Read an Excerpt
The Shadow's Gift
Find Out Who You Really Are
By Robin Robertson
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2011 Robin Robertson, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
The Call from Within: Why The Shadow Appears
In the hand of Pandora had been placed by the immortals a casket or vase which she was forbidden to open. Overcome by an unaccountable curiosity to know what this vessel contained, she one day lifted the cover and looked in. Forthwith there escaped a multitude of plagues for hapless man—gout, rheumatism, and colic for the body; envy, spite, and revenge for his mind—and scattered themselves far and wide. Pandora hastened to replace the lid; but one thing only remained in the casket, and that was hope.
Charles Mills Gayley.
The early part of our lives is spent trying to discover who we are with respect to the world outside us. While we're still children, the world can be a pretty scary place. It's more important to us to be safe than to be unique, and we're happy to have a family that protects us. When we become young adults, the world may still seem frightening, but it can also be very alluring. We leave our parents behind, take a few risks, and, in the process of taking those risks, start to discover who we are. We may take a few knocks in the process, but gradually we grow more sure of ourselves, more confident of who we are and where we are going.
Just then—when we're on top of the world, flush with success—the shadow appears! It always appears when it is least expected. Whenever we begin to think that we're pretty special, that life is going to get better and better, darkness shatters our complacency.
That's because defining who we are solely in terms of the outer world produces a shallow person, almost literally two-dimensional, with a face we present to the world, but no depth behind it. Imagine a flat paper doll—everywhere we turn we present the same face to the world. When we look in the mirror, that's still basically the face that we see, though we may pretty it up a bit in our mind to avoid having to see the blemishes that others see. No one, not even yourself, sees the face that's hidden on the other side.
Before the shadow appears, we are likely to think of our self almost exclusively in terms of our work role—architect, psychologist, secretary, politician—and our family role—mother, father, husband, wife. The trouble with such self-definitions is that since they are defined not by us, but by our place in the world, they fit anybody. Calling our self an architect doesn't tell us much about who we really are. Maybe we think of our self as a good architect or a creative architect, but there is nothing there that is unique to our own individuality. This is even more true in terms of our family roles. "Mother," for example, is so all-encompassing a role that there is precious little room left for the individual. Because so much of our life is spent in one or another of these roles, we forget that we are more than those definitions imposed on us from without.
Something deep inside us knows that we possess a unique identity, and it's not the face we present to the world nor is it the image that we pretend to see in the mirror. Instead this unique identity is a work-in-progress, a goal we are trying to achieve, a destiny that we come closer to or drift further away from as we grow and develop. In the course of our development, we learn how to set conscious goals that we can hold in front of our eyes like a carrot in front of a donkey. But when it comes to achieving unconscious goals, we hardly know where to start. We need to remember that "character, like a photograph, develops in darkness." But then how can we follow our destiny when we don't know what it is, when it's hidden in darkness?
It would be nice if we were wise enough to tell ourself: "I've gone as far as I can go with the outer world, now it's time to look inside and see who I really am." But nobody is wise enough to do this—nobody! After all, we've worked long and hard to develop a comfortable self-definition, one that those around us are comfortable with, which makes us comfortable in turn. It would seem idiotic to try and redefine ourselves just when we think we know who we are. So instead we have to be dragged into change, kicking and screaming all the way.
But as we are resisting with all our strength, we need to remember that the shadow is a necessary part of our total personality. As long as it remains unconscious, we are incomplete. People differ widely in "their ability to stand such unwholeness. Some go through life oblivious of their one-sidedness, while others are more sensitive to the demands of the repressed factors without them." But the shadow is always trying to force us toward wholeness. "When the obligation to become whole is laid upon an individual.... the first task he must undertake is to confront his shadow."
The Unconscious: What Lies Hidden Behind the Back Door of our Personality
Consciousness is like a surface or a skin upon a vast unconscious area of unknown extent. We do not know how far the unconscious rules because we know nothing of it. You cannot say anything about a thing of which you know nothing.
C. G. Jung.
First a little background on the territory where the shadow lives. For most of us during the first half of our life, the world around us seems so large that we can't imagine we will ever find our place in it. We are so busy with that process that it never occurs to us that there might be a still bigger world inside us, but there is. Throughout this book, I will use the word unconscious to refer to this inner world, but that word is only used to indicate that there is a world of which we are not aware. You may also have heard it called the subconscious. The prefix sub indicates that this level of consciousness seems to be below or behind our normal consciousness; in no way should sub be taken to mean that the subconscious is inferior to normal consciousness. Some like to split the unconscious into a subconscious and a superconscious, stressing that the unconscious contains elements more primitive than normal consciousness and elements more advanced than normal consciousness. Though there is some truth to that view, we are better off not splitting the unconscious that way; far too often, we discover that the seemingly primitive and the seemingly divine are inextricably connected within the unconscious. It is our conscious attitude that splits them into categories; inside the unconscious they are merged.
Another way to split the unconscious is to divide it into a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. The personal unconscious contains memories that we have gathered in our personal lives, which have either never become conscious or were once conscious and have now retreated below conscious awareness. In life, we find that there is no real clear-cut boundary between consciousness and the personal unconscious; memories, feelings, thoughts move vaguely between one and the other. The collective unconscious seems to contain the entire history of not only our species, but of all life. It is so large that the personal unconscious is just a tiny speck within it, like a single planet compared with the universe. But, of course, the collective unconscious is further from normal consciousness and only emerges into consciousness with effort.
The collective unconscious isn't as mysterious as it sounds. All species evolved from earlier species over great lengths of times, and all contain the remnants of that evolution, both within their physical and neurological structures. Nineteenth century German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel argued that, in the development from egg to birth, each individual of a species goes through the same stages as the evolutionary history of the species. He had a wonderfully descriptive catch-phrase for this: "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." As with so many useful descriptive models, the actual individual development (ontogeny) is more complex than this single phrase would have it. Still, nature doesn't throw away anything useful. When we look in the ocean depths, we find creatures little different from their ancestors of hundreds of millions of years ago; e.g., some that are little more than swimming tubes that absorb any food that passes through them on their unending journeys. Then, when we look inside land animals (including humans), we find alimentary canals that are almost identical in structure to these primitive animals. Nature found something useful and built a larger structure around it.
Similarly in the structure of the human brain, we find a series of three largely separated brains stacked upon each other, each appearing at a later point in time, each handling more specialized or more advanced needs. This triune brain model was originally developed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960's and popularized by Carl Sagan as part of his best-selling book, The Dragons of Eden. Neuroscience has continued to advance since this model was proposed, and, as with Haeckel, the actual evolution of the brain has proved more complex than MacLean's model. But the triune brain model can still help us understand why humans behave in ways that don't fit readily into our vision of ourselves as rational beings.
There is actually a fourth brain which is more ancient than any of the three brains: the neural chassis (to use MacLean's phrase for the spinal cord, hind- and mid-brain). It takes care of all the automatic functions of the body, including protecting ourselves and reproducing. Sagan says that "in a fish or an amphibian, it's almost all the brain that there is." He goes on to quote MacLean as saying that for any higher animal, if that was all that there was, they would be "as motionless and aimless as an idling vehicle without a driver." The three brains of the triune brain are the drivers.
The most ancient of the three brains, the reptile brain (more properly the "r-complex"), first appeared approximately 250 million years ago in the age of dinosaurs (hence Sagan's striking title). The mammal brain (more properly the limbic system) arrived roughly 100 million years later. Finally, the primate brain (the neocortex) appeared barely tens of millions of years ago. It developed immensely as humans evolved several millions years ago, so that we can probably now refer to the neocortex as the human brain, provided we realize that it also contains within it the evolutionary history of our primate ancestors.
The reptile brain is located at the top of the brain stem which leads into the spinal cord. When the mammal brain evolved later, it simply wrapped around the reptile brain. And wrapped around it in turn is the neocortex, that almost infinitely wrinkled surface which we normally think of as the human brain. Though all three brains necessarily communicate to some extent, in large part they take care of their own business without interference from each other. That is the significant point for us: each brain is largely independent of the others! And often that results in our feeling split inside over issues.
For example, the reptile brain handles issues of aggression, territoriality, social hierarchies, and ritual. That's what is in control when we get "territorial" and "aggressive" because someone is flirting with our boy friend or girl friend, or someone has a bigger office than we do, or some scholar in our field publishes an idea we regard as our own. The mammal brain governs social issues and the more complex emotions that accompany them: "belonging, caring, empathy, compassion and group preservation." It's a fascinating fact that these are the parts of our behavior that we consider most human, yet they are actually what we share with our cousins in the animal world. In contrast, the uniquely human brain is the developed neocortex, the reasoning, cognitive brain. It probably first appeared as human beings became upright and depended more and more on their sense of vision. For that reason, it could also be fairly termed the visual brain.
We might think of the stages when each of these three brains reigned supreme as stages of the development of consciousness, if we consider consciousness on a spectrum that fades down to that which is totally unconscious. The relative lengths of time since each developed corresponds roughly to the amount of control each has over our lives (though I'm stretching the point a bit here). Thus far and away the most vital regulator of human life is the neural chassis, which directs the autonomous functions of our body and of which normally we are totally unconscious. Then the reactions of the more primitive reptile brain (which is deeply involved with shadow issues) generate a great deal of our interaction with the world, and again these are largely unconscious. We might regard the mammal brain as the beginning of the simplest levels of consciousness, though at that point, we get into controversies about what consciousness is or is not.
Until fairly recently, both philosophers and scientists thought of the human brain as a tabula rasa (blank slate) on which our sensory experiences were recorded. As we can already see from our discussions of the triune brain (and I stress again that the actual evolutionary structure of the human brain is more complex than the model), nothing could be further from the truth. Instead we are born with an enormous amount of instinctual knowledge built into the very structure of the brain. Or perhaps more accurately the several "brains." Some of that stored knowledge is quite general, some surprisingly specific.
For example, the need for defense is so important that in many species, a baby is born instinctually knowing how to recognize its enemies. Famed naturalist Konrad Lorenz won the Nobel Prize for his observations of animal behavior which led to the new field of ethology. He commented that "A good many birds, such as magpies, mallards or robins, prepare at once for flight at their very first sight of a cat, a fox or even a squirrel. They behave in just the same way, whether reared by man or by their own parents." In other species, such as jackdaws, evolution has instead chosen to have the parents pass on the knowledge of enemies to the children. Here the knowledge isn't inborn, but the need to pass on the knowledge by the parent is inborn; i.e., nature predisposes even lower animals toward cultural inheritance. And since birds are essentially flying reptiles, this inherited knowledge is necessarily stored in the reptile brain.
Though we think of humans largely learning only through such cultural inheritance, like all other animals, we possess an enormous reservoir of instinctual knowledge as well. Jung terms these stored patterns archetypes (from the Greek for prime imprinter). Jung chose to use the word archetype, instead of instinct, in order to emphasize that the same stored pattern might present itself through either instinctual behavior or through images. The simpler the creature, the more important instinct; the more complex, the more necessary that the pattern can be converted to an image which can be processed by the mind.
And really the unconscious should not be considered as a place. We don't pick up memories from some storehouse, where they have been carefully placed and labeled. When we remember something, we are actually reconstructing a memory, in the process drawing on other related memories in our lives. When we perceive something for the first time, we are also drawing on related memories, so that when we think we are seeing and hearing something directly, we are really constructing that vision and that sound much like we do when we bring a memory to mind. And obviously, that construction isn't under control of our consciousness, as it is going on all the time, waking or sleeping, without any effort or awareness on our part.
The unconscious can seem like a strange concept at first. As a first approximation, think of the unconscious as your whole being, both body and mind. The body is able to carry on virtually all its necessary functions with no need for conscious intervention. In fact, consciousness can get in the way; just make yourself aware of your breathing. You may find that your breathing becomes very irregular as your consciousness interferes with the normally unconscious process. Gradually your consciousness will turn to other matters, and you will find your breathing returns to normal.
Beyond that, a great number of our actions were once conscious, then became habits that no longer required conscious action. Again if we turn on our consciousness to these habits, we find it only gets in the way. As an example of this, try to make yourself conscious of everything that you do when you lie down to go to sleep. Unfortunately, this may lead to a sleepless night (or at least it will take a lot longer to go to sleep). Or pay conscious attention to your normal morning routine. Again you'll find that consciousness gets in the way.
Excerpted from The Shadow's Gift by Robin Robertson. Copyright © 2011 Robin Robertson, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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