Middle Life and the Shadow

Young adult-life gives way to middle-aged life when a person becomes comfortable in his or her manifest duties as an adult. Some duties of middle-age life include co-existing in relationships with other individuals, participating in a cultural industry in order to support one’s family, and passing on cultural values to the next generation. During middle adult-life, a person either develops “genuine concern for the welfare of future generations,” or, faces the possibility of becoming overtaken by “self absorption,” which, “is characterized by self-indulgent concerns with meeting one’s own needs” at the expense of others (Weiten, 2000, p. 330).

For Carl Jung, middle adult-life represented a transitional period in which the Self begins the process of individuating from a socially established ego structure. For Jung (1931/1969), the ego allows a person to become established in its own “personal attributes and social positions” at the expense of turning one’s dreams to “ashes” within the scullery room of the psyche (p. 395). The more someone becomes established within his or her ego at the expense of negating the soul’s calling, the more shadow material arises within the psyche; this ultimately leads the psyche back to a position in which it can realize itself.

Jung’s belief that middle-life represents a period in which a person tends to the dusty memories of the past corresponds to Robert Bly’s (1990) view that middle-life represents a period in which the psyche must tend “the road of ashes” (p. 81). Bly further stated that men “begin to notice how many of their dreams have turned to ashes… at thirty-five [our] inner soul begins to produce ashes” (1990, p. 81). The ashes that Robert Bly speaks of are a metaphorical representation of Carl Jung’s shadow archetype. Siddhartha undertook the road of ashes and tended his shadow by partaking in Samsara.

The shadow consists of repressed entities that stand in disagreement to the ego’s control over conscious identifications; the shadow lies within the unconscious, and houses the failures, dreams, and hidden aspects of personality that remain unable to break through to consciousness (Jung, 1951/1969). At the personal level, Jung (1911-1912/1967) believed that the shadow represented the “inferior side of the personality” (p. 183). This correlates to Jung’s (1921/1971) view that the personality structure consists of superior and inferior types and functions. The shadow represents:

A moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it 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… 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… Affects occur usually where adaptation is weakest, and at the same time they reveal the reason for its weakness, namely a certain degree of inferiority and the existence of a lower level of personality.

(Jung, 1951/1969g, pp. 8-9)

It takes great effort for a person to bring their inferiorities to conscious awareness. An adult becomes consciously aware of the content of the shadow by bringing to fruition his or her inferior-side of personality. The shadow crisis of middle-life causes “mental depressions” within the psyche (Jung, 1931/1969, p. 395). A person’s work during this stage consists of tending to the psychological ashes left over from events that occurred during childhood through young adult-life, exposing the glowing embers left over from childhood, and preparing for the work of tending to the soul’s garden. This begins the diminution of the socially constructed persona (ego) and brings forward the Self.

For Siddhartha, he needed to realize the inferiorities of the personality left over from his childhood. By realizing inferior functions, Siddhartha could then begin to work on himself in order to become a more holistic person.

Siddhartha never learned how to relate with an individual in a truly loving way. Siddhartha only loved himself. He loved himself to such a degree that his was incapable of loving others. This caused a mental depression that culminated into suicidal intent at the riverbank.

Siddhartha never learned to love his parents. Because of this, he pursued a life-path that was highly narcissistic and individualistic. He relived this form of loving impotency through creating a non-loving, sexual relationship with the courtesan Kamala.

Siddhartha used Kamala’s sexuality as a means to quench his need for sexuality. This game occurred at the expense of truly being with a woman in an intimate manner. After he realized that both he and the mistress he once sought had aged, he began to understand the intimate connection love has with death; this filled his awaiting vessel with a number of vices.

Like all the vices in his life, Siddhartha tossed this relationship aside to pursue more individualistic goals. The ashes within his psyche had once again called him to pursue the matter of becoming a realized being. Siddhartha had come full circle during middle-life when he began to deal with the inferiorities of his psyche left over from childhood. Through the shadow, Siddhartha began to realize the Self.

The shadow is accessible through the personal unconscious. However, the shadow also has collective aspects that are dependent upon socially sanctioned morality and values. Jung’s exploration of personal and collective components of the psyche represents a common paradoxical theme that runs throughout human history: the problem between the one and the many. Personal action can represent a collective ideal of good or evil; these are socially sanctioned concepts created by the very institutions people give a degree of their freedom to in order to feel collective safety (Brown, 2005). In essence, the masses give institutions power to keep the masses safe; concurrently, the socially sanctioned institution becomes reified to continue its social sanctions in light of emerging values that may differ from one generation to the next.   

For Jung (1944/1968), the confrontation with the personal shadow is an important aspect for personality development. This is similar to the view that confronting sin allows redemption.

The concept of sin is dependent upon a conscience that judges action as good or bad; the shadow represents the unconscious. As with all aspects of life, events are judged by their positive and negative qualities, which the ego is often unable to bring to conscious awareness as being either good or bad. Therefore, the shadow is often unconsciously projected onto other things, people, events, situations, places, or things, through the guise of the capacity our personality has to judge.

The affective states associated with the shadow can take the form of archetypal possessions; affective states controlling a person’s actions also form the foundation of the religious concept of demonic possession. While Siddhartha was not possessed by a demon, during middle-life, he presented as a man that was possessed by the shadow aspects of life. He pursued vices as a means to quit his inner longing to know himself. 

In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung (1944/1968b) drew attention to the role that the shadow has on the development of the overall personality. In particular, he paid attention to the role religion plays in helping an individual deal with the aftermath of shadow development. Jung stated:

The central ideas of Christianity are rooted in Gnostic philosophy, which, in accordance with psychological laws, simply had to grow up at a time when the classical religions had become obsolete… At such a time there is bound to be a considerable number of individuals who are possessed by archetypes of a numinous nature that force their way to the surface in order to form new dominants. This state of possession shows itself almost without exception in the fact that the possessed identify themselves with the archetypal contents of their unconscious, and, because they do not realize that the role which is being thrust upon them is the effect of new contents still to be understood, they exemplify these concretely in their own lives, thus becoming prophets and reformers. In so far as the archetypal content of the Christian drama was able to give satisfying expression to the uneasy and clamorous unconscious of the many, the consensus omnium raised this drama to a universally binding truth – not of course by an act of judgment, but by the irrational fact of possession, which is far more effective. Thus, Jesus became the tutelary image or amulet against the archetypal powers that threatened to possess everyone… The problem of opposites called upon by the shadow plays a great – indeed, the decisive – role in alchemy, since it leads in the ultimate phase of the work to the union of opposites in the archetypal form of the hierosgamos or “chymical wedding.”

(Jung, 1944/1968b, pp. 35-37)

The shadow is a personal and collective entity that represents the moral ambiguity associated to a complex consciousness that splits entities into positive and negative polarities. Siddhartha’s shadow possession occurred in conjunction with his pursuit of sexuality with Kamala and the work he pursued to meet this end.


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