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“The Lament of the Dead”: Five Questions for the Ayahuasca Adventurer

April 14, 2014
ship illustration Red Book

Illustration from Jung’s ‘Red Book’

“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:

They arrange our lives; it is they who direct at the end.

The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living.

And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing

We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.”

W.H.Auden, “In Memory of Ernst Toller” (1940)

The marvelous line from this poem – “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand” – provides the link back to my previous blog about mind control.

In this blog, I tried to show how the encounter with La Madre Ayahuasca, especially when combined with a long term dieta of a powerful Amazonian medicinal tree or plant, shows us unequivocally how much of our mind is shaped by cultural conditioning and ‘outside’ influences – whether we conceive these in the form of reptilian beings and/or more positive other-dimensional beings such as spirit guides and angels and /or by unconscious processes based on repressed childhood experiences, as Freud would have us believe.

The view of the psyche that I am most at home with, and which I have most adequately articulated in another entry here, comes from Henri Corbin, Carl Jung and James Hillman. In their different but related ways, they provide an essential antidote to the limited and superficial ego-psychology beloved of conventional Western psychology and shared, though they might deny it, by many so-called spiritual psychologies such as the ‘Law of Attraction’ and ‘Positive Thinking’.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of James Hillman. I have just finished reading his last published work, co-written with Sonu Shamdasani, called “Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book”.To read this book, written in the form of fifteen conversations between the two men, is to have the privilege of occupying a ringside seat listening in on two great minds and souls conversing.

The_Red_Book_by_Carl_Jung,_2009Sonu Shamdasani is the foremost Jungian scholar of our times and President of the Philemon Foundation, an organization dedicated to publishing Jung’s Complete Works.

In 1997, he started talking with Jung’s family for them to permit the publication of ‘The Red Book’, the legendary notebook Jung had kept. Then, over ten years, he engaged in an extraordinary labor of scholarly love poring over a mixture of manuscripts – handwritten, typed and in calligraphy – to recreate The Red Book, which was finally published in October 2009.

Jung chose not to publish this work, written between 1914 and 1930, in his lifetime, believing that it could discredit his clinical work with the medical-scientific establishment.

The main theme of the “Lament of the Dead” book is what it means for psychology now that this very personal account of Jung’s descent into the underworld/the shamanic realm/the deeper psyche has been published, but, as always with Hillman, his thought refuses to be confined along conventional lines and within narrow disciplines.

The special interest I found reading this book is its great relevance to my encounters with La Madre Ayahuasca and my wanderings in the spirit world or the visionary realm. This of course, is no surprise. Jung’s ‘Red Book’ illustrates in great detail – both in text and in striking paintings – his own encounter with this world.

Part of what Hillman and Shamdasani are doing in the book is showing that this shamanic descent was at the heart of Jung’s life and work. The conceptual theories he elaborated – the theory of types, ideas of complexes, the anima and animus, the archetypes, the collective unconscious etc. etc. – are secondary. For Hillman, in particular, the book validates the whole way he has developed Jung’s legacy in contrast to more orthodox Jungian schools.

The area I want to focus on in this blog entry is: how does this book help us enrich our experiences with La Madre?.

I’m going to follow the format highly recommended by blogging experts and do this in the form of a list, which is deeply counter to the whole thrust of Hillman’s work, though at least it’s a list of five questions rather than key bullet points. As Hillman once said, with equal measures of pride, dignity and defiance, nobody can diagram my work – unlike the totalizing diagrams and master-plans of Ken Wilber. In contrast to a ‘Theory of Everything’  a la Wilber, Hillman’s is a ‘Theory of Nothing’, in the sense of offering no overarching explanatory framework. In this way, he is very much part of the post-modern project.

One of the many remarkable aspects of Hillman’s work is how he constantly resists casting his ideas in any kind of developmental frame, as he sees the idea of development as a dominant cultural assumption and limited perspective, which offers an underlying template for thinking in many fields – from biology to personal development to economic development to spiritual development. He is also not slow to point out how ideas of personal development neatly dovetail with capitalist neo-liberal ideologies of growth and individualism.

Anyway, now to the dreaded list of five questions.

1. What or who is significant?

On page 106, Sonu Shamdasani says: “There is one point where he [Jung] says you’re not significant because you see something significant.”

snake illustration Red Book

Illustration from The Red Book

Hillman replies: “That’s holy. You are not significant just because you see something significant.”

This line should be tattooed on the arm of every ayahuasca drinker.

Hillman goes on to elaborate:

“You see, this question comes up with many people who get in touch with that stream [of images, which both Jung and Hillman think is the primary activity of the psyche]. They then set up shop as a prophet. They’re convinced by what they’ve encountered. It’s utterly real, utterly powerful, utterly true, and it needs to be told. It comes with its own impetus.”

This helps me greatly to understand the prophetic, high-blown, dogmatic tone of some of the  visionary writings I referred to in my last blog.

Hillman and Shamdasani point out that what was exceptional about Jung was that at the same time he was having these compelling, powerful experiences over a period of fourteen years, he maintained a skeptical attitude to them and was always reflecting on the way these experiences came into being. In that sense, as a psychologist as well as a pioneering psychonaut, he was as interested in the way the psyche produces these experiences as their content.

2. Why do we enter the visionary realm?

tree illustration Red Book

Illustration from ‘The Red Book’

This is the question that has been preoccupying me for the past three years.

An answer is now finally beginning to emerge but that might be a theme for another time.

On page 38, Shamdasani says:

“One way I formulated it was that you have Swedenborg going into this visionary realm to create revelation, Blake doing it so to create art, and Jung to create psychology, which is a different enterprise and purpose.”

The competent, good shamans that I know go into this realm in order to heal others. Or, better put, to offer themselves as the channel through which healing can occur.

3. What is the personal?

On p.40, Hillman says:

“Psychology says the personal is my history, my parents, my childhood, the trauma, my life, my wounds, my aspirations, all of that, that’s me, that’s my soul, the deepest feelings and loves and pains that I carry. Jung is saying the deeper soul is not personal at all, in a very curious way. He’s saying it’s an objective soul that is the deepest personal. ……..So the idea of the personal has to be rethought.”

In response, Shamdasani says:

“He [Jung] finds that his innermost, the most deeply subjective, is no longer subjective and that it opens out into something far larger, and that’s what in a certain respect saves him. In the depths of his solitude, his isolation, in his confrontation with himself, he finds an opening. He finds that what animates his depths is the weight of human history, in the sense of the figures he encounters there, such as the mythic figures and biblical figures. His deepest conflicts are expressed in the form of the interplay between these images.”

This brings Hillman back to the poem at the beginning. We are lived by powers we do not understand. And our explanatory frameworks are just pretenses of understanding, crutches for the ego to create the illusion of control. Although we cannot understand these powers, however, we can enter into relationship with them, ideally right relationship, especially by personifying them as Jung showed.

I can validate this from my own experience. Freed from the burdensome perspective of my isolated, explanation-seeking ego, on the occasions when grace has allowed me, (over which I have no control, I can only prepare myself as best I can), I am given access to this vast, imaginative other world. As this happens, loneliness and anxiety vanish and the mysteries appear.

“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 again.”  C.J. Jung, The Red Book, p.232

4. How permeable are the different worlds?

On p. 25, Hillman says:

egg illustration The Red Book

Illustration from the Red Book

“It may seem as if these are two distinct paths, or even stages. You first go in and then you come out with what used to be called the return or the descent from the mountain and so on. But I think there’s something else there. I think it’s more a matter of realizing that there is a porous permeability between the living and the dead. Between life and death…….And it seems to me that this offers a completely different way of realizing that the day world is permeated with the other world – in all kinds of small ways, that they’re always inner voices, that the dead are cautionary figures. That you are living with the dead.”

This aspect of the profound permeability of the different worlds is something that I appreciate the more I drink ayahuasca.

One of the characteristics I most admire about my mentor Maestro PapaM. is that during ceremony he can switch effortlessly between these worlds. He is acutely aware of what is happening in the normal everyday world, for example someone stumbling on their way to the bathroom, at the same time as he is aware of the subtle energy patterns of the people and the spirit entities present.

Furthermore, what I am finding from my own experience of the medicine, is that the more I drink and learn to navigate the other world, the more competent I become in normal consensus reality. That is one important differentiating factor with marijuana. The people I know who use marijuana a lot, with some few exceptions, are less able to be present in the so-called normal world.

5. Why turn to the the ancestors?


The Lament of the Dead by Joseph Henry Sharp

“Then turn to the dead,

listen to their lament

and accept them with love”

C.G. Jung, The Red Book, Chapter XV

One of the key themes in ‘The Lament for the Dead’ is the denial of death by contemporary, secular Western culture. Our ancestors are not properly recognized and given their due weight – there is no real place for the dead in our culture.

Shamdasani says on p.176:

“The first task that Jung finds himself confronted with [as I think anyone engaged in this descent is] is reanimating the dead, acknowledging that the dead are, and they have presences, they have effects. We turn our eyes away from future-oriented living and to what has gone before, in the shape of animated history, history that is not simply a record but history that is active.”

Therefore, by denying the dead we are denying ourselves.


James Hillman 1926-2011

The conversations in ‘Lament for the Dead’ were recorded between October 2009 (immediately after the publication of ‘The Red Book’) and autumn 2010. In the preface, Shamdasani says, in relation to the process of writing the book: “We both went over the text, finalizing the manuscript before his [Hillman’s] death in the fall of 2011.”

Hillman’s death gives added weight and poignancy to the text. My writing this blog is a further way of honoring him.

For those of you who like me, love Hillman, he can be seen here on YouTube, (just over an hour into the video), sporting a large sculpted plaster cast on his right arm, discussing The Red Book with Shamdasani and other Jungians, at an event in the US Library of Congress on 19th June 2010.

  1. Great stuff!!! Your Point 2 resonates deeply with me.

    It’s interesting to juxtapose Jung’s experience of the dead via his Active Imagination with the experience of the Ayahuasca Adventurer. I know next to nothing, experientially anyway, about either practice, and yet the life experience that I have no particular name for, has led me to move towards a more expansive sense of self too. Many boundaries and definitions seem artificial even if they can sometimes be useful.

    Hillman’s work, along with Jung’s, Corbin’s and a few others, has been a necessary healing balm for me. I know what compelled me to seek out the healing, and am grateful that my life has gone the way it has. From that grace, there is a desire to offer back to both the living and the dead healing, but it seems it must always come first through understanding, acceptance and compassion enough to meet people where they are. Nothing can be forced. I do wonder, why do some of us have either the interest or circumstance that leads them onto some sort of path of healing and expansion?

    I suppose the work of Stanislav Grof comes to mind though, as an example of someone who sees the healing power in these experiences. It’s exciting to think that as time goes on, healing, or the valuing of a more expansive sense of who we are, might dissolve the boundaries between us and bring about a more compassionate humankind.

    Thanks for writing this wonderful post!

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Thanks for your comments Debra. There is an interesting part in the ‘Lament for the Dead’ where the co-authors say that it was very important for Jung to bring something back from the ‘descent’ that could be of service to others. In this way, he was the medicine man of the West.

      Apparently Jung was critical of people like Picasso and James Joyce who just reveled in the descent, though Hillman makes the point that they brought back something that changed art and writing respectively for ever, which is certainly good enough for Hillman.

      What you say about expanding our sense of ourselves to create more compassion, I think, is the great hope of eco-psychology. If we can be more identified with nature, the plants and the animals, then we will have more interest and commitment in taking better care of them

  2. Imke Rust permalink

    Thank you – finally I find the time (and quietness) to read your post. It is so interesting. I know little to nothing about Jung or the Ayahuasca, but this really resonated and I love to get more insight through you. Especially the part: we cannot understand or control those powers, but we can get into a relationship with them, identifying more with nature and everything around us is so important. Oh, and I find the images very interesting too!

  3. Reblogged this on k a r a h ~ l i n and commented:
    ” The Lament of the Dead ” Five Questions for the
    Ayahuasca Adventurer

  4. read between the lines permalink

    Thank you, finally I have found someone who wrote about the connection of the red book & aya. I went through my first aya journey in November last year in the amazon jungle. After I was back, I experienced this period of deep long darkness. I believe it’s partly due to all the suppressed emotions were finally coming out, partly due to the separation anxiety from the other realm (which i felt it’s very alien & metallic yet strangely comforting & home-like), and partly due to my rational mind not able to comprehend what I was going through. Thanks to some strange force who made my boyfriend bought me the red book for my x’mas present, the book has rescued me from my deep long period of darkness. It re-affirms what i had experience & gave me huge relief since I am dealing with something much greater, much older and much darker than I could never imagine. And I am learning to accept the darkness, give them their place and let them move through me.

    People always talk about how aya magically changed their lives positively but not many people talk about the post-aya darkness. I think the red book is a post-aya must-read book!

  5. CosmicDrBii permalink

    Thanks ‘read between the lines’ for your heartfelt and interesting comment. I have begun to think the key work with La Madre Ayahuasca is concerned with recognizing and working with our shadow – both personal and collective. That is why Jung is so key for me and why New Age (to give it a convenient shorthand) ideas focusing exclusively on light and love are only half the story, if that.

  6. jpb-58 permalink

    I love this post. I have no idea who you are or how I came to this blog but I’m so glad I did. I happen to be half way through Lament of the Dead, so this blog post is timely for me. Carl Jung has been the most important guide in my life. James Hillman’s work has unlocked and released realisations and set me on a course that has only just begun, but which offers the promise of something so much deeper than I had ever envisaged. Something that, as yet, I am only able to catch glimpses of. I have drunk Ayahuasca many times, but only here in the west where it is presented and treated as an adjunct to a host of new age pursuits. I am no longer involved in ‘the scene’, which is the only way to describe what it has become. I am concerned that it is being used by people who are not in a position to be custodians of such a powerful tool for penetrating into the depths of the unconscious. To be delivered there with no preparation and little or no assistance once there seems to me to be the height of folly. And hubris.
    Nevertheless, while I was naive enough to be drinking in this manner some of my experiences with Ayahuasca have given me clues and information about the root of my personal struggles that I would quite possibly have spent years in analysis trying to unearth. She always showed me in images – sometimes quite obscure and cryptic and yet when the penny dropped I was left breathless with admiration and astonishment at the sheer brilliance of what and how I was being shown. It also gave me the inspiration to take up analysis with a Jungian, which has been a deeply rewarding time.
    Reading Lament of the Dead is like marrying the two paths. While I am certainly opposed to using ayahuasca in the way I have described I can see that being fortunate enough to engage her in the setting and with the guidance you have, it would be a remarkable journey into the realms that Jung so courageously entered and documented in the Red Book.
    I admire you for your own courage and for the intelligence and insight with which you report back from your journeys.

  7. CosmicDrBii permalink

    Many thanks, Jayne, for your kind and appreciative comments. Such a response is very motivating for me! Really if there are just a few people out there who seem to get and appreciate what I am writing, it makes the blog worthwhile for me – though I’m also writing for myself to clarify and articulate what I think and feel.

    I agree with what you write about ayahuasca being “presented and treated as an adjunct to a host of new age pursuits”. In the same way too I think it is being assimilated especially within US culture as a business opportunity.

    I wrote something about this on another post called “Ayahuasca goes Global” at:

    I feel very fortunate to be working and living in the Peruvian Amazon and to be able to drink ayahuasca in authentic indigenous healing ceremonies.

    You also commented that:

    “I am concerned that it is being used by people who are not in a position to be custodians of such a powerful tool for penetrating into the depths of the unconscious. To be delivered there with no preparation and little or no assistance once there seems to me to be the height of folly. And hubris.”

    Whilst I share your concern, I also think that in general (and there are exceptions) La Madre Ayahuasca only gives people experiences that they have the capacity to assimilate and work with.

    I see a number of people come to the Peruvian Amazon hoping for ‘big’ visionary experiences and very little happens for them – that can also be related to heavy marijuana use in the past. That is, I think there is a protective element in the medicine, and also some kind of self-regulating process in our psyches, where we can only go to the point that we are able to reach at that stage of our being, which of course keeps changing.

    • Saphire permalink

      “That is, I think there is a protective element in the medicine, and also some kind of self-regulating process in our psyches, where we can only go to the point that we are able to reach at that stage of our being, which of course keeps changing.”

      Indeed! I find it incredibly amazing how efficient the psyche is at blurring or blinding out that which we do not yet have a capacity for and also opening the lens at just the right time, in just the right degree and at the correct pace to allow a glimpse, or even a glaring full spectrum view of that which has been there all along, yet remained, in full or in part, invisible to all the senses.

      It was taught to me in the earliest phases of basic psychology as simply denial… The adage, “The mind is kind” was applied as a compassionate approach to the issue of a client who just “can’t” or “won’t” cope with a certain “fact” of life or “truth” as it is in some sort of absolute that appears obvious to all else. It is taught that it exists as a sort of defense mechanism for sure. But it is not generally applied to the much broader scale of how it works in regards to the much subtler fields that surround us and are rarely penetrated without a tool or practice of some sort. And how, even in those cases it still has an amazing filtering system!

      • CosmicDrBii permalink

        Thanks for this interesting comment. It makes me think that to some extent ‘denial’ gets a bad name and is often seen negatively or in an overly one-dimensional manner, rather than at times a very sophisticated process to give the psyche time to absorb what it needs to assimilate.

  8. “I am concerned that it is being used by people who are not in a position to be custodians of such a powerful tool for penetrating into the depths of the unconscious. To be delivered there with no preparation and little or no assistance once there seems to me to be the height of folly. And hubris.”

    I agree with this point, it seems not all the people who take ayahuasca are able to confront the stuff they have to deal with and their whole experience consists of basically trying to stop it. And integration and embodiment of the insights and higher states of consciousness is of the utmost importance in my opinion, so some work needs to be done in this area as well.

  9. I’m very glad to have discovered your blog and especially to have been guided to reading “Lament of the Dead.” These conversations are full of amazing insights. I’m also have great admiration for the work of Richard Tarnas, and so I’m delighted to find that you in the Amazon share my respect for him.

  10. lewislafontaine permalink

    Dr. Jung never referred to Ayahuasca in The Red Book and it is not referred to in “The Lament of the Dead.”

    This blog post is simply a wretched attempt to appropriate Dr. Jung’s words to the author’s own views which constitute both a misrepresentation and falsification of Dr. Jung’s work.

    Reader beware.

    • CosmicDrBii permalink


      • I happened upon your blog by accident and am glad to see Jung and shamanic work being compared, as I love both. However, you might want to learn core shamanism via to access these states without allowing yourself to be possessed by the spirits of the plants. CWC

      • CosmicDrBii permalink

        Dear Lewis.

        I never said in this post nor anywhere that ayahuasca is referred to either by Dr Jung or in Dr Hillman and Dr Shamdasani’s marvellous book “The Lament of the Dead”. Please do not insult my intelligence.

        My point here and in other places in this blog is to use the work of these two great men, Jung and Hillman, (who I had the great good fortune to know personally), in their deep theoretical, therapeutic, educational and personal explorations of the human psyche to make sense of my experiences with the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca. The indigenous people of the Amazon have been using this for at least centuries to cure people and it is now increasingly being used (not without challenges and problems – some of which are evidenced in what appear to be your own knee jerk responses and prejudices) to treat and cure Western people of illnesses and addictions that traditional psychotherapy (of any school) has had very limited success with.

        I think the nature of Dr Jung’s genius, like any great scholar and/or artist, is that his work can lead us in many directions. I do not see what gives you the right to appoint yourself as the guardian of his tradition when you accuse me of misrepresenting and falsifying his work. It seems to me that Dr Jung had a deep genuine interest and curiosity in the manifestations of the human psyche. I find this in stark contrast to the narrow-mindedness of your own views.

  11. CosmicDrBii permalink


    In response to your comment, I don’t think that one necessarily has to become possessed by the spirit of the plant – though some plants, for example cannabis, are more possessive than others. I think it is possible to enter into a relationship with the plant, as we do with people, and that relationship, as with people, can be healthy or unhealthy, depending how we handle ourselves within it.

    I looked at the site you refer to. I have of course heard of Michael Harner’s work though know nothing of it personally.

    I was particularly pleased to see the section on the site referring to the preservation of indigenous knowledge:

    And I note that you honor there a number of indigenous shamans from the Amazon (which is the tradition of shamanism that I know best) and who I imagine will be working with plant spirits

  12. Greetings! We connected a while ago when you shared an excerpt from my book, Confrontation with the Unconscious: Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience, on a Jungian-related Facebook page. You also suggested that I check out this post on your blog.

    Sorry it has taken me so long to respond! I really enjoyed reading this post, and it has motivated me to order and read “Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book.”

    I also enjoyed reading the other responses here. (Well, most of them, anyway; discounting Lewis’s, of course. ) I was tempted to respond directly to the comment by “read between the lines” that “People always talk about how aya magically changed their lives positively but not many people talk about the post-aya darkness.” and your reply regarding Jung’s work with the shadow because dealing with the difficult, dark, shadow material that comes up in serious psychedelic work is a major theme of my book. But I’ll just mention that here rather than risk intrusive self-promotion in reply to both your comments.

    Thanks, again, and I look forward to getting to your other related posts as soon as I have a chance. I have a feeling I have a lot to learn from your reflections on Jung, Hillman, and Corbin.


  13. CosmicDrBii permalink

    Hi Scott. Thanks for your comment. I’m in Mexico at the moment for my younger son’s wedding here and my older son from England is bringing me a copy of your book that I ordered via Amazon. I want to write a blog linked to and exploring the comments that Jung made about psychedelics (that Lewis loves to quote – as if that were the end of the story!) and I think your book will be very helpful for me to articulate a response to these comments by Jung.

    • You’re welcome, and I hope you find my book useful. I think you will, especially chapter 4, Jung’s Explanation of Psychedelic Experience, which contains a discussion of reasons to question Jung’s views about psychedelic psychotherapy. But in a sense the whole book tries to address these complex issues in a balanced way.

      My wife and I are on our way to England later this week, where we will visit the widow of Dr. Ronald Sandison, the Jungian-oriented psychiatrist who initiated LSD therapy in Britain in 1953, and to whom my book is dedicated. We will also be spending a lot of time in the English countryside, both near Wales and in Yorkshire. Best, Scott

  14. thanks for your writing…

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