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What's Hidden in the Woodshed

Updated: Mar 5

Christopher Perry and Rupert Tower, two Jungian analysts, are about to have published a book of essays entitled, Jung's Shadow Concept: the Hidden Light and Darkness within Ourselves - and I have a small contribution in it on Buddhism and Evil.

This has got me thinking. Having spent six years in a Jungian analytic training I was pretty much wedded to the notion of the shadow. It kind of makes sense. There are thoughts/emotions/behaviours within us that our family does not condone the expression of so when we find them happening within ourselves we too have a problem with them. Whether it be the dark gods of sex and violence (not to mention the more minor imps and demons), or something more innocent like joy or creativity, when these stir something clamps down.

During my Jungian days I would occasionally ask students where they felt their shadow was located without thinking about it too much. Almost always they pointed to the back of their heads, somewhere behind where they felt they were conscious. It was as if we all unthinkingly conceived of the shadow having a physical location that was by extension always present whether we knew about it or not. It was a dark place in our body that was continuously working away Gollum-like and occasionally showing itself in all kinds of underhand and embarrassing ways. It was something we could not see while our analyst could.

Today I'm not so sure about all of this. Two new sets of ideas have caused me to hesitate - neuroscience and Buddhism. The brain science picture describes how the brain cells - neurons - communicated electro-chemically with each other. Specific neural networks, that have been created through the interaction of DNA with the emotional and physical environment, hold different types of information that may - putting it simply - be turned on and off. From this I take that the student's intuition of the shadow having a location is both right and wrong. Neural networks that hold specific experiences do exist but, unlike the shadow that is described in such a way as to suggest its continuous presence, these networks are only active - present - when triggered. In fact Jung does appear to agree with this. The contents of the shadow - called complex's - may or may not be 'constellated' to use Jung's term. That is, like the neural networks, they are not always active but rely upon triggers before they 'fire'.

I'm not really sure how far we can go with the comparisons between Analytical Psychology and neuroscience. One contradiction I have yet to fathom is how something that is repressed - not allowed to fire - can then create a mass of neural connections. Neural connectedness creates further and faster connections and when the connections are not used they gradually wither away. This would seem to suggest that emotions we dare not allow would slowly disappear - which is quite the opposite of the psychoanalytic observation that what is repressed powerfully returns.

The Buddhist contribution to this is less complex. The Buddha described how the mind was a process of fleeting mind states, dhammas, that were in large part conditioned by habit patterns created in the past. Mind states come in three basic forms, neutral and wholesome or unwholesome, the latter two either comprising virtuous qualities such as kindness and compassion or the 'three poisons' of ignorance, greed and aversion. So here we have again another model that contradicts the idea of a continuously present shadow. In this model nothing is continuous except change itself. Talk of the shadow as a thing is replaced with the idea of unwholesome mind states, experienced as conflicted emotions, as events. Emotional states that are only temporarily present and that require the presence of other specific external and internal stimuli to trigger them.

So how does this translate into psychotherapy? Nowadays I tend to think in terms of hurts we have received during our life and how sometimes these are so painful we cannot allow ourselves to fully feel them. Hurts that are part of who we are, leaving scars that will never entirely disappear. These hurts are not always felt, there are many times when we hardly feel them at all and their influence is not apparent. However, with the appropriate trigger, they are immediately present again and, depending on where we are with our relationship to them, they are either overwhelming or something we have learnt to take in our stride. This is a process model, it is more concerned with the immediacy of experiences rather than maps of the psyche. The dichotomy of conscious and unconscious is exchanged for a fluid field of fluctuating awareness. I can still just about use the term 'shadow' but now it simply means something I am unaware of and most definitely not the woodshed in which something horrible continuously lurks within the Cold Comfort Farm of my unconscious mind.


With thanks to Stella Gibbons for her most entertaining book.

NW. 4.3.22




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