Cosmologies of Wholeness:

Depth Psychology and Shamanism

By James Liter


The shamanic tradition and the psychology of C.G. Jung are both concerned, to a very large degree, with the soul. More specifically, they are both concerned with the wholeness of soul. To the shaman, who is primarily responsible for the psychospiritual health of the members of his or her tribe, this wholeness can be destroyed by soul loss; in Jungian psychology, the wholeness of the Self is destroyed by dissociation or neurosis. The phenomenon of soul disunity is viewed by the shaman as the work of spirits; by the Jungian as complexes and the lack of integration, or fragmentation of the conscious and unconscious. The healing of the fragmentation is accomplished by the shaman through shamanic journeying and soul retrieval; by the psychologist through analytical therapy. The phenomenon and healing are similar; only the language of the shaman differs from that of the psychologist. In many ways, the wisdom of the shaman, once a central part of human spirituality, has been preserved in the depth psychological tradition by Freud, Jung, Hillman, and others. This preservation has allowed us, hidden in the language of our “enlightened” scientific age, to rediscover an essential aspect of being human and find a formulation of a path to wholeness that is relevant in contemporary western culture.

6Ad.060In the eyes of a shaman, this quest for wholeness unfolds in a world inhabited by spirits. The shamanic cosmology is three storied with an upper world populated by benign spirits, the middle world (the earth), and the underworld, a dark place inhabited by malevolent spirits.[i] These worlds are joined in the center by the axis mundi, or world tree, which the shaman uses to travel among these worlds to perform the tasks of healing. This healing is in the main of a psychospiritual nature, and the wholeness that is sought by the shaman is the wholeness of soul.

Depending on the theory of the soul within a given culture, the human soul becomes fragmented when pieces of the soul are lost, stolen, or simply wander away. This manifests itself in the person as fever, a loss of lucidity, and an appearance of the person withering away. In native North American cultures, the human is believed to have more than one soul or soul clusters – typically in the forms of a free soul and a body soul. The body soul is responsible for bodily functions, while the free soul represents the entire person and is most active during dreams or trance. It is this free soul that can become lost or detach itself from the body and wander away. This type of soul loss can result in death if the shaman does not retrieve the lost part of the soul before it crosses into the land of the dead.[ii]

In order to heal an individual suffering from soul loss, the shaman enters a state of non-ordinary reality or trance, and ventures into the otherworld to retrieve the lost soul and return it to the patient. The shaman might also send his or her power animal or guardian spirit to perform this task.[iii] This soul retrieval is a dangerous undertaking, as the shaman must journey among spirits, not all of whom are benign. It requires knowledge of the otherworld, and the ability to command the spirits. Mythology serves as the map of the otherworld for the shaman, and it is one of the differentiators of the shaman to other trance based healers that he or she can direct and control the spirits and communicate with the dead.[iv]

While the function of the shaman is sacred and spiritual, it is not to be conflated with religion. Often times, the office of shaman will be found practicing alongside, or within, the cultural auspices of religion, such as in Tibetan Buddhism, where the shaman plays a central role, but it is distinctly separate from religious practice. Detaching shamanism from the sacred is impossible though, and the shaman has been called the technician of the sacred.[v] From the animistic belief of the shaman, to the fascination of the spirits and otherworlds, to the construction of sacred ritual space, the shamanic quest for wholeness is informed by a deep fascination of, and immersion in the sacred.[vi]

2Bb.002aIn the psychology of C.G. Jung we find the same necessity of soul that we find in shamanism. Although nearly forgotten, and certainly neglected, the quest for wholeness did not disappear from the human race as we moved forward in time and evolved culturally. Only the means of searching for and acquiring wholeness, or more accurately, only the language in which this process is described, has changed. In the religious and scientific evolution of our culture, especially during the enlightenment, the awareness of the process was very nearly lost as our worldview shifted from one of spirit to one of science. To a great extent, we have C.G. Jung to thank for the preservation of many of the aspects of our inherent and wild human spirituality. His psychology has not abandoned the spirit for the sake of science, but has instead made great strides in the integration of the two by formulating basic principles of spiritual wholeness in the scientific language of psychology. This new formulation allows us to once again be aware of the process of the journey toward this wholeness, which he called individuation.

For Jung, the process of wholeness takes place in the psyche, and his early formulation of the levels of psyche, while not entirely new,[vii] was more complete than any previous formulation. His map of the psyche is best described in his account of a dream in which he was in a multi storied house furnished in varying styles, from modern on the top floor, to medieval on the next lower level, then to Roman, and finally down to the lowest level of the house, which was a cave. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung interpreted the dream:

My dream was giving me the answer. It obviously pointed to the foundations of cultural history – a history of successive layers of consciousness. My dream thus constituted a kind of structural diagram of the human psyche; it postulated something of an altogether impersonal nature underlying the psyche.[viii]

This dream illustrates the levels of psyche going from personal consciousness to the personal unconscious, and finally to the collective unconscious, which is one of the most important ideas in his psychology. Where the personal conscious and unconscious are dependent on the experiences of the individual, the collective unconscious is not. The contents of the collective unconscious have never been in the personal unconscious, since they have not been personally acquired, but received through hereditary means, as a sort of ancestral memory. Jung saw the personal unconscious as being comprised of complexes, and the collective unconscious as being comprised of archetypes.[ix]

Jung describes the archetypes as “definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere,” and which “can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic conditions.”[x] The archetypes can be seen as ideas which are given to us through ancestral memories, which are only forms residing in the collective unconscious, without any manifestation, until certain events call them into the personal conscious. Our personal experiences “cluster” around these archetypes forming the substrate on which our human development and aptitudes are based, and occur as ideas, feelings, experiences, and are the basis of behavior.[xi]

Jung wrote extensively on many archetypes, such as the anima, the shadow, or the wise old man.[xii] It is more important though, to acknowledge here the numinosity of the archetypes. Jung studied the attraction and effect of the archetypes, which demanded the attention of the ego and is always felt as “irresistibly alluring; or as a compelling force.” Any encounter with the archetypes is accompanied by a sense of mystery and the fascination of standing before the sacred. Jung even saw Gods (both the mythological and religious) as archetypal images,[xiii] thereby underscoring the sense of sacredness attached to the archetypes. Jung did not claim the archetypes to be gods, but the underlying idea, thus informing any religious manifestation of them.[xiv] This religiosity or spirituality of the archetypes is at the core of the Jungian concept of Self, which represents the psychic wholeness of an individual.[xv] This wholeness involves an integration of the conscious, unconscious, and archetypes as a cohesive whole. As Smith explains, health is the “result of wholeness, living in accord with the promptings of the archetypal self.”[xvi] Mental disorders arise through the over-identification of the individual with one archetype or the other, ones which are often polar opposites. The process of individuation is described by Jung as being one of integrating these polar opposites, or the “harmonizing of conscious and unconscious data.”[xvii]

orpheusHeadContained within Jungian psychology are many of the elements that constitute the wisdom of the human race; the same wisdom that has been expressed throughout our history in many forms. The psychological formulation by Jung has preserved this wisdom in a language more readily understood today. Though individuation cannot be reduced to a simple formula or recipe,[xviii] it is the Jungian path to wholeness of the soul, and analogous to the shamanic practice of soul retrieval.

This brief examination of shamanism and Jungian psychology, though painfully incomplete, draws in broad brushstrokes some of the many similarities of ancient indigenous and modern worldviews. The three-storied cosmology of the shaman is now spoken of as the levels of the psyche in Jungian psychology. The very real spirits of the shaman are now expressed as the Jungian archetypes, which is not to say that the archetypes are nothing but a clinical description of numinous beings – the archetypes, in the Jungian view, are numinous and the mystery of the gods still lives and dances in this formulation. The Gods and spirits are simply more specifically expressed in shamanism as personal Gods, whereas the archetypes express the essence of the Gods. Both shamanism and Jungian psychology would be lessened without an integral relationship to the sacred and the numinous. Even with the divergence of language from one of spirit in shamanism, to one mostly of science in Jungian psychology, the sacred remains.

The goal of both is wholeness of soul. This quest, described in different vocabulary, is a sacred and inherent part of being human. We are fortunate to have inherited a map for this sacred quest through the modern formulation of Jung; fortunate that he rescued it from the flames of the enlightenment and brought an empirical approach to the mystery of being that can be accepted by modern society. Jungian thought is no longer limited to psychotherapy, and is being applied in diverse fields of inquiry, and well it should be if we are to have a full experience of being human.



[i] See Smith, C. Michael. Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul, Retrieving the Sacred. New York: Paulist, 2007. Print. p. 15

[ii] Ibid. pp. 33-34

[iii] Ibid. p. 35

[iv] Ibid. pp. 12, 15-16

[v] Ibid. p. 37. The term “technician of the sacred” was used by Mircea Eliade.

[vi] Ibid. pp. 38-41

[vii] See Hauke, Christopher. “The Unconscious: Personal and Collective.” The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications. Ed. Renos K. Papadopoulos. East Sussex: Routledge, 2006. 54-73. Print. pp. 54-56

[viii] See Jung, C G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. Print., p. 161

[ix] See Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print. p.42

[x] Ibid. pp.42-43

[xi] See Stevens, Anthony. “The Archetypes.” The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications. Ed. Renos K. Papadopoulos. East Sussex: Routledge, 2006. 74-93. Print. pp. 74-75

[xii] See See Jung, C. G. The Essential Jung. Comp. Anthony Storr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. Print. pp.87-128

[xiii] See Smith, C. Michael. Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul, Retrieving the Sacred. New York: Paulist, 2007. Print. p. 110-11

[xiv] See See Jung, C. G. The Essential Jung. Comp. Anthony Storr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. Print. pp. 253-86

[xv] See Colman, Warren. “The Self.” The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications. Ed. Renos K. Papadopoulos. East Sussex: Routledge, 2006. 153-174. Print. p. 153

[xvi] See Smith, C. Michael. Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul, Retrieving the Sacred. New York: Paulist, 2007. Print. p. 124

[xvii] See Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print. p.189

[xviii] Ibid.

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