chapter  2
4 Pages

Jung on the mastery of altered states

Among the Inuit (1992), that a shaman’s accomplishments cannot be understood without addressing the issue of mastery. Merkur makes it clear that shamans distinguish themselves from the ecstatically gifted laity by the degree of control they exercise over their altered states. “Shamans neither passively enjoy nor passively suffer their trances. Rather they actively employ them, more or less consciously, to serve their own religious goals” (Merkur 1992: 157). While an apprentice, the shaman-to-be is guided in her altered states by the suggestions of a master shaman. The goal of the training is to help her gain a degree of voluntary control over what happens when she journeys through the greater cosmos. This kind of mastery is quite different from what our monophasic society is apt to appreciate. To the extent that a shaman is taken on cosmic journeys in which he seems to leave his body behind, his observing ego is a passive recipient of the ecstatic experience. But because he learns to go where he wishes in that larger cosmos and because he deliberately seeks out and obtains important information, he retains a signifi cant measure of initiative. Shamanism, therefore, requires a peculiar balance between deliberate choice and submission to an agency that is quite foreign to our ego. This ambiguous region is precisely the area that Jung’s work addresses, and it is why I believe I am being faithful to Jung’s intentions when I call it “mastery of altered states.” We have already encountered several of the techniques Jung recommends for gaining mastery. First and most obviously, he urges us to attend to the state of our consciousness and to take note of the subtle changes that indicate our unconscious is expressing itself. Dreams, especially, are to be recollected and recorded, for they represent visions of ourselves and of the world that are likely to clash with and befuddle our ordinary assumptions. These fi rst two techniques amount to catching our everyday consciousness in the act of changing. Normally, we Westerners preserve the monophasic illusion when we ignore these changes or dismiss them as absurd. Jung urges us to bring them into focus and learn from them, and that cannot be accomplished unless we discipline ourselves to relax our ego-centered vigilance while sharpening our attention. In active imagination, Jung’s most characteristic exercise for exploring nonordinary consciousness, we can distinguish at least three techniques: fi rst, to still the chattering mind that would belittle the images and thoughts that manifest in our altered states, second, to attend to the “original thinking” that manifests as a curious gift from elsewhere, and third, to get involved emotionally and morally in the visionary events that unfold within us. In dealing with potentially neurotic issues, Jung would have us recognize our complex reactions for what they are, stereotyped altered states that play themselves out under the cover of a powerful and habitual emotional bias that is inadequate to the situation at hand. He would have us observe the operation of the complex as the ego-alien automatism that it is, thereby providing some opportunity for the more rational cerebral cortex to get involved. By attending to dreams and subtle changes in our waking consciousness, by practicing active imagination, and by managing our complexes, we also train ourselves

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to utilize the “transcendent function” that makes psychological transformation possible. When we fi nd ourselves faced with irreconcilable opposites, powerful confl icting tendencies that must be taken seriously, it is important to know that these are autonomous inner forces that deserve respect but cannot be acted upon directly. In this situation, Jung urges us to “hold the tension” between the opposites and observe them as they grow stronger. The task is to allow ourselves to feel pulled this way and that, while resisting the temptation to end the confl ict with an arbitrary decision that would accomplish little more than to relieve the tension in the short run. In this way, we can induce the transformative/unitive state of consciousness that is characterized objectively by rhythmic harmony in the brain and subjectively by the emergence of a reconciling symbol in consciousness (CW8: ¶131-93).1