Siddhartha & Mara: meeting the shadows at the door to the unconscious

First illustration of Fire Lance and a Grenade, 10th Century, Dunhuang. From the book “The Genius of China”, Robert Temple. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the image above, we see Buddha obtaining enlightenment. Dark shadow figures assail Buddha from the upper right hand corner, while attractive female figures seduce Buddha from the lower right-hand corner.

The image itself suggests enlightenment. The Buddha holds his left hand in his lap, palm facing upwards. Fingers from his right hand touch the earth. This posture is called the Bhumisparsha mudra, as the earth touching or the earth-witness gesture. This gesture implies that the earth (or eternal) is the witness to enlightenment.

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The ego and its projections


Diagrammatic representation of the human head. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Satcakranirupanactiram Svami Hamsasvarupa Creative Commons

Self-realization is an ever evolving process of coming into greater awareness of the Self.  This is a movement toward wholeness, integration, and Oneness.

The process of becoming whole, of cultivating Self-knowledge, involves coming to terms with shadow elements of one’s personality.  This is not always an easy task. Carl Jung tells us:

“To become conscious of it [the shadow] involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.” (CW 9ii, para. 14-15).

The shadow refers to the dark aspects of the personality. The ego finds these dark aspects of the personality undesirable, and thus banishes them to the unconscious. However, they return with a vengeance, with a sort of demonic quality.  In psychological terms, they may return with an obsessive or possessive quality. Jung says:

“Closer examination of the dark characteristics– that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow– reveals that they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality.”

The banishment of shadowy emotions also isolates us from aspects of our self, diminishing the wholeness of the self. Through awareness may we come to reclaim these shadowy aspects. Reclamation does not mean acting out or living out the shadowy side of the personality. Instead, reclamation brings the ferocity of mindful awareness to confront and tolerate our dark aspects. From the perspective of awareness, we want to be with and be aware of the ‘little demons’ and ‘shadowy figures’. In bringing our mindfulness to them, their potency will dissolve, enlarging the circumference of our self-knowledge.

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Diagram: soul, spirit, ego, shadow


ego-shadowI found this diagram in a book by Schwartz-Salant (1982). He speaks of the spirit in terms of the capacity for reflection and creativity. Schwartz-Salant says that the soul is the feminine capacity for being and doing. When these two aspects are in harmony, then the ego becomes “the carrier of personal identity.” (p.70) He adds that with this, “the capacity to feel and express need for another person emerges.”