The Wounded Healer and the Imaginal

For thousands of years, the journey of the wounded healer has been the primary path to becoming a shaman, a person skilled at mediating connections between ordinary reality and the spiritual world. The journey begins with a life-threatening or overwhelming experience powerful enough to shatter the psyche. The resulting persecutory dreams, hallucinations, and dissociative states — what western psychology views as evidence of psychopathology — signify contact with the spiritual world and the beginning of an initiatory journey. 

The wounds that precipitate the journey are understood to be the result of dismemberment by spirits, regardless of the ‘real world’ events that caused them. This attention to fragmentation is similar to structural dissociation’s focus on split-off parts of the personality that emerge in response to trauma. Yet the journey of the wounded healer is not only concerned with attending to the experience of psychic fragmentation. The wounding is also associated with soul loss, and the journey of the wounded healer is inseparable from the quest to regain one’s soul.

The sources of soul loss include taboo violations and other types of power wounds that leave victims weakened by the encounter. In the shamanic worldview, C. Michael Smith observed, “evil may cause a diminution of life force, or may destroy it all together by draining away or destroying its potency.”⁠1 Ironically, the severity of the wounding predicts a shaman’s strength: the greater the suffering, the more powerful the shaman. According to Joan Halifax, “The Yakut old people say of the shaman’s power to heal: ‘He is able only to help with those ailments whose source or evil spirit has been given its proper share of shaman-flesh.’ Great shamans suffer dismemberment three times; little shamans only once.”⁠2  

Psychologists with an interest in shamanism associate soul loss with dissociation. Sandra Ingerman, who is both psychotherapist and shaman, sees soul loss (and dissociation) occurring in mental disorders and physical diseases. Many see soul loss as endemic to modern Western society. According to Smith, “Many neoshamans and modern urban shamans report that soul loss is widespread amongst modern men and women, living in industrialized society, and much of it is attributed to trauma (e.g., sexual abuse, rape, auto accidents, surgery, war, etc.).”⁠3 In the case of dissociative disorders, Ingerman believes a shamanic ritual is necessary for regaining the lost soul(s) (shamans typically believe souls are multiple), while psychotherapy is useful for the more pragmatic aspects of integration.⁠4

Through the wounded healers’ confrontation with the spirit world — what Jung interpreted as the collective unconscious — rather than remaining lost in inner worlds of imagery (much of it persecutory), these neophyte shamans discover how to regain wholeness as they journey to recover their lost souls. Although wounded healers take much of this journey on their own, they often have mentors, such as elder shamans who teach the myths and methods necessary for a successful journey (much like an experienced psychotherapist who has healed her own wounds).

Shamans also find guides in the spirit world, typically an animal spirit that increases their power and protects them from harmful spirits. Ultimately, however, the wounded healer on her own confronts the overwhelming imaginal contents of psyche (or spirit world) as she takes the journey from dismemberment to rebirth.

When the journey is successful, the outcome is ecstatic joy, deep compassion, and the wisdom necessary for healing others and the community. Halifax observed the shaman is “an example of one who has the ability to transform self, others, and nature. By dying in life, the shaman passes through the gates of fire to the realm of eternally awakened consciousness. Having tasted immortality, the laughter of compassion wells up from the human heart.”⁠5 I believe this is also a good description of a successful recovery from sexual abuse. 

Shamans and survivors of sexual abuse have a lot in common. They are both intimately familiar with dissociation, and rely on the imaginal to make sense of their suffering, especially after years silently holding the wounding within. Like shamans, we also have experiences with spirit animals, but are often unaware of their role in empowering us on the journey to recover our lost souls. 

When I was in the thick of my recovery, I dreamt of animals speaking to me. At the time, I thought this was odd, although comforting. One time, walking a couple of miles home from an EMDR session (I didn’t feel mentally focused enough to drive), I was overrun with images of a wild stallion breaking free of restraints. Months later, that determined horse morphed into an inky black puma walking confidently and quietly in the forests of Belize. I don’t recall sharing these images with my therapist, although I did with people close to me. We assumed this was how my psyche was dealing with my profound aloneness as I recalled some of the most painful and frightening aspects of my life. Even when surrounded by people who loved me, I ultimately had to confront my inner demons on my own. Certain images, such as the serene strength of the puma, calmed and empowered me. 

Since becoming a therapist, including training in depth psychology, I discovered such dreams and imagery are common when people begin their search for parts of themselves lost to trauma. Psychiatrist Erik Goodwyn, in his study of connections between modern neuroscience and Jung’s analytical psychology, discovered “children represent themselves as animals in dreams up to the age of eight.”⁠6 Like any effort to reclaim lost parts of oneself, shamanism involves a regressive turn towards the most elemental aspects of personhood, which in our psychological worldview is typically associated with the innocence of childhood, or the inner child. When we have a felt-sense of this core, and often a pure sense of ourselves, we commonly feel reborn. The journey of the wounded healer also leads to a heightened awareness of the connection with all life, which perhaps is why animal spirits are common to the journey. They reconnect us with our elemental nature as part of unus mundus, the one world. 

Shamans differ from modern, western survivors of sexual abuse in their relationship with the imaginal and their communities’ reactions to both wounding and recovery. Last week I examined how Hierarchy’s dependency on scapegoats inhibits the archetypal drive to take the journey of the wounded healer. Resuscitating this journey involves learning how to work meaningfully with the imaginal, if not also identifying soul loss as a core injury of sexual abuse.

In their efforts to heal both themselves and others, shamans become experts at manipulating dissociation and related states like trance and possession. Hallucinations and dreams contribute to their understanding of the causes of disease and despair and the best approach to recovery. In contrast, western psychology has a history of ignoring the utility of the imaginal for recovery from trauma. Few of us learn how to use dissociative states to benefit ourselves or others. Smith remarked, “The shaman deliberately induces altered (dissociative) states in order to converse with helping spirits, make diagnosis, procure treatment…. For the [dissociative] patient, the self-hypnotic strategies [dissociative defenses] operate largely non-consciously, outside the executive control of the ego. They are more the response to stimuli that activate them.”⁠7  In fact, few of us even know of the journey of the wounded healer, or its relevance to recovery from trauma. 

Although shamanism is more a method for healing than a religion — and is found all over the world and has existed for tens of thousands of years — it has been treated much like an antiquity collecting dust in a curio shop: perhaps intriguing, but of little value in the modern world. Yet at this time in human history, when we grapple with our individual wounds and the lack of safe and supportive communities in which to heal, shamanic wisdom may be vital for recovery as well as creating healing communities.

Western psychology has largely been constructed on the denial of the significance of the imaginal for mental wellness. The contents of the unconscious — and by proxy, the imaginal — have been treated as intrusive upon rationality and cognition, if not evidence of a person’s inability to engage with reality. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by hallucinations and states of psychosis, and they need help creating boundaries and inner discipline to avoid feeling overwhelmed, disoriented, and alienated. This is true of the neophyte shaman as well. Yet the overall rejection of the significance of the imaginal for wellness thwarts not only efforts to recover from sexual abuse, but also inhibits feeling fully alive and witnessing the wonderment of the human psyche. 

Jungian analyst James Hillman contended, “[t]he modern vision of ourselves and the world has stultified our imaginations.”⁠8 By dismissing the significance of the imaginal, he argues psychology has created a “unified front against the soul.”⁠9 So far, the history of modern psychology can be written as a chronicle of efforts to diminish all aspects of personhood that cannot be quantified, including the imaginal. What cannot be measured has been ignored and devalued. And yet, more than any other experience of my life, recovery from sexual abuse has been difficult to articulate, let alone quantify. Perhaps this is because so much of what relieves suffering from trauma involves right brain aspects of ourselves — feeling embodied and empathically connected, as well as finding images and metaphors that meaningfully express and transform suffering.

Fortunately, neuroscience is rediscovering the primacy of imagery, even for cognition. According to Goodwyn, “… conscious reasoning is based largely on mental imagery as shown in subjects to whom are proposed logic problems while being imaged with fMRI…. and imagery is used spontaneously to understand and categorize verbal material, understand abstract concepts, or learn new skills….”⁠10 At our core, we are imaginal, if not also spiritual beings. 

Shamanism’s emphasis on reintegration and rebalance responds to our basic human need to live simultaneously in two worlds, the real and the imaginal, continually integrating consciousness and unconsciousness and ‘rebalancing’ them.⁠11 Jung was one of the first to articulate the importance of increasing the integrative capacity between consciousness and unconsciousness. More recently, Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele’s model of structural dissociation emphasizes the significance of integration for recovery from trauma. Yet Jung in particular saw the centrality of the imaginal for integration. Jung is also thought of as a modern-day shaman and thus a good model for resuscitating the journey of the wounded healer in our times. 

Over the next several weeks, I’ll discuss Jung’s creative illness and the methods he used to support his recovery, such as active imagination, paying attention to dreams, and identifying deeper human meanings in myths and fairy tales. Many of us spontaneously discover these ‘tools’ for recovery on our own. Yet I believe few of us fully recover from the power wound of scapegoating without using the imaginal to connect us to our lost souls. 

Questions to ponder: Other than nightmares, have you had dreams or premonitions that you associate with your recovery? Do you have a spirit animal(s)? If not, what type of animal(s) would you choose as a guide for your recovery? What qualities does your spirit animal(s) have that you embody or want to embody?

See you next week,

Laura

References

1 Smith, C. Michael. (2007). Jung and Shamanism: In Dialogue. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 44.

2 Halifax, Joan. (1982). Shaman: The Wounded Healer. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, p. 20.

3 Smith, 161.

4 Ibid., 186

5 Halifax, 92.

6 Goodwyn, Erik D. (2012). The Neurobiology of the Gods: How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams. New York: Routledge, 66.

7 Smith, 180.

8 Hillman, James. (1975). Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper Perennial, 3.

9 Ibid.

10 Goodwyn, 28.

11 See McGilchrist, Iain. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: CT: Yale University Press.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).