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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — October 2018

Angels in the Darkness

Embrace your thousand angels,
Embrace your thousand demons.
| Buddhist saying

Angels in the Darkness

Boston drivers will tell you: The one who isn’t looking has the right of way. This is a lot like the child who, imagining a monster under the bed, covers his eyes to hide from it. Both demonstrate a curious aspect of human nature: Denial. If you can’t see it, it isn’t there. We’ve all done it at one time or another. Something dark rises before us—something we hate about ourselves or someone else or the situation we’re in and especially in the face of which we feel powerless, whereupon the psyche, like the driver on Boston’s fast-forward roundabouts, looks the other way and steps on the gas, jamming signals of awareness or perception to shield us from whatever we feel is too daunting to face. The sum of this disowned information makes up what Jung termed the “shadow self,” the dirt of our personality that seems too foul to be left on top of the rug, in plain sight.

These distressing elements have nowhere to go but into the shadows, from which place, still wanting acknowledgment, they can wreak havoc on our appetite, weight, sleep, dreams, health, relationships, checkbook, and sense of well-being. What goes up, must come down; what we suppress has a way of popping up where it’s least expected. This seesaw effect is such a fundamental dynamic of inner life that if we’re feeling chronically lousy, it pays just to be still, take a step back, and look to see if there’s some important bit of business we might be neglecting, marginalizing, ignoring, or resisting.

For years, I had a persistent daydream, and not a pretty one. Frequently, often when I was lying in bed after a long day, my imagination would take to the closet where lurked this sinister fellow with a knife, waiting in the darkness behind the door. I would see myself walk over to the closet and open it, at which point the fictive assailant would leap out and commence a merciless barrage of stabs, hacks, and slashes. Sometimes, enduring this horror show, I would flinch or even gasp and have to get up and do something to shake the nasty image from my mind.

My immediate reaction, which remained unexamined for years, was always to run from the vision the way a person would run from a real-world assailant. In this flight, I found myself stumbling over barricades of fear, avoidance, and denial that, somehow added to the emotional power and presence of the fantasy. Then, one day, it occurred to me to look past these barricades by using a Jungian method known as creative imagination, which involves giving oneself to the daydream, intentionally participating in the events that come to mind, letting them unfold without attempting to direct them. It is a powerful tool for exploring dreams that ended confusingly or were interrupted. Waking up, as Jung realized, does not have to render the essential information embodied in the dream inaccessible. Through creative imagination, we can return to the dream without going to sleep and allow it to play out, retrieving its symbolic imagery by consciously assuming our role in the drama.

The man in the closet was a particularly brutal character, real enough in the climactic moment in which I became immersed. A closet killer. Closed in. Who was he? What was the source of his bloodlust? I decided it was time to find out. Turning to creative imagination, I approached the closet again and opened the door. The slasher hissed, raised his knife, and was about to bring it down as he had countless times before, whereupon I asked him calmly, “What do you want?” Immediately, he lowered the blade and eased out of the shadows so that we were facing each other, and I could see that he was myself. Gently, I repeated, “What do you want?” and his expression changed to one of immense sorrow. “I want,” he said, “for you to acknowledge me.” With that, he took a few halting steps toward me, and I opened my arms. As we embraced, he began sobbing, and I held him like that until he was absorbed into me and the waking dream ended.

Some noteworthy things followed. First, the fantasy never recurred. This in itself was startling; in fact, I couldn’t bring it back with effort. The emotional charge was gone. Second, I realized that the self-image I had always championed, that of the good, kind, compassionate rescuer had usurped another side of me, banished it to the closet of denial where families keep their skeletons and murderers—the personae non gratae of the clan. In truth, there was an angry, even violent side to my psyche, and all the more violent for having been long denied. I had stuffed this side into the closet because it contradicted my image of myself, which left it forsaken, isolated, and enraged.

I came away from the exercise with a broader, more realistic and integrated sense of this thing I call “I.” Metaphorically, when the prodigal son comes home and rejoins the family, everyone is better off for it. Through a conscious act of creative imagination, I found that I could acknowledge and accept an inner reality that I had put out of my awareness, and reclaim its splintered and therefore hostile energy as a vital part of myself. When I was willing to own the violence in my psychic household by literally embracing it, the sense of relief was immediate and palpable. A demon embraced is an angel released.

We erect these palisades of selective emphasis and denial to prove and protect our self-image. Denying that I had a violent side served to confirm my belief in my virtuousness, a self-definition acquired in early experiences that conflated being virtuous and being safe. Eventually, however, what was denied surfaced in a fiercer form and demanded its due. This flight from an integrating darkness may go back a long way, and yet is fully contemporary, because our sense of being alive is constricted far less by what happened to us when we were young than by our persistent refusal to face what happened to us, less by what was done to us than by what we do to ourselves as a result. James Hillman suggests that childhood wounding may be seen as an initiation, the trauma that leads us to the treasure of who we are; along the same lines, Joseph Campbell writes, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Viewed from this angle, our wound is our gift in every sense: a gift we were given, our essential talent, and the gift that we, in turn, can offer others.

The logic of the wounding of initiation may sound glib if not heartless to, say, a victim of incest. Some gift. It can be all but impossible to see that what has gouged us also has deepened us. We don’t come to such a vision overnight, but no one should doubt that we can heal our way into it, and that when we do, we will see that the worst of what we have been through has added in priceless ways to who we are and what we have to contribute, and that there is nothing to regret or change. It is exceedingly good news that the wound can be healed in the balm of a greater identity, that the disowned parts of ourselves can be reclaimed and redeemed. The demon is ultimately an angel that we were unwilling to embrace. What we have cursed in ourselves, however agonizing it may have been at the time, can be transmuted in the crucible of a richer, larger, and more empathetic view of things. In the expanding horizon of this realization, in the deep-breathing acceptance of what we may have spent a lifetime resisting or denying, the barricades fall away, and we find ourselves standing in the great circle of our native wholeness, open to the unique history that has shaped us into this moment.

October 21, 2018   Comments Off on Angels in the Darkness