The Nature of the Spirits

It’s been a while since I posted. We’ve been traveling. I was ill. My computer crashed. We’ve been asked to provide ceremony. Time passes quickly. The leaves are mostly down, and the Earth has settled into Autumn. Thanksgiving approaches with all of the ambivalence that holiday carries.

I’m glad to be back, having missed time spent writing and thinking, sorting through the complexity of things. I am returning to writing even as we turn our gaze towards our upcoming trip to India and Hong Kong. Much of my activity for the trip is still unplanned, although my work in Hong Kong seems set. There I am scheduled to be teaching Narrative Therapy ideas and practices to folks who work with individuals with disabilities. I’m excited!

This will be my first truly extended working trip; we believe we will be traveling for about six weeks in late winter. We will discover how well my aging Post-Polio body can hold up. We are also planning to spend a few days with friends in the Indian state of Kerala. I’m excited about that, too!

I’m hoping to integrate some sharing of shamanic practice  into my work on this trip, and to meet some local practitioners.  Last week I taught a workshop about working with the Spirits to a group of local practitioners. The group was lovely, and out time together deeply moving. In the course of the workshop I was reminded not to place human constraints on the spirits, and that they are everywhere and profoundly engaged with us and our lives.

One of the questions frequently asked when I teach is, “What/who are the spirits, and what do they want?” I would not pretend to know, yet believe the spirits will inform us if asked. A great many phenomena get lumped together under the term “spirits”. I am certainly guilty of this. Yet, maybe such lumping makes sense, and yes, not all spirits can be trusted.

I began my therapist life practicing a combination of Jungian and psychodynamic psychotherapy. In Jungian thought, the spirits are often perceived as autonomous complexes or archetypes. Complexes are constellations of experiences, emotions, and beliefs that form psychic structures that appear to have lives of their own. Complexes may be either individual or cultural. Some cling to families and extend their influence across generations, while others seem to shape the experience of ethnic groups or nations through millenia.  Some of my shamanic teachers believed that spirits are autonomous complexes residing within the psyche, or in the liminal spaces between persons, or persons and cultures. These teachers believed that journeying allows the shaman to enter the psyche of the client, and to repair the structure of the psyche. (Paul Levy has written succinctly about complexes.)

Other teachers believed the spirits are energy beings that have consciousness and souls. These beings occupy various realities throughout the cosmos. These teachers taught that all “living” beings, as well as most “inanimate objects” are capable of presenting as spirits. So are beings who have had earthly existence and have passed. Ancestors, wisdom keepers, and lost souls fit into this category.  Nature spirits, the Elemental beings, Directions, Totemic Beings, and conscious elements of landscape are willful and aware, and may be embedded in the landscape. The gods and goddesses, saints, and other holy ones inhabit the spirit realms, and may be engaged in the lives of mortals.

I have come to believe that both descriptions are useful and incomplete. Over the decades I have grown less comfortable with the purely psychological descriptions of the spirits. That reflects my perception that psychologies reduce the complex world of spirit to the purely psychological. This seems a form of colonialism. Interestingly Jung and Buber held a lengthy argument about this very concern. Jung eventually won by simply claiming all experience as the realm of brain and psyche. This is indeed familiar to those of us whose lands were taken in the name of the colonial other.

For a long time I struggled to reconcile these two visions of the world. Now I believe they are alternative descriptions for lived human experience. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they often overlap. At times, I may prefer one description or the other simply because it fits what I “see” and what the client experiences. I believe what is before us is ultimately a MYSTERY, that defies final description or explanation. Focusing on the numinous, feeling saturated, whole making, mystery lessens the hold of the imperial and encourages transformation and healing.

I am curious how the trip will unfold, how spirit and the spirits will engage me. I am intrigued by the opportunities that will surely arise to be of use. I imagine I will learn a great deal, and return with my understanding of the world changed, more complex. I certainly hope so.

8 thoughts on “The Nature of the Spirits

  1. Hello! Arrived here thanks to our friend Silvio’s Blog, Ornament Studio. Your reflections on spirits raises many questions and your background and perspectives are very interesting. Conversations at the table in your home must never lack fuel for deeper thought!

    1. Thank you for commenting on my post. I am currently a doctoral student at Pacifica Graduate Institute. I have completed my coursework and am organizing my dissertation committe. My dissertation topic will be “Communal Dreaming as a healing praxis in post-Soviet Ukraine. When I discovered your blog I was delighted since it points towards a direction which I feel called to follow.

      Part of the literature review will include a section a collective trauma which Ukrainians experienced during the soviet era—especially during Stalin’s reign. So it was great to receive your feedback.

      In the meantime, I soulfully request that you keep me in your healing hands. Please feel free to continue to offer hunches, insights, and moments of clarity which will help me on my way.

      Thanks again,


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