On the importance of inner work and attending to one’s shadow.
by Lance Baker
Most of us are generally aware that there are both conscious and unconscious aspects to our minds, but most of us know very little about what constitutes either one.
Consciousness as a phenomenon itself is difficult to explain as it is, but most of us understand what we mean when we talk about conscious awareness. It is the unconscious mind where the mysterious depths lie.
We have a vague notion that our unconscious mind plays a role in the unfolding of our lives, but it often remains too abstract to really do anything with. At best, the unconscious is relegated to the rather rudimentary control unit that maintains your breathing or reminds you to blink when your eyes get dry.
The truth is that your unconscious mind plays a far more significant role in your life than you think — more so than your conscious mind. What follows are a few key ideas fundamental to understanding the role of the unconscious mind and how we can work with it to arrive at a healthier sense of self.
I. What is the Unconscious?
There are many things that can clue us into the fact that the unconscious mind is always active. A certain smell can instantaneously transport us to a specific memory of our grandparent’s house when we were 8-years old. A particular weather pattern might take us back to a trip we went on long ago but haven’t thought about in decades. A friend or spouse might recount a story that we had completely forgotten about and then suddenly everything floods back.
Or have you ever walked into a room, turned on the lights, and then realized you had no idea why you went there in the first place? Five-minutes ago you decided you needed a piece of tape but now you are standing in the middle of the room unsure of what you are doing. Your conscious mind forgot but your subconscious mind still brought you to the room anyway.
These are rather silly and benign examples but they point to the vast nature of our unconscious. Where does a memory reside for 10, 20, 30 years that it can be instantly summoned by an aroma or random stimulus?
The unconscious is more than just an archive of memories, however. The unconscious contains feelings about those memories and interpretations of events. It has its own sort of logic and way of learning.
Most importantly, perhaps, the unconscious mind is always at work and the work of that unconscious mind influences the conscious mind. In his book Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, Robert A. Johnson writes:
The unconscious is a marvelous universe of unseen energies, forces, forms of intelligence-even distinct personalities — that live within us. It is a much larger realm than most of us realize, one that has a complete life of its own running parallel to the ordinary life we live day to day. The unconscious is the secret source of much of our thought, feeling, and behavior. It influences us in ways that are all the more powerful because unsuspected.
To understand more about how our unconscious operates in conjunction with our ego, conscious mind, and overall sense of self we have to explore some of these terms a bit further.
II. The Ego and the Self
Most of what we view as our self is contained in what’s known as the ego. Today, the term ego has a negative connotation. If you have an egoit means you are arrogant or an exaggerated sense of self-importance. However, to Jung, ego was a very neutral term.
The ego is simply who you think you are and who you present to the world. The ego is the conscious aspect of your psyche. The self contains the ego and encompasses both the unconscious and conscious aspects of our psyche. In Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche, Edward F. Edinger explains it this way:
The Self is the ordering and unifying center of the total psyche (conscious and unconscious) just as the ego is the center of the conscious personality. Or, put in other words, the ego is the seat of subjective identity while the Self is the seat of objective identity.
The ego is not bad or negative. It simply is. In fact, it is imperative that we develop a strong ego (not an inflated one) to properly navigate the world.
You can think of the ego and the self as two circles. As children, those circles are directly overlapping one another. Our ego is inseparable from our self. As a kid, in many ways, we literally see ourselves as the center of the universe. We have to learn to empathize which means we have to develop a sense of other versus self. We have to practice managing our feelings and expressing ourselves. We discover how to articulate ourselves and develop some level of self-examination. (What do I want? How am I feeling? I am hungry. I’d like some food.) We have to develop this conscious ego or we’d remain in a rather dysfunctional and animalistic state — which, unfortunately, there are many examples of in our society. We have to separate the two circles from one another.
However, as we mature and those two circles begin to separate it is equally imperative that we do not mistake our ego as our actual self (neglecting our unconscious, our shadow, and our broader sense of self). This would result in an inflated ego (more true to the modern use of the term ego) where one believes that their conscious self is all that there is. The inflated ego believes their subjective and conscious sense of self is who they actually are. This is a dangerous state of being for many reasons.
An individual with an inflated ego is often blind to their shadow. Our shadow isn’t necessarily bad. It is just a byproduct of navigating the world. Light creates shadow. It is consequential. Our unconscious mind is not all shadow, but the shadow resides in the unconscious. The shadow is comprised of the things that our conscious mind has hidden from itself — that it has repressed. The shadow is made up of wounds that were never healed. It contains bits of trauma that never received an empathetic witness.
These things don’t just go away. They are part of us. When we are cut off from the shadow, these repressed areas to grow and show up in aspects of our lives. What we ignore in our shadow we end up projecting on to others. Sometimes the thing we hate most about other people is the thing we hate most about ourselves. We might hate a certain entity or aspect of society as a scapegoat and unconscious way of avoiding our own pain.
It may not always be hateful either. A super-hero or sports obsession may be a way of projecting one’s gifts and talents onto someone or something else so they don’t have to become that hero or idol themselves. Video games and the perpetual pursuit of an alternate reality may be an unconscious means of perpetuating that childlike fantasy where a strong ego is never developed. Attending to our shadow is a crucial part of the process of individuation. Left unattended, it will attend to us.
So you can envision our psyche as a sort of pyramid. At the top is our ego. Beneath the ego is the unconscious. Within the unconscious is the shadow. And encompassing all of this at the base of the pyramid is our self.
Why is this so important? Why do we need to understand the differences between ego, shadow, and self? What value is there in becoming aware of the unconscious?
III. The Importance of Spirituality, Symbolism, and Inner Work
We are all much more than the “I” of whom we are aware. Our conscious minds can focus on only a limited sector of our total being at any given time. Despite our efforts at self-knowledge, only a small portion of the huge energy system of the unconscious can be incorporated into the conscious mind or function at the conscious level. Therefore we have to learn how to go to the unconscious and become receptive to its messages: it is the only way to find the unknown parts of ourselves.
— Robert A. Johnson
While the archetypal human psyche hasn’t changed for millennia, our society is constantly shifting and therefore changing the expression of the psychological process of individuation.
One of the major shifts that have taken place in the past couple of centuries is the philosophical “death of God” and the decline of religion as a central component of societal life. Of course, religion is not without its issues. For many, it may largely be responsible for creating many deep shadow wounds and subsequent repression being discussed here. I’m not defending nor advocating for a return to religion as the primary centerpiece of our culture, but we do need to understand how it has changed our society. Edinger explains it like this:
We seem to be passing through a collective psychological reorientation equivalent in magnitude to the emergence of Christianity from the ruins of the Roman Empire. Accompanying the decline of traditional religion there is increasing evidence of a general psychic disorientation. We have lost our bearings. Our relation to life has become ambiguous. The great symbol system which is organized Christianity seems no longer able to command the full commitment of men or to fulfill their ultimate needs. The result is a pervasive feeling of meaninglessness and alienation from life. Whether or not a new collective religious symbol will emerge remains to be seen. For the present those aware of the problem are obliged to make their own individual search for a meaningful life.
Objectively speaking, religion played a significant role in providing the Western world with a symbolic life in which people could participate in. There is a void in modern Western society for the ritual, symbolic, and spiritual. Burning Man is a great manifestation of this void and society’s desire for the symbolic and something they can participate in.
Some people attempt to fill this spiritual void with other religions or by cobbling together their own traditions piecemealed from the annals of history. But this is difficult because there is no common tradition that can guide us through our psychological unfolding. One symbol or practice to one person may mean something entirely different to another. Collectively, this makes it difficult to assist one another. For the uninitiated, it is difficult to know where to start. Robert A. Johnson writes:
Our isolation from the unconscious is synonymous with our isolation from our souls, from the life of the spirit. It results in the loss of our religious life, for it is in the unconscious that we find our individual conception of God and experience our deities. The religious function-this inborn demand for meaning and inner experience is cut off with the rest of the inner life. And it can only force its way back into our lives through neurosis, inner conflicts, and psychological symptoms that demand our attention.
Again, I’m not arguing for a return to something of the past but for an awareness of how this shift is manifesting in the psychological development of individuals today.
We don’t need to look far to see the manifestation of this severance from the unconscious. Depression and hopelessness are commonplace. We see religious-like adherence to political ideologies. The same movies are made over and over again just with different superhero archetypes. (This is essentially societal hero shadow projection. We project our heroic characteristics onto others so we don’t have to manifest our own heroic traits).
Attempts at nuance or deeper discussion are shut down. There are endless video complications about certain groups or individuals “getting slammed”. People are resorting to violence to resolve their differences. Individuals are overwritten with labels and group identities. Social media channels are little more than massive echo chambers where users are algortithmically fed content they are more likely to consume rather than what most accurately represents reality.
If this isn’t the definition of “neurosis, inner conflicts, and psychological symptoms that demand our attention” then I don’t know what is.
We feel like progress, technology, and science will save us someday — we just have to get there. But in our pursuit, we’ve lost much of what actually helped us integrate in both the physical and psychological realms. Johnson writes:
The disaster that has overtaken the modern world is the complete splitting off of the conscious mind from its roots in the unconscious. All the forms of interaction with the unconscious that nourished our ancestors-dream, vision, ritual, and religious experience — are largely lost to us, dismissed by the modern mind as primitive or superstitious. Thus, in our pride and hubris, our faith in our unassailable reason, we cut ourselves off from our origins in the unconscious and from the deepest parts of ourselves.
This is a difficult place to be. Like Edinger said, “Whether or not a new collective religious symbol will emerge remains to be seen.” So for now we have to do our own inner work and it is imperative that we do. We must learn to face our unconscious, particularly the shadow, in productive and meaningful ways because it will show up no matter what. It is never good when it shows up involuntary. Johnson writes:
Most people, however, do not approach the unconscious voluntarily. They only become aware of the unconscious when they get into trouble with it. We modern people are so out of touch with the inner world that we encounter it mostly through psychological distress. For example, a woman who thinks she has everything under control may find herself horribly depressed, able neither to shake it off nor to understand what is happening to her. Or a man may find that he has terrible conflicts between the life he lives outwardly and the unconscious ideals he holds deep inside himself where he never looks. He feels torn or anxiety-ridden, but can’t say why. When we experience inexplicable conflicts that we can’t resolve; when we become aware of urges in ourselves that seem irrational, primitive, or destructive; when a neurosis afflicts us be cause our conscious attitudes are at odds with our instinctual selves—then we begin to realize that the unconscious is playing a role in our lives and we need to face it.
We have to do our inner work or we will be plagued by symptoms that will create suffering in our own experience of life and in the lives of those around us.
IIV: Where Do We Go From Here?
Every person must live the inner life in one form or another. Consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily, the inner world will claim us and exact its dues. If we go to that realm consciously, it is by our inner work: our prayers, meditations, dream work, ceremonies, and Active Imagination. If we try to ignore the inner world, as most of us do, the unconscious will find its way into our lives through pathology: our psychosomatic symptoms, compulsions, depressions, and neuroses.
— Robert A. Johnson
Our level of consciousness, self-awareness, and ego/self integration comes from doing our inner work. That inner work is then reflected in the way we engage with the outer world.
Victor Frankl lived through and survived Auschwitz. Not only did he survive, but he became a beacon of light to those around him while in Auschwitz and throughout the rest of his life through his books and work in psychiatry. Thích Nhất Hạnh was exiled from his homeland of Vietnam for refusing to take sides during the war and instead chose to promote peace and nonviolence. Some of the most beautiful stories from those who have persevered through adversity and went on to heal the world around them. These are people who endured great hardship, trauma, and emotional wounds but did their inner work and tended to their shadows.
You can never achieve harmony by focusing all your efforts out there. Only from a place of inner harmony can you actually do the type of work out there that truly means something. As we do our inner work and attend to our shadows, we start to manifest our unique individuality in a way that can become a gift to the world. Robert A. Johnson writes it this way:
Each person has a distinct psychological structure. It is only by living that inherent structure that one discovers what it means to be an individual we work at individuation, we begin to see the difference be tween the ideas and values that come out of our own selves and the social opinions that we absorb from the world around us. We can cease to be mere appendages of a society or a clique of people: We learn that we have our own values, our own ways of life, that proceed naturally out of our inborn natures. A great sense of security develops from this process of individuation. One begins to understand that it isn’t necessary to struggle to be like someone else, for by being one’s own self one stands on the surest ground. We realize that to know ourselves completely and to develop all the strengths that are built into us is a lifetime task. We don’t need to make an imitation of someone else’s life. There is no further need for pretensions, for what is already ours is riches enough, and far more than we ever expected.
The messiness we see in the world is not a problem with some abstract thing called the world. The messiness we see is individual woundedness and brokenness made manifest. The chaos we experience is unconsciousness finding its way into the world through “pathology: our psychosomatic symptoms, compulsions, depressions, and neuroses.”
The anger we witness is shadow projection, inflated egos, and trauma rearing its head in the external world because it was never dealt with in the inner one.
Getting in touch with our unconscious mind and doing our own shadow work is a salve that can help play a part in healing this festering world.