A reader asks, “When you are talking about “inner work” does that suggest that I should go see a vampire or horror movie? Throughout my life I have avoided such things because I had the idea that I didn’t need to put any of that in my mind. But, as I think about your various dicta on ‘inner work,’ and knowing that movies do constellate archetypes in the subconscious, would someone be better off to actually see such films as a means of working with the shadow? Since I’ve never had any formal Jungian training, and certainly none as an analyst, this is a fundamental question for me. In other words, does this perhaps explain the popularity of the genre?”
Do we all have an inner vampire we’d like to know more about? What a great question! I’ve avoided horror movies since my first when I was 12. It terrified me and I never wanted to feel that way again. Avoiding violence in the media is not the same as avoiding our shadow: it’s healthy self-protection. Asking ourselves what scares us and why is a productive form of inner work, but regularly exposing ourselves to gruesome, anxiety-creating material can be more harmful than helpful. We shouldn’t put our heads in the sand about the horrific cruelty of which the human species is capable; but neither should we obsess over humanity’s inhumanity to the point of living in a near-constant state of agitation. Our fascination with the horror genre does speak to our curiosity about our shadows, but if our curiosity doesn’t lead to self-reflection it’s not inner work.
Inner work is anything that clarifies the disconnect between our persona (what we show the world) and the reality beneath the mask. Everyone has ugly thoughts and violent emotions, and yes, we all contain the potential symbolized by the vampire, zombie, witch, wolf, devil, Hitler, and Quaddafi. But at the same time, we all have an inner hero/ine, savior, trusty steed, angel, wise woman, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. Acknowledging our whole selves humbles us, puts an end to finger-pointing, and generates self-forgiveness. The human animal can be very destructive, but an enlightened mind can tame it.
Here, in no particular order, are the practices that help me tame my personal beast:
- Therapy. I consulted with a Jungian therapist for a year. She helped me see negative thought-patterns and positive qualities I might never have recognized on my own.
- Honest communication with my husband. Seriously! Our intimate partners are mirrors that show us our shadows. Gazing into the mirror means accepting the truth in what they say about us. This doesn’t mean they’re always right; it’s just that they see us very differently from how we see ourselves. The more we understand each others’ perspectives the less defensive and more forgiving we are.
- Reading. Anything that creates more self-knowledge; books about Jungian psychology have been the most helpful.
- Dreamwork. I write out my dreams, explore my associations with the symbols and emotions, and connect them to recent waking life events.
- Writing. More than any other form of self-reflection, writing makes my unconscious conscious. It clarifies confused thoughts, highlights hidden emotions, and keeps new insights within plain sight.
- Meditation. Quieting the chatter of monkey-mind allows the ego to hear the soul’s whispers. Conscious cooperation between ego and soul is the ultimate goal of inner work.
At first, taming our beasts with these and other practices requires the self-discipline of a warrior. But over time inner work gentles down into joyful inner play. May it be so for you.
The panther moved through the trees, like living fog. Its ears twitched and its tail switched, as it looked over its shoulder—followed by a force that struck fear into its heart. As it streamed through the leaves and branches, like a snake with legs, it grew more and more agitated and wild. It could hear the singing closing in on it in the distance. The panther was terrified. How could its pursuer know where it was? It blended into the night like black paint onto black canvas, but still the singing followed. It followed like an invisible river. Legend had it this tamer of wild things used its dreams to follow its prey. The deeper the panther glided through the jungle, the louder the singing became. It was maddening. Legend had it this singing hunter used the pages of the night itself to read its prey’s movements. How could the panther match such wisdom? This hunter was said to even write messages in the leaves that signaled others to help show him the way. This hunter even spoke with other hunters—unafraid of the competition, and shared his secrets and listened to theirs. This hunter would not be denied. Still the panther tried, it slid through the trees growing more and more afraid. Finally, in complete and utter desperation, the panther turned and sprang on its pursuer, knowing it would mean suicide—for no one conquered this hunter. But this being followed, this impending calamity and doom, was too much for the panther to bear. And so it leapt, loosening a thick, guttural growl. Its pursuer simply stepped aside, and in the flash of a second was on the panther’s back, laughing, and singing. The panther shot up the nearest tree hoping to lose its unwelcome rider. It leapt from one branch to another, but still the hunter clung on, singing and laughing, having the ride of his life. And then the most feared thing began to happen—the thing the panther had always heard would happen if you came into contact with this strange hunter. The hunter began stroking it behind its ears as he sung the most hypnotic, luminous song it had ever heard. The singing began seeping into the panther’s moon-colored brain. And then, like a kitten, the panther began descending from the treetops until it finally alighted onto the ground. It tried one last time to run, but its legs were trembling, and soon it was stumbling and splashing through the dew-drenched ferns until it collapsed, helplessly swooning. The hunter kept petting it and singing his lullaby of morning and sun, of eternal spring and eternal summer, of rivers of laughter and ponds covered with golden leaves. And the panther just closed its green eyes and sighed, purring, defeated, completely tamed. And the child, that rider of panthers and dragons, tied a golden leash around the panther’s neck and when he did, he threw his arms around the panther’s neck and wept. The panther, to the amazed delight of the watching rabbits and tree-mice, wept also. Then the child stood and sang his song even louder than before. As he sang a light began pouring from his heart. The light created a beam that surrounded the panther. The panther stood on its hind legs and began dancing. With its deep, husky voice, it even began singing. And as it sang, it danced on that beam of light until it disappeared into the child’s waiting, infinite heart.
Oh Joseph. I have no words except thank you, friend, for this exquisite gift. I’m very lucky to have an ally in a Spiritual Warrior such as you.
My very best to you,