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Shamanism, Alchemy and Yoga: Traditional Technologies of Tranformation

From the most ancient times, human beings have practiced disciplines of psychospiritual transformation with devoted energy and intention. Modern systems of psychotherapy are the inheritors of three great traditions of transformation, in which the human is seen as engaged in purposive processes of exploration and integration in many realms of consciousness. In this essay I describe some of the common methods used, as well as the major metaphors for transformation.1


One possible definition of shamanism is that it is the disciplined approach to what has been variously called "non-ordinary reality", "the sacred", "the mystery", "the supernatural", "the inner world(s)", or "the otherworld". Psychologically speaking, one could say these expressions refer to realms of consciousness that lie outside the boundaries of our usual and ordinary perception. The depth psychologies derived from psychoanalysis refer to such normally inaccessible realms as "the unconscious", or "the collective unconscious". This would, however, be too limiting a definition for shamanism, if "unconscious" is taken to refer to something within the individual, i.e. intrapsychic. Shamanic practice involves the exploration not only of unknown aspects of our own psyche, but also the unknown aspects of the world around us, - the external as well as internal mysteries.

There are three traditional systems of consciousness transformation, systems of belief and practice in which the exploration of these non-ordinary realms is pursued with discipline and intention: shamanism, alchemy and yoga. Of these, shamanism is of course the oldest, and the one with the widest distribution all over the globe.2 Alchemy, which developed independently in Europe, the Near East, India and China, shares with shamanism the goal of consciousness transformation, the quest for healing, knowledge and power, and the profound respect for Nature. Alchemy could in fact be regarded as being a development of a certain type of shamanism, i.e. that practised by miners, smiths, metalworkers, toolmakers, and their descendants.3 The psychospiritual purposes and techniques of the alchemists came in time to be all but forgotten, and overshadowed by its applications in the experimental physical sciences.

Yoga comprises, like shamanism and alchemy, a certain kind of world view, and a systematic technology of changing consciousness. Compared to the shamanic and alchemcial traditions, here is less emphasis on connecting with nature, animals, plants, minerals or metals, -- and more focus on interior, higher states of consciousness. In some of the Indian yoga teachings there is a kind of detachment from and transcendence of the realms of nature, matter and the physical body. Important exceptions to this general tendency are tantra yoga in India and Tibet, and Taoist yoga practices in China, both of which are closely allied to alchemy in those cultures.4 Alchemy in India and China, as well as Tantra and Taoism, emphasize the transmutation of the physical body and practices of regeneration and longevity, along with the seeking of higher, transcendent states of consciousness.

Modern schools of psychotherapy, especially those based on psychodynamic depth psychology and the newer so-called "experiential therapies", employ many of the methods and techniques of consciousness change that were known in the ancient systems of shamanism, alchemy and yoga. In some instances, for example in both Freud's and Jung's borrowing of alchemical ideas, the derivation is quite conscious and deliberate; in other cases, for example the use of inner journeys or imagery sequences, psychologists are re-discovering or re-inventing methods that have been known and practised for centuries in these older traditions.

I propose, in this essay, to outline some of the techniques of transformation used in the traditional systems and their modern derivatives; and to compare some of the key metaphors of transformation that are used in these systems to both describe and to activate a consciousness transforming process. Before doing so, I would like to comment on two important differences in goals and values between the traditional systems and modern psychotherapy.

The first difference is that shamanism, alchemy and yoga are not focussed only on the solving of psychological problems, as is most psychotherapy. Rather, these traditional systems operate from an integrated world-view, in which physical healing, psychological problem-solving, and conscious exploration of spiritual or sacred realms of being are all considered as aspects of the way, or work, or practice. A shamanic ritual such as the Native American sweat-lodge, for example, is simultaneously a healing, a psychological therapy, and a form of worship including prayer. Alchemy's interest in healing is evident in their quest for the panacea, the "cure-all"; and the deep spiritual commitment of the genuine alchemists, who sought to produce the lapis, the wisdom stone, is likewise apparent. Similarly, in yoga, the spiritual purpose, the attainment of higher states of consciousness is paramount. Physical or psychological problem-solving may occur, but is almost a secondary effect.

The purpose of psychotherapy on the other hand is not generally to bring about physical healing, nor does it concern itself normally with spiritual values or religious issues. The goal is usually framed in terms of psycho-social adjustment, or the resolution of intrapsychic conflicts, or interpersonal communication problems. The split in the Western worldview between body, mind and spirit is reflected in the rigid separation of the roles of physician, therapist, and priest. There are however encouraging signs that this situation may be changing: the contribution of psychological factors to the origins and the treatment of diseases is increasingly acknowledged. The work of C.G. Jung with archetypes, of Abraham Maslow with the notion of self-actualization, and of Roberto Assagioli with psychosynthesis, has pointed the way toward greater recognition of spiritual factors; and the transpersonal psychology movement explicitly has attempted to integrate the spiritual dimensions into a comprehensive understanding of the human psyche.5

The second important difference in goals and values is that psychotherapy focusses on changing or helping the other -- the patient, client, victim, sufferer; whereas in the traditional systems of shamanism, alchemy and yoga, the emphasis is on self-transformation, self-healing, self-understanding. While it is true that the more sophisticated approaches to psychotherapy are well aware of the relevance of the therapist's own perceptions and feelings to the therapeutic process, these tend to be categorized as "countertransference" reactions, and seen as an impediment to the conduct of therapy, to be eliminated if possible. On the other hand, while it is true that helping or healing others is an important application of shamanic work (in healing shamanism especially, as distinct from power shamanism or sorcery), such work is always based on the shaman's own inner process: typically, the healer shaman may contact his or her own power animal or ally, in order to facilitate a similar contact with inner sources of support and healing for the patient or sufferer. The wide-spread concept of the "wounded healer" points to a direct personal engagement of the healer with the sickness or wound of the patient, -- the shaman may journey into the inner world in order to combat or destroy the "spirits" or "forces" that are manifesting as physical or psychic pathology.

Thus, comparison of shamanism, alchemy and yoga as traditional systems of consciousness transformation, with modern psychotherapy as a problem-solving approach that uses similar methods and similar metaphors, must be tempered by the awareness that the traditional systems see the human being as an integrated body-mind-spirit continuum. Their approach seeks to recover a way of knowledge that can not only heal and solve psychic problems, but lead to ultimate concerns of human destiny and the meaning of life.

Techniques of Transformation

A crucial notion that grew out of the early research on psychedelics was what became known as "the set-and-setting hypothesis". According to this hypothesis, widely accepted by consciousness researchers, the actual content of a psychedelic experience is a function of the set (intention, beliefs, expectations, personality), and the setting (physical and social context); with the drug playing the role of a trigger, or catalyst of the transformative process. The same principle can be applied in other transformations of consciousness, not involving drugs: the trigger or catalyst of an altered state might be hypnosis, breath, sound, sensory isolation, meditation, stress, and so on, and similar features of subjective experience can occur across the different modalities.

Techniques of consciousness transformation then refers to the specific triggers and catalysts that are used to bring about altered states, in which the healing, or insight, or vision, can occur. Furthermore, the systematic and continued use of a given technique to induce altered states constitute a kind of training or practice. The shamanic, alchemical or yogic initiate is, after all, not only interested in a one-time experience of heightened consciousness, but rather in a more or less permanent development of the capacity to enter into such states at will, to gain knowledge from them, and to apply them in healing and problem-solving situations. Thus the psychologists' distinction between "state" and "trait" changes is important to keep in mind here also. The same stimuli or agents that function as triggers for altered states, become, when used with the appropriate set and in the relevant context, ingredients in an integrated practice, discipline or sadhana.

Techniques of directed imagery or visualization are very widespread. A work by Jeanne Achterberg reviews the use of imagery methods in traditional shamanism, and compares it to the role of imagery in contemporary medicine, such as the Simontons' application of visualization in the treatment of cancer. Achterberg distinguishes preverbal imagery, where "images communicate with tissues and organs, even cells, to effect a change"; and transpersonal imagery, where "information is transmitted from the consciousness of one person to the physical substrate of another". The shamanic practicioner in training is directed and prepared to "see" objects, plants, animals, spirits in the inner realm, the non-ordinary state. Such inner seeing, which may be intensified by drumming, or hallucinogenic plants, is not regarded as "imagination" in the sense of something that is "made up", a constructed fantasy. Rather, it is regarded as seeing in non-ordinary reality, with perceptible results and impact in this reality (as, for example, if the patient gets healed). Numerous accounts now exist of shamanic visionary experiences, both those collected from native informants, and those gathered from modern Western individuals who have taken up the pratice of shamanic work.6 Under this heading, we can also consider dreamwork as an important aspect of shamanic imagery technology: images are explored and "amplified" (Jung's term) regardless of whether they occur in dream or waking states.

The use of imagery methods in alchemy is pervasive; so much so, that Jung and his followers regard all of alchemy as primarily a system of symbolic imagery. Edward Edinger writes, "what makes alchemy so valuable for psychotherapy is that its images concretize the experiences of transformation." 7 Alchemical literature is filled with engravings showing mythological figures and symbolic creatures and objects, -- suggesting that conscious contemplation of such images was an important aspect of the alchemical transformation process, called the opus. It is likely that alchemists systematically practised visualization techniques as they performed experiments in their retorts and furnaces, looking for the symbolic images in the fire that the ancient books and pictures portrayed.8 Jung believed that the alchemists projected the contents of their own unconscious into the matter undergoing various transformations. I would differ from this view only in that it seems to me that they projected certain core mythic and symbolic images consciously, according to the prescribed tradition.

The use of imagery, both in waking and dreaming states, in the various branches of yoga is well-documented. Especially in the Tantra traditions, both the Hindu and the Buddhist forms, visual symbolic images of psychic anatomy are pervasive. The chakras and nadis are described in great detail, with all their associated colors, geometric shapes, animals, Sanskrit letters, and so on. The awakening energy of the root-chakra, called kundalini, is visualized as a serpent rising up a central pillar, or two serpents coiling back and forth across the central axis. Yantras, or geometrical diagrams, including the mandala, are constructed as external supports or expressions of the interior domains. In Tibetan Buddhist yoga there is even an elaborate and sophisticated system for working consciously with dream images, -- an area Western research is only now beginning to explore with the concept of controlled lucid dreaming.9

The use of waking and dream imagery in psychotherapy is too well known to require much elaboration here. We might note that whereas in the Freudian or Jungian depth psychological approaches the emphasis is on letting unconscious images emerge into consciousness, in other systems, such as psychosynthesis, Gestalt, or various newer forms of imagery therapy, including hypnotherapy, the emphasis is more on consciously selected and developed sequences of images. In such approaches the guide or therapist typically may "set the scene" as it were, or suggest some initial framework, which the patient then explores, develops or amplifies.

The use of breathing techniques, as means to develop special states of consciousness, is well-documented in the yoga traditions, although its use in shamanism or alchemy is more uncertain. In Patanjali's classic exposition of the ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga, breath control (pranayama) is the fourth step, coming after various behavioral and moral restrictions, and asanas, the physical postures of hatha yoga.10 Moreover, prana refers not only to the physical breath, but also to the breath-like subtle life-force, that is accumulated, preserved and distributed throughout the body by the use of special breathing techniques.

While breathing techniques have not, to my knowledge, been documented in shamanic traditions, nor in alchemy, the practice of certain kinds of chanting, such as the so-called "throat music" of the Inuit, and other very rapid, rhythmic chants, appears to involve a kind of accelerated, rhythmic hyperventilation, which probably induces an altered state. The circular or continuous breathing that is required to play the didjeridu of the Australian aborigines, or the long, curved horns of the Tibetans, may have a similar function.

In modern psychotherapy breathing methods have not been employed in any consistent sytematic manner, until fairly recent times. In Gestalt therapy, as well as in Reichian and bioenergetic types of bodywork, attention to deepening breathing beyond the restrictive patterns of the "armored" individual, plays an important role. The primal therapy of Arthur Janov, the rebirthing method of Leonard Orr, and the holotropic breathing therapy of Stanislav Grof, are examples of modern approaches, in which controlled hyperventilation is used to facilitate the emergence of very deeply repressed unconscious material.11

The use of sound as a trigger or catalyst of heightened states of consciousness is also wide-spread in all traditional cultures. We leave aside the important role of group chanting, with or without dancing, in various kinds of tribal rituals, which probably also induces collective alterations of consciousness. For the induction of shamanic states of consciousness, or inner journeys for healing or the acquisition of knowledge, it appears that the method of rhythmic drumming is the most prevalent technique, besides hallucinogenic plants. There is some evidence that this method involves "auditory driving", or entrainment, of cerebral electrical rhythms. Shamans who employ this method often refer to the drum as their "horse", or "vehicle": the beat seems to carry the awareness naturally and effortlessly through various inner landscapes. Other sound techniques in shamanism would include the already mentioned didjeridu, as well as various kinds of rattles, conches, and of course chanting or singing.

Whereas in alchemy methods of sound cannot with certainty be identified, partly because of the general secrecy and intentional concealment of the technical aspects of the alchemical art, in the Indian and Tibetan yoga traditions the use of mantra, or specific syllables and formulas that have definite psychic and spiritual power, is pervasive. Though there are some analogies to the role of prayer in the Western religious traditions, mantras are said to have definite effects on consciousness through their sound quality alone, quite apart from their meaning content. Particular mantras are said to activate or energize certain chakras, for instance. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there are practices of overtone chanting, which also have quite definite consciousness heightening effects, -- on the listener, as well as, presumably, on the performer. It has been suggested by some that the practice of Gregorian chants in the European medieval churches and monasteries, may also have had trance-like effects; but this has not as yet been proven.12

It cannot be said that sound or music plays any particularly important role in psychotherapy in the West. Certainly there are schools and teachers of music therapy, in which listening to selected pieces of symphonic music is used to "tune in" to and support various emotional states (with or without the use of psychedelic drugs); and some hypnotherapists or imagery therapists use music as accompaniment to their procedures. But the focussed use of selected sounds for the induction of altered states has not been explored to any great extent; with the exception of music for relaxation or un-stressing, which is often little more than a kind of New Age background music.

Turning now to the role of psychoactive and hallucinogenic plants in the traditional systems, their role in shamanic practices has been amply documented by Schultes and Hofmann, by Furst, Wasson, Dobkin de Rios, Harner, Weil, and others.13 The role of hallucinogens in traditional systems of transformation is discussed elsewhere in this volume in more detail (see ch. 5). Suffice it to say that hallucinogenic plants play an important role in shamanic traditions worldwide, and especially in Central and South America. In these cultures, the ingestion of hallucinogenic plant preparations in order to obtain knowledge, for healing, for prophecy, for communication with spirits, for anticipation of danger, or for understanding the universe, appears as one of the oldest and most highly treasured traditions. The use of hallucinogenic plants is integral to the animistic worldview of traditional cultures, in which humanity is in a relationships of co-consciousness, communication and cooperation with the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom and the elemental realms.

Our knowledge of the possible use of hallucinogens in alchemy is much more limited. However, the use of solanaceous (nightshade family) hallucinogens in European witchcraft, which is related to both shamanism and alchemy, has been documented by Harner.14 Likewise, in Chinese Taoist alchemy, the use of botanical and mineral preparations to induce spirit-flight and other kinds of altered states has been discussed by Strickman.15 The sparseness of the record on this subject may be due to the persecution and elimination of both alchemists and witches.

In the case of yoga, the classic theoretical statement on the role of hallucinogens is found in the fourth section of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Here, the author lists four causal factors that can lead to the development of siddhis, -- which are magical or psychic capacities: birth, herbs (ausadhi), sacred sounds (mantras), the discipline of inner fire (tapas), and meditative absorption (samadhi).16 In this work, which is not tantric, only the last of these four methods, meditation, is discussed any further.

The use of hallucinogens as an adjunct to tantric yoga practice is known to this day in India, among certain tantric Shaivite sects in particular.17 Those schools that do not use drugs tend to regard those that do as decadent, as belonging to the so-called "left-hand path" of Tantra, which also incorporates ritual food and sexuality (maithuna) as valid aspects of yogic practice. Under the influence of 19th century Western occult and theosophical ideas, this left-hand path tended to be equated to black magic or sorcery. In actuality, the designation left-hand path derives from the yogic principle that the left side of the body is the feminine, receptive side. Thus, the left-hand path is the path of those who worship the Goddess (Shakti), as the Tantrics do, and incorporate the body, the delight of the sense, nourishment and sexuality into their yoga. Thus, as in shamanism and in alchemy, we find in tantric yoga a strand of the tradition that involves respect and devotion to the feminine principle, the mother goddess, the earth and its fruit, the flesh and blood body, and the seeking of ecstatic visionary states.

It appears incontrovertible that hallucinogens played some role, of unknown extent, in the transformative traditions of shamanism, alchemy and yoga. If we regard psychotherapy as, in some respects, the modern descendant of these traditional systems, then a similar application of hallucinogens in psychotherapy might be expected. This has in fact already occurred, as the various studies of psychedelics as adjuncts to therapy in alcoholism, terminal cancer, obsessional neurosis, depression, and other conditions attest.18

Patterns and Metaphors of Transformation

In studying the various systems and techniques of consciousness transformation over the past twenty-five years, it has become apparent to me that while there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of specific methods, there are a limited number of core metaphors that have been used to describe these experiences of transformation. To give an example, is the ideaof "awakening": that our ordinary consciousness is a kind of dream-sleep state, and that a more awakened consciousness, an enhanced objective awareness, is possible. In Opening to Inner Light I describe ten of these basic metaphors of transformation, found in shamanic art and ritual, alchemical symbolism, yogic texts and the writings of mystics, in myth, legend and fairy tale, and in the reports of modern individuals undergoing psychotherapy, or having significant dreams and visionary experiences.19 Metaphors, symbols and analogies are evidently indispensable for the description of transformative experiences and of non-ordinary states of consciousness.20

The metaphor of the journey is widely used in shamanism in at least two senses. The non-ordinary, shamanic state of consciousness, induced by drumming or hallucinogens, is an experience in which the practicioner's awareness "leaves" the ordinary reality of time, space and body for a limited period of time, exploring the "otherworld" to obtain healing or knowledge, and then returning to ordinary, body-based consciousness. This parallels the metaphor of the "trip", that was spontaneously created by users of psychedelic drugs in the sixties. Another metaphorical meaning of "journey" relates to a longer-lasting, ongoing process of personality transformation, in which concepts of self and world-view may undergo a profound change as a result of guided practice, or sadhana. This kind of journey of self-transformation, which also involves a departure from the conventional world of home, family and culture, parallels the mythic hero's journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, in his Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Shamanic journeys, or altered states of consciousness, may be one of three types: lower world, middle world, or upper world. Travelling downward, horizontally, or upward in space are the chosen metaphors for these kinds of altered states: no actual physical travel is of course involved (the physical body is usually lying on the ground). They are appropriately chosen metaphors, because they aptly characterize the phenomenology of these states. In lower world journey one feels and perceives oneself to be falling, sliding, or crawling down, into or under the earth. In upper world journeys one feels and perceives oneself rising up, flying or floating through the air or sky, or climbing a mountain, or climbing the world tree. In middle world journeys one is travelling horizontally, through an interior landscape that may be in many ways very different from exterior reality, but is somehow perceived as being on the same level. This metaphor of journey or travel is found equally in the traditional lore of shamanic cultures, and in the reports of modern individuals practising shamanic methods.

From the point of view of a psychology of consciousness that espouses a multi-dimensional model of the human constitution, such as is found in esoteric and theosophical teachings, as well as in Vedanta, one would say that a lower world journey is a movement of awareness to a level "below" the normal waking consciousness (hence referred to as sub-conscious ). A higher world journey, on the other hand, involves movement to a "superior" level than the normal waking level. Esoteric teachings describe these levels as differing in vibratory rate, or frequency rate, as the notes of a musical scale. The lower levels or worlds are lower or slower in frequency rate, denser, more involved in matter, and the physical body. The higher levels or worlds are higher or faster in frequency rate, subtler or less dense, more like the traditional "heavens", or etheric and astral planes.

The theme of ascent to higher levels of consciousness is of course central to the raja and tantra yoga traditions, where it is sometimes symbolized by the ascent of the kundalini energy up the physical body axis. In Vedanta and Yoga traditions the meditator is described as ascending through the levels or "sheaths" of successively finer substance. Relatively rarer do we find, in the Asian meditation teachings, processes of downward movement described. This is one of the major differences of yoga from both the shamanic and alchemical work: in yoga there is more emphasis on transcendence, on rising up into higher states of absorption, or dhyana, that are progressively more devoid of form and content, to the pure formless states of samadhi or nirvana. Only in the tantric tradition, and the related alchemical way of rasayana, do we find much concern with the transmutation of physical substance and form per se, the downward involvement into matter for the purpose of refining it.

The upper world journey is one of a class of metaphors of ascent: this can include, besides flying or floating through the air (such as can also occur in flying dreams), also riding on a giant bird (eagle or wild goose), or a "magic carpet", or climbing a mountain, or a pillar, or a tree. This connects with the very wide-spread tree of life symbolism, found in shamanic cultures throughout the globe. The shaman typically reports that he has climbed the tree, and obtained information for diagnosis or healing, perhaps by a certain leaf from the top of the tree. The tree is described as being at the center of the world, and sacred. The different branches on the tree represent stages in the ascent, and subsequent descent: they are symbolically analogous to the planes or levels of consciousness in esoteric and occult lore. The trunk or axis of the tree is the axis through which we can ascend to the higher dimensions: it is therefore an interdimensional axis. And the individual axis and world axis are aligned, so that climbing one means climbing the other. Hence the prevalence of the axis mundi image in connection with the tree of life.

The tree of life symbolism is also prevalent in the hermetic tradition, where it is associated with regeneration. There are images of Hermes standing beneath the tree in two forms: as old man and as youth. An alchemical text advises that the old man should eat of the fruit of that tree, until he becomes a youth. "For the alchemists, the tree of knowledge has little to do with the making of judgements--separating good from bad; it is more a symbol for inner 'seing', for insight into the inner structure of things, for seeing how everything hangs together. To them...the tree symbol is a vast reservoir of imagery and psychic energy. The 'tree of the philosophers' is, to the alchemist, the axis of the transformational work, the unfolding opus. Significantly, the Old English root word for 'tree' and 'truth' is the same: it is treow".21

The shamanic metaphor of climbing the tree also appears in the Indian yoga traditions, especially Tantra, in the notion of the central axis, called merudanda, staff of Meru, which is also the sushumna axis on which the chakras are aligned. The bottom chakra is called the "root chakra" (muladhara); and the awareness of energy moving up this axis of transformation is symbolized by the ascent of the coiled kundalini serpent.

Another very widespread theme in shamanic training and apprenticeship is dismemberment or shamanic sickness. Shamans in training often expect to become sick or wounded as part of their initiation, or voluntarily submit to the experience of feeling oneself being dismembered, cut open, broken into small pieces, -- and then reconstituted, often by the animal ally or other spirit guide. Psychologically, one could say that this is a metaphor for the psychic fragmentation that any one may experience to a greater or lesser degree at various phases of life. The psychotic, with this shattered language and fragmented thinking, is perhaps an extreme (and involuntary) form of this kind of experience. In contrast, the shamanic initiate who intentionally undergoes a dismemberment experience as part of his training, "feels he is being delivered from the limitations of the ordinary world and empowered to perform visionary, healing, and protective work for himself and the members of the tribe."22

Dismemberment imagery occurs in the yoga traditions also, where the ability to separate the body into different pieces and reassembling them at will, is recognized as one of the siddhis of an advanced yogi. There are eye-witness accounts of the 19th century Indian saint Sai Baba of Shirdi performing such practices, visibly to others. Likewise, in the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist teachings, admittedly strongly influenced by the indigenous Bon shamanism, there is the gruesome chod, or "cutting off" rite, in which the yogi invokes a demon to devour and transmute his body, with all its negative past karmic patterns. The mythologies of Osiris and of Dionysus also feature stories of the god's dismemberment and reconstitution.

In alchemy, the operation or process that most nearly corresponds to dismemberment is separatio. This is discriminative perception and attention, which carefully distinguishes, analyzes, the different aspects, or elements of consciousness. It is akin in some ways to the discriminative wisdom of meditation, and the "taking apart" process of psychoanalysis. Separatio was seen as the necessary prerequisite to healing, and new growth. Transformation then consists in first recognizing the degree of fragmentation that exists, which is done by the methods of interior visualization, -- and then integrating and harmonizing these separated fragments and pieces. Discriminative separation precedes and prepares for integration and wholeness, as death precedes and prepares for rebirth.

Central and essential to all traditions of transformation is the notion of opposites or dualities and their reconciliation. There are at least three major pairs of opposites, whose mutual balancing and integrating is important in shamanism, and alchemy and yoga as well: the balance of male and female; the reconciliation of good and evil; and the integration of human and animal consciousness. In each case, the task is to recognize the duality that exists within us and then to find ways to transform the opposites from a state of divisiveness and antagonism to a state of complementarity, or peaceful co-existence.

The ubiquity of the androgyny motif is well-known: the central belief here is that all human beings are, in essence, of dual nature, though one side or the other may be unevenly developed. Shamans, alchemists and yogis, as well as the mystics of almost all religious traditions have concerned themselves with the project of integrating these polarities. In shamanic cultures the mythology of Father Sky and Mother Earth is the cosmic dualism on which this integrative project is based. Shamans in some cultures may practice a ritual transvestism, or even live for long periods of time completely as the other sex does, in order to bring about a better balance of the masculine and feminine energies. In alchemy, Sun and Moon, King and Queen, are the symbolic representatives of the male and female energies. The "alchemical marriage" between fire and water, is the union from which arises the new "philosophers' child". In yoga practice, we also have the notion of solar and lunar currents of energy flow, the ida and pingala, which must be balanced for the yogi to attain liberation. And in Jungian psychotherapy, the process of individuation calls for integration with one's interior sexual opposite, the anima or animus.

Another very important duality is that of good vs. evil. In Jungian terms this is the notion of integrating the shadow, our unacceptable, destructive tendencies. There is an inner adversary (in Christian terms, the devil), that we have to know and recognize, if we are to cease projecting this split-off enemy image on to other people. "Them" as the enemy, who gets blamed for everything that goes wrong in our life, is possibly the most pathetic and the most dangerous of all our delusions. Shamanic warrior training and practice, whether against sorcery spells, or against evil spirits that are attacking the shaman or his/her client, become most relevant here. In alchemical literature the dark, destructive aspects of the psyche are symbolized by the nigredo (blackness), that has to be transmuted and uplifted through the alchemical fires of purification; and also by various monsters and predatory creatures that vampirize and cannibalize the pure life essence. In the yoga traditions, negative psychic complexes are described as samskaras, the karmic binding patterns resulting from past actions, that keep us trapped in the same old negative attitudes. These samskaras are dissolved and reduced through the practice of meditation.23

The third of the dual pairs mentioned above is most important in shamanism, i.e. the cultivation of balance and right relationship between human and animal consciousness. Shamanic cultures speak of the soul, or spirit, of each species -- Bear, Wolf, Eagle, etc., -- who represents and protects the individual members of that species; and with whom the shaman can communicate on his/her altered state journeys. People used to know the language of animals, and vice versa, according to ancient animistic and shamanic belief systems. Through the practice of finding and working with a "power animal", or animal ally or guide, shamans re-establish, in the inner realms, the kind of communication and alliance that existed in earlier times... and that can be most relevant and helpful to humans in an age when so many feel dis-spirited and cut off from their vital instincts.

Animal spirits and symbolic visions play a very important role in alchemy also: the green lion that devours the sun, the black crow emerging out of the earth, the pelican nursing its young, the wolf (wild animal energy) and the dog (tamed animal energy) fighting for dominance, ... are only some of the alchemical metaphors found amply illustrated and discussed in alchemical texts. Sometimes the animal images clearly symbolize the predatory, aggressive, destructive aspects of all nature, including human nature. At other times, we have animal images that portray possibilities of transformation for the human, -- as when the serpent, or the lion, are shown with a crown: the instinctual feelings and instincts have been raised up and dignified into a creative, non-destructive exression. In a psychology doctoral dissertation, Jose Stevens showed that individuals who regularly worked with animal imagery in their meditations and dreams, scored higher on tests of self-actualization.24

In the yoga traditions animal spirits and animal consciousness play some role, though much less than in shamanism or alchemy. There are symbolic animals associated with each of the chakras, like the elephant with the foundational root chakra. And there are animal figures and composites found as "wrathful deities", or threshold guardians, in the intermediate bardo realms of Tibetan Buddhism. These figures appear to function primarily as symbolic meditation images, and are not treated as real inner animals as in shamanism. Nevertheless, such images play an important role in transformative processes, as has been demonstrated in some interesting research by the psychotherapist Eligio Gallegos.25In this work, significant improvement was observed in psychotherapy as a result of using guided meditations with animal images in each of the chakras. The yogic practicioner is learning, through such symbolic visualizations, to incorporate within him/herself the strengths and qualities of that animal.

In all three of these ancient teachings of transformation, and in their modern derivative practices of psychotherapy to a limited extent, we find a recognition of the value of integrating animal consciousness. Shamanism in particular, holds out to humanity the ancient wisdom and strength that comes from a mutually supportive symbiosis between the animal and human kingdoms of life.

The transmutation of opposites, from antagonism to complementarity, is a common theme in these traditions of transformation. This is a kind of core metaphor, that, along with the other metaphors discussed, exemplifies a deep cognitive pattern that reflects the structure of the transformative experience. Such core metaphors can provide a conceptual framework, or guidepost, to individuals in contemporary society who may be undergoing such transformative crises, and who are looking to the ancient Earth Wisdom teachings for insight into the dilemmas and challenges of homo sapiens in our time.

Notes and References

1. This essay was first published as a chapter in the book Shamanism - An Expanded View of Reality. ed. Nicholson, Shirley. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing Co. 1987.

2. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen Series LXXVI. Princeton University Press, 1972; Halifax, Joan. Shaman - The Wounded Healer. New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1982.

3. Eliade, Mircea. The Forge and the Crucible. Harper & Row, 1962.

4. Eliade, Mircea. Yoga - Immortality and Freedom. Princeton University Press, 1969;
Metzner, Ralph. Maps of Consciousness. Collier/Macmillan, 1971.

5. Walsh, Roger & Vaughan, Frances (eds.). Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology. J.P.Tarcher, 1980; Boorstein, Seymour, ed. Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Palo Alto: Science & Behavior Books, 1981.

6. Achterberg, Jeanne. Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1985; Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. E.P. Dutton, 1979.

7. Edinger, Edward. Anatomy of the Psyche. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing, 1985. p. 2.

8. Metzner, Ralph. op. cit.., pp. 83 ff.

9. Evans-Wentz, W.Y. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. Oxford University Press, 1928; Garfield, Patricia. Creative Dreaming. New York: Ballentine, 1974; LaBerge, Stephen. Lucid Dreaming. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1985.

10. Taimni, I.K. The Science of Yoga - Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House (Quest Books), 1975.

11. Grof, Stanislav. Beyond the Brain. Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1986.

12. Hamel, Peter Michael. Through Music to the Self. Boulder, Co.: Shambhala, 1979.

13. Schultes, R.E. & Hofmann, A. Plants of the Gods. Origins of Hallucinogenic Use. McGraw-Hill, 1979; Furst, Peter T. Hallucinogens and Culture. San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp, 1976; Wasson, R. Gordon. The Wondrous Mushroom. Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. McGraw-Hill, 1980; Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984;

14. Harner, Michael. "The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft," in Harner, M. (ed.) Harner, Michael (ed.) Hallucinogens and Shamanism. Oxford University Press, 1973.

15. Strickmann, Michel. "On the Alchemy of T'ao Hung-ching." in Welch, Holmes & Seidel, Anna (eds.) Facets of Taoism. Yale University Press, 1979; see also my Maps of Consciousness, where, in the chapter on alchemy, some possible alchemical psychedelics are mentioned.

16. Taimni, I.K. (Patanjali), op. cit. p. 377.

17. Aldrich, Michael. "Tantric Cannabis Use in India". Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. Vol.9 (No.3) Jul.-Sept. 1977; see also the chapter on Tantra in my Maps of Consciousness.

18. Grof, Stanislav. op. cit.; also Grinspoon, Lester & Bakalar, James. Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered. Basic Books, 1979.

19. Metzner, Ralph. Opening to Inner Light. The Transformation of Human Nature and Consciousness. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1986.

20. Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980; Smith, M. Brewster. "The Metaphorical Basis of Selfhood". in Marsell, A., Devos, G. & Hsu, F.L.K. (eds) Culture and Self. Asian and Western Perspectives. New York : Tavistock Publications, 1985; Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. A Necessary Unity. E.P. Dutton, 1979.

21. Metzner, Ralph. Opening to Inner Light. op. cit., p. 179.

22. ibid. p. 96.

23. Metzner, Ralph. Opening to Inner Light. chapter 4, "Purification by Inner Fire." pp. 59-74.; also, Metzner, Ralph. "On Getting to Know One's Inner Enemy". Revision
Vol. 8, No. 1, Summer/Fall 1985.

24. Stevens, Jose. "Power Animals, Animal Imagery and Self Actualization." Ph.D. Dissertation, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, 1981. For a brilliant discussion of animal and other imagery in alchemy, see Edinger, Edward. Anatomy of the Psyche.

25. Gallegos, Eligio S. "Animal Imagery, the Chakra System and Psychotherapy." Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Vol. 15, No. 2, 1983.

 

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