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Shadow and the Self: A New Perspective

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By Cliff Barry and Susan DeGenring

"Navel gazing." That was the somewhat derogatory term often used during the 80s and 90s for anything that smacked of "new age," non-mainstream self-help. It was the butt of many a late-night TV joke (who could forget SNL's "Deep Thoughts"?), and the subject of more serious condemnation for its fascination with, well, the self.

However, much longer than the designation "new age" has existed, humankind has been pursuing the nature of consciousness, the self, the soul, and the state of happiness. Seeking the self has occupied the minds of noted philosophers, mystics and scientists from Plato to Newton, Da Vinci to Freud, and beyond.

Over the years, Shadow Work® has been exploring our little corner of this dilemma — how the shadows we carry influence both the nature and health of the "self." And, as we have worked with more and more people, we've evolved our own small hypotheses. We have been most fascinated by how the relationships are formed within our psyches between the various archetypal forces that bond together to protect and develop the self. (By "archetypal forces," we mean inherited patterns and imprints that are gained through the collective body of human experience, as defined by Carl Jung. For more on the descriptions of the four quarters we employ in Shadow Work®, and the archetypes they are based on, please see the map.)

Although the archetypal patterns we carry may be ancient, each us of as an individual coalesces these patterns in distinct constellations, governed by our own socialization. Our interest in exploring the nature of the self is to shed some light on how to engage these patterns, in their present and individual manifestations, to promote healthy and balanced lives.

To help illuminate our inquiry, we went, not to our noted and distinguished colleagues in the fields of psychology or theology, but rather astonishingly, to the science of quantum physics.


In 1982, a French scientist named Alain Aspect conducted an experiment that many people see as the most important of the 20th century. Aspect conducted a series of trials in which he proved that the results of an experiment could be perceived as radically different depending on whether or not the experiment was observed.

In the experiment, Aspect randomly shot electrons from an electron gun through two tiny slits in a wall, then measured their impact on another solid wall behind the first. When the experiment was set up so that no one could know which slits the electrons went through, the electrons impacted on the solid wall as if they were a wave of energy. If the experiment was set up so that it could be known which slit each electron passed through, the electrons impacted on the solid wall as if they were solid particles.

Now, at the time, any physicist would tell you that it is simply not possible for the electrons from the electron gun to exist both as a wave and a particle at the same time. At least not on our plane of reality. Consequently, this discovery turned most of modern physics on its head.

One conclusion which has been drawn from this experiment is that particles of matter (e.g., electrons) do not always exist as particles. And therefore, that the world is not built up of tiny building blocks of particles as we had previously imagined. Instead, perhaps these particles exist only as waves of possibility until they can be observed, and then they turn into particles.

So, what in blazes does this have to do with the self?


Well, let's just see. One postulate is that, regardless of what's true of electrons and particles, this experiment makes a good illustration of what our sense of self could actually be like. Stay with us here. Suppose that our sense of self exists in one way when we are focusing on it, and simultaneously or almost simultaneously exists in another way when we are not. And suppose further, that the sense of self that just shows up "in the flow" of experience is like the electron that is a wave when no one is watching, whereas when we are watching ourselves in some way, we actually have a different sense of self, which is more dense, like a particle. This may point to different ways of seeing or interacting with the core of our personalities — our self.

So, for the sake of argument, let's assume this to be true and define this denser sense of self as the Intentional Self. This self has the very serious function of developing the ego. We could also call it the Warrior Self. Indeed, this might be one way of defining Warrior energy. We have for years described Warrior energy as being all about boundaries. But it may be that the ultimate boundary is the one between what is "me" and what is "not me." We think that the boundary that defines the self — i.e., that separates us from all others around us — is the one that really counts, and that from which all other boundaries emanate. As Antonio DeMasio, noted neuroscientist puts it in his book The Feeling of What Happens:

"One key to understanding living organisms, from those that are made up of one cell to those that are made up of billions of cells, is the definition of their boundary, the separation between what is 'in' and what is 'out.'"
So, if this denser sense of self is more intentional, then what is the essence of the other sense of self? We think the other self shows up as a natural part of the flow of Lover energy. We will call it the Flow Self. We think there is simply a stream flowing through our conscious mind. This Flow Self appears together with the flowing stream. Whether this stream emanates only from the senses of the body — that is, "from below" — or whether there is also a real, spiritual input "from above," we do not know for sure. But wherever it comes from, there is this "stream of consciousness" that runs through our minds from the day we are born to the day we die. Indeed, it even runs at night when we dream.

And, even when we dream, we still dream as though we are "us." If we take mind-altering drugs, we still have our experiences as though we are still "ourselves." Indeed, it appears that no matter what is going through our minds, we still seem to have this sense of self. Even when people's minds are split into separate personalities, as in a multiple personality disorder, each one still appears as a self, with its own ego firmly in place.

And under the right circumstances, the experience of this kind of self, this Flow Self, can be extremely exhilarating. We get the sense that we are becoming more of ourselves. We feel as though we are expanding ourselves, becoming bigger, more powerful, more insightful, and more spiritual all at the same time. However, we should add that this sense of self is very fragile. It actually needs conditions where it is safe, and engaged and being creative, in order to survive. It may be like a rare flower that only blooms under exactly the right conditions.

We will distinguish the Intentional Self from the Flow Self by saying that in the Intentional Self you are aware of yourself in some purposeful way. You may be in an unconscious, self-reflexive cycle of supporting yourself, defending yourself or shaming yourself, but your psyche is activating this other self in some intentional way. It may not be within your conscious awareness at the time but is nevertheless an intended act of self-protection or development, issued by the whole of your psyche, which includes conscious and unconscious drives toward survival.

In comparison, we will distinguish the Flow Self as being the self you experience when "it just shows up." That is to say, when you are not trying to be aware of yourself. We could say that you are in Flow Self when you are so engrossed in whatever is going on that you have "forgotten yourself" in some way.

Take a look at young babies for a moment. They exist in a state of Flow Self. By this we mean that babies simply follow whatever is flowing through them. They have, as Robert Bly says, a "360-degree personality." They express whatever comes through them to express. They will spontaneously feel or think or act out of their stream of consciousness.

We think that they have a sense of self, but not because they are trying to prove themselves, or defend themselves. Their sense of self just shows up. And this may account for why they look so happy (unless something physical is bothering them). We would say that they exist in Flow Self, where they simply seem to themselves to exist in the mere process of flowing with whatever comes through them.

Of course, babies are dependent on their parents to protect them, guide them and teach them. There is a very strong container of Intentional Self present, not provided by the baby but by the parents or caretakers. The child's survivability is dependent on this surrogate Intentional Self meeting and interacting with the Flow Self, until the child's own Intentional Self is strong enough to begin caring for itself, somewhere around the ages 6-10 years old. And between infancy and this age, we are busy developing the Intentional Self through a fairly well documented series of stages.

As an adult example of the experience of Flow Self, consider falling in love, that numinous moment when we feel stirrings of an intense romantic, sexual love for another person. We think this is a good example of what it is like for an adult to experience Flow Self.

In this condition, people often report that they have a completely different sense of "who they are." They often report that they "lose themselves" in the "flow of their love" in a way that is very pleasing, paradoxically because they also feel like they are more of themselves than they were before. A person falling in love has the same qualities of self that we mean by Flow Self. You lose yourself, yet are more of yourself.

And yet, this new romantic experience can often and quickly sour. It eventually becomes dependent on having the right context or situation for its survival, or it wilts and dies, causing great pain. Despite our cultural idealization to the contrary, first romantic love does not make for sustainable, long-lasting relationships. It has requirements for safety, structure and nurturance &3151; just as does the Flow Self.

We are hypothesizing that the principle demonstrated in Aspect's electron experiments may apply to our sense of self (or selves). That, in an apparently contradictory way, both selves can be present at the same time (even as electrons seem to be present as both waves and particles at the same time), but that we can only experience the self in one way or the other in any given millisecond of time.

If you have ever seen these 3-D pictures or drawings that create an almost holographic effect (sometimes called "magic drawings"), they may come close to illustrating how we think these two "selves" work in concert.

You may remember that in a 3-D picture, the job is to identify the image hidden in the patterns of the picture, by shifting the focus of your eyes. Once you have seen both the first image or pattern, and then the second hidden image you see when you refocus your eyes, you may recall that you can see one or the other, and you can switch back and forth very fast, but you can't actually see both at the same time. This may be the best way we have right now to describe what the self may be like everyday as our two "selves" engage each other in the act of being ourself, i.e., when both are present and we are shifting between them.


So what indeed. Well, here we are, quantum physics and all. What implications does this have for how our shadows affect our sense of self?

First, we've come to believe that the two archetypes, Lover and Warrior, are seats for these two senses of self, the Flow Self and the Intentional Self, respectively.

Second, we think this helps define the functional relationship between the two selves. They need each other to survive. They are interdependent. One without the other results in an imbalance in personality that can either fuel personal growth or, alternately, coalesce into systemic personal dysfunction. In Shadow Work®, we would say that this latter condition shows up as shadowed energies inflating or deflating in the repressed or unconscious part of our psyches, resulting in unwanted behaviors. For example, the modern-era corporate executive who routinely works an 80-hour week runs the risk of debilitating his Lover energy — his connection to his Flow Self — because he is leaning much more heavily on the Intentional Self to get ahead in life. He may likely end up by his late 40s or early 50s with serious physical ailments or the loss of a marriage because he consistently neglected his own needs and emotions over an extended period of time.

We have long held that these shadowed behaviors are related to experiences held in our minds and bodies from earlier in our lives which govern the choices we make today.

In his book, Scattered on Attention Deficit Disorder, Dr. Gabor Maté writes:

"As Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman has pointed out, 'To some degree everyone is a prisoner of the past.' Without knowing it, we often relive the past. What we take for present-day reality represents, in many situations, reactivated early memories stored in the 'implicit memory system,' a vast and infallibly accurate record of past experiences. Implicit memory happens according to the psychologist and memory researcher Daniel Schacter, 'when people are influenced by a past experience without any awareness that they are remembering.' Unconscious emotions and conscious feelings, rapid shifts in mood and dramatic physiological changes in the body can occur under the impact of implicit memory." (p. 248)

Whatever the case or reason, we think that these implicit memories constitute core wounds to the self, core wounds that are the root cause for shadowed behavior. And this shadowed behavior manifests itself as coping strategies, wherein the Flow Self and the Intentional Self call on all their allies in the store of archetypal energies to help the personality survive and evolve past these wounds to the self.

In fact, several modern personality systems, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram nine-point system, categorize people according to how their coping strategies coalesce.

What we believe Shadow Work® can offer to complement these widely used and respected personality tools are active healing processes to surface, honor and evolve or transform these coping strategies and integrate them into a more balanced and fulfilled personality.

The corporate exec is not fatally bound to a life of numb success. We say that "there's gold in them there shadows, " to be mined for the continued development of the personality.

One purpose of Shadow Work® is to facilitate this personal healing through uncovering and balancing these different archetypal energies. This system of selves serves to illuminate the healing action by understanding how to read behavior and address it at the root, the core wound to the self.

So, beyond the short view of "navel gazing," this perspective on the self opens the window on a pragmatic yet spirited approach to tapping into all that our self can offer.

Note: Please see the next Shadow Work® newsletter for our latest theories of how the relationships or lines of force between the four Shadow Work® archetypes provide clues to reading shadowed behaviors.


This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in August 2003. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.



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