The problem with talking about the Shadow is that it expresses a very polarized way of thinking – i.e., black or white, male or female, inner/outer, happy/sad. It’s an insidious habit that we take in before we even learn to talk. We’re told ‘be a good girl, eat all your food’, or ‘bad boy, don’t play with that mess!’. Nearly everything we think, everything we say, expresses the same polarized view – it’s always either/or, never both. Indeed, the words ‘paradox’, ‘ambivalence’, which can be seen to deal with the uneasy balance between the polarities, are often applied in a derogatory fashion – we’re ‘sitting on the fence’, ‘indecisive’.
Things are beginning to change, largely driven by new physics which has begun to find that paradox lies at the heart of matter,while at the same time, querying everything we understand about matter. Some talk about quanta (energy), a few are beginning to see everything as consciousness. We have Schrodinger’s strange cat that is dead and alive simultaneously, light that is both wave and particle, and black holes that may be both the destruction and birth-place of matter. (Having said that, mystics have been saying something very similar for aeons.)
Of course, the great thing about the tarot is that the journey represented by the Major Arcana is not about bad or good, light or dark: it’s about wholeness. It’s a journey that moves through the archetypes of humanity, growing in understanding as the Seeker goes through life, and the World card, the culmination of the journey, represents the integrated human, the one who has resolved all opposites in an alchemical transmutation, and now dances in the centre of the spiral.
The figure is androgenous, both male and female, the differences between the sexes transformed from either-or into pure humanity.
So The Shadow, as represented in the Tarot by No. XV, The Devil, is a major stepping-stone on our journey through to wholeness. The different levels of shadow I referred to in the previous post are merely to map out what we project onto the outside world. There is nothing wrong with shadow and darkness, depth and the unconscious – it’s merely that they scare us, as they threaten our need to feel in control. However, that idea that we can see all and therefore be completely in control of our lives is a fallacy. We can never see everything, nor do we really control anything much – not even our own behaviour.
At the entrance to Delphi, a sign over the doorway read ‘Know Thyself’. Much of what we do and think is hidden from us, so this exhortation is somewhat optimistic. Even if we engage with our dreams, analyze them and discover what our unconscious self is communicating, it is a major challenge to resolve the apparent contradictions, heal the dichotomies. No wonder The Devil has flies buzzing around his head (Lord of the Flies), and is testing the limits of his mental cage. At the same time, two small humans are imprisoned by his feet, though they are not in chains. Their fetters are their minds.
If we really take on board what the Devil tells us, when we look honestly at ourselves (at both our conscious and unconscious minds) we can begin to see our own Shadow, lurking behind us. When that happens, when in all humility we take off the masks, acknowledge our failures and difficulties, and have an honest look at our pain, anger, and fears, the Devil becomes our Ally, as we understand how profound its lessons are. It’s often said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. This is why – we take a break from our investment in The Successful, Correct Person, and realise that we’re fallible. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be challenged, which enables us to view ourselves from outside. If, however, we continue to hold onto the idea of The Rightness of Ourselves, refusing to take responsibility, we will continue to project all our Shadow onto the people around us. Thus we fail the lesson and progress no further. (Think of the Nazis, and their victims – reflections of their Shadow. Instead of processing that knowledge, they acted out it out, and ultimately they failed, both personally and culturally.)
However, if we successfully work through and integrate the Devil, we can continue on through the Tarot Journey. The challenges to the individual do not die away, though. Following on from The Devil, The Tower depicts a lightning strike of pure enlightenment – the paradox being that we have to survive its destructive force as well as its cleansing power.
The Star shows the breakthrough from the darkness of ignorance into the light of The Star, and the self-knowledge that connects us at last to the soul. Immediately following that, though, we encounter the ambivalence of The Moon, where (just as we think we’re getting to the end of the journey) our small human reason encounters the full siren-call of the collective unconscious. Some of us get lost in that realm, and never make our way back.
Even when we reach the understanding and ‘enlightened’ level of The Sun, the Tarot points out its destructive power. Step outside the magic circle, and you’re toast. Remember, always, it seems to be saying, when you encounter these archetypal powers you must do it with humility and as little ego as possible.
The Judgment card calls us home, challenging us to emerge from the grave of the old life, into the energy of Spirit. This level is truly a wondrous wake-up call – the way we see everything becomes more about energy and translucence, and we realise we can finally leave the ghosts of our past, our old ways of being, behind. This is not just a profound change of mind, it affects all levels: physical, mental, and spiritual. We have integrated all aspects of ourselves, and are drawn up into … something truly ineffable.
And finally, in The World, with our old concerns, ways, patterns, and behaviours left far behind, we find ourselves part of the cosmic dance – as Eliot has it, ‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is’. (from Burnt Norton)