Developing Jung’s “Imagination for Evil” is the Doorway to Our Light
We live in a time of the emergence of great darkness in our world. The great doctor of the soul C. G. Jung, who came up with the idea of the existence of the shadow within the human psyche, had deeply valuable insights into the nature of the psychological situation in the world today, particularly the role that the darkness of the shadow plays in our modern world. Jung felt that the catastrophic evil that is manifesting in our world today is an archetypical expression of the process of humanity’s transition from one epoch—and state of consciousness—to another. He was of the opinion that the fate of the world literally depended upon the recognition of the shadow elements within us and their assimilation into a more expanded sense of self that includes both our light and dark aspects.
What we don’t accept in ourselves, but rather, exclude from our self-image and push into the shadows of netherworld of the unconscious—thereby depriving it of light—becomes toxic. These repressed shadowy contents build up a charge in the unconscious, becoming contaminated with archaic archetypal energies from the collective unconscious. It is truly frightening how many of us are so out of touch with our own shadow that we can easily become unconscious instruments through which archetypal evil, which lies hidden within the dark side of the human psyche, can act itself out through us into the world.
We still go on thinking that we are “simplex and not duplex,” to use Jung’s words. We thus imagine ourselves to be “innocuous, reasonable and humane.” We don’t deny that terrible things are happening, but since we regard ourselves as harmless, Jung points out, “it is always ‘the others’ who do them.” When we are not in touch with the potential evil that dwells within us, we project it outside of ourselves in a futile attempt to disown it, thereby falling prey to and unknowingly acting out in the external world the very evil that we are turning away from within ourselves. Evil thrives on our turning a blind eye towards it.
To quote Jung, “Evil today has become a visible Great Power…. We stand face to face with the terrible question of evil and do not even know what is before us, let alone what to pit against it.” Most ordinary, psychologically and/or spiritually under-developed people have trouble even imagining the utter depravity of the evil that can potentially play itself out through individuals or groups (not to mention through themselves) who are taken over by the will-to-power of the shadow. In order to develop a sense of how to deal with evil, however, we first have to try and understand the nature of the beast with which we are dealing.
The first principle of psychological method is that any phenomenon to be understood must be sympathetically imagined. No syndrome can be truly dislodged from its cursed condition until we first move imagination into its heart. One of the most crucially important steps in dealing with evil is, according to Jung, to develop what he calls an “imagination for evil.” If we can’t imagine the evil that human beings are potentially capable of—and of which we ourselves, under the right circumstances, could also be capable of—in our naivety, we offer ourselves into evil’s hands. If evil escapes the reach of our imagination, it will dictate, enforce and establish dominion over us, both within our imagination and in our concrete lives. Because our imagination can help us get a handle on evil, evil tries to stifle and ultimately destroy the imagination, which is why mobilizing the creative imagination is crucial in dealing with the powers of darkness.
If we don’t develop an imagination for evil, we can lose touch with our shadow and identify with what Jung calls a “fictive personality,” which is to say, in splitting off from our darkness, we conceive of ourselves as being someone who we’re not – a “lite” version of our selves. We all have a darker half, but to the extent we are overly identified with our lighter side at the expense of the darkness within us, we wind up being unable to imagine the depths of darkness of which we are capable. Jung pulls no punches in making this exact point when he writes, “we are always, thanks to our human nature, potential criminals. In reality we merely lacked a suitable opportunity to be drawn into the infernal melee.” We are all inseparably interconnected and partake of the shared collective (darker) unconscious of humanity—the shadow side of being a human being—which is why Jung wrote, “None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow.”
There are impersonal forces that animate and inform the collective shadow that lurks in our unconscious. In Jung’s words, “We are blissfully unconscious of these forces because they never, or almost never, appear in our personal relations or under ordinary circumstances. But if people crowd together and form a mob, then the dynamisms of the collective man are let loose—beasts or demons that lie dormant in every person [are let loose] …. The change of character brought about by the uprush of collective forces is amazing. A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast.” The petri dish of the masses is a breeding ground for evil to flourish and propagate itself. We are dealing not just with merely personal forces that have to do with us as individuals, but with impersonal, transpersonal forces – the Bible’s “powers and principalities.”
These collective, impersonal and archetypal forces can be so overwhelming that—when we come together in a larger group—they can take on a seeming life of their own, possessing our egoic identity, turning us into their accessories such that we become the unwitting puppets and marionettes of these forces. Collective possession can then easily turn into a psychic epidemic—a collective psychosis—something that is important for us to be alert to in times such as ours when mob violence is increasing in our world.
Jung writes, “The gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are not elemental happenings of a physical or biological order, but psychic events…. At any moment several millions of human beings may be smitten with a new madness, and then we shall have another world war or devastating revolution … modern man is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche. This is the World Power that vastly exceeds all other powers on earth.” In other words, the great power—and seemingly darker force—that is threatening us today is to be found in the place where it originates, within our psyche. We should no longer underestimate, but rather, recognize the primary role that the psyche is playing in world affairs.
The next step for us to take in dealing with evil—in Jung’s words, “what to pit against it”—is to recognize that the darkness in our world is revealing to us something within ourselves that it greatly behooves us to know. To look for the solution to the world-wide problem of evil outside of ourselves is to distance and distract ourselves from the source of the problem (as well as the potential solution), which as Jung points out again and again, is only to be found within the individual. Although the roots of evil can only be discovered within the individual, this doesn’t mean that the forces of evil that can be encountered within an individual psyche are merely a personal matter. In probing into our own depths, we can potentially come face to face with the vast and formidable forces of the archetypal, collective shadow within ourselves, as we are all, in the deepest recesses of our being, fundamentally connected to the transpersonal psyche, in both its light and dark aspects.
A failure of imagination has been the cause of some of the major calamities in world history. Jung was of the opinion that if we have no imagination for evil, “evil has us in its grip.” Being out of touch with our own potential for evil ensures that we will unknowingly act it out. If we don’t develop a multi-faceted imagination for evil, there is no way for us to know what we are up against. Our lack of imagination for evil is the best way of making us, to use Jung’s words, “an instrument of evil.” Our lack of insight into the evil that any of us are capable of, to quote Jung, “deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil.” We need to be on intimate terms and know the darkness within ourselves if we want to have any hope of effectively dealing with the darkness in the world at large.
It is crucially important for us to cultivate the faculty of the imagination so as to be able to deal with the evil in our world. “Evil,” Jung writes, “can no longer be dismissed from the world by a circumlocution. We must learn to handle it, since it is here to stay.” We can deny this all we want, insisting on staying blind – like ostriches, putting our heads in the sand. There is, however, no getting away from the fact that—as a way of finding and deepening our connection to the light—we are fated to come to terms with the darker side of ourselves and of the universe as a whole, which is only emerging into view because of the proximity and intensity of a great light.
Integrating our shadow is not an intellectual pursuit, but is a moral problem that challenges the whole person. Becoming conscious of the shadow is essential for any degree of self-knowledge. The process of shedding light on the shadow is usually met with strong inner resistance because ignorance has an inertia that must be overcome to make way for the light of self-knowledge.
To quote Jung, “Therefore the individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil, as it is posed today, has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness.” In our current catastrophic times, knowledge of the innermost foundation of our being—our intrinsic wholeness—is absolutely imperative. Jung concludes, “Individual self-reflection, return of the individual to the ground of human nature, to his own deepest being … here is the beginning of a cure for that blindness which reigns at the present hour.” Whenever we reflect upon ourselves we are bound to encounter the living frontiers of the unconscious itself, which is where the very medicine that heals our blindness is to be found.
About the Author
A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, Paul Levy is a wounded healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality. Among his books are The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality (SelectBooks, May 2018) and Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil (North Atlantic Books, 2013). He is the founder of the “Awakening in the Dream Community” in Portland, Oregon. An artist, he is deeply steeped in the work of C. G. Jung, and has been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for over 35 years. He was the coordinator for the Portland PadmaSambhava Buddhist Center for over twenty years. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; he looks forward to your reflections.