Shadow’s fear of being swallowed by the Light. That’s an aspect of Gebser’s “double-movement”.
It’s a quandry, and truth to tell I do not know how one overcomes the Shadow on the collective level. The more Light, the more the Shadow feels threatened, unsafe and insecure, because it does have a degree of autonomy, even when you describe it in terms of a “complex”. Buddha overcame when he recognised the Shadow, or Mara, Lord of Illusions, as himself, as “Lord of mine own Ego”. The Shadow only disappeared when he became Egoless. No Ego. No Shadow. Or, to put in in William Blake’s terms, No Urizen. No Ulro.
Carolyn Baker (in Dark Gold) and Joanna Macy actually speak quite a bit to this mass irruption of the Shadow. They seem pretty much resigned to its total nihilism and rage for destruction. It’s also connected with what Seth calls “the ancient force” (as I quoted that earlier in “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature“). It’s really no wonder, given the nature of the Shadow, that Gebser and Jung, too — and seemingly Blake as well — saw near total global catastrophe and destruction as the only outcome of the Shadow’s irruption in a “maelstrom of blind anxiety”.
I know my “vision” sounds pretty weird, like something out of The Game of Thrones — “a shadow with the face of Stannis Baratheon”, born of the witch Melissandre, and which murders his brother Renly. I hope it’s understood, though, that that “thing” wasn’t just my or any old Shadow. I’ve read very similar accounts of encounters with the Shadow in other places. It really belongs to what Jung calls “the collective unconscious”, and you can forget about turning it from its path by reason. It doesn’t respond to reason. It is the very soul of darkness.
I’m tempted to go through Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin again, and highlight those passages that might refer to the Shadow despite the fact that he doesn’t use that term. But, I’m not sure much more would be gained from that.
In Blake, it seems that the Shadow is the figure that he names Orc.