Linking Shamanism and Psychotherapy

I recently got an email describing a new therapy. It stated: “This therapy is a mind/body, psychospiritual, energetic, consciousness-based framework for healing and transformation, incorporating Psychodynamic Therapy, Eastern medicine, Archetypal/Depth Psychology, Transpersonal Psychology, Narrative and Post-Modern Systems Theory, Energy Psychology and alternative therapies”. 

I admit it; I laughed (and apologies to whoever may have written it!). My heart said – “All you need for inner work is an awareness of energies plus an understanding of thought patterns. Why do you need to label it?”  But the truth is, we are so connected to our minds that we need labels, structure, validation and evidence before we can give ourselves permission to say “yes this might be/is ok, it should/might/will work and it is what I need because there is proof that it works”.  

What if we were back in the days of Freud and Jung, when their techniques were groundbreaking and still unproven? Still under scrutiny, criticised and in the name of a current movie, considered to be “a dangerous method”? How would we go about our personal inner work then, before Transpersonal, Psychodynamic, Archetypal/Depth Psychology had a name?  

Before psychotherapy there was shamanism. It wasn’t given a name until Mircea Eliade, in 1964 recognised patterns in indigenous peoples across the world and felt the need to name it. 1964 was not such a long time ago, but “shamanism” had been in existence since the beginning of time.

I believe that the essence of shamanism lies in the foundations of all types of healing work. In this article I aim to expose the essence of shamanism in psychotherapy.  According to Jay Horwitz (who practices both) - “Shamanism is not psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, the relationship is between the therapist and the client. In shamanism, the relationship is between the shamanic practitioner and the spirits and the client.” 

In my opinion, humans need something to believe in, something to make sense of how the world and the universe works, and where they fit in. Shamanism provides that with a direct and experiential connection to Spirit/Source Energy/God. There is no question about where, why, or how we fit into life, if we follow this path. Having a direct connection to Spirit is empowering, and for people to be ruled by institutions, countries and societies, this model does not work. Major separation from Spirit has occurred in humankind during the course of building civilizations, taking the power from within, and giving it to those who wished to control. Experiential spirituality was taboo, and people were hunted down and burned at the stake for practicing it in the open. Even today there still is discussion in psychotherapy circles as to whether or not it is OK to talk about spirituality with your clients.

We recognise that “civilised society” thought itself above a deep connection to nature and an experiential path, thus civilisation looked down upon the indigenous Aborigines, the tribal Africans, the Native Americans, and went so far as to try to eliminate them. Only now are people accepting that the connection to Spirit is what brings us joy, happiness and connection to life. And in effect, society in 2012 is breaking down, as the people wake up. 

Shamanism and Psychotherapy

Freud and Jung are accepted as the founding fathers of psychology. Where Freud was very much an interpreter and classifier of thoughts and behaviours, Jung seemed to be more open to the ebb and flow of energetic experiences from the inner and outer worlds of the psyche. Freud worked mostly from the mind, the logical way, and Jung was more open to connection to experience, to energy, similar to the experiential path of the Shaman. Jung went through a shamanic initiation experience where he felt he was going mad; he retreated from life at this point in time and went deep into another world. His “Red Book” captures intricate details of his journeys; it incorporates mandalas, written word, and images all in full colour, of what he experienced in his visions. When he spoke about his experiences he said he believed that we have the ability to connect to and interact with energies that are far greater than we imagine. This, by any other name, is shamanism. This principle of energies which have their own behavioural patterns forms the basis for Jung’s Archetypal Psychology.

Jung wrote about his shamanic initiation process in his book: “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”. He may not have known at the time that that was what he was experiencing, but he become known as the “Shaman of Psychotherapy”, and his students called him such, even to his face. In his later years, Jung travelled widely around the world to study indigenous shamanism. “Jung realised that in spite of their apparent differences, both shamanism and analytical psychology focused on the healing and growth of the psyche. Jung commented that the spiritual plight of the western world comes from its “loss of soul” and a disconnection from the rest of the world” [Sandler].  “It sometimes appears that archetypal psychology is a modern offshoot of shamanism with a shared concern for dreams, visionary states and the phenomena of religion” [TePaske].

Jung’s work is deeply embedded into other areas of Psychology. James Hillman, a student of Jung’s who only recently passed away, wrote about how the soul understands images best. He stated that the soul can work through problems by communicating through images (similar to dreams) that come from an “Underworld of Dreams”. It has been said that this is the equivalent of journeying to the Shamanic Lower World for answers.  

Otto Rank, a colleague of Jung’s, was very interested in mythologies, art and story in Psychology. He worked with the “here and now” - his sessions involved becoming aware of the energies that are in the room right now and working directly with them. He also realised that humans need to be connected to something bigger than them. He states: "The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole, therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole.”

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Psychotherapy was greatly influenced by Otto Rank. The Gestalt Two-Chair Technique is typical of Gestalt, working with the here and now, working with the energy in the room. An empty chair is brought into the room and the client addresses the empty chair in place of their father, their mother, or anyone that they are in relationship difficulties with. The client then sits in the chair and becomes that person, then answers back for them. It has been found that this is not a roleplay; that somehow the energy of the person is present and speaks through the client. The therapist and the client become witness and they can learn new facts, gain new understanding of that persons’ behaviours and oftentimes a resolution can be achieved without that person being physically present. 

This goes deeper with Virginia Satir’s Family Reconstruction Therapy. Groups of strangers arranged spatially in a room “become” the aunt, the uncle, the father, the brother in a family they have never met. Where people in the family had passed away, she still called upon people to represent them if they were an integral part of the story that needed healing. “When interaction took place between the “family members”, energetic shifts took place that changed the actual dynamic of that family, thereby healing family rifts. Remarkably, it was found that gaps of stories where information was missing due to deaths in the family became filled through “messages” that were given to people through the energy of their roles. And in the case of strangers playing family members, characteristics of the family member were present during the roleplay even though the participant had no first-hand knowledge of that person.” [Franke] Family Reconstruction is now called Family Constellation Therapy and it is plain to see that this work and Gestalt work resonates very strongly with the interaction between a shaman and an energetic entity.

The three ‘Core Conditions’ necessary for counselling as set out by Carl Rogers are unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy. If these conditions are established, the therapist in essence creates a space, which I believe is similar to the sacred space in shamanic work. One of the pioneers of counselling and a very spiritual man, Brian Thorne, writes “from time to time it seems that a mystical state of consciousness between therapist and client is achieved. This opens up a space where healing agents of great potency are released.” Shamanic work is also carried out in sacred space, without judgement and attachment to outcome, and with empathy rather than sympathy. The creation of the space alone allows for healing energies to come in. I personally believe that this is rare in counselling because many counsellors have trouble creating the core conditions if they have not done their own inner work. It takes a long time and a lot of inner work for a therapist to be able to truly understand and provide such things.

Where does this leave us now?

As can be seen from the examples above, there are deep connections between psychology and shamanism, and they have much in common. Both work with the human psyche. Both provide healing to their clients without becoming attached to the outcome of the therapy. Both shaman and psychotherapist provide space for clients to go through a process of healing of the psyche.  And both shamanic practitioners and psychotherapists have to go through the process of healing themselves in order to be able to facilitate their client’s healing process.  

The main difference between the two as I see it is that shamanism is a vocation, a calling, and shamanic initiation can happen to people when they are not looking for it. A psychotherapist or psychologist consciously chooses a path of study, even if the need comes from the unconscious mind; there is not necessarily an initiation process involved. The pity is that many therapists do not go hand on heart, deep into their personal work and transform into a healer in the process. Some do, and more and more of them are turning to shamanism to support them in their healing transformation.

2012 is a time for us to hold more love in our hearts than fear. As healers (shamanic practitioners and psychotherapists both) it is time for us to step up to the plate and do our personal work with vigour and courage to leave no stone unturned, so that we can better hold space for our clients. We owe them that. The labels, the names of what it is we do, are not as important as the work itself. 



About the author: 

If you would like to learn more about shamanism, please contact Abby to receive an article explaining shamanism at a deeper level. If you are thinking about trying a shamanic psychotherapy session, or you would like more information about anything in this article, Abby offers free 15 minute telephone consultations.

Abby Wynne is a spiritual teacher, a psychotherapist, an energy healer and a writer, emerging from a background of science and education and working from a first-hand experience of the spiritual alchemical process.
She co-founded Ranelagh Holistic Centre, where she sees clients for one-to-one healing sessions, group sessions and runs workshops. 
Abby blends psychotherapy, shamanism and reiki for a powerful and unique healing experience. Abby is passionate about her work and the process of self-actualisation.
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