(Copyright Spiegel-Verlag, 31/2007.)


The Shadow


All this talk (on other pages of this site) about transcendence, spiritual elevation and experiences of ascent is fine, but we have to start at the beginning by cleaning out the ground level, or even the basement. This means we have to get our hands dirty and work. No free lunches!


In these post- (or post-post) modern times we have become accustomed to talking about the self and identity as if these had just been discovered. Yet the Sufis were already there and beyond, more than a thousand years ago.


In Islam, “purification of the self” (tazkiya al-nafs) is very important, and has been elaborated into a science by the Sufis. The raw material for this purification process is the self in its natural condition, the self at basement level—the Base Self.


The Base Self is defined in the Koran as “the self which always commands (or compels) to evil” (12:53), where its Arabic name (nafs al-ammara) comes from. The Base Self is the dark side of human nature. It is our inner demon, the hidden self, the beast within, that silently and ceaselessly plots our downfall. The Base Self is like gravity, always pulling the human spirit down to earth, whereas the spirit’s innate tendency is to soar. The higher we jump, the harder we fall, so there is no rest until this enemy to top all enemies is dealt with.

From "The Incredible Hulk" (Copyright Universal Pictures/Marvel Comics, 2003.)

Or double-click below to view full screen:


There are many depictions in Western literature and cinema of how the Base Self overcomes the human spirit and takes over the total personality. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis are all examples of this. And let's not forget the many transformations of human beings into vampires, werewolves, and a plethora of other unsavory creatures.


In Western psychology, it was Carl Gustav Jung who came closest to describing the Base Self in a manner similar to the Sufis. Jung called it “the shadow.” “By shadow,” he said, “I mean the 'negative' side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the content of the personal unconscious.” He posed a profound riddle: “How do you find a lion that has swallowed you?”


Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. [M]an also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.


We carry our past with us, to wit, the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions… Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. [In an instant, a] gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano, and there is, so far as we know, no way of protecting ourselves from a possible outburst that will destroy everybody within reach.


[T]he acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. [The shadow] is unreasonable, senseless, and evil. The hero's main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness…


[The shadow works by projecting its own undesirable traits on others.] A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour. Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be… [W]e still go on naively projecting our own psychology into our fellow human beings. In this way everyone creates for himself a series of more or less imaginary relationships based essentially on projection.


The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. If a man is endowed with an ethical sense and is convinced of the sanctity of ethical values, he is on the surest road to…examin[ing his] conscience and thereby [discovering] the shadow.


If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow…Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.[1]



Yet we find scarcely any mention―and even less conceptionof higher levels of selfhood in Western science or culture. These higher levels, seven in all (or nine, depending on how one counts), are first named in the Koran, whence Sufism inherits them.








(Carnal or Base Self)

(ammara) (12:53)



























(kamila, zakiya or safiya)

(91:7, 9)


These higher levels of selfhood each have their distinctive signs, attributes, and difficulties as the spiritual pilgrim proceeds on the Journey.



The Base Self in Mythology


As Joseph Campbell implies, one of the keys to understanding fairy tales and mythology (and science fiction!) is that every monster is a symbol for the Base Self. Greek mythology is particularly replete with monsters of this kind. The hero must prove his mettle by besting the beast in mortal combat. Difficult though this may be, it is the loftiest of callings. “It is only,” says Campbell, “those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart.”


The labyrinth. “The true calling of man,” said Aldous Huxley, “is to find the way to himself.” Our lives, this whole world, are all mazes, as Jorge Luis Borges might say, but in the context of Greek mythology, one is reminded at once of the labyrinth that King Minos of Crete ordered Daedalus, the archetypical scientist, to construct. Daedalus did such a good job that no one who got into it could ever get out. Therein was placed the Minotaur, a savage chimera with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Each year, youths and maidens from Athens would be cast into the maze, there to wander in vain until they were found and devoured by the Minotaur.


Theseus decided to change all that. When he arrived at Crete, the king’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him. In order to save Theseus from the labyrinth, she approached Daedalus, who gave her a ball of (golden) thread. When Theseus entered the labyrinth, he attached one end to the door, and unraveled the thread as he moved in deeper.

From "The Storyteller: Greek Myths," S01E01 (1991)

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To vanquish and purify one’s self: this is the hero’s journey, the adventure to beat all adventures. Furthermore, as Campbell points out, we do not


risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.


And…where we had thought to slay another,

 we shall slay ourselves;

where we had thought to travel outward,

 we shall come to the center of our own existence;

where we had thought to be alone,

 we shall be…

…with all the world.[2]



The monster the hero fights in the video below is the Hydra, known for having seven or nine heads. If any one of the heads is cut off, two heads sprout in its place. (In the Book of Revelation, 12:3, Satan is described as a great red dragon with seven heads.)

Hercules' encounter with the Hydra is depicted in the following video. Double-click to view full screen:

In the following video, we have a composite of two famous mythological themes. Since it was Hercules who vanquished the Hydra during his Twelve Labors, one’s first inclination is to identify the hero with him, until one notices that the treasure being guarded is the Golden Fleece, the goal of another mythological cycle: Jason and the Argonauts.

From "Jason and the Argonauts" (Copyright Morningside Productions, 1963.)




Now in the original myth, the guardian monster of the Golden Fleece was the Serpent of Colchis, a critter of quite a different brood from the Hydra. Never sleeping, ever watchful, this serpent of innumerable coils was put to sleep by Medea’s potion and invocation before Jason could claim the Fleece.


Yet both the Hydra and the Serpent draw attention to important qualities of the Base Self, which is wide awake and watching for its chance even when we are asleep­―which is practically all the time, considering that we are asleep even when we are awake! And the more we try to defeat it, the more it springs back, redoubled.


The Base Self is well-nigh indestructible. To kill the Base Self is the most fiendishly difficult job in the world. Like the liquid-metal robot in Terminator 2 (1991), the Base Self almost magically reconstitutes even after it is, as it were, riddled with bullets, frozen, and blown to smithereens:

From James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (Copyright Studio Canal, 1991-2009.)

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In the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," the prince must first overcome the terrible dragon before he can revive his beloved princess with a kiss:

From "Sleeping Beauty" (Copyright Walt Disney Productions, 1959.)

(Update here.)



The Two Don’ts


As can be seen from our examples, no attack is effective against the Base Self unless the sword is plunged into its heart. But what is the “heart” of the Base Self? What will subdue it? Who has this priceless knowledge?


In this materialistic culture of ours, people are apt to disdain anything they receive free of charge. Because some of the best things in life are free, they tend to look down upon them, realizing their worth only, and almost always, after it is too late. The great secret to besting the Base Self was freely explained by the Master almost every day―which is why few indeed who heard him heeded his advice. It was free pecisely because it is priceless―those who have no use for it won’t pay for it, while for those who would and could use it, it is so valuable that no price could be sufficient, if they only knew. This great transmission reveals to us the secret of bringing the Base Self under control. At first it will appear mundane, even trivial. Yet all the great saints, from Rumi to Ibn Arabi, became saints only after they mastered the two points to be explained below.

Of course, Sufis have used the technique of eating, drinking and sleeping sparingly in order to keep the Base Self weak and hence manageable. Likewise, one should indulge in periodic self-examination, self-criticism, and calling oneself to account. (A Saying of the Prophet: “Call yourselves to account before you are called to account.”)


But even these are of little avail unless the following conditions are met:


When it comes to wealth and lust, do not take what is not rightfully yours.


  1. Illicit gain. Anything that you have not earned or has not been given to you as a gift is forbidden. This is why you need a job, to earn your keep honestly by the sweat of your brow.


  1. Illicit sex. All extramarital sex with others is prohibited. (Marriage in the sense it has been used since time immemorial—legally, to a spouse of the opposite sex.) This means you must resist the temptation of low-hanging fruit. As the Master said, “don't even think about it.” Theano, the wife of Pythagoras and also his spiritual successor, knew the score. She was asked how much time is necessary for a woman to become pure after sexual intercourse. She replied: “If it is with her husband, she is pure immediately; if it is with another, she never is pure.” Of course, this holds true for the man as well. “Marriage,” said George Bernard Shaw, “combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.” What more do you want?



“Whoever observes these two points,” said the Master, “and performs the Five Daily Prayers, let them come to me and I will pin the promotion to sainthood on their lapel.” And he said, “If you shut these two doors, your Base Self is dead.”


Unless these requirements are met, there is no way to purify the Base Self. But suppose you just came upon this, and hadn’t previously known about it—which, of course, you couldn’t have. Then, all one has to do is to make a solemn vow from this moment on. To repent with a sincere repentance. “To say, “My God, I hereby resolve not to take what is illicit nor touch what is illicit.” And from then on, not to break that vow.


Furthermore, we must understand that the Base Self cannot really be destroyed. It or its residue is operative even as one climbs through all the levels of the self, which is why the monster has seven or nine heads instead of just one. Therefore, no matter how accomplished one is, and what one’s station of selfhood may be, these two don’ts must always be observed diligently at every level.


There. I’ve given you the two essentials, the keys to deconstructing the Base Self. Use them wisely, and you won’t regret it. Nor will you find them divulged so clearly anywhere else, with the exception of one or two books related to the Master.  





[1] Summarized from, which in turn is summarized from Jung’s Collected Works.

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, 2004 [c. 1949], p.23. The last part is so good that I’ve formatted it as poetry. (Italics and emphasis added.)