The Road Less Travelled:
Shamanic Consciousness & the Evolving God-Image

by Maureen B. Roberts, PhD ("The Dark" Nathair)

"The ego has to acknowledge many gods before it attains the centre where no god helps it any longer against any other god." (C. G. Jung, letter to Pastor Bernet, 13/6/1955)

I offer these thoughts because in my life there exists a seamless continuity between my practice as a shaman and my work as a depth psychotherapist. What I write, in other words, is grounded primarily in my own experience and reflections upon it, and as such is an attempt to interface two fields which, again in my experience, share a great deal of common ground. Both honour soul, its potential boundlessness, wholism, and need to acknowledge the gods that inform it. Both thrive on the imaginal, the symbolic, the intuitive, the organic artistry of Nature, the tension between order and chaos, and the mythic cycles of death and rebirth that inscribe the sacred circles of outer and inner Cosmos.

Since shamans are embodied extensions of and focusing lasers for the collective unconscious, most of them are intuitives and inevitably extreme introverts in the bargain. Shamans can in consequence often seem quite detached and impersonal; as intuitives, they prefer to focus on the whole rather than on independent parts, hence the unitary web of shamanic vision as the containing alchemical vessel of their work. This detachment, however, is a far cry from that of the reasoner or mechanist, who mistakes objectivity or explanation for knowledge, or who thrives on analysis to the exclusion of holism and empathy. The intuitive introvert's detachment is, conversely, the transpersonality of central Self connected, in the case of shamans along the axis mundi that passes through the various levels of the shamanic Cosmos to the circular whole of unus mundus; hence intuition 'works' best when consciousness is centred in the 'gnosis' of empty Centre.

Of course, the intuitive shamans' poor sensation is compensated by fate's imposition on them of perpetual woundedness, and by the tremendous focus on the physical and instinctive in shamanic work. Shamans never doubt the reality of their guides and Otherworlds, and since 'World' is one of those realms, shamanic reality is implicit in this world and melds in an interweaving tapestry with both Overworld and Underworld realms. In this connection, imaginative vision is for the shaman the primary reality. As an all-embracing mode of existence and knowledge, shamanic vision contrasts markedly with Westernized insipid notions of imagination as fanciful musing that is ego-based, whimsical, vague and insubstantial, ineffectual, escapist, or otherwise limited in power or perception.

Accordingly, in shamanic work, limited or peripheral egoic awareness is transcended; consciousness is transposed to another plane where images, which in the potent realm of 'imag-ination' have a life and purpose of their own, are activated and engaged with through intensely vivid dialogue and communion. What overwhelms the schizophrenic is precisely the living reality of these Otherworlds, which in comparison with outer reality, can be far more powerful, passionate and vibrant than the relative tameness or seeming insubstantiality of outer life. Hence if the schizophrenic, or initiated shaman is to self-heal and be able to help others as soul guide, the weakened ego must be bolstered and fortified to act as a dam, or interface between inner and outer. The authentic shaman, through the ability to repeatedly self-resurrect from mythic death, must be able to do this herself - no-one can do it for her. Hence for the shaman, the ego acts not as a container for belief, but rather as a mediatrix of vision and transformation.

Shamanic Vision vs Belief

As a shaman, I reside, beyond belief and dogma and the need for externalized deities, in the gnosis of direct intuition and experience, hence, knowing as William Blake did that "all deities reside in the human breast", I enjoy the freedom to work with my own pantheon of gods, which includes both male and female, Overworld and Underworld, calm and semi-sane deities. Unlike those who adhere to dualistic or one-sided "spirituality", or positive thinking, I gladly imbibe the dark and instinctive side of life, uniting Heaven and Hell, dark and light, ego and shadow, sanity and madness, in being free to embrace and roam throughout Underworld and Overworld alike.

Clinging to the relative (yet ultimately perilous) safety of conceptualizing about such realities is the dubious prerogative and province of the ego, which seeks to explain, not always in order to understand, but just as often to control, limit, demystify, or confine. Religion, Jung provocatively remarked, is a defence against a religious experience. The transcendent Self, on the other hand, remains open to boundless potential and to the indefinable, since by "definition", symbolized as the centred wholeness of the mandala, it incorporates all possibilities within its limitless bounds.

As a shaman, I am the servant of soul and boundless Otherworldly Cosmos, not the slave of any reasoned system of belief. I will laugh at, scorn, or tear apart any limiting dogma that seeks to enslave the infinite reaches of my imagination, or tame my Maenadic wildness. In shamanic mode, the ego is often deliberately destabilized, displaced, or otherwise disempowered in order to engage the Dionysian as creative madness, abysmal passion and instinct, vegetative death-rebirth, bisexuality and ambivalence, and daemonic inspiration. The difference with the schizophrenic here is that the shaman as psychic androgyne wills this, and with the aid of personal guides and gods, it is controlled not by the ego, but by the mercurial Self, whereas the schizophrenic's ego is - in pathological situations - uncontrollably overwhelmed by the collective unconscious.

As one who has befriended the Madwoman archetype, I know the Centre to be everywhere. I am male and female, yet woman, too. As a shaman, I deal with and inhabit realms of archetypal power, passion, vision and energy. To attempt to tame or reduce them to any reasoned ideology is like trying to channel the fiery energies of volcanic outflow through a plastic straw. The less cannot hope to contain the greater.

I care nothing for belief. I am the lone Wolf who follows my own drum-beat and has no rules, save the law of my errant pulse of life and inner song. I have trod the searing rocks of Venus and the violet sands of a world beyond the realm of Sol where auroran skies flared verdant with delirious radiation. Absent-minded, losing soul by choice, having through 'ek-stasis' left the confines of Earth, I am present to a multiverse of Otherworlds.

Shamanism & the God-Image

Meanwhile, here on Earth, the primary collective challenge of our age is the conscious restoration of psychic wholeness, which includes the re-inclusion of the feminine, of matter and of the dark side of God into the restored unity of the new God-image. With this new amoral ethic of wholeness, a crucial factor is the awareness of the shadow, such that one's challenge becomes the ability to consciously integrate and creatively direct the shadow's helpful energies as an alternative to unconsciously projecting them negatively and destructively elsewhere.

As Jung often discussed, the next phase of the incarnation of God - as the paradoxical totality of the psyche - will involve, as the dominant challenge of Aquarian holism, "a restitution of the original oneness of the unconscious on the level of consciousness"(1). Hence while the Piscean age of dualism, presided over in Western culture by mainstream Christianity, privileged the spiritual, the light and the masculine, the new consciousness will reaffirm the equal presence of God in the opposites of matter (from L. mater meaning 'mother'), shadow and feminine in order to restore the unity of God and Self, which throughout the Christian era was undermined by the moral accentuation of the opposites into good and evil.

In this context we can appreciate the importance of the central World Tree, or axis mundi in shamanism, for its top reaches into the celestial Overworld and its roots, passing through the middle realm of World, descend into Underworld. As Jung discusses, the dead tree of the Christian Cross, symbolic of the rejected vegetative realm and Nature, reinforces Christ's one-sided spiritualization, which is compensated by Mary as Virgo, the feminine Earth. The shamanic World Tree is, in contrast, alive and central; equally in touch with above and below, hence a perfect synthesis of the two, it communes with earth, darkness, matter and water through its roots, and is at home with light, air and the Sun's fire above. Symbolically, when Christ is buried again in the mother's womb at Easter, he regains his lost wholeness. Similarly in the Greek myth, an image of Attis is nailed to a tree, then cut down and taken into the cave of earth mother Cybele. (2)

In connection with the reintegration of matter, I had a relevant dream a few months ago. In it, twin clear quartz crystals, whose upper facets had a gold aura, were growing upward out of the side of my face. In the dream I was simultaneously watching this as a double, and said to the other me, "This is the next phase of our evolution, so don't worry about it." After reflecting on this, it seemed that the dream was a kind of alchemical coniunctio, a union with matter which produced a kind of antenna-like amplification of my own energies as I worked in union with the crystals. We were one in the sense that we were each (quantally non-local) manifestations of the same universal Energy, or unus mundus, which incorporated matter and spirit alike.

The ability to bear the opposites consciously ushers in the next stage in our psychic evolution - the divine androgyny and union of dark and light in humanity. If they can consciously hold the opposites of dark and light in creative tension, shamans can help birth the new consciousness. Hence shamanic work, like depth analysis, is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who wish to play it safe by innocently assuming that one must at all costs provide only healing and nurturing acceptance. In working with the depths of the psyche, assuming one has already been there and so, like the shaman, knows the road, one may trigger in the patient dangerous elements from that same depth. Good intentions cannot banish what Jung calls the Deus absconditus. As he stressed, if the unconscious is awoken, it may manifest in all its terror, wonder and natural spontaneity.

In this sense, wholeness transcends all our static notions of virtue and vice. A great deal of our strength, instinctual cunning, creative ability, energy and drive in fact come from the acceptance of and cooperation with the dark side of the psyche. Scorning the one-sided half-truths and moralisms of the collective consciousness, the shadow is not weak, indecisive, restrained or decent; it is vital, primitive, animallike, spontaneous, and acts as guide. In this connection, the shaman has a great deal in common with visionary prophets and artists such as Blake, who endorsed the need to 'de-moralize' and integrate the opposites, thus freeing them from the moral overtones and static legalism imputed to them by what Blake calls 'the religious'. As he clarifies in his more-Jungian-than-Jung text The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1796):

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Free of legalistic restraint yet dedicated to the more demanding and personally isolating ethic of individuation and gnosis, Blake, like the shaman who is at home in the Underworld, through imaginative vision wanders about among the fires of Hell, "delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity." When the angels are severed from their shadows, the demons topple earthward, to be embraced by the fallen darkness of scorned feminine matter. As Blake is implying here, detached Apollonian light and coolness is apt to misjudge, reject and project as negative shadow the creative fire of Shivaic and Dionysian madness.

The Blakean 'doors of perception' as gateways to the vision of the infinite implicit in all things, are in shamanic practice kept open by the sustained activation of the archetype of death, by the symbolic death and rebirth that constitutes initiation, and by the Dionysian repetition of death that permeates shamanic work and ecstatic trance. Shamans are extremists, hence 'eccentric' literally means 'off-centred'. Although centred along the axis mundi, having a foot in all three (and sometimes more) camps comes with the job. Their lives, in other words, are not their own; they thrive on the extreme edge of society, dancing on a knife-edge where the veil between order and sanity on one side, and the divine chaos of Otherworlds on the other is thinnest.

There is in consequence no impersonal objectivity in shamanic trance; the shaman distances herself not through detachment but through ecstasy, from 'ek-stasis', meaning the ability to step outside of oneself. But one steps outside of the physical body in order to enter the wholism and living reality of the entire shamanic Cosmos, where through the cleansing of the doors of perception all is seen (in Blake's words) 'as it is, that is, infinite'. Instead of objectivity, what is required is discernment. The shaman must be able to 'test the spirits', partly in order to discriminate between legitimate and helpful Underworld allies and vampirish or predatory powers, which sap rather than fire the life of the soul. It is only through owning one's demons, or integrating the shadow, that the shaman acquires the power, cunning and authority to do this.

With no unifying myth of this kind, which must emerge from the collective unconscious and be articulated largely by the prophets, visionaries, artists and shamans most closely in touch with it, society fragments into warring factions. As Jung warned, when - through the ego's hubristic attempts to usurp the authority of the central Self - the archetypes are detached from their dynamic background, they are tamed, sanitized and neutralized through the attempt to turn them into intellectual formulae, ideologies, hobby-horses, or belief systems. Jung commented on such fragmenting, regressive "isms' as follows:

With more foreboding than real knowledge, most people feel afraid of the menacing power that lies fettered in each of us, only waiting for the magic word to realease it from its spell. The magic word, which always ends in "ism", works most successfully with those who have the least access to their interior selves and have strayed the furthest from their instinctual roots into the truly chaotic world of collective consciousness.(3)

Shamanic Consciousness vs Reductionism

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the individual uniqueness of visionary imagination has always been a prime faculty of the shamanic mode of consciousness through which come the visions and dreams that have formed the stuff of great and enduring art throughout the ages. In our own time - and notably in academic and mainstream medical circles - where even the notion of direct inspiration is often mocked or marginalized, such imaginative leaps beyond, or rather beneath surface rationality seem misguided. Yet visionary artists and healers continue to trust the imagination as the well-spring of inspiration, refining it to mediate the timeless truth and wisdom of the unconscious.

Since shamanic vision is always holistic, hence potentially therapeutic, as a sphere of consciousness it is dominated not by the thinking, or analytic mode, but by intuition, which seeks meaning and interconnectedness, hence bypassses verbal definitions and rational techniques for the gnosis of direct experience. Here explanations are always secondary, even irrelevant to the lived reality. Whether I "define" shamanic guides as archetypal energies, or as inhabitants of the boundless realms of imaginative vision, or as spirit helpers makes no difference to my experience of them as independent and vibrantly alive beings. One can only define or explain what one is not fully participating in, but instead observing from an outside vantage point. Shamanic reality - because it demands one's total immersion in an ongoing relationship to Otherworlds - is very much a view from the inside. In principle, it's something like passionate love. One becomes so totally absorbed in the beloved (hence shamanic 'ecstasy'), so completely gives oneself to the power and transformative energy of the relationship, that to contemplate standing back from it in order to pin a label on it would be to forsake total involvement - complete with its dangers, wonders and wildness - for the comparative safety and (often) intellectual aridity of detachment. During shamanic journeying, for instance, I am free to meet up with anyone - in any form, time and space - so long as I remain within my own ecstatic trance.

A peculiarity of imagination is that it doesn't yield readily to analysis. As soon as we ask "how", we have stepped outside of its boundless confines into the more limited and detached field of reason. But while we journey throughout Otherworlds of the infinite psyche, we are too steeped in the vibrancy, power and reality of Otherworlds to bother asking 'how" We are instead absorbed in being fully present to that reality - soaking up its ambience and being taught by it. In shamanic journeying, one is simply (in that simple means "undivided") connected to the vastness and mystery of imaginative vision, whose limits are determined by and reflect our own openness to them.

Reductionists, on the other hand, consistently fail to see the forest for the trees. To understand (rather than merely analyse) a forest one must venture in, touch and sniff, wander about, connect with the psyche that slumbers and dreams in its midst, absorb its living ambience. When attempting to convey the living reality of shamanic vision, however, time and again one comes up against a bleak wall of intellectualism that stubbornly continues to feed on the obsolete "myth" of objectivity - itself a legacy of pre-Einsteinian science.

Being an intuitive introvert, I have always found this attititude to be not only amusing but also at times annnoying, unfairly biased (given that Western consciousness leans collectively toward logic and extraversion), and frustrating in the extreme. Ironically, though, it is relativistic science and quantum theory which have by and large been responsible for subverting the Western objective ethic and avowing the fresh perspective of the complementarity of subjective and objective points of view. Psychologically, it is axiomatic that the experiencing subject is always integral to what is being portrayed or - as in quantum physics - to what can be known.

In contrast, mainstream psychiatry, which still for the most adheres to the objective/ reductionist ethic, has on the whole found it easier to cling to rational theories that flourish within the narrowness of medical specialization, which in turn reinforces what I would call the "illusion of expertise" often, dare I suggest, as a decoy for a lack of the kind of insight that can only be gained through the uncompromising kind of lives that visionary healers of all cultures plunge themselves into. In their passionate quest for a synthesis of universal and individual truth, prophets, visionaries and shamans seldom play it safe, and in some instances the personal cost can be high indeed.

The difference between such divergent life perspectives - and hence of approaches to psychotherapy - is more often than not a difference of consciousness. How subtly different is the mind which says, "The Sun is like a father' to the heart which knows (as gnosis) that "the Sun is Father." The first, coming from a more homocentric angle, implies the attempt to patronizingly dignify an inanimate ball of gas by 'elevating' it to human status; the second recognizes the all-pervasiveness of consciousness, the equal status of Sun and Father as sacred and personal. The first, as analogy, separates, the second as metaphor unifies through identity and through the evocation of the wordless archetype.

Mythically, the Sun must cycle through death and rebirth by passing through a night sea-journey, metaphoric of the dark night of the soul, in order to rise again; he must become old, sick and die, just as we must learn to embrace these phases of the myth as readily as we welcome their opposites. The dark wisdom of the Crone, for instance, is acquired only when she yields to the tide that ebbs with her physical strength and youth in tow, yet which makes way for the compensating incoming tide of Cosmic wisdom, which is the art of perpetual death.

A Shamanic 'Big Dream' of the Sun

This sacred sense of a consciousness and pervasive myth infused throughout the Cosmos is well illustrated in a passage from one of C. S. Lewis's beloved Narnia Chronicles, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In it, Eustace, a boy from Earth meets Ramandu, a "retired star" who has taken on human form. Eustace comments that in his world, stars are big balls of flaming gas, to which Ramandu replies that even in Earth's dimension of reality, that is not what stars are, only what they are made of. All shamans, through being intimately connected with the sacred dimension of the Cosmos, would know all too well what Ramandu is getting at here.

To illustrate: in 1997 I had a series of Big Dreams in which I was communing with the Sun. In the first, which took place on Earth, I watched the Sun hovering above the horizon where it was covered with dark, milling sun-spots, which seemed to be spreading like viral infections. The Sun, as though weighed down, then began slowly falling to the horizon and as it did so, grew increasingly large, faded in brightness, and became patterned all over with coloured shapes that reminded me of certain Crop Circle patterns. The Sun seemed to be ill, weary, burdened by a tremendous weight of aloneness and by a sadness of knowing that few related to Him as a living being. In the Dream I felt these feelings, not as human emotion, but as the sorrow of a great consciousness that was struggling to keep on doing what He had done for so long - provide us with warmth and light. In a follow-up Dream, I visited the Sun in His own realm and was hovering over Him, watching in fascination and immune from the heat, the flares and arching solar prominences. Again I felt the Sun's burden and longed to ease it, and as I hovered, the Sun began to shrink, without losing any surface detail, until He became the size of a football. He then moved toward me and hovered between my outstretched hands while I directed healing energy to Him, some of which seemed to be coming from a nearby old red Sun, Barnard's Star. I could never convey in words what the Sun's mode of consciousness felt like; it wasn't quasi-human, nor was it godlike. It was stellar in essence, uniquely alive, and conveyed the capacity for deep, silent, and long-enduring suffering.

After these dreams, I could not speak of the Sun for weeks without breaking into tears. The memory of the pain He was enduring remained interfused with my own feelings, for He had allowed me to share His suffering. I later learned while exploring the Internet that the Mexican Huichol shamans have been recently calling on other shamans to help heal and support the Sun, because he is ill.

As I journeyed to and from the Sun, all the while I dreamed at home in my bed, for when our primary mode of reality transcends both inner and outer, our feeling for the transcendent and the boundlessness of the Cosmos merges seamlessly into the limitlessness of the unconscious. Hence the common ground between shamanism and depth psychotherapy is the human psyche, its potential boundlessness, its grounding holistic substrate, the collective unconscious, and its indefinable centre and circumference, the Self. These are realities which await our rediscovery - within ourselves and through reawakening in Western consciousness as a whole the sense of the sacred - not as an extra 'spiritual' ingredient tacked onto or supernaturally injected into life, nor as a metaphysical 'other', but as the intuitive rediscovery of the essential quality of psyche, Nature and Cosmos.

Shamanism vs Neo-shamanism

The underlying tragedy of mainstream medicine is that by and large its practitioners have lost individual touch with the subterranean stream of archetypal wisdom that is ultimately the source of the intuitive power to heal, and in place of this living, conscious relationship have enthroned rational theories and academic credentials as the basis of techniques and criteria of qualification that require little or no direct experience of or connection to this rhizomic ground of Nature. By Western standards, a 'qualified' psychologist or medical practitioner need have no intuitive wisdom or direct experience of the unconscious whatsoever; hence as long as a 'medical expert' is - through circular reasoning - defined in terms of academic credentials, the unstated assumption that a healer is someone who has acquired sufficient information and theory, will prevail.

All this is not to suggest that we should throw out the baby with the bath-water by jettisoning all objective criteria for qualification in the healing arena. In fact, we are moving into a transitional phase in which, particularly in view of the sometimes blatant disregard for scholarship and high standards of training to be found, for example, in some New Age circles, we need to be specially vigilant in this regard. In light of these concerns, I offer, then, some cautionary remarks in relation to the hybridic field of therapy which this book explores: the creative arena between shamanism and depth psychology.

Firstly, it is encouraging that certain depth psychotherapists have sought to embrace the guiding ethic of traditional shamanic cultures and in so doing learn from as well as emulate some of their practices. However, as with most Western developments that bring with them simultaneous gain (from one perspective) and loss (from another), there are perhaps two sides to the picture. If Western psychotherapy has been enriched by attempts to incorporate shamanic principles, shamanism - or at least what is understood by the term - has by the same token suffered a diminishment of its potency and exclusiveness by being pulled in the opposite direction in order to meet the Western psyche half-way. Western society still privileges belief over innate wisdom, acquired knowledge over the authority of inner guides, collective consensus over individual genius, light over dark, embodied imagination over ecstasy, Apollonian reason and sanity over Dionysian ambivalence and divine madness, health and wholeness over the value of suffering and pathology, outer relatedness over inner marriage, extraversion over introversion. In relation to the latter, traditionally, as Joseph Campbell has noted, the shaman is intensely introverted and is initiated through an unavoidable and shattering psychophysical crisis.

In contrast to this graphic intensity and highly isolating trauma, through the recent emergence of various forms of 'urban' or 'neo'- shamanism, the once privileged status of the shaman becomes, via a normalizing process akin to our Australian 'tall poppy' syndrome, progressively tamed, diluted, distorted, or otherwise reduced to a more accessible and lower common denominator, during which imaginative techniques of psychotherapy often become confused or blurred with authentically shamanic techniques of ecstasy. Furthermore, instead of being seen as the (not always enviable) province of an elect, involving clearly delineated qualifications, formidable demands and extreme personal cost, shamanic status - through the worst form of Western dilution and profanity, commercialization - has lamentably become in some circles accessible to anyone willing to pay the required fee in order to gain a diploma or certificate in 'shamanic counselling' or suchlike.

In the commendable eagerness to enrich psychotherapy with a shamanic approach, there comes the temptation, then, to assimilate the latter to the former, during which the potential dangers, or sobering aspects of shamanism can be ignored, or whitewashed in order to render shamanism safe, respectable, or based on externally acquired knowledge as a substitute for the genuine shaman's living, individual, and intensely inward relationship to the collective unconscious.

The crux of the matter is surely this: if we go on redefining shamanism with the unstated, perhaps even well-intentioned aim of toning it down, making it more accessible, or otherwise bringing it in line with Western extraverted biases, how are we to distinguish genuine shamans (by definition, as I say, an 'elect' few) from those who are less authoritive imitations, or dilutions of the same? My suggestion, therefore, is this; by all means retain the useful terms 'neo-shamanism' and 'urban shamanism', but let's not confuse them with shamanism proper, at least as it is clearly described by Eliade, Campbell, Grof and other reputed scholars who draw attention to key qualities that have always distinguished this unique phenomenon, worldwide and throughout history, from other forms of healing and ecstasy.

The shamanic mode of consciousness, after all, doesn't sit comfortably with the comparatively detached calm and civilized Apollonian order typical of Western society. Hence presiding deities of shamans include the Hindu Shiva, who as 'dark' and 'light' combined, is both Creator and Destroyer (through fire), and the ambivalent Greek god Dionysus. As the antithesis of Apollo, Dionysus is associated with darkness, night, the underworldly and sensual, agony and ecstasy, enantiodromia (the reversion of one extreme to its opposite), energy, intoxication, and the chaotic death or dissolution of individuality, that is, its dispersion of libido throughout nature (hence the shaman's ability to wander freely through Otherworlds). This is where shamans differ from many New Age healers who, athough often well-intentioned, nonetheless rely on 'the power of positive thinking', hence tend to avoid the Underworld and so are polarized toward the 'spiritual', celestial, or upper realms of light, unification, redemption, and Apollonian sanity and calm.

James Hillman has undoubtedly contributed more than anyone in the Jungian and post-Jungian camps to stressing our need to honour the Dionysian dimension of therapy (as 'service to the gods'). Conversely, positive thinking - as a psychological 'theory' - assumes that anything that's broken, or off-centre (eccentric!), or suffering, or in darkness, depression, neurosis, or symbolic death needs to be immediately fixed up, centred, unified, or brought into the light of health. This is precisely where, as will later be discussed, shamans need to discern between needed soul retrieval, called for when the 'patient' is genuinely helpless, and the need to honour the soul's need to embrace the mythic wound - to live through the myth of death and rebirth instead of trying to shirk its dark, painful, or dangerous phases and facets.

Shamanism & Shadow

Not only, though, does s/he mediate the return of individually lost soul, but having been granted experiences of the collective depths and heights of the unconscious, the shaman is also akin to the prophet, visionary artist, or seer, who, having glimpsed embryonic trends that have yet to surface into the general awareness of humanity, is called upon to help remove blockages to humanity's evolution of consciousness. This, of course, happened to Jung repeatedly, including an instance in his youth when he had his horrific dream about a devouring, underground phallic God, who symbolized the repressed energies of the primal, instinctual libido which the Christian church had disowned, hence negatively projected onto the Devil.

As Mircea Eliade points out, the gods 'below' are not always seen as evil spirits. Needless to say, the need to differentiate between legitimately creative powers of the shadow and genuine evil - requires a finely-tuned and high level of discernment. Furthermore, in shamanic practice the restoration of physical health often requires a restoration of the balance of dark and light powers, since sickness is often caused by a neglect of the infernal forces, which also belong to the realm of the sacred. (3)

Marie-Louise von Franz amplifies this stance:

There is a lot of amplificatory material on the subject of integrated aggression in Eliade's book on shamanism. In one chapter he speaks of shamans as the "hot ones". Blacksmiths all over the world are looked on as the original medicine men and magicians, because they rule the fire, and the medicine man is the man who has integrated his own devilish, dangerous element, which is the secret of his authority. Integrated evil has given him authority over his tribe. (5)

James Hillman, in a rare moment of self-disclosure, evokes himself (as an urban shaman) in a similar vein:

Wavering among shades, shaman and spiritual director, light-bringer and dealer in darkness, worldly counselor and keeper of a mystery, I am a mercurial prostitute earning my money from dreams and passions. I am protean, with all the shiftiness and trickery of the bastard son, of dubious paternity, easily prey to identification with another uncertain son, Lucifer himself. (6)

Projection of the shadow - through the rejection or suppression of what one unconsciously dislikes or has disowned in oneself - is also a surefire defence against attaining wholeness. Likewise, the personal armouring shell as the"persona", or mask, derived largely from fearfully conformative, collectively acceptable social attitudes, can be an effective defence against the ceaseless ebb and flow of personality as a Taoist balance of opposites. The shaman's mask - if he or she ritualistically wears one - has precisely the opposite purpose. As a truthful "mask of God" - a lightning-rod exposure of the individual to whatever powerful archetypal forces the mask symbolises - it renders the shaman open to such energies, and unlike the persona, marks him/her out as a uniquely mediatorial individual.

As Jung stressed, without opposites there is no energy, indeed no life or existence, as Taoist philosophy proclaims so well. In addition, Tibetans teach that all illness derives from three causes: closed-mindedness, hatred, and attachment. Whether our world will be healed through enough people embracing the opposites of these traits remains to be seen. But regardless of the outcome, the work begins with each of us owning our own shadow, releasing the fear which spawns hatred, and shifting the centre of our being from ego to boundless Self. For it is only from living out of the still Centre that one can remain in touch with the swirling dance of the Circumferential Whole.

Shamanism & Psychic Androgyny

Just as the integration of the shadow and of one's unconscious contrasexuality is integral to the process of individuation, so shamans have befriended their demons and in some cases have known the inner marriage to an Otherworldly spouse, whose role is usually that of a tutelary spirit. As androgyne, the shaman combines a masculine warrior strength and fearlessness, the power of the Logos of discriminating thought and the Sun of clarity with the feminine Eros of reverence for life, receptivity, intuition, empathy and compassion; the shaman must be tender-hearted and gentle, yet powerful and authoritive while in service to the all-pervasive sacred.

Throughout the two year borderline psychosis of my own shamanic initiation, I was isolated from the world and from a coherent social life, turned totally inward and engrossed alone with relating to an inner spouse who was more real to me than any outer phenomena. I had fallen into the abyss of the collective unconscious and had lost the ability to separate inner from outer reality. I recorded the sometimes agonizing, sometimes blissful development of this inner relationship in artwork and through transcribing visions, trance encounters, dreams and conversations into book form. These externalizations of such intensely inner realities became lifelines, as were a few friends who accepted - without judgment or panic - my temporary insanity, babblings about inner figures and visions, and bouts of sickness and chronic depression. The end result of this tormenting and ecstatic death-rebirth was the birth of an inner child, who in an Otherworld reality accessed through trance visions, was watched over by a shamanic sacred Eagle until he awoke.

Hence I was destined to become the androgynous alchemical Uniped, upwardly a separate King and Queen, fused in that part of me that madly hops, cavorts, and limps throughout the World. The ecstatic trance visions still abound. The shaman does not fear falling because she has already fallen through initiation to her death. I am winged as was Icarus, yet never falling as I prance among the stars and tunnel through the dark maternal depths of Earth and Sea. For the chasm was opened and I fell into its endless depth, and in falling found freedom and power to ascend the Pillar of Fire into the Void.

Or as my Trickster deity has it:

Flame to flame, flame to water,
water to air, air to stars, stars to earth,
Earth to Centre, Above to Below,
anguish to ek-stasis
In Unio Mystica, Circle without end

Adapted from:

Soul Retrieval & Soul-making: Creative Bridges Between Shamanism & Depth Psychology

c.1998 by Maureen B. Roberts


(1) Letter to Father Victor White, Bollingen, 10/4/1954, quoted in Edward F. Edinger, The New God-Image, Illinois: Chiron Publications, 1996, p. 155.

(2) C. G. Jung, Letters (2 vols), selected and edited by Gerhard Adler, in collaboration with Aniela Jaffe. Bollingen Series XCV. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975, 2: 135. An excellent in-depth study of Jung's letters concerning the paradoxical God, continuing incarnation and the evolution of the Western God-image can be found in Edinger [see Note 1]. See also the whole of Jung, CW 9 (2), Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self.

(3) Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. CW 8. 2nd ed. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969, par. 405.

(4) Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, London: Arkana, trans. Willard R. Trask, 1989, pp. 188, 216.

(5) Marie-Louise von Franz, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, London: Shambhala, 1993, p. 207.

(6) James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis, New York: HarperCollins, 1992, p.15.

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