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Embracing the Fragmented Self

Shamanic Explorations of the Sacred in Schizophrenia

by Maureen B. Roberts, Ph.D.

The fragmented or dissociated Self does not automatically require or seek mending; or at least there may be a kairos space of time during which it may need, indeed can thrive upon fragmentation. In certain crisis situations the psyche, instead of putting all its eggs in one basket, to play safe and ultimately protect its integrity, may choose to invest fragments of libido into splinter personalities for safe-keeping until the crisis has abated. ( I have called this "Adaptive Dissociation" as a process which, unlike pathological MPD, does not interfere with the individual's ability to function normally in outer reality). Placing dissociation in its mythic context, it's worth bearing in mind, for instance, that Osiris and Dionysus were dismembered, that Psyche had to journey to the Underworld, that Prometheus had his liver repeatedly torn out by Zeus's eagle, and that Medusa was beheaded. As well, in terms of the psyche's ultimate goal of attaining wholeness, centredness and integration, fragmentation is a blow to the hubris of the stable ego, which must relinquish its sense of a fixed identity and must eventually step aside in order to allow the paradoxical Self to displace it as the centre of consciousness.

As James Hillman (the founder of archetypal psychology) notes, there is a soul-world of difference between 'spiritual discipline' and therapy. As he puts it: 'Anyone who tends to dismiss pathology for growth, or anima confusions for ego strength and illumination, or who neglects the differentiation of multiplicity and variety for the sake of unity [as psychic integration] is engaged in spiritual discipline.' Therapy, on the other hand, concerns itself with 'soul', in the sense that it honours the need for pathology, allows for the subtle play of the labyrinthine, the illusional, the twists and turns of psychic life; and allows for soul polytheism as discord and cacophany, multiplicity, falling apart, exploration of peripheries and tangents, wandering and error as paths of discovering many ways of many gods.

What we call schizophrenic is, as Joseph Campbell has discussed, called (positively) visionary or mystical in shamanic cultures, hence is valued, not feared or sedated with chemicals. As he clarifies in the well-known TV series, The Power of Myth, "The shaman is the person, male or female, who . . . has an overwhelming psychological experience that turns him totally inward. It's a kind of schizophrenic crack-up. The whole unconscious opens up, and the shaman falls into it. This shaman experience has been described many, many times. It occurs all the way from Siberia right through the Americas down to Tierra del Fuego." (The Power of Myth, 1988, p.85)

Hence working with sufferers of schizophrenia from a shamanic angle can be helpful, especially if the therapist has experienced similar experiences to those of the schizophrenic, as, for example, Jung had; hence he had considerable success in this field of healing. Mainstream reductionist psychiatrists, on the other hand, by and large presume that if an experience (such as depression) is unpleasant, it must be stopped or band-aided, but because an experience is painful or difficult, it doesn't necessarily follow that's it's not valuable or therapeutically worthwhile as a 'wound which heals'. As Eliade has recounted in detail, shamanic initiation is often unpleasant, even at times horrific, and can involve being mythically stripped to the skeleton, dismemberment, or being taken to pieces. If the schizophrenic can work through these kinds of processes with an empathetic therapist, s/he may be able to find healing and some ego stability at the other end of the ordeal. I know of other schizophrenics who have courageously gone off of medication and helped each other through such processes, or (more rarely) who have worked through them alone.

As Stanislav Grof has discussed, shamanism involves fantastic inner journeys into the collective unconscious: "Those individuals who successfully integrate their inner journeys become familiar with the territories of the psyche. Such individuals are also capable of transmitting this knowledge to others and of guiding them along their path . . . The dramatic initiation experiences of shamans that involve powerful death-rebirth sequences are interpreted by Western psychiatrists and anthropologists as indicative of mental disease. Usually referred to as 'shamanic disease', they are discussed in relation to schizophrenia, hysteria, or epilepsy. "This reflects the typical bias of Western mechanistic science and is clearly a culture-bound value judgment, rather than an objective scientific opinion. Cultures that acknowledge and venerate shamans do not apply the title shaman to just any individual with bizarre behavior, as Western scholars would like to believe. They distinguish very clearly between shamans and individuals who are sick and insane. Genuine shamans have had powerful, unusual experiences and have managed to integrate them in a creative and productive way. They have to be able to handle everyday reality as well as, or even better than, their fellow tribesmen. In addition, they have experiential access to other levels and realms of reality and can facilitate nonordinary states of consciousness in others for healing and transformative purposes. They this show superior functioning and 'higher sanity,' rather than maladjustment and insanity. It is simply not true that every bizarre and incomprehensible behavior would pass for sacred among uneducated aboriginal people." [Stanislav Grof, Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy . Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985, pp. 29-30].

The psychotic by definition differs from the 'normal' person in that the psychotic's ego, or conscious personality, isoverwhelmed by the archetypal forces of the unconscious to the extent that s/he can no longer distinguish between inner and outer, and so can't function as a responsible citizen. Not all sufferers of schizophrenia are psychotic, but many experience similar difficulty in forming an effective barrier between their sense of personal identity (ego) and the invasive or disruptive forces of the multiple and archetypal unconscious; hence, as Jung makes clear, the importance of having a stable ego if one is to contend with visions and voices and still be able to function in the outer world.

Schizophrenia: The Shaman Sickness

The path is always lonely and demanding for those called to shamanism, and doubly so for those who must contend with Western culture's refusal to accept the overwhelming reality of the disturbing realms of vision and torment in which these potential shamans dwell. Along with having to endure the loss of ego stability, hence the frightening blurring of outer and inner realites, they are often forced to contend with psychiatric notions of normality, which demand that such "deviant" states be subdued with medication, or punished with incarceration in mental institutions.

The schizophrenic's reason and senses, like those of the shaman during initiation, are assaulted by concrete revelations of the heights and depths of the vast Otherworlds of the collective unconscious. Simultaneously, the schizophrenic is forced to slot into the sometimes petty humdrum and routine of daily existence. The invasion of the ego by archetypal forces transforms the individual profoundly and irreversibly; no-one who has endured such a crisis can confine the expanded horizons of their consciousness to the claustrophobically "safe" and tame boundaries of cultural norms. Yet instead of encouraging and bolstering the development of such transcendental levels of awareness, mainstream psychiatry seeks - out of fear of the unknown, the unconscious, the numinous, the irrational and the abnormal - to stifle it under the euphemistic and patronising guise of "treatment".

The schizophrenic, being intensely introverted is automatically poorly adapted in a society which narrowly defines personal identity in terms of appearance, behaviour and social status. S/he lives in a discontinuous reality which can become a terrifying bombardment of overlapping realities, voices and chaotic perceptions. Everything takes on mythical overtones. The players in the archetypal dramas are often gods who are potentially both benevolent and destructive. Mainstream psychiatry deals with this overload by numbing the mind and trying to force the individual to readjust to cultural norms. At the same time, the "patient" is robbed of a unique mode of learning that many schizophrenics sense to be immensely valuable and worth pursuing. And unfortunately the law is in the psychiatrists' hands to take away what others treasure as an experience akin to initiation.

Working with the Fragmented Self

If, as Joseph Campbell has noted, the schizophrenic is overwhelmed and debilitated by experiences on which the mystic thrives, the shaman treads, or rather hops along a multidirectional path between centred focus and woundedness, fragmentation and soul pathology. In shamanic ecstatic trance, the ego is not submerged but rather deliberately and temporarily put aside, destabilised or disempowered for the purpose of trance-journeying. The schizophrenic's loss of ego, however, does not parallel the mature and responsible shaman's subsequent healing vocation; it is rather akin to shamanic initiation, which can be quite traumatic or devastating, as the following personal accounts illustrate:

David, a sufferer of schizophrenia, recalls:

"I then felt some part of myself slip down through the crack in the pavement, down to the underworld, while another part of myself remained upon the pavement. I am currently trying to make further sense of this experience in relation to Ancient Egyptian belief, as, certainly during the early dynasties, they had a working knowledge of the Land of the Dead, much of which has been fortunately rediscovered, and is known to us as The Egyptian Book of the Dead."

From the perspective of Egyptian myth, it is the double or ka which goes on walkabout when a schism appears in the world of the schizophrenic. It can be extremely confusing when information is received from two entirely different places simultaneously. This is, though, in certain phases of development or pathology, a natural state of affairs. In shamanic practice, there are entities who take care of visitors to other realms, so it sometimes helps if the schizophrenic is assured that s/he is not alone. Often, just simply being aware that one is in two different places at once is sufficient to engender a little understanding of the process, thereby making it much easier to deal with. At times, I have made suggestions along the lines of, 'Well, your double is yours and yours only - see if you can call it back to you if you feel things are getting out of control.'

Another example: Sadie had graduated from university not long before succumbing to schizophrenia at the age of 24.

"I could say that it happened overnight, that I suddenly found myself in an intensely strange, terrifying yet beautiful place; but it would also be true that it had been coming to a head for some time. I'd had a strange sense that it was going to happen for many years, and had read fairly widely on the subject, but as it turned out, nothing really could have prepared me for it when it did finally come. I was more lost than I ever would have thought it possible to be."

Friends and family were disturbed by the change that came over her, and within two months she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

"The last thing I wanted was to go there. The way I felt at the time, I felt it would destroy me to go in there, but I was powerless to resist. I'd lost the ability to express myself - words held too much meaning. I would listen to something as banal as a football match commentary, and to me it would be the story of the last battle of the gods. Everything was so vast, so deeply mythological. I'd see the arcane history of the world in everything, every little detail would hold another clue, and I was trying to hold all this information together, launched upon a mythic quest that terrified and excited me in ways far more real, far more vivid, than my life ever had up to that point."

Sadie later added:

"Yet as a direct result of my experiences, I've been able to pull my friends out of psychoses which otherwise would have held them fast. "Shamans are able to make it through the confusion because there are older shamans who have been there themselves, and can help them. I have a few friends who are diagnosed with schizophrenia, and we all feel this way."

But if there are medications that will help the schizophrenic to function again, why don't they want to take them? Why are they so distrustful of the medical profession?

"To be honest, I don't think your average psychiatrist really has a clue," said Chris, a little guardedly. "My psychiatrist has never even read any Jung. It's impossible for me to respect that, and dangerous for me to allow him to administer drugs that affect my mind. It is, after all, my mind. My medication makes me very lethargic, but I'm bullied into taking it, and my appeals to reduce it, gradually, aren't considered. People are horrified at the thought of Medieval tooth-pullers, and I think as we learn more about the mind, in years to come people will feel much the same way about our psychiatrists. My doctor kept trying to make me believe that the things I was seeing and hearing and feeling were delusions, whatever he thought he meant by that. But what I was experiencing was real, in the truest sense of the word. The experiences of schizophrenics are incredibly similar to each other."

Sadie's thoughts ran along similar lines.

"The doctors are just on the look-out for symptoms that match what it says in their medication manuals . . . My medication made me sluggish. I wasn't myself. I was existing, but not living . . . . If I complained, or questioned the way I was being treated, my behaviour became, in the eyes of the doctors and nurses, symptomatic of the schizophrenia. There was no way I could win. I made a decision to gradually phase myself off the medication that had been forced on me, although I was very afraid to do so."

The only benefit that Sadie felt she had received from her medication was that it slowed her mind down and enabled her to block out the fear and paranoia that haunted her twenty-four hours a day. So what happened when she stopped taking it?

"Well, I started to feel so much more alive. I found new enthusiasm and creative ability. But then one night it happened again. I was back in the nightmare world. To try and describe it, it was as if I'd been alive hundreds of years ago, and the world felt very familiar in some ways, but there was a lot that had changed, that I had to learn to adapt to. It was very animistic - I felt as if a spirit pervaded everything, that I was sensitive to, to the degree that I would identify totally with whatever was in my mind, what I was looking at or thinking about, at the time. I was determined to evade incarceration this time, and moved up to Scotland to work in the forests. It was very difficult. I couldn't relate well to people - they seemed so chaotic, so cut off. I had been used to defining myself by the way I interacted with other people, so it was very hard for me to be a loner. But a change of scene, where no-one expected anything of me, was so refreshing, so strengthening. It's very difficult, living in these over-crowded islands, to truly be alone, but I do think that it is vital to be able to do this, in a positive way, to understand the changes that are happening, and to find a degree of perspective. "I began to look very closely, as objectively as I was able to, at the way my mind worked, almost as if it were a machine I was working on, and managed to kind of re-wire it to perform the tasks I needed it to do. I had stopped feeling like a victim, and regained a little control."

The method seems to be working for Sadie, who hasn't been readmitted to hospital since recovering from her first attack, and is currently studying full-time. She only wishes that the medical profession were brave enough to try different kinds of help for schizophrenics. She adds:

"I still see and hear things though. In fact, it is largely through characters I have met in my dreams that I have been able to work out how to help myself. In other words, by immersion in what I have been experiencing, rather than trying to block it out."

Indeed, many diagnosed schizophrenics will deny that their their condition even is an illness.

"It certainly feels more like an initiation of some kind," expands Chris. "For all the pain it has brought me, I wouldn't be without it, as it has made me so much more aware of a lot of things."

Drum healing is also helpful:

"I think it's the beat, the rhythm", adds Chris. It does wonderful things to your mind. Since I started dancing in this way, I haven't felt the need to take any kind of drug. I'd love to get a group of people together to visit schizophrenics and all sit round in a circle somewhere playing hand drums, bongos and whatever. Methods like this have been used for thousands of years to pull people out of psychoses. I think we need to try more ways of helping these people to get their lives back. I know it can work - I have my life back, better than ever. And it's all the more precious for having gone away."

Jung once remarked that his work would be continued "by those who suffer", and he was undoubtedly including in that phrase all who have the courage to confront - with the peculiar aloneness and risk that's unavoidable in such work - their inner depths, soul pathology, and shadows. From the perspective of effective therapy (bearing in mind that 'therapy' means 'serving the gods'), the bottom line is that schizophrenics as individuals have the right to choose what sort of treatment they wish to accept, but at present they're not being presented by mainstream psychiatry with the option of working through their experiences as an alternative to fearfully band-aiding the symptoms. Coming to terms with the illness takes a lot of guts - on the part of both patient and therapist - but the option exists and sufferers of schizophrenia are surely entitled to be informed that it does.

Extracted from work in progress:
From Soul-making to Soul Retrieval: Creative Bridges Between Shamanism and Psychotherapy by Maureen B. Roberts

Copyright Maureen B. Roberts 1997. All rights reserved.

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Web site editor: Donald Williams, LPC, Jungian analyst (Boulder, Colorado)
Associate editor: David Sedgwick, Ph.D., Jungian analyst (Charlottesville, Virginia)
Members, The Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts
Send web site e-mail to: dwilliam@boulder.earthnet.net or David Sedgwick
Page updated: 1 September 1997

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