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  • Writer's pictureJ. W. Barlament

The Desires and the Shadow: Buddhism and Jung

Within the past year, the term “shadow work” has exploded into the public consciousness. It’s taken an impressive while to get there; it was first firmly established by Carl Jung in his psychoanalytic book The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, all the way back in 1959. In this, the shadow was meant as a construct, or big psychological metaphor, representing all the suppressed negative tendencies of our personalities which we must confront and integrate into our psyche in order to reach psychological completeness. In Jung’s own 1963 words:

“The shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious.”

Jung, unfortunately for succeeding psychoanalysts, explained his terminology more in myth and figurative language than he did in lucid psychological speak. For decades, then, the shadow had a focus of the attention of Jungian scholars who worked to nail down a definition and an appropriate accompanying practice. At its most basic, of course, the concept of the shadow is but a helpful metaphor to make sense of complicated psychological phenomena. Since its metaphorical inception, though, the shadow has taken on a life of its own, soon being split into personal and archetypal halves and receiving a variety of precise definitions. To Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe:

“The shadow is the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life.”

And to many other scholars, it’s been defined as many other things. More recently, though, the concepts of the shadow and of shadow work have made their comebacks on TikTok. There, as of February 2022, videos tagged #shadowwork have amassed 460,000,000 total views. People from all sorts of niches have leapt onto and expanded Jung’s relatively minor idea into a library of subjects in itself. It’s become a hot-button topic in the spiritual media sphere, both on and well beyond TikTok. Cosmopolitan kindly plugs some crystals to buy for people interested in what is intended by Jung to be a deeply somber psychological healing process.

Of course, in a neoliberal society that profits off of people’s flaws and insecurities at every possible opportunity, this shouldn’t come as unexpected. Whether with our wallets or not, most of us can use all the help we can get to accept our individual blemishes and unlearn our socially ingrained toxic attitudes. Even if some aspects of shadow work seem to have gotten trivialized in this late capitalist hellscape, proper analysis of it can help yield positive developments from it.

It really must be stressed that the recent explosion of interest in shadow work has already spurred, and can assuredly spur further, very positive psychological developments for lots of people. The use of the term and of Jungian psychotherapy in general rose quickly for several years, and after the past couple of years’ COVID-associated spike in mental health visibility, the rise to prominence in professional practice appears quite ready to continue. What Jung calls the shadow can be thought of as a vital tool to understand many of our most elusive hurtful habits. It may be related, for example, to psychological projection, in which work on the shadow may allow people to become aware of repressed parts of the self that they typically project onto others. Quoting clinical psychologist Nathan Brandon:

“Projection happens when you call out a specific trait or behavior in someone else, while ignoring how it plays out in your own life. Your strong feelings about the person can be a sign they’re actually reminding you of a part of yourself you don’t like. Shadow work, then, can help stop this cycle of projection by helping you become aware of these repressed parts.”

Even with the psychological maturing that shadow work can help facilitate, however, its quick and unscrutinized rise in popularity comes with problems. Social media psychology likes to syncretize; psychology-centered accounts across online platforms are in constant need of new content, and as such, they tend to use concepts interchangeably from sometimes incompatible traditions just to keep the hits coming. The way shadow work is being presented often ignores that it is one component of an integrated psychological system that doesn’t necessarily make sense outside of that context.

We see this no clearer than in the way modern psychology — especially modern Jungian or Jungian-influenced psychology — tries to blend itself with Eastern thought. There’s no shortage nowadays of syncretism between 20th and 21st century Western psychology and traditional Eastern religion being pushed on social media, and many Westerners today seem to see no problem in mixing and matching the two at a whim. Ultimately, though, this confuses both fields and helps no one, as no concept can be taken outside of its original context and shoved into another without losing much of its original meaning.

The problem goes back even before Jung. When Jung was developing his psychological theories, European orientalism was reaching a fever pitch, and the use of Eastern ideas as a supplement to Western ones was more prominent than ever before. Jung himself was a part of this, with his lifelong interest in Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, but his views on both belief systems were warped. He based his studies on Walter Evans-Wentz’ 1927 translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, known now for its rampant errors and conscious misrepresentation by Wentz to make Tibetan Buddhism more closely resemble his own theosophical beliefs. Jung himself wasn’t totally unaware of this, either, nor was he unconditionally on-board with the assimilation of Eastern religion into Western science. According to Jungian analyst Michele Daniel:

“In Jung’s view, the dissolution of the ego into a larger consciousness, or “oneness,” encouraged people to bypass the psychological development that resulted in a more comprehensive and transformed consciousness. He expressed concern that such assimilation would lead to an abdication of personal responsibility and the necessary confrontation with one’s dark side.”

So if Jung himself held reservations about Eastern religion in relation to his own psychological system, shouldn’t enthusiasts of Jung be a little more so, as well?

Jung’s model of the psyche; photo credit unknown

Buddhism obviously offers us a means of resolving life issues and reaching our greatest psychological potential, just like Jungian psychology, but from an essentially opposite starting point. The end aim of all Buddhism is not self-realization into wholeness, but self-realization into emptiness — in Tantric Buddhism, shunyata; in many other traditions, many other names — and this end aim isn’t often expressed in terms of an individual’s psychology, either.

The Buddha’s original Noble Eightfold Path is a universal path, applicable to anyone, and subsequent Buddhist doctrines typically shun discussions of how the individual experiences their path toward enlightenment. The path is the path, regardless of whatever specific psychological complexes may help or hinder it. As such, the complex and highly individualized psychological models at the center of Jungian thought can never mix seamlessly with it, no matter what self-help psychology TikTok may say. It’s not a minor detail that the shadow is one part of Jung’s psychological model of the self, and in Buddhism, the self is an illusion.

Now, obviously, the basic Buddhist path toward dissolution of the self isn’t always all that different from the basic Jungian path toward actualization of the self. The countless comparisons that have been made over the years haven’t been made for nothing. Indeed, “desire” in Buddhism is roughly defined as the craving of pleasure, materials, immortality, reputation and other such things, and in Jungian psychology, these desires are defined as manifestations of the shadow. It isn’t that there’s a conflict between the idea of the shadow itself in relation to Buddhism, but rather, that the shadow as described by Jung is intrinsically linked to the rest of Jung’s thought as just one element of a unified psychological model. Outside of that model, we can still speak of a “shadow”, but that shadow we speak of is not Jung’s.

The essential issue of the last few centuries of intellectual relations between the West and East is this; it has overwhelmingly been the former interpreting the latter, seeing Eastern thought more as a supplement to their own tradition than an intellectually equal tradition to be sincerely understood. Eastern philosophy has been repeatedly used and abused by Western thinkers forcing its shiniest one-liners of wisdom into their own philosophical systems, regardless of context.

We see it in the way Western thinkers elevate certain schools, texts and thinkers of Hinduism to global popularity, like Advaita Vedanta, the Kamasutra and Swami Vivekananda, all while ignoring those which don’t make as much sense to Western ears. We see it in biased European translators, bad-faith European teachers, misled European psychologists, misleading American New Age gurus, modern-day corporations wielding others’ religions for their own ends and social media platforms spreading disinformation for creators’ sake.

Shadow work in modern discourse has helped many people in their psychological problems in this insane era. For those interested in its ability to help them, this is not at all a discouragement, but a reminder not to try to force it into tandem with incapable other ideologies for rampant syncretism’s sake. No idea can exist in a void, and every idea can be of greater aid when taken with the context it was meant to be taken with. Syncretism doesn’t always make sense.

Tibetan Buddhist mandala; photo by Bambu Batu

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