Therapist as Shaman
Jung felt that shamanism was the earliest forerunner to the depth psychology that he developed. The function of ancient shamans is in fact very much like a modern-day psychotherapist, in that both have direct experience of the unconscious, in both its light, and dark aspects. Marie Louise von Franz, Jung’s closest colleague, conceived of the vocation of becoming a psychotherapist—where the candidate was following a higher calling—as analogous to a shamanic initiation. When I reference therapy, I conceive of it as a noble sacred art which deals with issues pertaining to the human soul, rather than the debased, flat-land version of therapy widely practiced nowadays in our materialistic culture that is primarily concerned with behavior modification and/or the use of brain chemistry altering medications.
In freeing the soul from its enchantment by and identification with its unconscious complexes, the therapist is performing a modern-day re-enactment of the shamanic practice of soul retrieval. In helping their patients open up and gain access to the collective unconscious, the therapist is introducing the patient to the shamanic realm of gods and demons living within each of us. Some Jungians are of the opinion that the best therapists are those in whom the shamanic archetype is activated in their work with their patients.
The deeper energetic psychological interaction between a shaman and client maps onto what happens within the realm of the psyche in therapy (when seen as a genuine art-form) between a psychotherapist and patient. This is to say that we can gain insight into how a shaman helps to heal their client (and, perhaps, the larger community) by understanding how something similar happens in the sacred, ritualized space of therapy.
Jung was of the opinion that therapists are only effective when they allow themselves to be open and vulnerable so as to be affected—even potentially wounded—by the patient’s problems. If the therapist hides behind their alleged authority like a suit of armor, they foreclose on their ability to constellate healing in their patient. The shaman/therapist can exert no influence on the client/patient unless they themselves are susceptible to being influenced by the patient. If the therapist is only influenced unconsciously, however, there is a blind spot in their field of consciousness which makes it impossible for them to fully see the patient. A field of what Jung refers to as “mutual influence” needs to be constellated between them.
To quote Jung, “For two personalities to meet is like mixing two different chemical substances: if there is any combination at all, both are transformed …” Being truly present with and genuinely meeting the patient, Jung continues, “brings about changes in the doctor’s unconscious which are well known to many psychotherapists: psychic disturbances or even injuries peculiar to the profession, a striking illustration of the patient’s almost ‘chemical’ action.”
Jung coined the term “psychic infection” to refer to when the empathic therapist, through the inductive effects of the activated unconscious, “quite literally ‘takes over’ the sufferings of his patient and shares them with him. For this reason he runs a risk
… the unconscious infection brings with it the therapeutic possibility—which should not be underestimated—of the illness being transferred to the doctor.”
Jung is describing the therapist’s shaman-like function of taking on—having it out with as well as taking within themselves—the demon of sickness from which the patient is suffering.
Once the underlying spirit and dynamic of the illness is transmitted and “transferred” (via the act of transference)
to the therapist, this evokes unconscious reactions and projections—the countertransference—within the therapist’s unconscious. Jung felt that the transference/countertransference was the crux, the most crucial part, “the alpha and the omega” of the therapeutic work. In essence the transference/countertransference is based on that projections (the transference) have an effect on their recipient, evoking counter-projections. Instead of unwittingly projecting onto the patient their countertransference reactions, the therapist, like a shaman, then has to deal with and assimilate within themselves the unconscious reactions triggered in them by the countertransference.
Jung was interested in the purpose of this living dynamic, as he sensed that hidden within the phenomenon of transference/countertransference were the seeds of further development for both parties involved. Jung points out that the success of the therapy literally depends on whether the therapist is able to make conscious, integrate and skillfully deal with the unconscious contents that have been stirred up as a result of the transference/countertransference dynamics.
Once the transference/countertransference becomes activated, Jung writes, “This leads both of them [therapist and patient] to a direct confrontation with the daemonic forces lurking in the darkness…. The activated unconscious appears in a flurry of unleashed opposites and calls forth the attempt to reconcile them, so that, in the words of the alchemists, the great panacea, the medicina catholica, may be born.”
Due to the transference/countertransference, the unconscious becomes constellated in their relationship such that it can create all sorts of projections and misunderstandings; yet, this is the very prima materia out of which the sacred medicine is potentially born.
Jung writes, “The elusive, deceptive, ever-changing content that possesses the patient like a demon now flits about from patient to doctor and, as the third party in the alliance, continues its game, sometimes impish and teasing, sometimes really diabolical [the inner meaning of diabolic is that which separates and divides]. The alchemists aptly personified it as the wily god of revelation, Hermes or Mercurius; and though they lament over the way he hoodwinks them, they still give him the highest names, which brings him very near to deity.”
It is noteworthy that Mercurius (who is akin to the Godhead, but also has, to quote Jung, “an exceedingly shady character”) is, as previously mentioned, a close relative to wetiko (who likewise has both sublime and sketchy characteristics). The consulting room is a sacred vessel in which, Deo concedente (God willing – as the alchemists never failed to add), the therapist and patient are able to contain, add consciousness to, integrate and transform the powerful forces of the unconscious that have been unleashed due to their work together.
The transference/countertransference is a unique form of the typical projections and counter-projections that all of us cast on each other via our psychological interchanges in our normal, day-to-day relationships. What makes the transference/countertransference unique is that the therapist and patient are playing particularly prescribed roles, and their dynamic is happening in a hermetically-sealed container, a sanctified space (which is similar to the shaman creating a sacred space in which to work). The therapist—as if fulfilling a sacred contract—is cast in the shamanic and healing role of taking on, working with and bringing the light of consciousness to the unconscious that’s been constellated in the therapeutic container in a way that’s helpful to the patient.
The dynamics that happen in the therapist’s office—with all of the projections back and forth, the acting out of unhealed abuse issues, the misunderstandings that arise as a result of these dynamics and, hopefully, the healing and transformation which emerge for both parties from adding consciousness to this process—are also occurring in our everyday relationships. All human relationship that have any level of intimacy will constellate transference phenomena, which will manifest as either helpful or disturbing factors in the relationship. Whether or not we successfully navigate this psychological terrain that naturally gets dreamed up in the course of our relationships with each other depends upon whether we have created a proper container in which to metabolize what has gotten triggered within and between us from the subterranean depths of the unconscious.
Oftentimes the patient isn’t able to directly confront the evil within themselves, but through the transference, might unconsciously project onto the therapist the evil they are wrestling with. Under these circumstances, it is the therapist’s role, as consciously as they are able, to carry the patient’s projection without identifying with it themselves (in which case they would unwittingly act it out, thus reinforcing the patient’s trauma). As Jung never tired of pointing out, what we are unconscious of approaches us from outside of ourselves, i.e., it gets projected into the external world, dreamed up through life itself.
Projections are a tricky thing – they are simultaneously either hurting or helping us, either keeping us asleep or waking us up, depending upon our relationship with them. When we unconsciously project onto a person, for example, we are not clearly seeing the person we are projecting upon, as we are merely seeing our own unconscious, split-off part mirrored in them. We are then not in genuine relationship with them, but are in essence keeping ourselves separate from them (as well as from ourselves). Yet, encoded within the projection is a heretofore unconscious part of ourselves thirsting to be integrated into our wholeness if we can but recognize it as belonging to ourselves.
Once they are sufficiently impacted by the patient, the therapist finds themselves cast in the role of potential shaman taking on the activated unconscious contents of the patient. Once the patient shares their hidden, emotional vulnerabilities and secrets with the therapist, Jung writes, “the patients hand themselves over in the hope that I [the therapist] can swallow that stuff and digest it for them.”
When the transference is fully activated, instead of just the patient’s isolated psyche wrestling with the demon of sickness, there are now two psyches (patient and therapist), united in their healing intent, chewing on (making it easier to swallow) these unconscious contents so as to digest (assimilate) them into consciousness.
In a book on Navaho healing, Jungian Analyst Donald Sandner writes, “the medicine man [the shaman] identifies with the patient in his confrontation with evil, and in almost all the prayers handles the evil so closely that he nearly identifies with it himself. In certain of the prayers he does finally identify himself with it, thus risking all the effects of evil upon himself in order to banish it from the patient.”
Similar to how a shaman has to confront the evil that their client is struggling with, the therapist often has to have it out with the evil from which the patient is suffering.
Once the therapist makes conscious so as to metabolize and integrate what has gotten activated within their own unconscious, the therapeutic task becomes how to pass the medicina over to the patient. In essence, the healing influence of the therapist is—via embodying their integrated state—nonlocally carried and transmitted to the patient through the many subtle psychic capillaries that run through the interactive field between them. This is only able to take place because of a psychic bridge or pathway opened up between them due to both patient and therapist being sufficiently open to be influenced by each other.
Thanks to the therapist facing within themselves what the patient cannot yet face within their own psyche, the patient, consciously or unconsciously, recognizes in the living person of the therapist, how someone else (which is actually a reflection of this latent part of themselves), has transformed and integrated the very unconscious affliction with which the patient has been wrestling. Even if the patient doesn’t consciously recognize this process of inward transformation in the therapist, the eye of the unconscious of the patient “sees,” and is affected by, the therapist’s transformation.
In a very real sense, this interactive relational dynamic between therapist and patient models and is a blueprint for the natural shamanic process of healing that can take place between anyone in whom the shamanic archetype is activated. The deeper patterns in-forming the shamanic experience are encountered repeatedly throughout the world, as they are part and parcel of the human condition.
No therapist can heal a patient; the therapist’s role is to constellate the inner healing figure that exists in potential within the patient’s soul. The therapist can only do this if they themselves are in touch with that, just like the patient has an inner healer living within them, the therapist has an inner wounded patient living within themselves as well. These two seemingly opposite figures—the wounded and the healer aspects of us—are two interconnected parts of a greater archetype (which are always bipolar, i.e., two-sided).
If, however, the therapist sees the sickness as only residing within the patient without recognizing that the patient is reflecting the wounded part of themselves, then the therapist has split the archetype (as well as their own soul) and is unconsciously projecting out one of its poles (the wounded aspect) onto the patient. Solidifying the patient in the role of being the sick one—often with the best of intentions—the therapist literally casts a spell, unwittingly “helping” to keep the patient sick. In addition, not being in touch with their own wounds—and hence, their equality with their patients—opens the door for the therapist to unconsciously abuse their rank and power. If, on the other hand, the therapist is aware of the wounded part of themselves, they then aren’t monopolizing the healing aspect of the archetype, but rather, in their vulnerability are increasing the probability that the healing figure becomes awakened within their patient.
The question naturally arises – what constitutes true healing? In Jung’s work, it is clear that he doesn’t equate healing with the alleviation of symptoms. Etymologically, healing is related to the word wholeness; becoming healed has to do with getting in touch with our intrinsic wholeness. Jung (and I imagine many shamans/wounded healers would agree) felt that the real healing has to do with understanding whatever lesson was hidden within the illness, as well as deepening the patient’s insight into their suffering and possibly even getting closer to understanding the very meaning and preciousness of their life. This understanding can lead to a genuine transformation in which they more fully step into simply being who they authentically are. Real healing only happens when we step into, own and embody who we are meant to be.
From this perspective, there would be no real healing unless the patient developed a truly religious attitude (not in the dogmatic sense of being a believer in any particular religion), but in the sense of continually opening up to and cultivating an ever more profound relationship with something deep within themselves (what Jung calls “the Self,” i.e., the God within) that is beyond—and greater than—their own limited egoic self-image. In other words, they would become more “spiritual” (in the true sense of the word) – more in touch with and connected to the spiritual side of things.
To the extent the shaman/therapist is able to move through the illness and connect with their intrinsic wholeness, they are nonlocally helping the whole universe by lightening the shadow and dissolving the sickness in the collective field ever so slightly. Speaking about the therapist in his role as shamanic healer, Jung writes “He is not just working for this particular patient, who may be quite insignificant, but for himself as well and his own soul, and in so doing he is perhaps laying an infinitesimal grain in the scales of humanity’s soul. Small and invisible as this contribution may be, it is yet an opus magnum, for it is accomplished in a sphere but lately visited by the numen, where the whole weight of mankind’s problems has settled.”
Any one person integrating the darkness within themselves could be, as Jung said, “the makeweight that tips the scales,”
precipitating a phase transition in the collective psyche of all humanity.
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 email@example.com; he looks forward to your reflections.