A Metaphysical Look into the Shadow
According to Jung, archetypes are “universal images that have existed since the remotest times” (Jung 1959/1969, p. 5). Keiron Le Grice describes archetypes as “eternal forms in the unconscious…comparable to the gods of Homeric Greece and the Platonic forms, which belong to a transcendent eternal realm” (Le Grice, 2016, p. 23). Jung further classified archetypes according to their roles in our lives or their energetic qualities, defining archetypes very much in terms of their interaction with and influence on individual psychology. Consequently, a consideration of the metaphysical impact of archetypes has been limited. Jung seemed to resist discussion of archetypes at the metaphysical level, limiting his remarks on the subject to the psychological. There was good reason for this. Discussing metaphysics opens the doors for a philosophical debate that may not be productive to the Jungian analyst.
Containing archetypes to psychological concepts limits their influence and impact on our reality. If we were to approach archetypes from a metaphysical perspective that viewed them as being in relationship between our experience and our psychology, we might tap into a greater potential for development. Edward Whitmont alluded to this relationship when he spoke about archetypes, explaining that without an emotional relationship to archetypes, we would have no relationship to them at all (Whitmont, 1978, p. 103). A metaphysical approach extends archetypes past the merely psychological aspects that are experienced by one individual and allows us to identify archetypal structures, form, and diversity. It not only makes room for a new experience of archetypal energy, but also allows for the exploration into direct experience of the archetype itself. Focusing on the Shadow as an example, I will show how the relationship between psychological and metaphysical views of archetypes influence one another in creating our experience of reality.
The Relationship Between Projection and Reality
Archetypes extend past the individual psyche. In the depth psychology model, archetypes express themselves not only in our personal lives and interior experience but also collectively, in the form of synchronistic events. Though it is possible to claim that this is also a psychological experience and not representative of the nature of reality itself, if we view metaphysics as a relationship-based experience between perceived reality and individual psychological experience, we start to see that psychology and metaphysics are related by our collective perception of reality. This paper proposes that Jung’s concept of projection provides a framework that bridges the gap between the metaphysical and the psychological.
According to Jung, we experience the world entirely, or primarily, through the psyche; we project onto the world what we think the world is and then relate to that projected world. In this model, objective reality ceases to exist, and we see only our own psychology and its inaccurate version of the object, all of which is constantly changing, as is the object itself. Therefore, any discussion of an object is rendered nearly irrelevant.
How, then, can we possibly understand metaphysics? The nature of reality can not be understood, because all we can experience or be in relationship with is our own projection. Reality becomes a concept, open to interpretation by our own minds and the collective consciousness. This always changing aspect of reality may have been why Jung steered away from discussing metaphysics. If we think about the psychology of the human experience, the same problem holds true. We all are limited by our individual psychological experience—a concept Jung alluded to throughout his writing.
In many ways, when we discuss psychology, we are also discussing metaphysics. Both rely heavily on the personal and collective psyches. It may be that Jung proposed that the discussion of archetypes should be limited to psychological experiences because he saw this relationship between metaphysics and our psychology. He would have known that in discussing psychology, we are discussing metaphysics, making any exploration of the latter less important.
Regardless of Jung’s view on metaphysics, he did in some instances take a metaphysical approach to classifying archetypes. In his work he seems to constrict the definition of archetype while at the same time allowing for its unlimited possibilities. This artful way of describing something indescribable makes it possible for Jung to be the authority on the subject of archetypes while leaving room for the individual to make their own decisions based on their own experience. The only issue with this is that Jung also established restrictions on how archetypes can be experienced.
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Even with its relationship to the psychology of those describing it, metaphysics has its place and can extend conversations. Though we are cocreating, in a sense, the view of reality that we collectively define as real, there is still objective truth inside of metaphysics. These rules have structure, such as mathematics, physics, and shared experiences and perceptions between individuals. Such structures extend out of the subjective psychological experience into a more stable reality. By noticing and investigating these commonalities, we can take a closer look into “what is.”
Jung indicates what an archetype is and is not, defining it in his own terms using examples from his clients’ anecdotes and cross-cultural references that fit into the model of those archetypal forces. Some of the primary archetypal forces referenced throughout Jung’s work pertain to the Anima, Animus, Shadow, and the Self, each with their own energy and area of effects on individual psychology. Though this is only Jung’s interpretation of what archetypal forces are, he does imply that these forces are universal, and that some of them, including the Shadow, can be experienced directly, whereas others cannot. It is easy to see that there are issues with this dualistic, restrictive, and open-ended approach, as it can be confusing to those trying determine whether they have encountered an archetypal force.
One way to clarify some of the confusion is to approach archetypes from as purely a metaphysical stance possible. In doing so, we may find that archetypes are not just concepts but also structured elements that can be clearly defined and experienced directly; ultimately we may resolve some of the contradictions found in Jung’s work on the subject. Looking at the Shadow through a metaphysical lens will help us to broaden our understanding, as depth psychologists, of how we interact with the world, and of how our own psychology influences our view of reality and metaphysics itself.
Introduction to the Shadow
The Shadow is one of the most popular and oft-referenced archetypes in Jungian depth psychology. Often referred to as the gatekeeper or gateway to the deeper aspects of the unconscious, the Shadow is seen as terrifying, with an emotional and energetic power that makes it a force to be reckoned with. The very name “Shadow” provides a clue to its popularity in a culture that represses the darker (dark being equated to evil and menacing) nature of the psyche.
Jung saw the challenges of working with the Shadow as essential because it “not only challenges the whole man, but reminds him at the same time of his helplessness and ineffectuality” (Jung, 1959/1969, p. 21). As with anything buried in the dark, like a wound left unattended, whatever is repressed in the Shadow will fester and ferment, building up pressure until it explodes or becomes infected. The Shadow is often assumed to contain only negative and sickly aspects of the psyche, but this is a reflection of the collective demonization of the Shadow, which in fact contains versions of both the Yin and Yang, light and dark.
The Shadow is the doorway to the unconscious. It allows us to enter into the void where we can encounter an unlimited creative potential and where we can encounter elements of other archetypes. The positive side of the Shadow is that it protects us from the chaos of the unconscious and grounds us in a sense of self and in the face we present to the world; what we feel we are not helps us to build up our sense of who we are and of what we desire in life. If we decide, perhaps at an age too young to be fully conscious of the decision, that it is bad to feel or express anger and sadness, to be too loud, or to overly self-assert, for example, then we will sift those characteristics into our Shadow and build up a sense of self that is to this end, the ego—also sometimes misconstrued in popular culture as all negative—has a strong relationship to the Shadow. The Shadow “develops along with the ego: the more the ego gains in shape, definition, and stability, the more consolidated the [Shadow] becomes” (Ray, 2014, p. 264). In this way the Shadow plays an important role in how we determine our direction in life and our place in the world. Without the Shadow, we could run into a number of issues not only with ego development but with the individuation process all together.
Expanding on the Shadow
Many depth psychologists use Jung’s description of the Shadow in order to relate to their own Shadow experiences by indicating what it is or isn’t. Some indicate that the Shadow is collectively anything that is not recognized as the other, or “not-I” (Ray, 2014, p. 265). This collective categorization of the Shadow strengthens the concept approach to Jung’s initial work on the Shadow. Jung expressed his concern with this by stating that it is “not enough to know about [the Shadow]and to reflect on [it]” (Jung 1959/1969, p. 30). we have to experience it to understand it and how it relates to us and our individuation process. In experiencing a Shadow (which was encouraged by Jung) we make room for alternative ideas of what the Shadow is come to light. In identifying spiritual traditions, esoteric works, and personal metaphysical experiences, that speak about similar Shadow elements initially described by Jung, we can see that the Shadow is hard to conceptualize as concept.
Another aspect to the debate between the differences of Shadow encounters from the examples shown in this paper and that of the Jungian descriptions is that these are not “normal” day to day dream experiences. This may be entirely true; however, it’s also possible that the normal day to day dreaming is on one level a representation of the examples I provided hidden in dream symbology or content. Alex Kirsch, a person with narcolepsy explained to me how in her case, random dream content is often overlaid onto a lucid dream, meaning that a normal dream experience may have a lucid type dream experience hidden underneath it. A way to think of this would be like experiencing the walls of a house as you walked through your living room, and then someone changing or adding in wall paper onto the walls. The structure of the walls are still there, yet hidden in beautifully arranged patterns and colors.
The Confrontation with the Shadow
Jung said that “all man’s strivings have therefore been directed towards the consolidation of consciousness” (Jung 1959/1969, p. 22) and that protection methods (dams or walls) are put up to protect us from the power of the unconscious. According to Jung, these barriers are where the church holds its power, dispensing access to the unconscious through spiritual worship and strict adherence to ritualistic tradition. However, a true consolidation of consciousness requires us to break through these barriers and have an unmediated experience of what lies beneath. In much of Jung’s work, he gives credit to the Shadow as the protective barrier that we must all encounter, overcome, and pass through in order to meet the unconscious. In past times this conflict was accepted as the initiation required for us to move into the underworld. Due to our disregard of myth and our reliance on scientific explanations, those confrontations are now regarded as simply aspects of our psyche rather than as WHAT. Jung seemed to supported the psychological limitations of this experience, yet still noticed the power and authentic fear that such an encounter elicited. In the confrontation, we can identify more about what the Shadow is and isn’t on a metaphysical level.
In exploration into these cross-cultural Shadow confrontation experiences we can start to see a clearer picture in that these experiences seemingly extend past the psychological dreamlike experiences that Jung referred to. The experiences paint a picture of a seemingly physical encounter that also identifies spirits as a physical object that can be classified, but also stored in the body for later use. It would seem that Jung’s reference in his original gnostic work to archetypes as archons is a better representation of how archetypal forces affect us on a metaphysical level (Jung, 1953/1966, p. 66).
Jung stated: “This confrontation is the first test of courage on the inner way, a test sufficient to frighten off most people” (Jung 1959/1969, p. 20). Many spiritual and esoteric practices include some initiatory process requiring a confrontation of immense power provoking the seeker with a confrontation often fear based. In Norse folklore the evil spirit Mara rides the chests of sleepers causing them to experience terrifying nightmares sometimes occupied by sleep paralysis. This experience was oftentimes followed by individuals being able to leave their bodies and travel to the spiritual realm. Oddly similar in name the Buddhist demon (or God of death) Mara also is relatable by the nighttime transition to the spiritual realm that challenged Siddhartha Gautama in his journey into obtaining enlightenment (Geller 2016). In Judeo Christian tradition Jacob wrestles, a man until daybreak while most likely asleep and in Islamic traditions the prophet Muhammad was overpowered by the embrace by the devastatingly divine presence of an angel which squeezed the breath from his body (Hurd, 2011, p. 53).
In alien abduction stories we find similar Shadowlike encounters where the individual is often removed from their dwelling place, experiences of intense fear, operated on or sexually molested and then returned to where they initially slept (Hurd, 2011, p. 56). In Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade describes in great detail a cross cultural initiatory commonality between shamanistic practices where the initiate is pulled either to the sky or under the ground and cut into pieces and reassembled by spirit guides (Eliade, 1972, pp. 65-114). Additionally, in many initiatory stories, shamans are known to have objects including crystals inserted into their bodies by the spirits (p.132). Simon Harvey master thesis for religious studies explores the similarities between shamanistic initiation practices and that of alien abduction correlating the two together.
Criticized by Jung, the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner detailed a similar experience in his esoteric works to that of Jung’s Shadow confrontation. Stiner explained that the lesser guardian of the threshold to be an “independent being, who does not exists for us until we have reached the appropriate level of inner development” (Steiner, 1994, p. 184) and “who’s function is to warn us to not go any further unless we feel strong enough to meet the challenges” (p. 185). Steiner describes the lesser guardian as being a horrid, ghostlike and the results of our karmic pasts and that encountering it would allow us to pass through a threshold into the spiritual realm. Much like Steiner Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces describes his crossing the threshold concept in similar fashion referring to the encounter with the “threshold guardian at the entrance to the zone of magnified power.” (Campbell, 2008, p. 64.)
Ryan Hurd, author of Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions & Visitors of the Night, explores hypnogogic hallucinations that often occur while an individual experiences sleep paralysis. He describes his own and others’ encounters with visitors while in hypnagogia, remarking on their frightening emotional content and how to overcome the experience (Hurd, 2011, pp. 25-57). He specifically attributes such visitations to the Jungian archetypal force of the Shadow, identifying the tendency of individuals across cultures to experience hallucinations similar to the Shadow encounters that Jung described.
Much like Hurd’s reports from experience, these Shadowlike encounters are very real for me, and Hurds descriptions accurately depict my personal encounters. Since 2006 I have had spontaneous attacks that occur when I have out-of-body-like dream experiences. These encounters, though I no longer experience them as negative, often start with a sense of being in a realm that mimics waking reality, followed immediately by some form of attack on me. The only ways to get the attacking entity to go away is to not respond to the fear at all, to eat the being itself (as the Mestizo shamans of South America did), or to pass through some type of barrier (e.g., a wall, a window, or some other portal). Depending on the physical region of where the dream occurs in waking reality, the visitor’s characteristic may also change, oftentimes holding consistent form in that location until some form of resolution in the dream space occurs. If resolution is achieved, a new visitor may present themselves though not always right away. The consistency, and commonality between my experiences has led me to question if these visitors are not simply only psychological in nature but reside on some metaphysical level.
David Hufford, author of The Terror that Comes in the Night, is dumbfounded by the same commonalities in individual experiences during nightmarish accounts (Hufford, 1989). Hufford’s main focus is associated with the folklore associated with the “The Old Hag,” which finds its roots in German folklore related to Mara, or Night Mare (Kane, 2019). The description of the Old Hag parallels that of Jung’s Shadow encounters and extends it, as in the tradition it is possible to curse or control the Hag to come and attack other sleepers in the night.
Though the examples above correspond remarkably to the encounter with the Shadow, there are countless other examples of encounters with archetypal spirits in Tibetan and South American Shamanism. In Healing with Form, Energy and Light, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche discusses how to work with elemental spirits in order to heal and guide oneself (Wangyal & Dahlby, 2002, pp. 33-76). In Singing to the Plants Stephan Beyers classifies and discusses the Mestizo shamans’ use of plant spirits to heal patients or attack their enemies. The shamans contain the spirits in a layer of phlegm in their stomachs that has been passed to them through a master; the spirits are referred to as magical darts that strengthen the shaman’s phlegm (Beyer, 2010, pp. 81-88). This example of spirits inhabiting the physical body long-term highlights the idea that spirits or archetypal forces may be more metaphysical than they are in Jung’s framework.
Many Shadow encounters experienced while using medicine plants or psychedelics are described as metaphysical in nature and as taking place in a spiritual realm. The plants themselves are often named for the archetypal roles of the visitors one typically encounters in their use, such as “Mother Ayahuasca”; the plant Salvia Divinorum is associated with Jesters, projecting the trickster archetype. Researcher Benny Shannon, author of The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, concludes, after examining reports of thousands of psychedelic and dreamlike experiences, that psychedelic experiences and their imagery relate not only to an individual’s personal identity and culture but also to cross-cultural, archetypal experience. This concept aligns closely with Jung’s initial findings; however, Shannon goes on to explain, “theoretically, the Jungian archetypes fail to explain the concrete commonalities of contents in both Ayahuasca visions and the visions and other materials Jung himself investigated” (Shannon, 2006, p. 392). Shannon concludes that psychedelic experiences are something more concrete than just instincts or psychological patterns: “[They] remind us of [a] paradisal, more-than-real world which sometimes is glimpsed consciously by some people” (p. 392).
Gender is another area where we see variances between Jungian theory and reported Shadow encounters. Mythologies and spiritual practices across cultures describe Shadow encounters that do not always appear as the same sex as the dreamer. Additionally, not all encounters with the Shadow are negative; some dreamers report them as pleasurable, sometimes sexual; nevertheless, they pose the same sense of challenge to the dreamer, requiring the subject to overcome an emotional reaction to the dream in order to continue into the unconscious. Overall, despite these minor variances and the real-world quality of many Shadow encounters, reported experience supports Jung’s idea that the Shadow is a transitional or liminal structure that leads us to a deeper encounter with the unconscious.
The Tight Passageway
Jung described the Shadow as the “tight passageway, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well” (Jung 1959/1969, p. 21). Whitmont extends this metaphor, explaining that the Shadow is “like a composite of the personal shells of our complexes and is thus the doorway to the deeper transpersonal experiences.” (Whitmont, 1978, p. 160). Though both Jung and Whitmont’s descriptions focus on the Shadow as psychological and emotional doorway, we still find Jung’s and others descriptions of this passageway to be a common metaphysical experience of those who pass into what is described as the spirit realm, whether through death or a similar experience such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and psychedelic experiences.
Though Jung’s metaphor of the passageway is accurate insofar as the Shadow is a vehicle of transition, it also may be that this “tunnel” also exists on some level of metaphysical reality. As a structure, the tunnel seems out of place when viewed alongside spirits encountered during a Shadow confrontation. The tunnel is a physical structure, as opposed to a spirit, guide, visitor, or other being. It seems logical to suggest that the tunnel itself and the Shadow encountered there are separate.
I have presented information to show that reported Shadow encounters have many inconsistencies with Jung’s initial ideas of the Shadow concept and that through looking at this specific archetypal form through a metaphysical lens the encounter comes to life, offering us different perspectives into what the archetypes are or are not and if it is possible to encounter one directly.
Viewed through a metaphysical lens, in personal experiences and reports the Shadow takes on a more structured reality. It holds universal imagery that crosses time and cultures. Encounters with the Shadow are also universally related to an initiation process that allows the individual to enter the spiritual realm. The consistency of Shadow imagery as well as of the Shadow confrontation that individuals report across cultures and types of experience—psychedelic, out-of-body, near-death, and lucid dreaming—suggests that these encounters extend beyond the purely psychological into the metaphysical.
It is impossible to debate whether the direct experiences referenced in this paper are accurate representations of the Shadow as defined by Jung. Any encounter with the Shadow is subjective in experience and interpretation. Because of the confusing and personal nature of the human psyche, it is hard to know if what we are talking about are in fact “real” or just figments of our collective imagination. It is similarly impossible to know with any certainty whether Jung’s definitions, or other researchers’, can have any empirical foundation.
This paper only touches the surface of Shadowlike encounters and what Jung identified as the Shadow or archetypes. There is much more work to be done on the subject to fully encompass and express these complex, bizarre, and surprisingly common experiences. We are fortunate that Jung provided language to describe these experiences in psychological terms, even if it is incomplete. It is for this reason that it is essential that we put archetypal forces in a metaphysical context so that we can identify what doors are yet to be opened.
Beyer, S. (2010). Singing to the plants a guide to mestizo shamanism in the upper Amazon. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Eliade, M. (1972). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Geller. (2016, October 25). Mara – Buddhist Demon of Death and Rebirth. Retrieved December 6, 2019, from https://mythology.net/demons/mara/.
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Hurd, R. (2011). Sleep paralysis: A guide to hypnagogic visions & visitors of the night. Los Altos, CA: Hyena Press.
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Ray, R. A. (2014). Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body. Sounds True.
(Ray, 2014, p.
Shanon, B. (2006). The antipodes of the mind: charting the phenomenology of the Ayahuasca experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Steiner, R. (1994). How to know higher worlds: a modern path of initiation. Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press.
Wangyal, T., & Dahlby, M. (2002). Healing with form, energy and light: the five elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Pub.
Whitmont, E. C. (1978). The symbolic quest: Basic concepts of analytical psychology (7th ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lee Adams is a Ph.D. candidate in Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute and host of Cosmic Echo, a lucid dreaming podcast, and creator of taileaters.com, an online community of lucid dreamers and psychonauts. Lee has been actively researching, practicing, and teaching lucid dreaming for over twenty years.
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