Shamanic Initiation, Descent, and Learning through Direct Experience of the Sacred


A common and compelling component of both shamanism and Jungian or depth psychology is that each seeks to treat soul loss by retrieving and reintegrating vital essence that is missing. This must occur through direct experience; therefore, the underworld journey to retrieve the soul is one of necessity and initiation.

Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed symptoms of soul loss, such as disorientation, lack of focus, or feelings of powerlessness, exist because a portion of psychic energy that is normally available to the ego has vanished into the unconscious; becoming lost to the underworld. However, Jung realized when there is a depletion of libido, that life energy is not irrevocably gone; it continues to exist in the unconscious, awaiting the opportunity to resurface. The energy, equally powerful in the underworld as in our conscious life, continues to be busy as it manifests in images and symbols, the language of soul (Ryan, 2002).

The solution, Jung insisted, is for us to descend into the unconscious to engage with the missing libido through symbolic thought. This is what the shaman does when he or she journeys to other realms to garner insight, to do battle, or to retrieve a lost soul; and what the psychologist and patient do through dreamwork or active imagination in Jungian or soul-centered work. By engaging with the symbolic forms and entering into relationship with them in order to understand their significance in our daily life, vitality can be restored as the ego once again gains access to the energy it requires (Haule, 2009).

Shamanic initiation - archetypal pattern analysis - soul centered coaching
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Though they travel in what some label “invisible” realms, shamans are no strangers to direct experience. Mircea Eliade, who wrote Shamanism, the seminal book on the subject, describes a shaman as one who “has immediate concrete experiences with gods and spirits; he sees them face to face, he talks with them, prays to them, implores them” (Eliade, 1974, p. 88). In his excellent book, Shamanism and the Psychology of C.G. Jung, Robert E. Ryan (2002) insists that when a shaman, through ritual, vision, journeying, or dreams visits the realm of spirits, it is not figurative or metaphorical: he actually encounters the archetypal realm and the landscape therein.

Similarly, Jungians Margaret Laurel Allen and Meredith Sabini (1997), in their essay on the “World Tree,” maintain that it is imperative that every individual learn to dialogue directly with the spiritual dimension through journeying or active imagination rather than relying on an intermediary as most religions have done for centuries. Direct interaction with the spiritual dimension can heal dissociation and dismemberment by re-establishing the link between the ego and the Self.

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Overall, Jung believed, the most compelling and transformational direct experience is the descent. In Biblical myth, paradise was an undifferentiated unconsciousness. All differentiation and self-knowing came with the Fall which symbolized the beginning of consciousness when Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden and recognize their nakedness and the difference between heaven and hell. Similarly, a descent to the underworld, whether through shamanic initiation or through what Jung called a night sea journey, a dark night of the soul, gifts us with differentiation, growth, and ultimately, transformation (Ryan, 2002).

In shamanic initiation, symbolic dismemberment incurs direct experience of the sacred as ritual death and rebirth take place. The initiate is re-assembled and reborn as a new being: a shaman with power and potential. Shamanic initiation, Allen and Sabini (1997) agree, requires various and numerous stages of ascending and descending the World Tree, a central axis that provides access to the other realms—especially the upper and lower worlds—each time gaining greater consciousness of the unified reality of the transcendent dimension. In everyday life, we each must make a descent in order to gain experience, encounter deeper aspects of ourselves, and emerge again, transformed, in the process of initiation.

Jung believed the Self, the centering archetype, to be ego-transcendent, calling it the “God within us”. Because it has a preconceived blueprint for wholeness and knows what is best for the ego, it will nudge us toward the path of greatest growth. There is a telos, a destiny factor, associated with the Self, then, that allows it to guide and regulate individuation, the unfolding of the its strategy for wholeness (Kalsched, 1996). While we may not choose the descent to the underworld with our egoic mind, the Self may send us downward to our destiny because it is there where we will garner wholeness through direct experience of the challenges and conflicts life brings.

In spite of our current collective cultural crisis, Jung inferred that the loss of instinct, the loss of soul, which is the root of our pathology, can be restored through reconnection with the sacred aspects of the natural and imaginal worlds. Darkness is an aspect of nature. In our descent to reconnect with our roots in wild nature, the deep levels of the psyche, like bees that are lost from the hive, we may encounter destruction, violence, devouring forces, dismemberment, death, and decay.

We may battle dark forces, pit our strength against demons, gatekeepers, and those who seek to destroy instead of create. We may navigate unknown territory, dark waters, and close, tight spaces. We may even enter in that impenetrable dark night of the soul where all hope seems lost. But Jung urged us to look for the seed in the darkness that will come to fruition and light, stating, “a civilization does not decay, it regenerates” (as cited in Sabini, 2005, p. 183).

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I have studied the mass vanishing of honeybees for well over a decade. From a spiritual and symbolic perspective, we humans have much to learn from the bees. In the uncanny phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, where bees are inexplicably being lost from the hive, the hive may be seen as being “dismembered” through the loss of the bees. It behooves us to understand that dismemberment is the first act of initiation. What is broken into pieces can be re-membered and begun anew like the initiate who emerges as a powerful shaman.

It is possible, through the process of descent to reconnect with the sacred earth, to restore our souls to their rightful wholeness, both individually and as a culture.  By re-membering our roots in the sacred, by re-establishing right relations with nature and the imaginal, we renew our trust in the power of soul to help us find our way home.


Allen, M. L., & Sabini, M. (1997). Renewal of the world tree: Direct experience of the sacred as a fundamental source of healing in shamanism, psychology, and religion. In D. F. Sandner & Wong, S. H. (Ed.), The sacred heritage: The influence of shamanism on analytical psychology (pp. 215-225). New York, NY: Routledge.

Eliade, M. (1974). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Haule, J. R. (2011). Jung in the 21st century: Synchroncity and science (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kalsched, D. (1996). The inner world of trauma: Archetypal defenses of the personal spirit. London: Routledge.

Ryan, R. E. (2002). Shamanism and the psychology of C. G. Jung: The great circle. London, England: Vega.

Sabini, M. (Ed.). (2005). The earth has a soul: The nature writings of C. G. Jung. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.