We Are All Shamans-in-Training
In 1981 I spontaneously went into such an ecstatic state that I was hospitalized by what I call the "anti-bliss patrol." The authorities had become alerted because I was simply unable to restrain my enthusiasm at the "good news" that was beginning to reveal itself to me about the nature of reality. Stepping out of my usual way of trying to control my experience, during that next year I was thrown in mental hospitals a number of times and (mis)diagnosed as having manic-depressive (bi-polar) illness. I was told that I had a chemical imbalance and would have to go on medication and learn to live with my "illness" for the rest of my life. Little did the doctors realize that although my experience looked like a typical nervous breakdown, I had actually gotten "drafted" into a deeper psycho-spiritual process of an entirely different order - a spiritual awakening/shamanic initiation - that was blowing my mind as it was simultaneously revealing it.
My inner process had spilled outside of my skull and just like a dream was synchronistically expressing itself through events in the seemingly outer world. I found myself in a meaning-filled and enchanted universe; the world had become animated by spirit, as if it was a living oracle, a continually unfolding revelation that was speaking symbolically. It became glaringly apparent to me that there was an intimate correlation and synchronistic correspondence between what was going on in the internal landscape of my psyche and the seemingly outer world. The boundary between inner and outer was dissolving. It was as if something deep inside of me was expressing itself through the medium of the outside world, and was able to extend itself into the outside world and configure events so as to in-form and give shape to itself.
According to consensus reality, I was "certifiable," and I was in full agreement, in that I had certifiably stepped out of my self-entrancing, self-limiting, and self-binding conceptual, cognitive mind into a much more expansive "space." As if snapping out of a trance, I found myself not out of my mind, in the sense that I was crazy, but rather, inside of my mind, which was now discovered to be everywhere, in that I was beginning to realize that I was dreaming.
My parents bought into the psychiatrist's diagnosis that their only child had a mental illness, as in my parents' world doctors were genuine authority figures who knew what they were talking about. In the words of the late psychiatrist R. D. Laing, "Attempts to wake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they, bless them, are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or who, still asleep, realizes that what is taken to be real is a 'dream' is going crazy." Tragically, with the support and blessing of the psychiatric community, both of my parents passed away convinced that their son was crazy.
When we begin to spiritually awaken, our personality structure and sense of who we are can melt down and dis-integrate, as our inner "constitution" is being rewritten. This process can convincingly appear to others as if we are having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic break.
Stepping out of my normal, conditioned, repressed and domesticated self as if breaking out of a prison, I felt on the cutting edge of the big bang itself. It was as if I was becoming attuned to and a receptive vehicle for a deeper, more authentic, less self-conscious and much more unfettered, creative and ecstatic part of myself to freely in-form my experience and give shape to itself. My experience was so mind-blowing that I had trouble "keeping it together," particularly because previous to the hospitalizations I wasn't in a safe container but was unrestrained, out in a world that did not understand the value of such experiences. My situation was actually quite dangerous, as during the beginning stages of my awakening I was not able to mediate and channel the transpersonal energies that were activated within me in a way that was acceptable to the culture at large.
The dissolution and breakdown of the old structures of the psyche can become a breakthrough, however, depending on how it is contained and related to by the surrounding community and unfolded. The dis-integration can be the beginning of a coming together at a more coherent, and unified level of consciousness.
Our species and its civilization are currently in the throes of a collective (nervous) breakdown. If what we, as a species, are doing to ourselves (destroying the biosphere, the very life-support system of the planet, to use one example) isn't collective madness, then what in the world is? Our underlying institutionalized and incorporated structures that are helping to keep us asleep are breaking down and coming apart. Just as with an individual's psyche, only writ large en masse on the world stage, we are going through a collective shamanic initiation process, a genuine "death/rebirth" experience. The false, illusory separate self, which experiences ourselves as alien from one another is "dying" as the fundamental framework by which we relate to each other and the world, as we incarnate and give "birth" to a truer sense of who we are, realizing our deep interconnection and interdependence with each other and all living beings.
The shamanic personality is very sensitive to the unconscious, both in itself and in others. Shamans have very permeable boundaries between their conscious mind and the unconscious, as if they've created a bridge which allows contents between the two to easily pass through and intermingle with and reciprocally co-inform each other. The shaman's collaborative, creative interplay between the conscious and unconscious creates a synthesis, which is a "third thing," a new birth, a further evolution in the incarnation of a more all-embracing, integrated and expansive consciousness.
The figure of the shaman is related to both the figures of the artist (see my article "The Artist as Healer of the World") and the wounded healer - (see my article "The Wounded Healer," Part 1 and Part 2). The archetypal figure of the shaman is the primordial medicine person and carrier of healing. Shamans (arche)typically take the illness that is in the community into themselves and literally becomes sick, as if they have "caught" the disease of those they are trying to heal. This process can become animated through the choice of a seasoned shaman, or it can happen spontaneously and unintentionally in a budding shaman who is unusually sensitive to the underlying contradictions and spiritual illness that pervade the social and cultural fabric which connects us and in which we are embedded. A fully cooked shaman, in internalizing the illness in the field, allows the sickness to fluidly move through him or herself without getting stuck, which is the mark that distinguishes an accomplished shaman from a novice.
By embracing, assimilating, and metabolizing what has gotten triggered in them, however, shamans are able to heal themselves and in so doing non-locally send healing to the whole "community." In our current moment in time, as interdependent members of an ever-more interconnected global village, our "community" is the entire planet. The shaman is operating in the realm of the collective unconscious, a "no-place" where information travels in "no-time," faster than the speed of light. There is no part of the universe that is separate from the whole, which is to say that a change in any part of the universe is resonantly registered in no time whatsoever throughout the whole universe. Though the healing effects of the shaman's process manifests "over time," the shaman's self-healing, transcending the seeming limitations of space and time, instantaneously insinuates its in-form-ation and informing influence faster than the twinkling of an eye throughout the entire universe in ways that can only be imagined.
Our Mental Health System is Crazy-Making
I tried telling the doctors that I wasn't manic-depressive, but rather was having a shamanic initiation and spiritual awakening (as this couldn't have been more obvious to me); but this only confirmed their diagnosis in a diabolically self-perpetuating feedback loop. In essence, the more I authentically expressed my experience, the more I was convincing the doctors that I was crazy. It was like I had stepped through the looking glass and found myself in a dimension of existence that was truly bewitched, as if I had entered a domain that felt, qualitatively speaking, under a curse of black magicians. It felt like I had shamanically journeyed into the underworld and wound up in some sort of weird, perverse hell realm where reality was inverted in a way that was get-me-out-of-here crazy. Little did I realize at the time, however, that this was all part of the deeper awakening process through which I was going.
What the psychiatrists were doing was truly maddening. By myopically seeing people's behavior as being pathological, the psychiatrists literally drew out the pathology in the person, which only further confirmed to them the correctness of their diagnosis in a self-fulfilling prophecy, as if they were both under a spell and casting one at the same time. To again quote Laing, "Anyone in this transitional state is likely to be confused. To indicate that this confusion is a sign of illness is a quick way to create psychosis. . . . A psychiatrist who professes to be a healer of souls, but who keeps people asleep, treats them for waking up and drugs them asleep again . . . helps to drive them crazy."
To the extent that they are projecting their own madness outside of themselves, the psychiatrists are unknowingly complicit in evoking the very madness they are hoping to cure, which is nothing other than an expression of the psychiatrists' madness. Representative authorities of "the academy," the doctors were reflecting the madness that has become normalized, institutionalized, imprinted, and incorporated throughout our modern world. The doctor's madness was the personalized signature of our collective madness.
Trauma as a Path to Awakening
I tried to explain to the psychiatrists that I was sick, but just not in the way they were imagining. I had a creative, psychological illness, which is to say that my seeming madness was an expression of my creative self, alchemically transforming an underlying perturbance in the field of consciousness so as to heal itself. I wasn't manic-depressive; rather, I was "perturbed," in that my "emotions" were "disturbed" due to being the recipient of over-the-top abuse at the hands of a desperately sick, sociopathic father. I was suffering from a shamanic illness, as I was in trauma from the malevolent, mind-numbing abuse to which he had introduced me. My shock was due to the transmission I had received from my father, who by unwittingly and compulsively acting out his unresolved abuse, connected me as a link in a chain to an unbroken lineage of violence and abuse extending far back in time and throughout space. Like countless other recipients of abuse, I had been directly introduced to the dark side.
Shattered by the experience, it was as if I had become broken. Dropping down into the darkness of the unconscious underworld, a part of me had died. Imprinted by the trauma, I would never be the same, as from that moment on the trauma had altered and reconfigured both my psyche and my destiny, simultaneously severing and initiating a connection to a deeper part of myself.
Trauma is a normal, healthy response to an insane and intolerable situation. If we put too much pressure on a bone and the bone breaks, the bone is not pathological. Paradoxically, trauma is a form of madness which is an expression of sanity. "Shock" is our healthy response to experiencing an event that is awe-full. The shamanic archetype becomes catalyzed in us by a severe emotional and spiritual crisis, oftentimes organically growing out of unresolved abuse issues from childhood - this was certainly true for me.
There is an intimate correlation between being traumatized, abused, and wounded, and having a shamanic initiation/spiritual awakening. Trauma is an experience that is overwhelming to the ego, in that it can't be assimilated by the ego in the typical way. The trauma initiates and catalyzes the deeper process of the archetype of the shaman to begin to form-ulate and crystallize itself in the unconscious of the future shaman. This precipitates a deeper part of the psyche to become mobilized, as the shaman journeys deep inside himself, flying on the wings of his creative imagination to address and become acquainted with what has gotten activated within.
The shaman's descent into the darkness can be agonizing, a veritable crucifixion. Part of the (arche)typical shamanic experience is to become dis-membered, which is a cooking and smelting of psychic contents that have become rigidified, ossified, and have outlived their usefulness. To quote Jung, "The shaman's experience of sickness, torture, death and regeneration implies, at a higher level, the idea of being made whole through sacrifice, of being changed by transubstantiation and exalted to the pneumatic man - in a word, apotheosis (elevated from an ordinary person to a 'God')." The goal of the shaman's death and dismemberment experience is to "re-member" themselves, which like true soul retrieval, brings all of their dissociated parts back together into a more integrated synthesis.
Trauma On Steriods
An accomplished shaman, which I certainly am not, allows himself to be "dreamed up" by whatever the situation in the field requires so as to help the field to get back into balance and harmonize. Accomplished shamans have developed a "container," both within themselves and in the seemingly outer world around them, in which to process what has become animated within them.
I certainly hadn't developed this container when I was committed, as I was a novice, and quite young (in my mid-twenties). By being so out of control and over-the-top enthusiastic ("en theos" means to be filled with spirit) about what was being revealed to me, I had let go of control and was unwittingly expressing and giving shape to the spirit of madness which was non-locally enfolded throughout the greater field of consciousness, which is to say inside of all of us. I had a ways to go, however, to learn how to integrate, contain and more skillfully and artfully express what I was realizing so as to not freak people out so much.
Because they allow themselves to be dreamed up by the field, accomplished shamans can embody and incarnate in crystallized form the unconscious madness in the field so that it becomes clarified and brought into consciousness. A shaman can reflect back the madness to the madness itself by taking over the madness and allowing herself to creatively express it such that it is revealed in a new light. From the point of view of the collective madness in the field, when twould-be shamans act out the madness that is in the field, they are seen by the collective as being the ones who are mad. This is a potentially dangerous situation when the collective madness controls the levers of power, whether in the psychiatric system or our current administration (please see the first chapter in my book, "The Madness of George W. Bush: A Reflection of our Collective Psychosis").
Being "institutionalized," I had fallen into a situation where the psychiatric community had power over me. They were in a position to unconsciously enact the "will to power" of the archetypal shadow through their own unconscious, unresolved power issues, with me as one of their guinea pigs. Being unaccomplished in shamanism and very vulnerable, I was eaten alive by the darker forces that I had unwittingly evoked in the psychiatric community.
For example, once my lucidity was violently shut down, I began feeling depressed, which was a "normal" thing to feel under such horrible circumstances. My feeling depressed inspired the psychiatrists, however, to solidify their diagnosis of me as manic-depressive, and they then prescribed an anti-depressant to "help" my depression, adding to the anti-psychotic and lithium they already had me on. It was as if I had re-created my family-of-origin trauma, only this time on steroids. Enacting a timeless, mythical process, I had gotten swallowed up by the darkness, and my task was to transform the darkness from within the darkness itself.
The experience was so traumatic that after my last hospitalization, in 1982, I couldn't work for a year and had to go on disability and live with my parents, the original agents of my traumatization. I was living a nightmare. After the "care" of the mental health system, I had become truly "sick." My illness was like a particularized, acute "break-out" of an underlying, more fundamental systemic illness, which pervaded both my family system as well as the field of consciousness itself. I had become the "identified patient," the scapegoat who was carrying the family's, and now the mental health community's projected, unconscious shadow and madness.
My saving grace was never falling into and "buying" the viewpoint of the doctors that was literally being "sold" to me as it was forced down my throat. It couldn't have been more obvious from my vantage point inside myself that I was having a spiritual awakening/shamanic initiation; fortunately I never lost sight of this, even during the darkest of times, which allowed me to trust the process through which I was going.
I was one of the lucky ones, as I was able to extricate myself from the stone-age horrors of the mental health (sic) community as soon as I was able. Tragically, many others are not as fortunate, and their potential spiritual awakening/shamanic initiation process becomes aborted as they become bound and captive to the psychiatric establishment. T
The psychiatric system and the pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) are co-dependently intertwined with each other in a genuinely pathological, mutually profitable, and crazy-making relationship. This is not to say that there aren't many good, well-meaning people who work in the psychiatric system, only to point out that the underlying system has become corrupted. In essence, the sick part of the psychiatric system/Big Pharma is in the business of "making crazies" so as to support its pathology, which is to be guilty of genuine "mal-practice." To people who have fallen into the black hole and become caught in the double-bind of the psychiatric/Big Pharma "field-of-force," it is a very dangerous situation, as if an insect had gotten too entangled in a spider's web to extricate itself. I was lucky to escape with my sanity intact.
Fortunately, soon after getting out of the last hospital I began meeting my spiritual teachers, some of the greatest living Buddhist masters from Tibet and Burma, who, unlike the psychiatrists, helped to evoke the healthy part of me. When I described to them what I was subjectively experiencing, instead of being pathologized, they reflected back to me that I was beginning to remember what in Buddhism is called our "true nature." In finding my teachers, I had dreamed up the part of me that was seeing and relating to the part of me that WAS awakening. Having someone else bear witness and reflect back the healthy part of me created a bridge that helped me to see it, too. It was as if my teachers became engaged with me in an intimate relationship that helped me to not get stuck in the trauma of it all, to not get caught in being "sick." By simply relating to the healthy part of me, which was an expression of their own level of health and wholeness, they helped me to step into and incarnate the part of me that was well. My teachers and I had instinctively created a supportive, nourishing container between us which cultivated healing. As if figures in a fairy tale, they had gotten dreamed up to help me learn how to "dis-spell" and transmute the darker forces with which I had been wrestling.
The Psychiartrists Are the Crazy Part of Myself
The would-be shaman has to pass through the experience of madness without getting stuck in it. In the experience of madness shamans descend into the underworld of the unconscious, where they have to come to terms with the darker parts of their being. My confrontation with the psychiatric community was a projection into real time and space of a darker part of me that "pathologizes" myself, as if my inner process was playing itself out in the seemingly outer world. Like "dream characters," the "pathologizing psychiatrists" were the part of me that I had dreamed up into materialization who judged me and saw me as "sick," who thought there was something wrong with me that needed to be fixed.
Seeing the psychiatrists as characters in my dream, which is to say embodied reflections of aspects of myself, is to recognize these animated, living figures existing within myself as aspects of my mind. Recognizing that the psychiatrists were symbolically re-presenting, in full-bodied form, the part of me that both pathologizes and is pathological helps me to see my own complicity in my experience with them, and to step out of feeling victimized by the psychiatrists and blaming them. Recognizing the psychiatrists as a part of myself enables me to forgive them, as well as myself.
Not only was the boundary dissolving between inner and outer, and between dreaming and waking, but the boundary was dissolving between self and other. I became aware that in the most deeply fundamental way I did not exist separately, in isolation from the psychiatrists, but rather in co-relation with them. Being each other's dream characters, we were both reciprocally "dreaming each other up" to pick up and play out roles in each other's unconscious process. We were interconnected parts of one another, intimately bound together in destiny. We did not exist "apart" from each other, but were "a part" of a greater, unified and unifying being that was becoming revealed through our interplay.
With the psychiatrists, I had synchronistically dreamed up a novel form of the very essence of the abuse which precipitated my awakening in the first place. Something was being revealed to me, however, through the analogous reiteration of my inner process fractally explicating itself in multiple arenas of my life, be it with my family or the psychiatric community. What was this recurring pattern, like a recurring dream, an expression of inside of me?
The psychiatrists were acting out an unconscious shadow aspect of the human psyche that projects itself outside of itself to avoid relationship with itself. Projecting the shadow is a universal, archetypal dynamic that exists deep within the collective unconscious of humanity. This unconscious dynamic of projecting the shadow is a pattern which is playing out in all of our lives, both inwardly and outwardly in relationship with others, in a multiplicity of guises. To the extent the doctors reflex-ively and non-negotiably refused to self-reflect and insisted on projecting out their shadow was the degree to which they were abusing their position of power and rank simply because they could, which is a morally indefensible act. By projecting the shadow outside of themselves and then being in denial about doing this, the psychiatrists became possessed by the very shadow they were projecting. They then unconsciously and destructively acted out the shadow in a self-reinforcing, crazy-making ritual - a genuine abuse drama - which created "dis-ease" for everyone concerned.
To the extent that the psychiatrists were not in conscious relationship with their own madness, it was as though they had entranced themselves into thinking that the madness they were projecting outside of themselves was "objectively" true, located in their patients, since in their patients' illnesses they had all the evidence they needed to prove the correctness of their diagnosis. By projecting the shadow, the psychiatrists were unwittingly creating a self-fulfilling prophecy which perfectly served to hide from them their role in helping to create the very situation they imagined was outside of themselves. The insanity of what the psychiatric system was unconsciously playing out was itself a crystallization of the more fundamental pathology that pervades the underlying field of human consciousness. Through my interaction with the mental health community, the mental health, or lack thereof, of our human community was revealing itself for all who have eyes to see.
In seeing the deeper, unconscious shadow that was animating the psychiatrist's behavior, I recognized it as a process I know all too well. Seeing it out there as embodied by the psychiatrists helped me to see by reflection this same abusive behavior of projecting my own shadow outside of myself in myself. If this is a dream, I was dreaming up the psychiatrists to play out this unconscious part of me so that I could see and potentially integrate this asleep, crazy-making, abusive, and mad part of myself.
We Are All Natural Born Shamans
The shamanic archetype is one of the major processes that is becoming animated in the collective psyche of our species. We'd have to be truly "disturbed" if our emotions aren't disturbed by what is playing out currently in our world. And yet, the darkness is a "disturber of the peace" in order to (potentially) create a higher-order integration of the psyche and its contents. Just as dreams are the unconscious' way of balancing a one-sidedness in an individual's psyche, the shamanic archetype is the dynamically evolving pattern of healing that is being constellated in the collective unconscious as a compensatory response to the trauma that is playing itself out on the world stage.
We are truly a species in trauma. Traumatized, we traumatize each other as we re-traumatize ourselves, collaboratively re-enacting the repetition compulsion of the traumatized soul on the world stage. Seized by something greater than ourselves, we are possessed by our compulsion to re-create our trauma, as we perform a holy liturgy en masse, structuring and ritualizing our experience as a way of potentially transforming it. And just like trauma, where the re-solution is hidden in encoded form in the very pathology, we are collectively re-creating our trauma in the world theater as if we are participating in a sacred mass in the holiest of temples, so as to potentially awaken ourselves. The madness of trauma is its own revelation, and how it manifests depends upon whether or not we recognize what is being revealed to us through what we are compulsively and unconsciously acting out as history.
Having the shamanic archetype activated in the collective unconscious means that we can re-contextualize our problems, our trauma, and our own madness. It's been very helpful for me as I continually deepen my own healing to remember that my experience of trauma in myself is simultaneously a microcosmic, personalized fractal reflecting the greater trauma resonating throughout the collective field. This realization allows me to not personalize the moment of feeling the trauma, or concretize myself as being traumatized, but allows me to give myself over to and embrace my experience.
We all have a part of us that is mad to the extent that we are not fully awake, and who among us can truly claim this degree of enlightenment? Thinking that we are not mad is an expression of our madness. How can we not have a mad part of us, as we are not separate from the world, which has clearly gone mad? (see my article "Diagnosis: Psychic Epidemic"). The world's madness is a reflection of our own; we have all collaboratively dreamed up the world's madness. Instead of pathologizing ourselves because of our madness, which is a mad thing to do, we can embrace and own it but not identify with it nor judge it. In a truly radical act, we can interpret our madness in a way that is sane.
Recognizing that we are picking up the madness that is in the field which resonates with, is an expression of, and constellates the madness within ourselves, is to step out of personalizing our experience, and step into the point of view of identifying ourselves as would-be shamans. We then can envision ourselves from this more expansive point of view to have, like a shaman, the intention to take into ourselves the madness in the field, which ultimately is our own madness, so as to creatively assimilate it into our wholeness in our own unique manner as a way to help serve the field. Recognizing the part of us that is a natural-born shaman is the very act that calls forth and manifests, as if by magic, the part of us that truly IS a shaman.
Recognizing that the madness within us is both ours while simultaneously being an expression of the field is to snap out of our self-limiting and self-alienating identity of being separate from the universe. Instead, we can recognize our deep intimacy with the universe, which is to say ourselves. This very recognition allows us to embrace our mad part as an aspect of our vast wholeness, our monstrous totality, thereby snapping us out of the infinite regression and self-generating feedback loop of acting out our madness as an unconscious reaction against looking at our madness. Crazy as it seems, embracing our madness is the very act which helps to actualize and make real our basic sanity. Compassion spontaneously arises as both a cause and effect of this realization.
We are being invited by the universe to step into our shamanic "garments" and consciously participate in our own evolution. Instead of our ritual implements being drums and rattles, however, as "modern-day shamans" our accessories might be something like the keyboard of a computer or the tools of multi-media, as we work to inspire change in the underlying consciousness of the field by a simple keystroke or the creative use of a video camera or website.
The formless bodhisattvic archetype of shaman/healer is thirsting for instruments to express and actualize itself in embodied form. Recognizing, and assenting, saying "Yes," to the deeper shamanic calling that is pulsating through our veins inspires us to breathe life into and incarnate the living figure of the shaman within us. Following our calling with religious devotion, we sacrifice ourselves as we offer ourselves in service to a power greater than ourselves. Co-operating with our deeper shamanic calling constellates the universe to support us in our endeavor, as the universe itself is the sponsor of our calling. Like shamans in training, we are each being called to connect with the spirit which animates our being, a process that can only take place within the psyche, mediated by the human heart and fueled by the power of love.
Photo by seriykotik1970/Ian, courtesy of Creative Commons License