An Arrow From the Dark Woods

Ideas, or experiences, or impulses at times rise up from depths in our psyche that are unknown to us. They can strike us like an arrow from dark woods, and call us to greater understanding…


There is a parallel between our own psychology, and what we have inherited from our family, or culture. We carry elements in us, unknown to us, that feel foreign when they emerge. These can be shocking, or horrifying, or they can be amusing, but they always carry the feeling of being a mystery. We are left for a time confused.

So often when we see a crime committed by what looked to be an ordinary person living an ordinary life, or, someone in law enforcement, we respond initially with shock, and then bewilderment. It simply doesn’t fit our idea of the person.

A ‘Freudian slip’ has something of this same surprising and incongruous quality. There is truth in it though, if we know how to look.

Again and again the too simple image we hold, of ourselves, or another, or our culture as pure or perfect, or just, is challenged in frightening and demanding ways.

What is required of us at such times is a greater awareness, and an inclusiveness of what they call the shadow in Jungian psychology.

The shadow is all the things that we deny or reject about ourselves, or our ancestry, or culture. These things are still with us though, and have a powerful effect in our lives and relationships and culture.

The scope of this subject is so large that anything we could say about it in truth would just be an introduction. It would be like pointing to the opening of a cave, that we ourselves must enter to understand what is being talked about. This much, at least, I can aim to do here.

Looking at what I wrote out on the subject of the shadow a few years ago, born of hard lessons dealing with my unclaimed self, I stand by the idea that we need to be quite strong and balanced to explore what has been rejected, or hidden away in our lives, and that has power for that very reason.

If we were to begin on page thirty of a book, we will feel the need to fill in what should have come before. Reading and listening to teachers on this subject feels to me a lot like this.

My own sense of it now is that we need self compassion and, after that, courage, and honesty to begin to see and understand what has been done, and not said, or not reflected on and assimilated in our own lives, that of our family, and culture.

Anthony Stevens wrote:

How can we enable the unconscious to realize itself? By granting it freedom of expression, and then examining what it has expressed.

With compassion, we are not rejecting anything, but only wanting to understand, and, naturally to heal what is suffering. With courage and honesty then, we can learn to gradually come to know what has been hidden away.

On a personal level, if we are not aware of our past and our present suffering, we will not learn its lessons. If we forget, that is the ground for repeating the same mistakes, endlessly, or even going further than before from the fullness of life we want for ourselves.

They say also in psychology that there is gold in the shadow. The meaning is that sometimes talents not expressed, or dreams not lived, or recognized and appreciated are a part of our inner life, and these act with some amount of force in us, whether we aware of it or not.

An interesting thing happens though when the unconscious becomes known to us, either by intimation or revelation. It changes in some way. It is no longer completely unconscious, although it may recede again into the mist. When we have some clue, some sense of a new awareness then, it is important not to lose it, but to find any way possible to amplify that, and to bring the new understanding more fully into the light.

To make it tangible, I think of how it is between people when the shadow is unclaimed. It can be that neither knows the other, or accepts responsibility for what is conjured and projected outwards. Idealization is followed by disillusion, either quickly, or after some time.

We can reach from the simplest mistake between us in this way to the largest expression of the shadow in a culture, and see the same pattern repeating.

When we don’t know our makeup, we mistake what we deny in ourselves to be external. The devil in theistic traditions comes to mind here, as does the self righteousness and brutality in the history of imperialist powers, including that of my own country. They have been barbaric, but people do not see it that way, amazingly, even to this day. Instead, in many cases, they continue to see themselves past and present as saviors, and as civilizing forces. Such is their deep unconscious mania.

In Buddhism it’s said that Dharma,the teachings on the path to liberation, are made of non-dharmic elements; wisdom is made of suffering and non wisdom elements, and freedom is made of non-freedom elements, rightly understood.

Dogen also pointed this out when he said that the difference between an ordinary person and a buddha is that an ordinary person is greatly deluded about enlightenment, while a buddha is greatly enlightened about delusion. This is the difference.

I have come again to this study of the shadow to understand as well as I can my own makeup, and what is needed to transform the shadow elements in my psyche. The harm that rises up from the unconscious in me needs this understanding and reconciliation. I feel this keenly.

I have been asking myself recently about the central tenet of Buddhism – that suffering can be ended. This is a profoundly different idea than is admitted in our culture or our world. Even in religious traditions, the sense is most often that our pain and sorrows can only be attenuated somewhat, but not brought to a complete cessation, at least not easily or anytime soon.

What we are left with then, I think, is a partial teaching, a partial aim, and much less than the founder of the Buddhist tradition intended, or, I would say what all true spiritual traditions would have us personally know.

As Thich Nhat Hanh said, we use Buddhist methods then not to practice Buddhism.

All the teachings, and prayers of aspiration, say that suffering can be ended, but that this needs deep study and practice. It needs a knowledge we have not yet embodied.

They say in psychology that the best thing we can do for our loved ones and our world is to solve the problem of the shadow in our own lives, to integrate and assimilate its lessons.

As a bridge between the personal and the social, I have thought of this as Freedom of mind, the root of the social gospel.

We have a a familial and cultural heritance, as well as our own personal stories, with flaws and profound sorrows, gifts and aims we’ve not fulfilled. All this can be held in a larger context, one that sees and appreciates all we have been, but it’s at all not easy.

It’s said that Ajahn Buddhadasa was asked sometime in his latter years if he still suffered, and this was a way to ask the impolitic question of whether he was an arhat, or a liberated person. He answered, wryly, by saying, ‘Well, I haven’t suffered in a while, but you can never be too sure…’and that was his practice, realization, and accomplishment, to be exact.

If we forget the our past, and the potential we continue to have now for ignorance, and suffering, it creates those experiences, the arrow, again. This is as true on a personal level as it is in a family, community, or nation. Such is the shadow as I now understand it.

We must know this fully, and to do that, we have to enter the dark wood, to illumine, and transform it.