“There can be no greater work, no more daunting of a challenge than to dive headlong into the murky depths of the subconscious…with hopes of retrieving some glimmering small treasure that restores a piece of our lost selves to it’s rightful place.” – Author Unknown
This is the essence of ‘Shadow Work’, the capture and mending of our shadow back to ourselves (to reference Peter Pan) so that it should never be mistaken as some sort of separate entity ever again. Indeed the embrace of our shadow is perhaps the only, truly, loving gesture we are capable of giving ourselves. Total acceptance, honouring, forgiving and integrative admiring of our ego with our Id or shadow self is absolutely essential for any one of us to become a truly authentic and powerful person. But not all Shadow-work yields authenticity, nor does it bring about a healthy form of personal power. Shamans must be initiated by an elder who is aware of the dangers of Shadow-work and the risk to the psyche as without proper guidance a damaged psyche can be the result.
In considering my own Shadow work, I realize I have no Elder, no guru on the mountain-top who will guide me safely out of the depths of my subconscious. I do, however, have Carl Jung and an unusual teacher commonly known as….‘the movies’. I admit, I am an unashamed consumer of the movie industry and am the biggest fan of anything of the science fiction, horror/thriller genre. Luckily for me, as I embark on this quest, I can pull up a couple of favourite films that have played with this idea, bending and wrapping the concept of the Shadow-self archetype in sometimes loving and sometimes twisted layers around the characters. One of my favourite directors (M. Knight Shyamalan) has passionately and consistently brought the darkness in the human condition out onto celluloid for all to see. Two of his films in particular are interesting to me from this standpoint of dealing with our shadow-self: Unbreakable and Split. In Unbreakable, he brings us a super-hero hiding his abilities in the darkness of night and in Split, he brings us a monster who hides his darkness in plain sight with the splintering of his ‘beast’ into 23 separate (and mostly benign) personalities. Contrasted in both films are the ways in which two very different individuals deal with the dark side of their personalities (one character successfully integrating and accepting the dark aspect of himself, and the other attempting to bring his 23 personalities to create one, all-powerful, super-man who is greater than the sum of the obviously weak parts). One character is angelic, while the other is pure evil incarnate. Ultimately both stories are about power…hidden and untapped…and what we do with it.
In an article on Academy of Ideas, the author explains the power aspect of the Shadow:
What is especially interesting is the idea that the shadow contains not just destructive and evil aspects of the personality, but also potent, creative, and powerful capabilities. Certain personality traits that would be beneficial and lead to greater wholeness and harmony, are frowned upon by one’s family, peers, and society out of envy, ignorance, or self-contempt.
For example, it is becoming more prevalent today for psychologists to diagnose individuals who question authority and show signs of extreme self reliance as being pathological, suffering from a condition they call “anti-authoritarian” (see an article by Bruce Levine here).
When positive traits are relegated to the shadow, one is by necessity less than one could be. When one’s higher energies become trapped, labeled by the conscious ego as negative and bad, the growth of the individual becomes blocked, and life becomes sterile.
Indeed, as was seen in Unbreakable, Mr. Glass confronts Bruce Willis’ character, David Dunn, stating that he simply needed the right conditions to become a real life super hero (conditions that Mr. Glass created as a catalyst for Dunn to discover and demonstrate his ‘true self’). Upon learning that people were deliberately put in danger so that Dunn could save them, Dunn retreats, wanting to return to a life of normalcy because he now sees his part in the events as being negative. In contrast, Kevin’s character’s multiple personalities do indeed contain destructive, evil, potent, creative and ultimately powerful (and murderous) capabilities as described in the article above. The blending of Kevin’s personalities are negative traits formed in shadow that remain negative and evil when brought to light, while David Dunns personality shadow personality remains good despite his trying to suppress it.
Is the difference then the starting material? Is the ego or super ego the raw ingredient with which the shadow draws it’s experience from. Is the desire for power inherently neutral until a particular magnetic force is applied? Why couldn’t Kevin have become a benevolent whole human being, killing that one aspect of his personality that other more rational personalities deemed as counter productive to the survival of a Kevin who clearly needed and was capable of love? Why didn’t David Dunn allow his negative personality traits to take over giving him the ability to cause destruction and commit crimes?
It’s the conundrum of the personality before and after the shadow-work being done that makes one come out more whole or more fractured and that ultimately the Shadow is a component that can enhance or detract from the already existing personality. As I begin my own Shadow-work journey, I can’t help but notice this theme in these two movies and wonder how much M. Knight Shymalana drew from his own the concept of the Shadow self. My guess is that he drank from his own psychological well-spring quite deeply and intently.