From SHAMANISM to JUNG: Understanding’ Loss of Soul’

Aug 31, 2023


Art Credit: Female Ghost in the Moonlight, Artist unknown.  School of: Katsushika Hokusai. (Japanese, 1760–1849) Edo period.


“Loss of soul amounts to a tearing loose of part of one’s nature; it is the disappearance and emancipation of a complex, which thereupon becomes a tyrannical usurper of consciousness, oppressing the whole man. It throws him off course and drives him to actions whose blind one-sidedness inevitably leads to self-destruction.”

CG Jung CW6, para 384

As Jung’s anthropological studies expanded and his international travel exposed him to new cultures and ideas, he was taken by the concept of ‘loss of soul.’

A collapse of energy, a strange sudden alteration of personality, or episodes of blinding rage could signify a loss of soul from a shamanic perspective. The soul carries the animating and regulating forces as well as memory. In most traditions, it was expected to fly away upon death, much like the Egyptian Ba, depicted as a bird with a human head. Because the soul had an independent life, it might flee suddenly, leaving a listless body behind. The shaman’s task was to retrieve and escort the wandering soul into the body again.

In Michael Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman, he cataloged various ancient practices and distilled a small set of universal techniques. Soul retrieval involves tying a red string on the patient’s wrist and, with the help of one’s spiritual power animal, traveling to the inner worlds, identifying the lost soul by the red string also on its wrist, bringing it back to the waking world and blow it into the patient’s body. Loss of soul in this contemporary system is often associated with trauma, and the imagery is congruent with modern conceptualizations of dissociation.

Jung linked shamanic descriptions with the work of psychiatrist Janet and called “abaissement du niveau mental.” Jung described this as “a slackening of the tensity of consciousness, which might be compared to a low barometric reading, presaging bad weather. The tonus has given way, and this is felt subjectively as listlessness, moroseness, and depression. One no longer has any wish or courage to face the tasks of the day. One feels like lead because no part of one’s body seems willing to move, and this is due to the fact that one no longer has any disposable energy.”

This process is dramatized in the 1988 film “Dangerous Liaisons” directed by Stephen Frears. Based on an 18th-century novel, a cunning Marquise, played by Glenn Close, conspires with her former lover, Vicomte, played by John Malkovich. They set a wager for Malcovich to seduce the beautiful young Madame de Tourvel, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Despite her values, she is swept into an affair. Having won his bet, the Vicomte mercilessly abandons Tourvel, repeating repeatedly, “It’s beyond my control.” Traumatized, she deteriorates, takes to bed, and in her final scene, pale, devoid of soul, she whispers, “Enough,” gasps, and dies.  

In modern psychiatry, several clinical descriptions might be assigned to such despair and collapse, but those may not capture the psychospiritual depth of ‘loss of soul.’ For Jung, the soul carries creativity and grants meaning; it links us to the divine and represents all we could be if wholeness were possible. Whatever the cause, to be abandoned by one’s soul is devastating, and to be reunited, the greatest gift, as Jung recounts in The Red Book: Liber Novus,

“My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned, I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet, and I have come to you, I am with you. After long years of long wandering, I have come to you again. Should I tell you everything I have seen, experienced, and drunk in? Or do you not want to hear about all the noise of life and the world? But one thing you must know: the one thing I have learned is that one must live this life. Do you still know me? How long the separation lasted! Everything has become so different. And how did I find you? How strange my journey was! What words should I use to tell you on what twisted paths a good star has guided me to you? Give me your hand, my almost forgotten soul. How warm the joy at seeing you again, you long disavowed soul. Life has led me back to you. Let us thank the life I have lived for all the happy and all the sad hours, for every joy, for every sadness. My soul, my journey should continue with you. I will wander with you and ascend to my solitude.”


“I was trying to save a younger girl or woman at the start. She was like a little sister. I was working, trying so hard to protect her. I am teaching and nurturing her, defending her. She grew stronger along the way. We were looking for plants for a bouquet, and an evil man viciously and ruthlessly attacked us. I fought back, and I was just as ruthless. I physically threw him out. He lost and was brutally injured. I realized the girl with me was powerful in her way. She had special abilities to sense things others did not. We continued and came upon a theater performance in front of a school. We volunteered for roles, mostly because the roles seemed meant for us. I realized the girl I cared for could give a voice to those who could not speak for themselves. We realized some people in the school were oppressed, and their oppressors had control. We broke something, an entire wall came down, and wild horses ran everywhere. We climbed the school structure that was left to try to get to safety or maybe to try to jump onto a horse from higher ground. I lost the girl in the struggle to climb higher, and a bull with horns started attacking me. He could climb, too, and the higher I got, the closer he got. I started falling, but I wasn’t scared because I knew something was coming to catch me. A creature caught me and started to fly. I intuitively knew this creature was meant for me, and he felt like an old friend. He was scarier, darker than a horse. My dragon. He was black and had spikes everywhere. All of a sudden, I felt less alone. I realized I had been carrying so much; finally, someone was carrying me. I rode this animal as he flew. We bonded, and I got accustomed to him. We took a break for me to get snacks … 1 noticed people staring at me, and they seemed scared or in awe or respect. Someone told me my dragon liked chocolate. So I got some for me and some for him. I got back on his back and fed him the chocolate. He liked it, and as he ate, I noticed his body was huge and strong and his head smaller. I wake up.”


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  1. Gwendolyn O Murphy

    This conversation gives me courage and inspiration to continue my inward journey toward wholeness. Thank you for your honest sharing.

  2. Gwendolyn O Murphy

    I’m going to give myself some ease around eating chocolate, as I ride the dragon!

  3. reinold

    Collective madness in Covid times: I was personally thinking of different examples… Like, humanity being afraid for years of breathing air without a mask (because officials like Fauci say that it is dangerous), or rolling out a vaccine scheme globally (nearly all of humanity) against a disease that’s more or less similar in all its aspects to a flu, without anyone (not even Fauci or Joseph) knowing the long term risks (it is, after all, a new technique). Many people lined up to get that vaccine, of which they were not afraid – basically because officials telling people that they are safe. In other words, people followed advice given by officials, in stead of thinking for themselves. As Jung said, thinking is difficult; feeling is easier, and that’s why fear is so easy to exploit. Does it actually not make sense that some skeptical people try to rationalize what’s happening by leaving the possibility open that there are powerful people trying to conspire against humanity (if only to make money)? It is too easy, as Joseph does, to liken these skeptics to flat-earthers.

    • Tania


  4. Deryn

    This is an extraordinary episode. Thank you so much for such openness in sharing your personal experiences of depression, and of the loss of capacity for vitality, and for the amazing encounter with the Old English sheepdog, all of which grounds the theory discussion so well.

  5. Richard Hawkins

    My partner, Cathy, and I were deeply moved by Joseph’s sharing in this episode and found it really helpful for understanding our own experiences of trauma – thank you so much!

  6. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Joseph, Deb and Lisa,
    Joseph, thank you for your personal accounts (and Lisa and Deb, too). They are always profound and appreciated. I’ve just been reading the new book Reflections on the Life and Dreams of C.G. Jung by Aniela Jaffe. What is always so striking to me is how Jung always lived so close to his soul and his inner life. Even before his split with Freud and his confrontation with the unconscious, he was always attentive to what was going on in his inner life and his dreams, visions, paranormal occurrences, and synchronicities. He never devalued what was going on inside himself and he was always curious about it. This willingness to actually do the work himself and not just pontificate to his patients makes him stand apart from other psychologists/psychiatrists. It takes a lot of humility, grace and humanity to do that. I agree that certain life events can precipitate a loss of soul. But the bigger picture of the “loss of soul” in our world is that we have not taken our inner lives seriously. We drive ourselves almost completely towards the external world without nurturing and listening to our inner lives. And our materialist perspective that we ARE, in our fundamental essence, just our brain function drives us deeper in the split from our spiritual lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks. It’s not an overtly religious movie but in a symbolic sense it is one of the richest, most profound movies I’ve ever seen. To me, it’s main theme is the loss of connection with one’s inner life and the transformation that comes through the dark night of the soul. Every time I watch it, new aspects are revealed to me. Also, my husband and I talk a lot about conspiracy theories and what is so attractive about them. We are teachers and have students who are really into some of these theories. We discussed the fact that these kids are very dramatic about the whole theory. You can see the energy in them when they talk about it. So, perhaps it adds excitement and drama to one’s life. Also, it’a a way for a person to be “in the know” about something – to have a special knowledge that other’s don’t. Accordingly, there’s a certain inflation involved as well. It’s a way for one to be different and special. I also think of Jung’s quote somewhere that when nothing is going on, people will start a war. So, maybe the attraction of conspiracy theories is that they lend themselves to imagination, uniqueness, and self-importance and filling the inner void or boredom or existential ennui. Anyway, thank you again for your work.

    • reinold

      It also helps, in attempting to understand (younger) conspiracy theorists, to acknowledge that there’s a lot of incoherent facts to be observed in the world that are often conveniently ignored in certain circles. Society’s response to Covid was unquestionably an overreaction driven by fear. It may be embarrassing to some of us, but a cool-headed analysis of statistics can only bring one to the conclusion that covid was similar to the flu.

      Yet, older generations sacrificed the younger ones (the Archetype of the Child Sacrifice coming online) by mandating masks, “vaccines”, online learning instead of teaching at school, etc., (during 2 entire formative years students could not meet or see each other facial expressions properly….) in order to keep the elderly who are close to death anyways safe, or perhaps more correctly, to give them a sense of safety. We may agree or disagree on the ethics of that choice made by officials and/or society, but it is what happened. Younger generations(especially those who adhere to conspiracy theories) seem to try to find ways to explain the suffering that was brought onto them – which they seem to judge as unjust.

      Older, settled people also seem to be more inclined to continue to see society as a rules based, democratic meritocracy, while many younger people feel they simply cannot afford this world view anymore – life has become way more complex. Understandably, people don’t like to go through the process of personality change that (as Joseph wisely mentioned) is necessary when one’s world, and thus world outlook changes. Older people often become rigid in their world view because they feel more comfortable hanging on to their view of the world they live in and the behavior of the people that surround them, that served them well in earlier times, choosing to ignore the signs (the Biblical story of Isaac at old age wanting to believe that it was Esau, not Jacob, who brought him his favorite meal before giving the blessing is a famous example of this tendency).

      Younger generations (and middle aged people who are disappointed with the narratives they grew up with) are probably also more willing to acknowledge that the current president of the US shows all the signs of suffering from senility; it’s a long time till they might be suffering from it – contrary to all the older, supposedly wiser people, who seem subconsciously want to deny the possibility of this condition for themselves – just like people tend to deny their mortality. To say the least, it is very remarkable that a senile candidate can win a presidential race by running from his basement. An explanation that younger people may find convincing – rightly or wrongly – is that a deep state, or permanent Washington conspired with billionaire owned media outlets to get this outcome.

      On a deeper level, these are not so much inflated “in the know” insights; rather it starts with observations (which are awkward and preferably not discussed in good company because they lead to political debates without end) that lead to a certain reasoning. That reasoning might be wrong, but it also seems to be wrong to me to ignore the elephants in the room that conspiracy theorists point to.

      To close the circle: society has lost touch with (and understanding of) many forces in the collective subconscious (the Archetypes of the Child Sacrifice, Fear of Death, Pest a longing for strong leadership, as well as a longing for care for each other, including the elderly), as Jung (and Nietzche before him) has pointed out, just like (and because) many people are not sufficiently in touch with faculties of the mind such as Sensing (observing calmly: do I see people drop dead on the streets as the media are telling is happening?), Thinking, Judging and Intuition. The subconscious forces in the collective are not channeled with wisdom, and thus find their expression in different ways, leading some to suspect conspiracies (rightly or wrongly). Just like a shaman attempts to do, we need to bring back to consciousness all of these forces.

  7. Max Reif

    Thank you for a wonderful topic and discussion, once again! The very phase “loss of soul” is just such a powerful one. I personally have experienced a condition that the phrase fits, more than once in my life, and remain eternally grateful to have “come back” each time, via extraordinary Help that came externally or internally. I feel your own personal reminiscences were “as good as it gets” in describing the state, though I sense that it’s one of those “If you haven’t experienced it, you won’t be able to imagine the degree of incapacity, helplessness, and I think, humiliation” that the state carries.
    I found your sharing about the psychodrama experience of your client, Joseph, to be incredibly powerful, and I’m currently wanting to share it far and wide, and even get the transcript! (Parenthetically, I and a group of my friends were friendly with Zerka Moreno, the widow of Jacob Moreno, who wintered for a time in Myrtle Beach, and started groups for our circle of companions, after she became friendly with her massage therapist there, who spread the word until many of us got involved. She was a dear! Many years before, I had gone in to a Psychodrama demo in NYC, and became the subject acting out a dream I’d had…and you’d better believe that under her guidance there, I was left with NO DOUBT that dreams are showing me my own life!)


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