It can help us make sense of transcendent experiences.
Last year, I went to the Amazon jungle in Peru to take part in a nine-day ayahuasca retreat at a well-known center called the Temple of the Way of Light. Before the retreat, we were sent a document to help us prepare for the ceremonies. I was curious to see how the Temple framed the ayahuasca experience and to what extent it drew on indigenous Shipibo wisdom. In fact, the Temple seemed to draw much more on the ideas of Carl Jung, the Swiss depth psychologist and rebel disciple of Sigmund Freud.
The second section of the document was called “Preparing to Face Your Shadow”. It said:
Our shadow is everything inside us that we have disowned, avoided and kept in the dark. We all turn away from pain at some stage in our life, especially during our childhoods, yet whatever we have not processed gets relegated and hidden in our shadow. Our shadow is where our life force gets trapped and is no longer available to us. . . . Shadow work is counter-habitual: we turn towards pain, not away from pain. We access that place of pain within us and slowly bring it into the open, become acquainted and then intimate with it, until the estranged pain is not a dreaded “it”, but a reclaimed “us”.
The shadow is one of Jung’s best ideas. While Freud thought civilized human beings were fated to be miserably divided from their primitive subconscious urges, Jung was more optimistic. He thought we might be able to confront our subconscious shadows and transform them through courage, insight, and acceptance. Then the scary monster would be transformed into an ally and helper.
Jung suggested that the shadow aspects of our psyche can appear in dreams and visions as a sort of angry demonic figure—it might often appear as a “tramp”, a metaphor for all the parts of our psyche we’ve rejected and cast out as we try to construct a nice civilized persona.
That’s how the shadow appeared in my own nightmares when I was a young man. I suffered from post-traumatic stress for six years following a bad LSD trip when I was 18. On the trip, I had frozen out of fear and paranoia and felt terrified I’d done permanent damage to my brain. Then, in classic English fashion, I didn’t speak to anyone about the experience for years. This trauma and botched integration led to me developing social anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and dissociation while at university. During that time, I often dreamt I was being chased by monsters, wild beasts, murderers, and tramps. These were metaphors my subconscious was using for the damaged or shadow parts of me that I had thrown out and locked away. In fact, in one dream I was wandering through a zoo and realized the cages were open and the wild beasts could attack me.
In one particularly vivid dream, I was being driven in a truck along a highway by a wild tramp figure who was drunk driving. We crashed through the side of the road, and the truck teetered over the edge of a cliff. I pulled out the tramp just before the truck fell over the edge. I think my subconscious was telling me to recognize that the shadow was a part of me, and I should save it before my entire psyche fell off the edge.
Alas, I didn’t heed my subconscious, and the dream then played out in reality. In 2001, when I was 24, I had a bad skiing accident—I crashed through the barrier on the side of a mountain, fell 30 feet, and nearly died. Luckily, I didn’t die; instead, I had a near death experience. Lying on the side of the mountain in a pool of blood, I felt immersed in a white light, filled with loving wisdom. Having felt I was fundamentally broken for six long years, I realized in an instant that I was OK, I was loved, and that there was something within me and all of us—that clear white light—that cannot be broken or lost. I realized what had perpetuated my suffering was not broken neuro-chemistry (as I feared) but my own beliefs, which I could change.
I decided to try psychedelics again, to open the trapdoor and face the shadow, but this time in a safe and therapeutic context.
That near death experience started me on the road to healing. I worked to integrate the insights from that experience by learning cognitive behavioral therapy and stoicism, and I made a lot of progress. But I still wondered if I could heal at a deeper, non-rational, and subconscious level. That’s why, 16 years after that near death experience and 20 years after my last psychedelic experience, I decided to try psychedelics again, to open the trapdoor and face the shadow, but this time in a safe and therapeutic context.
The revival of the shadow in modern psychology
Jung’s idea of the shadow has parallels in several wisdom traditions. Jung himself found inspiration from Western alchemical texts and their idea of the magical transformation of darkness into gold. In ancient myths and fairy tales, one often meets the idea of the monster or hag who is transformed into a helper and lover through the hero’s courage and love. Examples are the myths of Cupid and Psyche and its modern variant, Beauty and the Beast.
Tibetan Tantric Buddhism contains similar ideas of alchemical transformation of negative energies. All Buddhist traditions, in fact, encourage us to overcome our attachments to ego-images and our aversion to the opposite (or shadow) of our ego-image. Through training in equanimity and love, we can learn to welcome those things our ego finds terrifying or repulsive. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, we are told that, after death, our consciousness will encounter terrifying wrathful deities. Rather than seeing the monsters as separate, real, and genuinely threatening, we should recognize them as emanations of pure luminous mind, and then they will be transformed into helpers. When I was at the Temple, I happened to pick up a book by Pema Chodron, the American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, called The Places That Scare You. Chodron writes of transforming one’s shadow into open-heartedness:
Right here in what we’d like to throw away, in what we find repulsive and frightening, we discover the warmth and clarity of bodhichitta [open-heartedness]. . . . Transformation occurs when we remember, breath by breath, to move towards our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience. Below emotions are vital pulsating energy—stay with it. When we struggle against our energy, we reject the source of wisdom.
One can also see similar ideas in Christian mysticism and in Sufism. The Sufi poet Rumi’s often-quoted poem, “The Guest-House”, suggests we should welcome all the visitors into our psyche, even the repulsive and irritating ones. Our equanimity will transform negative energies into helpers and allies. In another poem, he says: “Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles have been sent you, the door opens.”
Despite this venerable history of the concept, the shadow is not an idea that gets much play in mainstream psychology. You’d be hard pressed to find it mentioned in a textbook of cognitive behavioral therapy, for example (although CBT does talk about overcoming aversion and cultivating acceptance).
Yet the shadow has been kept alive in New Age spirituality and in transpersonal psychology, a somewhat fringe movement centered in California, which includes psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof, and Ken Wilber. Transpersonal psychology distinguishes itself from other schools in its openness to the idea that the aim of existence is to transcend the ego and perhaps to unite with some greater consciousness or spiritual dimension. Confronting the shadow is often considered an important stage in that journey.
Moments of ego-transcendence often involve confrontations with shadow aspects of the psyche.
Today, the ideas of transpersonal psychology are becoming mainstream, thanks to research in psychedelic science, in contemplative science, in dream science, and in the science of out-of-the-ordinary experiences (like hearing voices). It’s becoming widely accepted that the psyche is bigger than just the conscious ego, that ego-transcendence is often good for us. It’s also becoming widely accepted that moments of ego-transcendence often involve confrontations with shadow aspects of the psyche.
For example, many leading Western psychedelic researchers draw on Jung’s concept as a central reference for what happens on trips and why they can be profoundly healing. At the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, for example, which has an influential psychedelics lab, Bill Richards, MD, has said:
We often say that if, during a psychedelic session, some monster appears, you should say “Hello, monster, why are you here? What can I learn from you?” If you go towards it, there is integration and healing. If you run away from it, it’s like running away from your own shadow. You can develop panic and paranoia.
I asked Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College, if he thought psychedelic research has provided support for Jung’s idea of the shadow and whether psychedelic research might lead to a return of the idea of the shadow into mainstream psychotherapy. He replied: “Without any doubt, I would answer your question in the affirmative—both aspects.” A leading psychedelic therapist, Friederike Meckel Fischer, MD, also draws extensively on the Jungian idea of the confrontation with the shadow.
You can also see Jungian (or Tibetan) ideas of the shadow becoming integrated into contemplative science. For example, Willoughby Briton, PhD, lead researcher at Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab, runs a research project exploring some of the difficult experiences people sometimes encounter in meditation. One of the most common difficulties people encounter during meditation, she says, is the return of suppressed negative memories and emotions; the shadow comes back, and meditators have the opportunity to bring these difficult experiences into consciousness and accept them with compassion.
I notice the idea of the shadow also appearing in the latest research on unusual or out-of-the-ordinary experiences like hearing voices. Eleanor Longden started hearing a voice when she was an undergraduate, and it became more and more aggressive, intrusive, and disturbing. She was hospitalized for psychosis, but this only made her voice more aggressive. Finally, through therapy, she gradually learned to change her relationship to this demonic voice. She writes:
I began to realize that, yes, he is a demon, but he was a personal demon. . . . his demonic aspects were the unaccepted aspects of my self-image, my shadow. . . . The contempt and loathing that he expresses is actually to do with me in that it reflects how I feel about myself. . . . Having realized that maybe I could trust him and be more trusting of him, in turn, he became more compassionate towards me.
She subsequently took a degree in psychology, wrote a successful book about hearing voices, and gave one of the most watched TED talks. She’s a leading figure in the Hearing Voices Movement, which is changing our cultural attitude to voice hearers and changing the attitude of voice hearers to their own demons.
Finally, I notice that Jung’s concept of the shadow plays quite a prominent role in some of the research on dreaming and lucid dreaming. This is not yet quite as established a scientific field as the other fields I’ve mentioned, but it’s worth noting the early findings. I read the work of Charlie Morley, for example, who is a leading practitioner of lucid dreaming in the UK. Morley, like me, gave himself mild PTSD through a bad trip on LSD when he was a teenager. Like me, the PTSD manifested in nightmares where he was pursued by a demonic vagabond figure. Later, when he learned lucid dreaming techniques, Morley was able to confront this demon, recognize him as an aspect of his own psyche, and accept him with compassion. The monster was transformed in his dream into an ally.
Between two worlds
So what happened on the ayahuasca retreat? I won’t bore you with all the details, but two things are worth mentioning with regard to this topic.
First, I realized the extent to which one’s shadow can be not just personal, but ancestral and cultural. During one ceremony, the medicine (or, if you prefer, my subconscious) drew my attention to the shadow not just of myself, but of my culture. “It” told me to pay attention to the history of slavery connected to London, where I live and my family has lived for generations. I even received the idea that I had owned slaves in a previous life; I was told I was a Quaker called Thomas Marple, who lived around 1865. I saw African slaves in a ship and saw their pain and humiliation. And I was given a vivid sense of the rising threat of ethnic nationalism and what a ridiculous and vain project that is. During the retreat, I became friends with a guy called Matt, an African-American personal trainer from Houston. He also had a vision in which he was a slave on a ship. I don’t know if they were somehow connected. When I came home, I did some research. There was a historical record of a man called Thomas Marple who owned slaves in Kentucky in the mid-19th century, and another Quaker called Thomas Marple, who lived in Virginia at that time, and who may or may not have owned slaves. Who knows? What I did find out was my Quaker ancestors—the Rowntrees, owners of a British confectionery company—had bought cocoa from a slave plantation in Sao Tomé, leading to a major corporate scandal in 1905. So it’s interesting to think that our shadow might not just be personal, but also ancestral and cultural.
The second thing worth mentioning is that, for me, the shadow came up a lot stronger in the week after the retreat than during it. The retreat itself was on the whole a fun and inspiring experience. But as soon as I was back in Iquitos, I felt uneasy, disconnected, and dissociated. I then traveled to the Galapagos for a holiday, and on the journey, and for the next few days, I felt so dissociated that I became convinced I was in an alternate reality, either a dream or some sort of limbo afterlife. I was able to function normally, even though I was quite frightened and sad, because I wasn’t sure how to get out of the dream, how to wake up, how to come back to the other reality where all my loved ones were. I thought I might be dead, and felt very sad and lonely at the thought I wouldn’t see my family again.
“Spiritual emergency”—when you go beyond your ordinary ego and ordinary sense of reality but in a way that is quite turbulent, frightening, and even quasi-psychotic.
After two days of this, I came back to the UK at my friends’ advice. For the next week or so, my lovely friends took care of me, made sure I was fed and safe. I immediately felt less dissociated and could even laugh at the experience, but I would still be hit by sudden waves of anxiety, disorientation, and unreality. And I was quite cognitively disabled; I couldn’t really understand books, films, or group conversations. Even crossing the road was a challenge; I wasn’t sure if the cars were real! After a week of this, however, I came back to this reality and was fine.
Looking back on the experience, I think it was what the transpersonal psychologist and psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD, called a “spiritual emergency”—when you go beyond your ordinary ego and ordinary sense of reality but in a way that is quite turbulent, frightening, and even quasi-psychotic.
The head of the Temple, Matthew Watherson, suggested I had experienced what indigenous healers call susto, or soul-fright. Some indigenous Amazon communities believe that powerful frights can make the soul (or a part of the soul) exit the body, leaving the human divided, anxious, and in some sense absent. It’s interesting to note, in passing, that people with childhood trauma are more prone to out-of-body experiences. To recover from susto, you need to take part in rituals of soul recovery.
The indigenous concept of susto has similarities to the Jungian idea of the shadow: psychic fragmentation through trauma followed by psychic re-integration through ritual. The difference is that indigenous communities often believe the original shock or trauma comes from a magical attack; someone has cursed you. Part of the healing involves the shaman identifying not just the initial trauma, but who attacked you, who sent a curse or magic dart against you. They then remove the dart and, if you want, take revenge. What is interpreted in Western psychology in terms of the individual’s inner psyche is interpreted in Amazon shamanism, more usually, in terms of exterior relational conflict. At the Temple, we were presented with a more Westernized, Jungian idea of healing rather than the traditional indigenous idea of magical attacks.
In Western terms, my psyche had indeed fragmented from the trauma when I was 18. I’d recovered to a large extent, but this experience was a powerful reopening of the wound, a revisiting of that original fragmentation and dissociation. But this time, I was able to walk through the shadows (as it were) in a more mature way. I was able to tell my friends I needed their help. And I was able to help myself, by practicing things like mindfulness of breathing, loving-kindness meditation, and courage and equanimity. Whenever I was hit by a powerful wave of anxiety or dissociation, I would remind myself that every mental state is temporary (although a part of me was frightened that it might be permanent). Equanimity and acceptance are so important for riding through the waves of spiritual emergencies. So is getting back in touch with this material reality; each hug from a friend helped to re-incorporate me into this world.
I look back, a year later, and see the experience as positive and interesting. But it underlines the fact that the integration from a spiritual experience (psychedelic or otherwise) can take weeks, months, even years. My friends felt the Temple shouldn’t have let people leave so quickly after the retreat. Watherston says it previously offered clients the option to stay longer after the final ceremony, but no one took the offer up. He also says the Temple is introducing a new integration framework to help guide people in the days and weeks after their retreats. Perhaps five ceremonies in nine days is an unnecessarily intense treatment, I don’t know.
As more and more people take psychedelics, practice contemplation, or try other spiritual practices, the number of people reporting “mystical experiences” is rising—from 20% in 1960 to around 50% now, according to Gallup and Pew Research. Some of those awakenings will be messy and turbulent and will involve the return of shadow elements, like buried trauma and dissociation. We need to make sure people have access to the tools and wisdom that can help us face the shadows cast by our selves and our societies over countless lives.
Jung’s theories are certainly helpful for us, but he sometimes painted a rather tidy, orderly journey to self-actualization, through clearly marked stages. The confrontation with the shadow is an early stage, before the confrontation with the anima, and so on. In real life, it feels a lot messier and more confusing than that. Stages you thought you had dealt with a long time ago come up again, like old characters from previous seasons suddenly re-appearing. It’s less of a “hero’s journey” and more of a spiral—old episodes played out over and over but, one hopes, with higher levels of wisdom and integration.