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Downton, J.V., Jr. (1989). Individuation and Shamanism. J. Anal. Psychol., 34(1):73-88.

(1989). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 34(1):73-88

Individuation and Shamanism

J. V. Downton, Jr., Ph.D.

Shamanism is a transformational ordeal of dismemberment and rebirth recorded for centuries among tribal peoples around the world. Used as a metaphor for understanding individuation, it emphasises the difficulties of integrating the archetypal level of the collective unconscious in the process of reaching wholeness. While individuation occurs as a lifelong process, there are points of dramatic transformation, when the numinous energies of the collective unconscious flood into consciousness and profoundly alter it. Shamanism provides a mythic structure for understanding these periods of dramatic transformation, offering a working context for the individuating person who has been overwhelmed by sudden and mysterious changes in consciousness.

Few Jungian works emphasise the traumatic character of individuation. Jung captured some of its more dramatic features in his work on alchemy, the most notable and important being Mysterium Coniunctionis, in which he offers a picture of individuation while highly conceptual, hints at the darker, more difficult phrases of experience. As we know from his autobiography, he encountered some of the uncanny effects of the unconscious. Yet, on the whole, he seemed to suppress the facts of his experience, preferring to speak in general terms and giving few specifics about the character of that experience.

This muted legacy of Jung's own inner process has affected the way many Jungians have come to view individuation. Most describe it conceptually as a process of attaining wholeness, of uniting the conscious and unconscious realms of the psyche, while omitting any mention of the actual experience of doing so, which can be a terrifying, lonely, and difficult ordeal. In contrast to these accounts of individuation, which emphasise its conceptual structure as opposed to its dramatic form, I will offer a different perspective by focusing on the experience of individuation as a type of shamanic imitation.


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