I recently received a letter from a friend who is a shamanic practitioner. He reported having come across an individual who was possessed. In our conversations, it occurred to me that this subject is complex (pun intended). Part of my background has been in human services in the field of mental health. I’ll begin there.
In the Middle Ages, one of the theories of mental illness was that the patient was possessed. The reasoning for treatment, based on this theory, went something like this: we’ve got to drive the demon out, and we can do this by making the physical body that the demon has possessed so uninhabitable that the demon will flee. In other words, one of the standard practices for treating mental illness was to torture the patient in order to drive out the demon.
Thank God we don’t do that today. But the reasoning can still be dangerous. Take the following case history from my personal experience. I worked with a young woman named P, who had a seizure disorder. Her sister was a member of a charismatic church, in this case Pentecostal. Her sister convinced her that the seizure disorder was the result of demonic possession. They hosted a healing ceremony on her behalf, in which the congregation performed a de-possession. They worked hard in the standard ways – speaking in tongues, calling on the Holy Spirit, verbal commands, and laying on of hands. They pronounced that the demon had been exorcised. However, P still had a seizure disorder, and continued to have seizures. During counseling sessions, I discovered this situation was very disconcerting to P. I put two and two together. P felt: if my seizure disorder is caused by demons and I am continuing to have seizures, then I’m continuing to be possessed by demons. P trusted me. When I explained the cause of her seizure disorder as being organic, and the ways in which we understood that to be true, she believed me. We had a good relationship, and P trusted me to tell the truth. She wasn’t possessed by demons, either before or after the exorcism. It was an incredible relief to her to realize that her seizure disorder was not caused by a demon, and that she was demon-free.
Casting out of demons, so to speak, is not limited to Charismatics. Early in my shamanic experience I attended ceremonies intended to cast out demons. The technique is known as de-possession. I witnessed several “healings,” neither of which was efficacious. One was intense, and felt a little crazy. The client got a little out of control. In short, it did not work. The woman was mentally ill – perhaps from organic, genetic, or otherwise unknown causes. She was told (by her referring psychiatrist) that the cause of her illness was possessing spirits. She continued to experience mental illness after the shamanic de-possession (we knew that her mental illness continued unaffected because there was a follow-up done to assess her condition). I don’t know how that made her feel. In my opinion, it was inappropriate to go for the home run cure at the expense of how a failed cure might affect the client.
Changing gears a bit, now is where things begin to get complex (still punning). According to Carl Jung, complexes can affect and even possess an individual’s feelings, thinking, and behavior. Because a complex can originate in the collective unconscious as archetypes (and need not be pathological – sometimes we are possessed by great ideas), there’s the potential, even the probability, of external influence on the individual ego. Elements of the individual’s personal unconscious or consciousness blend with the archetype to form the complex. The complex can corral a constellation of themed psychic material that can influence the ego in disturbing patterns (sometimes referred to as neurosis). In short, Jung felt that psychic energy could influence individual consciousness (both thoughts and emotions), and that patterns of psychic energy could merge into a complex. Jung described some aspects of the manifestations of a complex as being devilish: “taking delight in playing impish tricks.”
Jung describes how he would sometimes open himself up to the emotional content of a complex operating in a group. An anger would seize him, and he would observe his own anger. Then in a non-attached way, would ask himself: “What was that all about? What am I expressing due to the dynamics of this group?” He knew something was out of harmony, and hoped to discover what that thing was.
Jung’s solution to the impish complex was to become mindful and move on. Generally, his approach to complexes was to become aware of the expression and symbolism of a complex and to integrate the origins of our personal involvement through the process of maturation he called individuation. I know, de-possession sounds a lot easier.
The point is – if something like a controlling complex is possible, then there’s more than a single efficacious approach to dealing with it. And no, I’m not saying that every situation labeled as a possession is really a complex. I’m aware that it’s possible to become possessed or influenced by a spirit or ghost. I’m just saying that any given situation can be complex and potentially unique, and we shouldn’t be quick to label or use the tools of our training.
I know that shamanic extraction and compassionate de-possession can be powerful tools when followed up with spirit-building work. And I know that the best shamanic practitioners are often cautious as to how they label a cleansing (sometimes simply stating: “I found a spirit intrusion and removed it.” Here’s how not to do it: “I found an incredibly horrible demon ripping out your insides. This thing had blood red teeth, six glowing eyes, and was drooling sulfuric acid.”). Like I said, I have a mental health background, and believe we have a responsibility to choose our words carefully. The word possession – by itself – is charged with association, and the potential for abuse should be clear. It’s often not the first or even second generation of practitioners that create rigid practice or doctrine. If it happens, the methods become corrupted in a line of succession or parallel imitation.