A Braided Path
My professional career began in 1973 as a school psychologist. I spent most of my time providing psycho-educational assessments and consultations to parents and teachers. Later in the 1970s, I trained in hypnotherapy and then a “de-hypnotic” method of past-life therapy developed by a psychologist who had written one of the early books on past-life therapy.[i]
While still providing psychological services in the schools, I opened an office for a part-time practice in “Hypnosis and Regression Imagery” in Towson, MD. I began carefully walking between two worlds: my day world of psychological assessments of children’s emotional and learning difficulties, and my evening world of tending the soul. Even with the publication of my first book[ii], I kept these worlds separate, not wanting to jeopardize my professional standing.
In the 1980s I added a third thread to this dual existence – shamanism. A series of “coincidences” that began with crystal and bear synchronicities led to training with Michael Harner in 1986, which eventually led to other teachers such as Sarangerel and Tom Cowan. Still, I did my best to keep these three worlds separate from one another; I tried to be fully devoted to each one and not interpret the realities of one with the theories of another. But times changed and so did I. Parallels among the psychological, past-life and shamanic worlds were inescapable, and I began to see that any worthwhile form of psychotherapy was also an act of soul retrieval, extraction of adverse ideas and energies, and the removal of enchantments.
When we entered the new millennium, I was living in Minnesota and my three strands of professional work were fairly-well integrated, but it was not until I began studying Jung’s writings that I found an intellectual home comprehensive enough to embrace this braided way.
The Red Book
In writings by and about Carl Jung, allusions have been made to dreams, visions and formative synchronistic events, but these were usually buried under his extensive professional writings. Jung died in 1961 at the age of 85. In 2009, a hand-written large-volume book was published that contained his account of his visions and “active imagination” as he called it – almost a century after they occurred. We find in this folio that, toward the end of 1913, he began having significant experiences that he referred to as a “confrontation with the unconscious.” This process was provoked when, in his 37th year, he had attained much worldly success and professional standing, but felt the absence of something within – something we would call “soul loss.” In fact, his first accounts of these episodes detailed his calls to his soul, asking her to return to him – and she answered. Tame conversations gave way to a descent into a lower world where he entered a cave leading to another room with an underground stream. He observed floating by in the stream the body of a blond man with a bloodied head, followed by a large scarab and the emergence of an underground sun and serpents. Over the next two months or so, he developed intense relationships with figures that appeared, such as the prophet Elijah, Salome, Philemon, the god Izdubar, the figure of Death, a monk, and Jung’s own soul in various shapes (to name a few). In addition, he engaged in conversations with elemental beings, animals (serpents and birds), and living stones. At a time of confusion, he saw a tree whose roots extended into “Hell” and whose crown reached into the “heavens.”
Jung himself was not sure that indulging in these explorations wouldn’t lead to madness but, devoted to his craft, he was determined to explore what he could of the depths of his inner landscape. By day, he kept his busy private practice and, by night, he let a mood or idea take him on a journey inward. These visions involved active interactions with more than two dozen characters with which he developed strong relationships that evolved over time, as did some of the characters. He was at first inclined to treat these inner characters as symbolic, but they themselves insisted on their reality. Jung came to accept that at least some of them had their own autonomous reality.
He called this book Liber Novus and wrote in his own hand detailed descriptions of those visions, his interpretations of them, as well as beautiful mandalas and elaborate paintings inspired by the visions. This folio had been kept in a vault by the Jung family until released for publication. Bound in red leather, it became known by its cover – The Red Book – rather than the title Jung had given it. Its publication was considered by many to be a breakthrough in understanding Jung’s personal psychology, and sources for the development of many of his theories. To others, it was viewed as a sign of underlying psychosis. Others thought it a reaction to his break with Freud, and one analyst argued that it wasn’t even a book. Clearly it provoked something in many of its readers who made interpretations according to their own presuppositions.
Although The Red Book has a quality of revelation, Jung was against any notion of creating a religious organization or disciples. He described what he did, but explicitly stated that others were not to follow him in this, but to go their own way and develop their own relationships with their visionary function.
Entering the Liber Novus
In January of 2010, I bought two copies of The Red Book – one a full-sized facsimile with text and paintings, and the other a reader’s version with just the text. I read what others were saying about it and began to feel that many were missing the point. They read it with much understanding but were not entering into it – like those who describe the worlds of the shamans, but never make the journey themselves. (Indeed, as I noted above, the book became known by the color of its cover, rather than the title Jung had given it.) To enter it as deeply as I could, I approached it like I would a client entering a past-life memory, or a shaman might follow another’s journey. With the help of more than a dozen friends and family, I recorded the entire book as though it were a radio drama, which resulted in more than 18 hours of recorded material. I finished in time so that I could listen to each vision on the 100th anniversary of its original occurrence. I’ve done the same thing each year since, with additional auditions in between. To stay as true to the visions as possible, I separated out the visions from Jung’s commentaries and interpretation, considering them a secondary layer over the primary material. My devotion has been to the images – not his or anyone else’s ideas about them.
The Shamanic Jung
The more I tried to put myself into his experience, the more convinced I became that Jung was, indeed, undergoing a shamanic initiation, not only for his own soul retrieval, but also to bring back gifts of wisdom and healing for his people. A shamanic rendering of his story might go this way. Feeling the emptiness of soul loss, he called for his soul to return (as “calling for a vision”), and she did so. At night, he opened himself to what his soul would bring him. This initiated the journey into the lower world where he saw the underground stream. The scarab, serpents and otherworldly sun were to re-appear in later visions. Philemon became a central teacher for him. Indeed, Jung made a painting of Philemon not only in The Red Book, but also in his retreat house at Bollingen. His otherworld relationships with Elijah, Salome, the monk Ammonius, the Red Rider, and Izdubar developed over time, changing both them and Jung. By the end of January of 1914, his initiation was complete, although he continued to engage with these otherworldly figures over the subsequent three years. He was essentially dismembered and then restored with a new perspective of his work and of reality (including the idea that there is more than one reality).
One of his early visions came as he was traveling by train. It’s easy to imagine him being lulled into an altered state by the rhythmic rumbling of the wheels on their tracks. He fell into a precognitive vision of the coming war.
What follows are some of the other shamanic features of Jung’s experience.
- His initiation into this path was triggered by an illness (soul loss) and brought him to healing through Otherworld intervention – as shamans do.
- Once “initiated,” he allowed alterations of consciousness to take him into that other reality – as shamans do.
- He experienced travels to a lower world and sent his soul for explorations into the depths (lower world) and the heavens (upper world).
- He made a clear distinction between the “spirit of the times” (ordinary reality) and the “spirit of the depths” where the realities of his visions took him – as shamans do.
- He engaged with the human and animal characters on their own terms, recognizing their autonomy and reality – as shamans do with guides, teachers and spirit allies.
- He drew, carved in stone and painted elements of many of his visions as we see indigenous shamans do.
- At one of the most confusing times of his visions, a world tree (with roots in “Hell” and its crown in the “heavens”) held his upper and lower worlds together.
- He was psychologically dismembered as part of his own healing – a common shamanic experience.
- Some of his otherworldly teachers were mythological figures – as shamans sometimes find.
- Philemon appeared to orchestrate the appearance of and interactions with many of the other figures – like the udha spirit of Mongolian shamanism.
- He brought wisdom and healing back from that other world into this world for the healing and development of his people.
Unlike shamans, however, Jung resolutely kept his psychological perspective and did not initially think of these characters as more than symbolic. However, he eventually came to accept that at least some of these visionary figures were as real as the people in his social environment.
In summary, his call to soul, the response from the other world, descent into a lower world, ascent into an upper world, shape-shifting activity of his soul, interactions in which each side contributed to the relationship, and those relationships being with otherworldly teachers and spirit animal allies all have the hallmarks of shamanic activity. I have sometimes lamented that he did not have an elder shamanic teacher that could have supported him and given him a context, but I think we derived greater benefit from his struggle on his own terms, which illuminates the broader world of the psyche – both individual and collective.
He honored the process as it happened, with calligraphy, paintings in the book, and a large painting of Philemon. He recognized and honored his debt to these otherworld figures.
A Shamanism for Our Time
In my work with Jung’s visions, I found the psychological counterpart to what Tom Cowan has often taught in his Celtic shamanism seminars: this and the otherworld have their own realities, but they are not as separate as they may seem. Rather, they are entangled one with the other. In this intellectual framework that is not limited to ordinary “rationality,” it has become easier for me to see the hidden life behind the visible.
We would do well, I think, to follow his example in this area: he embraced what came to him, gave it time and space in his world, honored it with his written accounts, paintings and carvings, and applied its teachings. He treated the figures with respect (but not necessarily deference), and both he and they developed over the course of those relationships. He did not keep them at a distance. He did not treat them as “only” symbolic signs of something else. Through my engagement with his experience, I’ve found that we can deeply perceive and understand another’s life by using our remarkable shamanic tools to journey into the other’s world to see through their eyes.
From my perspective, Jung also enacted a collective soul retrieval that brought together lost parts of our collective Western psyche. The vital functions of mythology and religion, generally dismissed by modern life, were some of the gifts that he brought to us as he returned from his journeys.
Jung had shamanic experiences but described them in a psychological language that provided a bridge to the psychological world. We also have our shamanic experiences but, if we only use shamanic language, our world will be less accessible to other populations. If we, however, step out of our stereotypical shamanic language and use common wordage (as many writers have indeed done) we may further help to bridge the perceived divides between the ordinary and non-ordinary, the visible and invisible, the material and spirit worlds.[iii]
Most of us, of course, no longer live in a shamanic culture; nor are many of us in active relationship with the land (and its spirits) on which we live. Neo-shamans are seldom called upon to serve the survival needs of their people, needs that are now provided by supermarkets and the internet – but we still suffer the same spirit ailments of enchantment, attachment, energetic pollution, intrusions and soul loss. We are still called to teach and to heal, to make whole and to balance. As Jung’s experience suggests, a shamanic calling can come in unexpected ways and be interpreted within the context of one’s prevailing world view and yet still foster the recovery of soul, as well as to bridge the often-forgotten relationship between the ordinary and non-ordinary worlds. Not only that, it gives those of us with a shamanic perspective an opportunity to pick up the undeveloped seeds of others’ experiences and, using our practices, honor the compassionate spirits ever endeavoring to teach and heal.
In his introduction to his Liber Novus, Jung admonishes us to follow our own way. I suggest that we, too, should follow our own way, engage with the spirits that have compassion on us, honor the “Spirit of the Depths” that we find in our journeys so that we might help restore the wholeness of both visible and invisible worlds, and our relationships with the land, our communities and with life itself.
[i] Past Lives Therapy, by Morris Netherton and Nancy Shiffrin, Ace Books, 1978
[ii] Living Your Past Lives: The Psychology of Past-Life Regression, Ballantine 1987 and iUniverse 2002. Two other books were to follow: The Karma in Your Relationships and The End of Karma.
[iii] I am attempting to do just this through my new blog at www.karlschlotterbeck.com