Merging with the Shadow: A Look into the Hero’s Journey
Identifying with the shadow self is something that I have been focused on for many years of my life. In the past, I have been known to be overly focused on this concept, and I can contribute some of that to being a glass half empty kind of personality. There were also additional reasons for my intense focus on this concept that goes well beyond my character and dives deeper into dreams and what they are trying to convey to us.
For those who are new to understanding the shadow self, a lot of the past work on this study is attributed to Jungian psychology. Carl Jung identified the shadow to be much like his other archetypes where it is not a physical object or an object that is apparent in dreams or the mind, but more hides behind the veil of the psyche an can influence the themes of the dream. Though no one can speak with Jung today and understand his ultimate views of the shadow self, I tend to be skeptical and think that Jung had a more comprehensive view of the shadow self than what academic psychology tends to discuss. The reason for this is that Jung had been known to be interested in alchemy which also investigates the awareness of a shadow self often described as the Guardian. The Guardian of the threshold is also discussed in the hero’s journey as well, along with many esoteric works. This Guardian plays its role as a gatekeeper who often tries to stop the initiate from continuing forward on their journey to self-realization.
In the hero’s journey as well as esoteric works the initiate who is on the journey to understand themselves must overcome the Guardian to cross the threshold and continue forward. The threshold, in this case, can be any turning point for the initiate. In many examples, the threshold is represented as a gateway near the start of the story or the initial call to adventure that our hero experiences. The Guardian for one reason or another puts up some resistance to the hero’s desire for adventure or change. This resistance is often expressed in ways that are not more than the hero can handle but puts up enough challenge that the hero must face his or her fears to continue forward. Jung describes the hero’s journey regarding the shadow as “the libido leaves the bright upper world … sinks back into its own depths…below, in the shadows of the unconscious” and continues to discuss that this decent ultimately ends with an ascension. From this, the shadow seems to be the gatekeeper (Guardian) into the world of itself or the subconsciousness. To me, this seems to reference the Emerald Tablets teachings saying “as above so below” implying that things above are the same as below, just mirror images of each other. This also is discussing elements of the union of masculine and feminine aspects of each person make up the entire psyche, as well as the shadow is a reflection of the self.
From my personal experiences, I find it necessary to look at the hero’s journey in relation to dream narratives, especially in Out of Body Experiences. Before I had my first Out of Body Experience, I was confronted by a dream figure that continued to challenge me with aggressive actions. These actions would scare me to reject the changes that were taking place and the desire to change at the time. Though I felt that at the time I would not be able to overcome this fearful character, I eventually had to accept my self-confidence from within and overcome this character fully. This step allowed me to see that I had the ability to continue forward alone on my hero’s journey.
Though at the time I didn’t even understand the concept of the hero’s journey or Jung’s perspective of the shadow self, I still experienced these things. Not only did I experience the psychological aspects of the experiences that Jung discussed, but they also represented themselves as physical objects in the dream world. Here is a short description of experience I had:
The Guardian was visually represented by a shadow-like creature that continued to visit me night after night. I would additionally see these visions after I would awake in sleep paralysis unable to move. After many times of experiencing this, I found that I had absolved all ways externally of dealing with the creature and that by only believing entirely in my own will, could I defeat it. After coming to this understanding, I trapped the Guardian and merged with it by eating it until it was entirely devoured. After the Guardian was gone a silence and sense of peace was felt, and a doorway now lead down to a bright light. Once I took the steps and entered the doorway, I was welcomed into a beautiful display of reality that I had never experienced before.
Though no one could deny that this was a clear case of hero’s journey, what was fascinating to me to later on in life realize, is that I had this experience without any prior knowledge of the experience. I also had no previous philosophical or esoteric teachings on the subject. This brings up a number of questions that I will later address in this article.
Similarities in Shamanism
My attraction to shamanism also seems to be related to my hero’s journey as well as many shamanic traditions seem to have influences of these experiences in them. If we look into many origin stories of shamanistic initiation, we find that many shamans also experience a Guardian confrontation. In this confrontation the initiate is challenged by either their environment, animal spirits, or spirits of a different kind, are then dissected or taken apart (often in the land of the dead or underworld) and then reassembled and brought back to life. This dissection and reassembly seem to be the critical element that allows for the first step of becoming a shaman across many societies and is often the only requirement to become a shaman. This experience is oddly another cross culture event, meaning that many different cultures around the world experience these same experiences without any known interaction with each other. It seems that the hero’s journey and the confrontation from the shadow or Guardian have been with us since the birth of spiritual practices. Many of these same elements can be found in the Bible as well as other religious texts as well.
(You can read more about this in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, chapter 2)
In today’s society, we tell stories that resonate with us in our deepest most shadowy places. Stories that do well seem to also follow the same narratives of hero’s journey. The characters of each story may change, but the overall theme is the same. Take for instance Star Wars and its use for the battle between good and evil or the light side and the dark side. Each hero (Luke and Rey) enter a cave where they face their fears or their shadow self. Luke sees his enemy, and when he confronts him, he sees himself in the headless figure of Darth Vader mask. Ray also sees herself in the cave which continues with the theme that to overcome ourselves we must see ourselves for who we are. As above so below.
Another instance where hero’s journeys theme is in play is in the recent show Westworld. There are countless themes in this epic show that describes the desire for the main character to identify with its shadow self (Wyatt with Dolores being merged as one). Additionally, the show indicates themes of shamanism with the hosts being continually deconstructed and reassembled in order to learn and become more in the future. Dolores who is one of the main characters is also playing the ultimate game of finding the center of the maze which is esoterically called the Great Work or the self-realization of pure consciousness. Honestly, someone could write a book on Westworld and its symbolism into esoteric work, it’s outstanding.
You can watch a great youtube video of dissecting the maze and the story and what the goal is in the show here:
Also here is a great discussion of the esoteric themes in the movie.
Overall there are countless modern stories of the hero’s journey and their goal in self-realization. It seems this is a theme that we as humans never tire telling in our stories.
Merging in Different Ways
Though in the most traditional stories merging with the shadow doesn’t usually take place as Jung would have suggested, in most hero’s journies the hero defeats the Guardian and continues forward in his or her quest to find the treasure or save the princess. In realistic terms, though I don’t agree that the Guardian is ever truly defeated and should not be looked at as something to defeat but more to try to understand. This stems from again my own dream experience with the Guardian.
After becoming aware I was dreaming, I was confronted with a terrifying depiction of the Guardian. It came at me like a dead human who had been rotting for some time. After it reached me I allowed it to eat me which seemed to be something it desired. On the acceptance of the Guardian and the fearlessness I showed it, the guardian had transformed into a clone of myself. Upon asking it what it desired, it responded that it was unsatisfied. Soon after the Guardian merged into me and I awoke.
As we can see from my personal experience as well as common themes in Star Wars and Westworld, the Guardian is a reflection of ourselves and must be understood before growth can be achieved. This not only happens once but continues to happen over and over again over a period as we continue to journey through our own life’s maze. The I’itoi or Man in the Maze is often referred to this journey, and additional cross-cultural references can be made to this concept including the labyrinth designed by the Egyptians and Greeks.
Where Things Get Weird
It would seem that due to all these cross-cultural similarities that there is some universal desire within all of us to have these experiences. Where I think that Jung stopped in his articulation of this concept is where things get interesting. With a little research, you can find that many people who have Out of Body Experiences and Astral projection also commonly come face to face with Guardian. They often experience sleep paralysis where they additionally have hypnogogic hallucinations and see beings which are trying to terrify them or control them. It seems that over and over again after facing these Guardians people are allowed to travel outside their bodies and onward. Often people who show interest in dream work, as well as meditation work, seem to experience these situations naturally as though its bound to happen to all of them at some point. It also appears that once the Guardian has shown itself, it becomes unwilling to stop challenging the individual until they overcome it. Looking into Jung’s personal work on his Red Book, we can also see that Jung maybe dove a bit deeper into his own maze than initially thought by his peers.
Though I am not sure what all of this means or why the human race seems to continue to make stories that have these common themes in them. It does seem that it is ingrained in us to have a desire to experience and not forget these valuable lessons. This basic story has become a pattern of behavior that is unique to the human race, doesn’t seem to be generated by traditional means, and is universal in many of its themes. I find that extremely interesting and something that should be examined very closely. It also brings me to the question of if this is a form of nature expressing itself in the human consciousness and if so what do these patterns show. I would like to see the large picture, but at last, I am still in my maze trying to find the center.
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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