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A Little Book on the Human Shadow

A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Here are a few of my notes…

He knew that “if any help was going to arrive to lift me out of my misery, it would come from the dark side of my personality.”

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It’s an old Gnostic tradition that we don’t invent things, we just remember.

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So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice.

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We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.

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Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.

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But projection is a wonderful thing too. Marie Louise von Franz remarked somewhere, “Why do we always assume projection is bad? ‘You are projecting’ becomes among Jungians an accusation. Sometimes projection is helpful and the right thing.” Her remark is very wise.

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The issue is not so much that we do project but how long we keep the projections out there. Projection without personal contact is dangerous.

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If we put our sexuality into the bag as a child, obviously we lose with it a lot of energy. When a woman puts her masculinity into the bag, or rolls it up and puts it into the can, she loses energy with it. So we can think of our personal bag as containing energy now unavailable to us. If we identify ourselves as uncreative, it means we took our creativity and put it into the bag. What do you mean, “I am not creative”? “Let experts do it”—isn’t that what such a person is saying?

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Yet it is precisely through this expensive, damaging, wasteful, inaccurate form of mud-slinging that we eventually come in touch with the mud that the crow found on the bottom of his feet.

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When one “projects,” one is really giving away an energy or power that rightfully belongs to one’s own treasury. A man may give his “feeling side” or “relationship mode” away to his wife. Then he is rid of it, and when a feeling problem with the children comes up, he naturally lets her handle the problem.

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We’ll call the first stage of projection then the state of mind in which shadow material, well handled by trained conspirators, comes to rest outside the owner’s psyche, and seems likely to remain out there somewhere.

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But sooner or later one of the projections starts to rattle, in the lovely word Marie Louise von Franz uses. Something doesn’t quite fit any more, and we hear a rattle. We’ll call this rattling the second stage.

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I’ll call the third stage that state of mind in which the distressed person calls on the moral intelligence to repair the rattle.

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Let’s recapitulate the stages I’ve suggested briefly. To start with, the man’s witch and the woman’s giant are out there, and that feels fine. Many qualities are projected. Nora gave her hero to Torvald, and he gave his childishness to her. Then the machine started to wobble a little, and Nora found out that sometimes Torvald was a hero and sometimes he wasn’t. Nora then planned with her moral intelligence a crisis for Torvald in which he would prove triumphantly to be a magnificent hero. It didn’t work. So the desperate effort in the third stage to refit the hero mask, search the memory for witch dangers, fight with all women against negative patriarchs, achieves its aim only for a short time.

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What is the fourth stage? Suppose that one day, exhausted, one gives up for a moment the struggle to make the mask hang onto the other person. At that moment the eyes break contact; we suddenly look into ourselves and see our own diminishment. We recognize how diminished we have been for years. I would call the fourth stage the state of mind in which we feel the sensation of diminishment.

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It’s clear that the fifth stage in this long process amounts to the state of mind in which we retrieve the giant, retrieve the hero, retrieve the witch, retrieve the wicked child, retrieve our brutal national character; and the whole process of retrieval could be called eating the shadow.

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When the person begins to bring in rejected or projected authority, for example, and eat that, Saturn enters, and our passion deepens, and melancholy, always a mark of Saturn, and of retrieved shadow, brings its sorrow in, and its opening to the spirit.

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It is proper to ask then, “How does one go about eating the shadow or retrieving a projection, practically?”

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Using language consciously seems to be the most fruitful method of retrieving shadow substance scattered out on the world. Energy we have sent out is floating around beyond the psyche; and one way to pull it back into the psyche is by the rope of language. Certain kinds of language are nets, and we need to use the net actively, throwing it out. If we want our witch back we write about her; if we want our spiritual guide back we write about the spiritual guide rather than passively experience the guide in another person.

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People who are passive toward their projected material contribute to the danger of nuclear war, because every bit of energy that we don’t actively engage with language or art is floating somewhere in the air above the United States, and Reagan can use it. He has a big energy sweeper that pulls it in. No one should make you feel guilty for not keeping a journal, or creating art, but such activity helps the whole world.

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He observed that our psyche in daily life tries to give us a hint of where our shadow lies by picking out people to hate in an irrational way. Suppose there is a woman in the town who seems to her too loose and too sexually active, and she finds herself thinking of this other woman a lot. In that case, the psyche is suggesting that part of her shadow, at least, lies in the sexual area. She has to notice precisely whom she hates. That is the path of attention. Suppose that she hates the current president of the PTA; and if you ask her, she’ll say that the woman is fakey, can’t be trusted, is too successful, and so forth. The psyche might be telling her that part of her shadow lies in the power area. She has unused and unrecognized power impulses, which she has put into the bag. Otherwise there wouldn’t be such heavily emotional contact with that other person. So, following the path of attention, one notices where the anger goes, and precisely whom we become obsessed with.

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The metaphor is this: if we maintain eye contact with that person, we can damage him or her by our anger and hatred. If we break off eye contact and look down quickly to the right, we will see our own shadow. Hatred then is very helpful.

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Paying attention to what one likes or hates in literature helps also.

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It is possible that one of the reasons that all of us dream so much is that the dreamer wants to remind us of the amount of shadow that we haven’t absorbed.

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Well, it’s as if there were some kind of game being played here between the ego and the shadow. When permissive educators come in and tell children to express their anger, it’s like giving the shadow side fifteen balls and the structure side none.

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It is said that inside our body there is a vast gap—perhaps thousands of miles across—between the power chakra in the stomach and the heart chakra in the chest.

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Joseph Campbell describes the two opposites as two horns; and if we get hooked on either, we die. Baker Roshi remarked that in Zen the student tries to imagine a third possibility. It goes like this.

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The women, bravely, allowed rage, humiliation, jealousy, and anger to be expressed, but she concluded that expressing shadow material by itself doesn’t help.

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Secondly, Marie Louise suggests that we regard our anger as a person and talk to it. Rather than acting as a conduit for our own anger, and focusing it on another person, one turns one’s face and body to the anger itself, and asks: “What do you want from me? What do you want of me?” That is honoring the anger, just as we honor everyone whom we turn to face.

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The shadow energies seem to be a part of the human psyche, a part of its 360-degree nature, and the shadow energies become destructive only when they are ignored.

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