The Boy with No Arms: Encountering the Archetypal Pattern of the Shaman
 ~ by Dennis Pottenger

In a dream I hold a colored egg for my mother to see. She takes a picture of me holding the egg. A smile spreads across my face. It’s Easter. I’m five years old. In the dream I look at myself. I remember the butch haircut, the scent of cut grass. I hear the barking of a black dog. I feel electric. The image changes. I stand in our backyard at Easter. There is no basket, no colored egg. The glow on my face darkens. I’m horrified at what I see:

A boy with no arms.

The image scares me. But I’m also curious. What message, I wonder, is the unconscious trying to send me through the image of the boy with no arms? I turn to active imagination, Jung’s way of inviting the resources of the unconscious to help bring dissociated material back into relationship with the conscious ego. In active imagination, I find myself back in our yard at Easter. I linger, waiting for the image to change. It does. Now the boy with no arms also lacks a mouth. I want to ask the boy what he’s trying to tell me. In answer to the unspoken question, the boy looks at the empty spaces where his arms should be. I don’t understand what any of this means. I stay with the boy. All we can do is look at each other.

The images of mutilation and dismemberment, along with my hope of re-constitution, remind me of a book by John Merchant, a Jungian Analyst who examined the developmental foreground of the archetypal pattern of the Shaman. “It is highly likely,” Merchant wrote, “that the dismemberment/reintegration cycle seen in shamanic initiations is expressing the realization that something is wrong in the original construction of the person and that action needs to be taken to take things apart, correct them and put the person back together.”i

With the image of the boy with no arms in mind, I consider the possibility that the unconscious may be trying to effect a repair, or correction, to an injured, or wrongly constructed, aspect of my personality. I don’t like the images I’ve seen. They scare me. But another part of me seems determined to suffer my suffering consciously in order to grow beyond that suffering. Toward this outcome, I study the initiatory ordeals of Siberian shamans who, according to clinical psychologist C. Michael Smith,

claim to die and lie dead (inanimate) for three to seven days in their yurts (solitary spaces). During this period of death, demons or ancestral spirits come and cut them up into pieces. Their bones are stripped of their flesh and cleaned; their bodily fluids are thrown away and their eyes ripped out of their sockets.ii

 

According to a Yakut informant, Smith adds,

the spirits carry the future shaman’s soul to the Underworld and shut him in a house for three years. Here he undergoes initiation; the spirits cut off his head (which they set to one side, for the novice must watch his own dismemberment with his own eyes) and hack his body to bits, which are later distributed among the spirits of various sicknesses. It is only on this condition that the future shaman will obtain the power of healing. His bones are then covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is given new blood.iii

 

My reading suggests that, from a depth psychological point of view, the shamanic initiatory ordeal of being dismembered and reconstructed can be interpreted as a process of transformation intended to allow an individuant to move from a lesser to a greater consciousness by means of a descent into the unconscious. Feeling a mix of fear and wonder, I shudder: This is happening to me. Jung, however, hinted that there is a method to the madness: “The shaman’s experience of sickness, of torture, death, and regeneration implies, at a higher level, the idea of being made whole through sacrifice.”

Tracking my own experience, I meet a five-year-old boy whose mother brings him to therapy because he’s angry at home and defiant with his teacher and other kids at school. During the intake session with the mother, it’s clear that she loves her son. But love, the mother says, seems no match for the unknown cause of her son’s angry and distressing tirades. The mother’s sense of being overwhelmed and confused only seem to intensify early in my first session with the boy when he climbs up onto the back of my chair and kicks the wall. When his mother scolds him, the boy crumples to the floor, crawls under a desk, and curls his body into a fetal ball.

Later in the session, I ask my new client to draw a tree (intended to be an image, or symbol, of both the personal and archetypal fathers), a house (mother/ Mother), and himself in relation to the parental imagoes. The boy draws a tall tree with green leaves. He draws a two-story house with stairs that climb through the roof. The image he draws of himself makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand alert, as if to salute the god who has entered the room. In red crayon, I can see, the boy has rendered himself complete except for two details: he has no arms or mouth. I’m awed and terrified to see the image from my dream of a boy with no arms or mouth come alive in the drawing done by my young client. I look into the boy’s face and feel cut open by shame, rage, and terror. How in the world, I wonder in the moment, am I going to help this boy heal?

That night, with the haunting synchronicity between my young client’s drawing and the image of a boy with no arms from my dream in mind, I return to my research. “The analyst-in-training,” writes John Merchant,

must get back to their bedrock early infancy complexes which underpin their embodied countertransference porosities so that they can be sufficiently processed (that is, self-cured). The final aim of this experiential training is for the analyst not to be “possessed” by these complexes when they get activated but rather to establish a dialogue with them so that they can inform the analyst as to what is operating in their patient unconsciously.iv

 

Operating on the premise that I must first encounter and heal something in myself before I’m able to contact and metabolize what is injured in my client, in active imagination I attempt to learn more from the boy with no arms who appeared in my dream. On the screen of my mind I see the backyard where I found the Easter egg. The yard, I can see, is empty. Keeping in mind both my young client and my own shame, rage, and terror, I wait to see what, if anything, the unconscious will show me. In active imagination I stand in the yard for half an hour or more. No one comes to join me. Nothing moves. I’m about to leave when I hear music.

A loud guitar and an angry voice fill the yard. I know this song. “Bad Boy Boogie,” by AC/DC, was an anthem in my teenage years, a personal statement about what it felt like to be caught in an unending experience of my own worthlessness. Still in active imagination, I enter the song and, after the bonfire of rage burns down a bit, contact what feels like a traumatized part of my personality that for so long felt irreparably broken and helplessly impotent. Like Wakdjunkaga, the Winnebago trickster who, according to mythologist Paul Radin, “takes his phallus off and carries it around in a box,”v I realize that this aspect of my personality has carried the castrated remnants of my masculine nature around with me for three decades. I see, too, that, cut off from what Radin called “the masculine origin of life,”vi I have lived my life caught, as Jung once said, between “hammer and anvil.”vii   I have been, on the one hand, a shamed and powerless victim who denies his own value, and on the other hand a blatant braggart who chafes with a “defiant conviction of his unrecognized merits . . . [and always wears] the stricken air of one who is misunderstood and deprived of his rightful due.”vii

One line from the song stands out–the line, in fact, which has acted as a numinous image for me for more than three decades:

On the day I was born, the rain fell down.ix

What is the telos, the directional arc, or purpose, of rain falling, rain falling only on me, of the delicious yet also annihilating sense of feeling bad–being bad? What is the meaning of these words, of a dark sky and an angry rain falling on the day I was born? What, or who, I wonder, could be hidden in my heart, in a line from a song, for so many years? Thumbing through an old journal, I find a folded-up photocopy from a book by Thomas Cahill describing Irish warrior Cuchulainn before a battle. The archetypal rage of this half-god’s warrior frenzy personifies how I felt as a child of an alcoholic mother who hit and humiliated me:

The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of . . . His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear and his heels and calves switchevid to the front. The balled sinews of his calves switched to the front of his shins, each big knot the size of a warrior’s bunched fist . . . His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or the sound of a lion among bears. Malignant mists and spurts of fire . . . flickered red in the vaporous clouds that rose boiling above his head, so fierce was his fury.x

 

Feeling the fierceness of unexpressed rage–an emotion I had long used to defend against incapacitating powerlessness and sadness at the uncontained terror I had experienced in my family–I reach for a new journal, where I write the names of the gods, or psychic presences, I feel stirring within me:

Blackened Boy. Burned Boy. Bad Boy. Dead Butch Boy. The word Butch tears something open inside me. Butch was my grandfather’s nickname for me. For years I carried the old Polaroid taken of me in my family’s backyard at Easter. I puzzle over why all of this is coming out now, in the wake of my therapy session with a little boy who feels, as I have, without power or voice. I’m thumbing through my journal when a memory emerges from the place it has been hiding. The day before that Easter Sunday, a few weeks after I turned five, my grandfather had taken me to the Big Boy Barbershop to have my hair cut. My mother had warned him not to let the barber cut my hair too short. My grandfather said not to worry, then muttered that it was good for boys to have short hair. When I jumped up into the barber’s chair, an older man asked, “What’s it gonna be?” My grandfather said that it was good for boys to have short hair. He told the barber to give me a butch.

Immersed in my memory–or is it the myth I have made from memory?–I remember the look on my mother’s face when my grandfather and I got back from the barbershop. I could tell she was mad. I looked at my grandfather. He could see that I was afraid of my mother’s fury. I think he could also tell that I was afraid she was going to think it was my fault; that I’d asked for my hair to be cut short after she had specifically forbidden it. I’ve always remembered what my grandfather did next: He put his arm around my shoulders and told my mother that it was good for boys to have short hair. I smiled, remembering how big I felt to have my grandfather protect me from my mother’s anger.

I sit in the warmth of my memory, but the feeling fades. In its place arrives the memory of my grandfather’s death from a brain tumor and my act of cowardice and betrayal in not attending his funeral. Without my rage I feel unbearably vulnerable. In Jungian analysis I begin to care for the boy inside me who felt scared, weak, and broken by the violence in our home. Through this work I begin to feel calmer. I notice that I have more empathy and patience for myself and others. In my research I explore the influence of shamanism on analytical psychology. “Both shamans and analysts are wounded healers,” writes Jungian Analyst Donald Sander.

If they have a true vocation (and there are many counterfeiters), analysts as well as shamans must find their way through many painful emotional trials to find the basis for their calling. . . . Dreams, visions and fantasies made conscious have allowed them, at considerable cost, to penetrate the depths of their unconscious. The material produced in this process is sometimes so intense that it brings about a temporary loss of orientation that is experienced as death or dismemberment of the conscious ego. A sacrifice of childish self-aggrandizement and immature impulses must take place before deep healing can occur. To be able to bear expanded consciousness, a stronger and more resilient ego must arise from this sacrifice.xi

Now able to engage with my own experience of dismemberment and powerlessness in a new way, I turn my attention to how I’m going to help my young client get his arms and voice back. My clinical supervisor, Gary Henderson, tells me that children are not like adults, who work through their conflicts by talking. Children, he says, work through their conflicts by playing. I put Gary’s advice together with something I read in an article on Jungian sandplay. “Immersed in play,” Dora Kalff wrote, “the person succeeds in making an inner picture visible.”xii   I can’t talk with my five-year-old client, just as I can’t dialogue with the voiceless little boy who appeared in my dream. But I need, somehow, to create a container for my client to engage with his own unconscious inner experience. This, I know from my own imaginal explorations, is how mystery and meaning make and move soul.

At our next therapy session, I bring my agency’s sandbox into the room and pull off the wooden cover. I open several plastic containers filled with stones and superheroes, dragons and dump trucks. From one of the plastic tubs the boy picks a muscled red superhero. Holding the plastic figure around the waist, the boy tears off the right arm, next the left, then buries the figure face-down in the sand. He marks the burial site by building a mound of gold-colored stones. What is happening here, psychologically speaking? I notice, first, that my own sense of horror and rage, and of the uncontained terror and sadness that had lived unexpressed underneath these volatile emotions, is far less prominent than it was in my first session with the boy. As far as the boy in my therapy room is concerned, burying the superhero he’s dismembered suggests to me that he’s working out issues with a dangerous, split-off element of his personality–a part of himself he cannot talk about or tolerate consciously.

I work for six weeks with my five-year-old client. Besides sandplay, we make drawings and build a fort with pillows. Protection from large, unnameable forces emerges as the theme that runs throughout the boy’s play. The boy especially loves to sit and lay on me. I think he likes feeling held by someone whom he senses might be big enough to help him with the forces which have been frightening and overwhelming him. Toward the end of the six weeks, the boy’s mother tells me that his problematic behaviors have disappeared. Her son seems calmer and his behavior feels less compulsive than before our work together. Her son, she says, can concentrate in school for longer periods of time, and can ask for what he wants without hitting, kicking, or yelling.

What happened to the armless superhero the boy buried in the sand? I don’t know. The armless figure didn’t appear in the boy’s play in the sand again after that day. What does this mean? It could mean that whatever was so dangerous that it had to be buried, remains in the boy’s unconscious. I like to think the boy got the healing he needed–at least for now. In Practicing Wholeness, Jungian analyst Murray Stein described a shamanic type of therapeutic cure as involving the practitioner healing himself “and administering the medicine they manufacture in themselves to the analysand.”xiii

Working from this premise, it occurs to me that, because of the synchronistic similarity of the boy’s and my images of wounding, my work on my self-healing produced the medicine the boy needed to heal. As I joined with him in play, and as the boy stretched his body out against mine, it felt like he was able to feel in and through me a future for himself in which he could survive his dismemberment and grow arms strong enough to protect and care for a little boy. His experiences with me, then, mediated the presence of his own dismemberment, calming the armless inner child and making it possible for the boy to manage behaviors that had been symptomatic of its previously uncontainable presence.

With this understanding in mind, returning to the image in the boy’s second sandtray, perhaps the mound of golden stones the boy crowned his dismembered superhero’s tomb with is an image of the alchemical interplay between the wound and the spiritual gold we find in, and through, the healing of the wound. I also consider this image from the standpoint of the transference. Where did the boy’s relationship with me, his therapist, appear in the scene he made in the sand? At this point in the boy’s development, it seemed as if my ability to mediate his wounding through both our conscious and unconscious connection enabled his experience of dismemberment and powerlessness to be safely contained in the underworld of the unconscious. Through projection, in other words, perhaps the boy was seeing the undeveloped golden part of himself. The interplay between me, the boy, and our wounds produced the gold of increased ego-strength and his capacity to re-engage in school and at home in ways which ensured safety and the promise of success in his world.

Here at the end, I think what’s left to say about the boy with no arms is that something both beautiful and terrifying happens in the therapeutic re-encounter with our wounded selves. In psychotherapy, and in life, we smell the stench of our one-sidedness. We finger the torn edges of our own emotional pain. Through image, and in the attachment we experience in the therapeutic relationship with another person, and with others in our life, our pain is seen and valued, our shame and self-loathing softened. Through the numinous and sometimes synchronistic blend of human and divine, the renewing and transformative powers of archetypal patterns are constellated, complexed libido is freed, grotesque wounds become exquisite scars, and we bleed gold.

References

i J. Merchant, Shamans and Analysts: New Insights on the Wounded Healer (New York: Routledge, 2012, p. 153).

ii C. Michael Smith, Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, p. 26).

iii Ibid., p. 26.

iv J. Merchant, 2012, p. 164.

v P. Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Shocken, 1956, p. 132-33, 182).

vi Ibid., p. 183.

vii C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 9i: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948/1959, par. 522).

viii C. G. Jung, C.G., Collected Works, Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology   (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1928/1943.1966, par. 226).

ix A. Young, M. Young, M., & B. Scott, Bad Boy Boogie. Recorded by AC/DC. On Let There Be Rock: record. New York: Atlantic Records (1977).

x T. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic   Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1995, p. 83).

xi D. Sander, The Sacred Heritage: The Influence of Shamanism on Analytical Psychology (New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 6).

xii Dora Kalff trained as a Jungian Analyst with both C. G. and Emma Jung. Kalff developed sandplay at C. G. Jung’s encouragement in the early 1960s. The quote used here comes from a 1991article, Introduction to sandplay therapy, from the Journal of Sandplay Therapy, 1(1), 1-5. Retrieved September 3, 2009 from http://www.sandplay.org/intro_to_sandplay_therapy.htm

xiii M. Stein, Practicing Wholeness: Analytical Psychology and Jungian Thought (New York, Continuum, 1996, p. 142).
Dennis Pottenger is a Marriage Family Therapist Intern at The Place Within in Northern California. He earned his Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology with Emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He plans to train as a Jungian analyst.

 

3 comments

  1. Dennis,

    Thank you for writing and sharing such an insightful and moving piece. I read it a few days ago and it has stayed with me in the most heartwarming way. What a caring and qualified therapist you are! Best wishes as you begin your analyst training.

    Therese Brooks

  2. A very marvelous article. It quite clearly communicates the work in images that must occur to address the mouthless parts of the self. I admire your frankness and look forward to reading more from you. Be well.

  3. Thank you for your post Dennis. I just read your post and feel I can relate. As a former Jungian therapist and client in sandlplay therapy, you speak my language. One of my favorite healing stories is the Handless Maiden, but recently I was thinking, what if it wasn’t a maiden, but a male. So when you wrote about the boy with no arms, it resonated with me.

    I’ve been working with my animus lately, as projected in a TV show I’ve been watching, Friday Night Lights.

    Here is what I am currently going thru.
    I recently had a tree limb fall on my car, where I rent a home. I gave my landlord a bill for his home owners insurance, as the tree is diseased. A few hours later, he told me he was scared of me and gave me notice to move out. Which is illegal retaliation by the way. I’m well versed in the law.

    I was so upset and after intellectual reflection was getting me nowhere, remembered my Jungian Archetypes. I looked up the symbols of trees, I googled archetype+dismemberment and found your post.

    I loved it. As a new mom, who was Fired for Breastfeeding, and a newlywed, who was then gifted this new-to-me car, that I didn’t really want to replace mine, I realized my identity is certainly going through the shaman’s life cycle and with the tree limb falling, the dismemberment/reintegration phase.

    Today is St. Patrick’s Day. I am part Irish. I learned that the Celts have amazing symbols for the Ash Tree, and there are in fact two large ash trees (The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) in front of our house – both of which are dis-eased. Tree’s being the connecting of heaven, earth and the underworld, conscious and unconscious.

    The dog next door, who had been incredibly annoying and wakes us and our infant up, is named Odin. I also told the Landlord I had called Animal Control to find out what my rights were, regarding a complaint to the dog owner. “Odin is a god of war and death, but also the god of poetry and wisdom. He hung for nine days, pierced by his own spear, on the world tree. ”

    I have a history of having been a scapegoat, but have mostly healed that, after an emancipation from my family of origin for 8 years, and a reconciliation, after wounds were acknowledged and amends made. Still more healing to do on that.

    Last week, our Family Tree on my Father’s side was published. This family break and reintegration was documented.

    So much to think about, to feel about, will get out and play about. Big fan of sandplay.

    Feel free to respond if you like.

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