by Maureen B. Roberts, Ph.D.
Recent adventurous and timely attempts to meld shamanism with psychotherapy express the challenge to translate the traditional shamanic vision - without the loss of any of its power, sacredness and mystery - into an accessible and contemporary idiom. When working toward a syzygy, or hybridization between Jungian psychotherapy and shamanism, it's vital that we avoid diluting or distorting the core essentials of either of these unique healing disciplines. We must not force a marriage between them. But if they are readily compatible, then like two folk in an ideal give-and-take union, they will be so without either of them compromising their distinctiveness, potency and integrity.
In continuing the shamanic tradition into the next century, we need to avoid two extremes: firstly, the temptation to omit the distinctive qualities that distinguish shamans (as an elect) from other practitioners in spiritual, psychotherapeutic, or imaginative techniques of healing; and secondly, the temptation to substitute for these key qualities the mere imitating of initiation rites and ecstatic techniques found in older shamanic traditions. Shamanism thrives on immediate experience and direct access to the living realms of spirit and archetype, hence will die if - as has been the fate of organized religion - it stagnates into method, belief, or empty ritual as a substitute for the shaman's living relationship to Otherworlds.
If we view healing knowledge in terms of a 'gnosis' grounded in the direct experience of the collective unconscious, at the opposite pole we find reductionist medicine. Mark Twain once said, "For a person who wants to use a hammer badly, a lot of things look like nails that need hammering." Such is the sad case in reductionist psychiatry, with its trigger-happy urge to slap on labels of pathological "abnormality", even in cases of normality and often in order to foist onto vulnerable folk drugs, shock-treatment, or incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. Here if anywhere exists a pressing need to re-evaluate precisely what constitutes adequate qualifications and training in the field of psychotherapy. On the other hand, traditional shamanic techniques divorced from a reputable psychological context carry little authority or credibility in mainstream psychiatric circles where at least a solid theoretical basis is desirable. Happily, and not least of all for those in need of psychospiritual healing, Jung provides an ideal bridge between the two.
What is so appealing about Jung's approach is that it's grounded not in dry abstractions - in the overemphasis on clinical techniques and textbook learning that plagues reductionist medicine - nor on a neurotic need to define, label or categorize - but instead rests fair and squarely on his own experiences, which included shamanic descents to the Underworld, working with guides, an empathy with Nature, dreams and visions, and an initiatory midlife crisis. Hence one would expect Jung's views to interface readily with shamanic principles. Indeed, when comparing the two fields, it's often a matter of using different terms to describe essentially similar experiences, and if we're prepared to get over that minor verbal hurdle, there's a rich cross-pollination to be gleaned from combining Jungian and shamanic work.
Active versus Passive Healing
One of the key distinctions between Jungian analysis and classic shamanic soul retrieval is the degree of deliberate intervention on the part of the shaman or therapist, and the corresponding degree of active, or conscious involvment in the healing process on the part of the patient. The useful terms "psychoshamanic therapist" and "shamanic psychotherapist", both hybridizations of shaman and psychotherapist, denote, as the terms suggest, one who ideally works comfortably with both non-interventional and interventional healing. Accordingly, s/he must be able to discern what degree of intervention is called for in a given therapy situation. S/he may decide to work solely in analysis mode, or may employ varying degrees of shamanic intervention which of course imply, on the part of of the analysand, varying degrees of conscious participation in the process. But degrees of intervention and passivity are not the sole criteria for distinguishing the two approaches. The limitations and potential scope of analysis and shamanic healing can also be delineated in terms of tools used for the job, in which case they have to do with the kinds of energies and resources, and the modes of perception, consciousness and discernment one works with.
Overall, though, we can posit - in terms of the relative activity and passivity of both therapist and patient - an unbroken continuum between Jungian individuation and shamanic intervention, or classic soul retrieval. The former, if allowed to unfold spontaneously through the analysis process, is less interventional, the latter more so, and there exist various gradations between the two extremes, but the innate and natural healing principles involved are the same, and in both healing modes, a temporarily lost, disempowered, split off, or unconscious psychic content is the object of retrieval.
Another key issue at work in Jungian analysis in comparison with classic soul retrieval is the growth in consciousness on the part of both shaman/therapist and patient. Are the reintegration of the personality through analysis and soul retrieval synonymous, if not in technique, then at least in terms of outcome? If the recipient of classic soul retrieval claims (as some have done) to have regained energy, focus and purpose, to what degree has consciousness simultaneously expanded to include a deeper self-realization in terms of an appreciation of the dynamics of the psyche, the peculiarities of one's mythic journey, the continuity of its cyclic pattern of ascent and descent, integration and disintegration, and the mythic context of one's particular woundedness?
The ways the shaman and Jungian therapist go about retrieval, then, can be poles apart. Some teachers of shamanic practice, or so I have heard, stress that a shaman cannot work on him/herself, or at least that s/he can work more powerfully for another, for example, by journeying to find someone else's power animal, hence keeping his/her own personal issues out of the way. My own approach, as a Jungian-oriented shamanic psychotherapist, is diametrically opposed to this.
In Jungian analysis, we are not in such a hurry to help others by 'doing it for them', firstly, because we work primarily as catalysts and midwives, and in equal dialogue and mutual exchange with the patient, to draw forth the healing from within the individual (rather than impose it on them); secondly, in response to the axiom that one can never lead another where one has not been oneself. To attempt to do so amounts to the blind leading the blind, and as Christ made clear, the end result is that both are likely to fall into a ditch. Although shamanic healing is more interventional, hence tends to be used - at least by Jungians who are also shamans - sparingly, or more discerningly, the same principle of the desirability of self-knowledge applies. The shaman is psychopomp because s/he is familiar with Otherworlds, or in Jungian terms, has explored the landscapes of the collective unconscious and so knows the road, hence can lead, escort, or find another in these places. To quote a well-known saying: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and never more so than when one is dealing with the soul of another.
Self-knowledge also gives us more control over the tendency to project onto others unconscious, hence unresolved complexes or shadow issues that can cloud our ability to assess a situation clearly. Hence far from keeping one's personal issues out of the way, having not faced them is automatically intrusive, according to the unavoidable psychological truth that "everything unconscious is projected." Finally, a shamanic healing situation, like Jungian analysis, can be an opportunity for the shaman/therapist to also learn, grow and be healed, an attitude which requires more humility, vulnerability (to wounding) and openness than the presumption that the healer is in no need of healing or further understanding. Too much intervention and we deny the patient the power, responsibility and dignity of equal participation in the healing process. By adopting an authoritarian stance - whether shamanic or mainstream reductionist - we can immune ourselves to the full potential of a mutual exchange, and perhaps to a needed reciprocal wounding and healing.
Here I stand with Jung when he confessed in his autobiography toward the end of his rich life , "I never think I am the one who must see to it that cherries grow on stalks. I stand and behold, admiring what nature can do." (MDR, p.389) As far as the desirability of non-intervention is concerned, in the broader context of medical practice in general, we are long overdue for a need to get away from the passive healing that has dominated mainstream medicine. In cases where reductionism dominates, many folk are becoming increasingly tired of being treated as passively dependent patients by 'experts' offering patronizing advice, chemicals, or pills. They want to reconnect with the healing power within them, with more imaginative, intuitive approaches that give them more control over their lives. In this connection, while shamanic soul retrieval is natural and intuitive, it is necessarily highly active and interventional on the part of the shaman-therapist and can as a consequence be relatively passive on the part of the patient who is suffering soul-loss.
The shaman's unique mode of intervention may be a far cry from the administration of chemicals and behavioural remedies; nonetheless, the shaman as psychopomp, and as the master of ecstatic trance who knows the road in all three realms of shamanic geography (to which I'll add a fourth later), Underworld, Overworld and World, is the soul-journeying authority in a retrieval situation. In one-to-one Jungian analysis, on the other hand, the therapist deliberately renounces the role of a detached expert dispensing techniques and instead acts as a midwife in helping to draw forth healing from within the patient. Ideally, the patient provides the raw material - in the form of dreams, symbols, or artwork - as a basis of analysis. In this dialogic process, therapist and patient work together, in equal partnership, to arrive at a solution that engages the whole person, conscious and unconscious, physical and psychospiritual.
Undoubtedly the strength and uniqueness of Jungian analysis lies in this equal dialogue between therapist and patient, and at this transitional phase of shifting medical paradigms, we perhaps need to stress this equality more than we need to reinforce - even if done in a shamanic context - the old 'patient versus expert' model. Happily, the trend toward a more holistic, intuitive and individual-oriented approach to healing in general is on the rise, and any practice that puts more dignity, choice and self-determination back into the hands of the suffering individual can surely only bring benefit to society at large.
As a therapeutic drive toward wholeness, Jung's central idea of individuation as Self-realisation involves, as does the imagination, the spontaneous struggle to unify recreatively through the balance and synthesis of psychic opposites. The focus on (what I call) 'active healing' - as opposed to the idea of the passively dependent or helpless patient - robs mainstream 'experts' of pretensions to authority which may provide a smokescreen for a lack of the kind of wisdom that can only be gained through that particular inner wounding, which Jung for one suffered, that is able to impart its unique brand of healing to the world. True to the age-old tradition of shamans and visionaries of all cultures, Jung bravely ventured on behalf of others down to the depths of unconscious landscapes in order to retrieve the wisdom needed by our fragmented, unsettled age, returning time and again during the course of his long life to distil his hard-won experience and shrewd insight into his holistic vision of the healing of the modern soul.
Jung as a Shaman
After breaking with Freud, Jung confronted the unconscious alone, primarily through exploring his dreams and visions, and as an intrepid voyager ventured into largely unchartered and potentially dangerous waters. Early in his psychiatric career Jung was understandably alarmed that his visions were strikingly similar to those of many of his patients at the Burgholzli Mental Hospital. Fearing madness, Jung was repeatedly assailed by a vision of sections of Europe becoming bathed in a sea of blood. It was during the 1914 outbreak of war that he realized that his visions of the previous year had been an ominous prophecy rather than a reference to himself.
Of course one cannot wrestle with angels and demons without getting hurt, and for Jung the cost was indeed high in terms of estrangement, misunderstanding, and ridicule or rejection by others in and outside of his profession. Yet throughout it all he retained immense compassion and patience toward the hundreds of suffering or bewildered individuals he helped heal. As well, he remained humble, even at times self-effacing, in the face of the wonder, mystery and infinity of the human soul, and he was never above displaying a riotous sense of humour and wizardly mischief, while never losing sight of the serious plight of humanity stumbling at the crossroads of a new era in its psychic evolution.
At the psychotherapeutic and non-interventional end of the spectrum, then, Jung is the obvious point of contact with shamanism. Traditionally shamans have always been aligned with counsellors, diviners, seers and prophets, all of whom rely - as did Jung - upon the therapeutic powers of Nature and upon the imagination as a prime healing mode of consciousness. Within this vast holistic framework the link with Jung as a modern shaman already begins to become clear, since he held an overwhelming respect for the mysterious, transcendent and sacred, and for the inner realm of the unconscious, that is, for its spontaneous expressions in mythic imagination, dreams, visions, symbols, feelings and intuitions, natural cycles and rhythms. Jung also respected the psyche's innate capacity to heal itself by bridging the gap between its often estranged opposites, such as male/female, thought/feeling, physical/spiritual, self/world, human/divine.
Being unusually open-minded for the academically trained physician he was, Jung interpreted primeval symbolism, with its pantheon of gods, heroes and animals, in terms of what he called the 'individuation' process - the psyche's self-creative drive toward the conscious realization of a centred wholeness of being which Jung regarded as the expression of one's true personality, the Self. Belonging as he did to a long tradition of healers and lorists, Jung stressed the psychotherapist's indispensable need for a deep and encyclopaedic knowledge of many branches of mysticism, art, myth, philosophy, comparative religion, alchemy, and primitive psychology, since symbols from all these domains of wisdom repeatedly surface in the dreams, fantasies and artwork of today's individuals. In his extensive travels among tribal societies, Jung recognised that such folk understand far better than Westerners the link between Nature - as the outer embodiment of enduring principles of life - and its mirroring myths which are enacted as rituals and symbolic rites of initiation and passage. In fact Jung came to realise that his approach was more in line with that of the Pueblo Indians and African Masai tribes than with the materialism of early twentieth-century Europe.
Jung certainly doesn't fit the conventional image of an academic psychologist. Always focused, as are shamans, on his inner world, he spent a large part of his life exploring his own dreams and those of other people. In childhood he played and roamed the woods in a secret realm of his own. Later he became a story-teller, a mystic able to drop into trance, sometimes dreaming of places he had never visited, occasionally attending native tribal chants, or, in his twilight years, carving cryptic messages onto a stone block at his private retreat, a lakeside, medieval-like stone tower at Bollingen. Here, amidst open fires and stoneware pots, he studied esoteric subjects such as Gnosticism in an atmosphere more like that of a medieval alchemist's abode than like the sanitized clinics typical of Western domains of medicine. Like a true shaman, Jung communed with his personal spirit guides and plumbed the depths of the psyche to retrieve weighty, often sobering visions that sometimes engulfed the fate of struggling humanity at large. Throughout it all, he displayed in abundance the three marks (in my view) of greatness, and the signs of a true healer: great wisdom, great compassion, and a great sense of humour.
Yet being as he was drawn to the solid simplicity of stone and earth, Jung was always thoroughly grounded and practical. As a down-to-earth introvert - and like mystics across all cultures and throughout the ages - Jung had immense respect for and trust in what he repeatedly stressed as the reality of the human psyche, which he viewed not as something which could be analysed, quantified, rationalized and objectified, but as the ultimately mysterious source, mediator and end of all that we experience. Instead of patronisingly trying to impose artificial, external remedies and techniques on those who came to him for healing, Jung therefore had enough faith in life's self-regulating drive toward wholeness to allow the psyche of his patients to express itself, in pathological situations, such as psychosis, no less than in cases involving comparatively undisturbed individuals.
Jung avoided theoretical constraints and preferred to treat each person as a unique individual from whom he humbly knew he stood to gain fresh insight into the kaleidoscopic intricacies and wonders of the soul. Following his example, Jungian analysts use as their chief resource the inner life of the patient. Most importantly, in Jungian analysis the patient shares responsibility for the cure in that he/she must produce - through dreams, visions, artwork, or other forms of creativity - the necessary symbolism as raw material to be worked on and (ideally) in time related to, intuitively understood and, as a result, consciously assimilated to whatever degree is possible and/or desirable. Jung therefore always encouraged his patients, if they were so inclined, to dance, draw, or otherwise enact or express the symbolic dramas that surfaced in their visions and dreams.
From a Jungian perspective (that is, using Jung1s terminology to describe essentially indefinable and spontaneous mysteries of the soul), one can explore shamanic symbolism from the standpoint of its activation of archetypal energies, and in particular as a powerful means of accessing the healing potential of our largely unconscious instincts and energies. Significantly, shamanism is a worldwide practice in which the spiritual interrelationship of the earth and Otherworlds, which can be accessed through dreaming or ecstatic trance journeying, forms an interweaving tapestry of physical and psychic being, affecting all forms of life, seen and unseen. Shamans, like Jungian therapists, act as walkers between the worlds, as interpreters of spirit realms (or in Jungian terms, as mediators between the personal conscious and the collective unconscious). This merging with the universe as a seamless web of interpenetrating inner and outer reality, and as a living, organic unity, is a key feature of shamanic consciousness, which is in consequence free to pass to and fro between various planes of existence.
Most importantly, though, all Jungian therapists worth their salt recognise in themselves as well as in their patients the capacity for both sickness and health and so never presume to have the artificial kind of authority which is based on the false assumption that healers are themselves in no need of healing. Indeed, shamans know all too well the meaning of 'the wound that heals', for one cannot descend to the depths of the psyche and wrestle with archetypal forces without suffering considerable hurt. (Hence Jung's claim that his work would 'be continued by those who suffer'). Along these lines, one of Jung's central axioms comes into play, namely that therapists can never guide their patients further - or deeper - than they themselves have been. In addition, for shamans no dimension of existence or (in Jungian terms) realm of the psyche is out of bounds such that they, again like Jung, are leaders, intrepid explorers of the unknown reaches of the human soul who, unfettered by the conscious mind's restrictions to corporeal space and time, bravely embark on spirit-journeys to gain information, divination and prophetic insight, and to enter into communion with ancestors. Shamanism is thus grounded in that deep 'gnosis', or direct knowledge, which is forged from clear sight and a receptive soul.
The original Siberian word 'shaman' implies warming and includes, as does Jungian therapy, the warmth of the person or help offered. In Jungian analysis the therapist works in equal partnership with the patient's own healing process in order to warm into life the embryonic Self. Psychological mothers, then - as those who have birthed the divine Self within themselves - make the best midwives. And in order to diagnose the cause and distil the remedy of a patient's sickness, the therapist must be prepared to descend to the visionary realm of transformation symbols and archetypes on behalf of or with another.
Shamans, like Jungian therapists, do not resort to rigid theories or techniques, but instead use the existing status of an illness or problem as the raw material out from which healing can arise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of whatever fire of emotion has fuelled its process of refinement. Still, there is always a plus to such costly enterprises. Inevitably, fire, as the primal symbol of life's sustaining energy and drive, plays a dominant role; in fact shamanic practice concerns the kindling, wielding and channelling of spiritual heat, and the maintenance of inner hearth fires (which I dream of regularly). In mythology, gods and goddesses of hearths and forges, such as the lame Greek god Hephaestus, and Brighid, the Celtic goddess of healing and smithcraft, are often aligned with healing, which requires a careful nurturing and warming of life processes that must be allowed to take place in their own time and at their own pace.
This principle of respect for the natural timing of healing throws light on Jung's passionate interest in alchemy, which he interpreted as the symbolic projection onto matter of the mysterious workings of the unconscious, in particular the process of Self-realization ('individuation'). In healing, as in alchemy, too much heat is a dangerous thing - which is why the alchemists never used it! And of course we still associate heat with intense emotions such as anger, emotional crisis, rash decisions (made in the 'heat' of the moment), 'letting off steam', or the heat-generating friction of conflict. While such extremes may have their short-term uses (e.g. the release of pent-up emotions), they are of little value - and of possible harm to others - when sustained, since the destructive side of fire is then unleashed.
As a journey and form of gnosis, Jung1s central principle of individuation concerns the quest for the paradoxically selfless Self, a process of growth which demands the relative abolition of the confining ego and a corresponding expansion of the horizons of consciousness, both outwardly and inwardly. For shamans, this god-like Self, being one with the universe is unbounded by purely personal horizons to the extent that shamans are free to disperse themselves throughout Nature, investing their souls without personal loss into different elements, places, sacred animals and objects through their empathising power to become one with the inhabitants of the boundless realm of imaginative vision. A talismanic object, for instance, often acted in mythology as a hidden soul, as in the case of King Arthur's sword Excalibur, whose scabbard prevented loss of blood, and which connected Arthur with the Otherworld realm of Avalon.
Individuation as "Self retrieval"
As a gesture toward forming a nexus of terminology between Jungian principles and shamanic soul retrieval, what I have termed "Self retrieval" is synonymous with individuation. It also suggests a double meaning: the retrieval of the Self, by the Self. In Jungian thought, the Self corresponds to the Gnostic divine spark, or central core essence of the personality. Individuation, or becoming a whole individual through self-realization, as an ongoing process of maturation involves a spontaneous "re-collection", or Platonic anamnesis (remembrance) of an innate wholeness and centre, the Self. The aim of individuation is the reproduction of this unity, the Original Being, who in Platonic thought was a sphere. This concept of the androgynous Original Being, then, represents both the origin and goal of psychic wholeness, a wholeness which is lost early in life when through the emergence of the ego we fall out of an original state of innocence into a divided, or "dis-eased" state of conflict. This in turn is resolved through the restoration of psychic harmony in a reclaimed "higher innocence" of conscious centredness in the Self.
Unlike shamanic soul retrieval, individuation as a natural centring and unfolding of the personality, readily occurs in isolation as well as in the context of relationships, often with little or no professional therapeutic intervention. Unlike much soul retrieval, Self retrieval is a lengthy process of development, indeed one which once begun, never ends, for becoming centred in the Self is merely the starting point of a new journey which moves on to embrace the fate of the World. Here again, Jung in his solitary wrestlings with the unconscious is the prime model and pioneering example.
Importantly, another key distinction between Self retrieval and soul retrieval is that what is retrieved in the former is a lost circumferential wholeness and accompanying central core of the personality, hence the mandala as "centre and circumference" is the ideal symbol of this psychic totality. In the latter what is retrieved is usually a split-off fragment of the personality, or a trapped or lost portion of psychic energy. Yet another distinction is that shamanic soul retrieval as "passive" healing (from the patient's perspective), in its most extreme modes of intervention lies at the one extreme of the retrieval spectrum. Mircea Eliade, for instance, recounts a hair-raising instance of a shaman who journeyed in walrus form to retrieve the soul of a woman who'd just died. While the woman was successfully returned to life, at the same time the shaman died from a wound that mysteriously appeared in his side. The woman recounted that in the land of the dead, she'd met up with the shaman and had followed him back across a lake to the realm of life. As they were returning, she'd seen the walrus shaman speared to death by an unknown assailant.
When dealing with soul loss in cases less extreme than the patient's death or otherwise helpless condition, we are more often that not dealing with a fragmentation of the personality through which an amount of psychic energy, or libido, is split off in a particular way. Firstly, all of us in certain normal phases of intensified conflict, development, or complex activation lose soul-energy by projecting shadow or archetypal aspects of the unconscious. Secondly, in pathological cases in which the personality is disempowered or poorly adapted to outer reality, the absent energy can be trapped or frozen in splinter personalities that may have formed through the development of a complex, through traumatic dissociation, acquired neurosis, or through the onset of schizophrenia or psychosis.
As a basic guideline, I use shamanic ecstatic trance, drumming, chanting, working with guides and soul retrieval only when I judge the occasion to warrant it. When I use the term "soul retrieval" I take it quite literally, namely as a retrieval of the lost soul (or a fragment thereof). In this sense, working with chronic depression, or schizophrenia, as two examples, involves the retrieval of a split-off aspect of the psyche which is usually trapped in the Underworld (sometimes beneath the sea). The degree of intervention varies on my part according to the nature of the situation, which includes a consideration of to what degree the patient can actively co-operate in his/her own retrieval. In my experience, I have yet to come across anyone - including socially dysfunctional schizophrenics and chronically depressed folk - who has been unwilling or unable to be actively involved in varying degrees in their own healing process. Indeed, most folk bring a great deal of their own insights, instincts and energies to the healing situation. It is more likely to be when the patient is obviously helpless that shamanic work is required. Indeed, my own view is that it is desirable for the shamanic psychotherapist to interfere as little as possible with the individuation process.
Active Imagination & Shamanic Journeying
Perhaps the closest one gets to a complete intermeshing of shamanic and Jungian psychotherapies is when working with what Jung termed "active imagination", which is a kind of dreaming awake in which one consciously engages with spontaneous dramas that unfold through processes of imagination. Indeed, D. J. Conway, for example, in her latest book on Celtic shamanism, guides the reader as apprentice shaman through several journeys of the imagination to and through various Underworld and Overworld scenarios where they are introduced, through Conway as a kind of mediatrix, to a selection of Celtic deities and guides. The obvious difficulty here is: how does one follow Conway's written instructions and at the same time concentrate on journeying? This query aside, the distinction between shamanic ecstatic trance and active imagination is fourfold.
Firstly, in terms of comparative states of conscious awareness, during active imagination the journeyer is more or less consciously present in the body, hence I have termed this mode "embodied consciousness" (or EC). In shamanic ecstatic journeying, the shaman deliberately leaves the body in order to enter fully into Otherworlds, hence "ecstasy", from the Greek "ekstasis", literally means "to stand outside of". I have therefore termed this mode "shamanic ecstatic consciousness", or SEC (to differentiate it from mystical ecstasy). But I have noted that one is "more or less" consciously embodied during active imagination, so if the "less" prevails, the overlap with shamanic ecstasy will, at least using this criterion of comparison, be greater.
Secondly, active imagination is a special and usually sporadic undertaking which as a mode of awareness does not intrude into the everyday consciousness of outer life. Once one has finished an active imagination journey, one is free to put the experience aside and get on with other practical matters. With shamanic consciousness, however (and here I speak primarily from experience), the shaman is continually present to both realities, outer and Otherworldly, sometimes more to one than the other; s/he always has a foot in both camps. Here we touch on the sometimes perilous affinity between schizophrenic and shamanic visionary states, which I shall return to elsewhere. Personally, I am almost always simultaneously present in my shamanic Cosmos, Andemar, and am usually aware of one or more guides either speaking to me, going about their private affairs in other landscapes, chanting or singing through me, or guiding my actions. I am therefore about as absent-minded, in the most literal sense possible, as they come!
Thirdly, the shamanic journey and active imagination are usually embarked upon for different reasons. Shamans, although free to journey for purely personal concerns or enjoyment, more often that not venture on behalf of others into their Otherworlds in order to retrieve needed wisdom and healing, sometimes also divination and prophetic insight, encountering along the way gods, guides, ancestral spirits and animal helpers who give advice, lead to lost treasures, help restore wandered or lost souls (that is, reintegrate fragmented or dissociated personalities), offer challenge, and ask or answer key questions. The universal shaman tradition is therefore founded on the mediatorial need and responsibility for understanding, co-operating, and sometimes wrestling with the awesome forces of psyche and Nature in order to win one's own storehouse of wisdom from which one can in turn draw, for oneself and others, healing resources at will.
Fourthly, and in connection with the third distinction, guides have differing roles and degrees of importance in both modes. During active imagination the contents of the unconscious can appear personified in the forms of beings with a distinctive personality and existence of their own, and as such they may be indistinguishable from shamanic guides. However, while the shaman never doubts the independent reality of his/her guides, during active imagination it is possible to remain aware of the theoretical backdrop which "explains" such figures as personifications of unconscious contents. But since Jung's explanations are never reductionist, and since Jung himself experienced his own inner spirit guides as in some sense real and objective (given that he also considered the psyche itself to be as real as anything else), shamanic reality is inherently no more "real" than the dramas of the imagination (which William Blake, for example, experienced and regarded as the quintessential human reality). In shamanism, as in all discourse, all terms are limiting abstractions of what can never ultimately be confined to or perfectly expressed with words. In my own experience, "spirits" and "archetypal energies" are synonomous terms. Both refer to living, breathing realities and entities that can be known and worked with, that elude rational explanation, and that transcend normal space-time consciousness.
Active imagination can work hand-in-hand with dream analysis as a means of contacting, co-operating with and integrating into consciousness the contents of the unconscious during the personal individuation quest. In both mediatorial shamanism and active imagination, healing is implicit if not explicit, since with both modes the individual is relying on the boundless wisdom of the psyche as the mirror of Nature's innate tendency to balance and synthesise the opposites. In both modes of exploration, the individual is totally involved in terms of active co-operation with what is encountered (hence "passive imagination" is the lazily reveric, or unexamined flow of fantasy images).
To summarize, we can posit, then, at least in terms of modes of consciousness, and forms and content of the experiences, an unbroken continuum from embodied active imagination, through the hybrid varieties of what we could call "shamanic active imagination", to shamanic ecstasy proper. In addition, both shamanic journeying and active imagination may be done alone, but variations can allow for a partially shared journeying which, when focused on soul loss and restoration, can result in what I call "shared retrieval", or "co-retrieval" (more on this later). The advantage of this approach is that both participants are actively engaged in the journey, whereas in classic soul retrieval the patient remains a passive or unconscious recipient of the shaman's intervention.
The Kairos of Puer Woundedness
I for one choose to offer interventional help sparingly, for my greater joy is to know that another struggling soul has found, or rather lived out the unique answer that has been birthed from within them. During solitary Self retrieval, for instance, when a person may be recovering from grief, or from an ended relationship, or from plain old unrequited love, the energy is gradually reclaimed, in the same way as a snail's stalks, or the leaves of some touch-sensitive plants tentatively re-emerge or unfold after they've been touched. Similarly, the soul's energy doesn't need to be yanked back, or forcefully torn away from its attachment. It needs gentleness and slow movement, not sudden jolting or other forms of hasty retrieval.
Through my own experiences of grief, loss and wounding, and though being privileged to share the painful experiences of others, I have learned that the soul lets go when in the kairos of its own time-frame it is ready to. It undergoes a gradual transition from acknowledging the bond, to relinquishing dependency and belongingness, to acknowledging the reality of separation. The soul like a child must in such times be weaned off, because its vulnerability and woundedness belong to the Puer, the eternal child archetype of trust and openness that has more often than not drawn it into the situation in the first place. The hopeful and idealistic Puer, earthed and sometimes shocked through the harsh facts of human relatedness into the horizontal realm of Soul, thereby becomes, if it accepts its lot with growth in understanding and no bitterness, the willing victim of sometimes painful reality. In some circumstances, then, interventional soul retrieval, perhaps out of a desire for a quicker remedy, or even out of a well-meaning shamanic longing to help the suffering soul escape its pain, could become a hasty substitute for a more gradual, natural process of Self retrieval. For it is through bathing in the gentle alchemical fire in which the agony of passion is gradually transmuted to the gold of 'com-passion', that the Wounded Healer is most thoroughly forged.
© 1999 Maureen B. Roberts, from Re-Visioning Soul Retrieval:
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Last Updated: 10 Nov 99