Darla* comes to me with a repetitive dream. Several times now she has found herself in a cloud-filled place. When the clouds clear, she can see the stars. Gradually those stars completely absorb her, and she finds herself in a state of emptiness. She wakes up terrified, with the sensation of being pulled and absorbed still with her.

Classically shamanic dismemberment is thought to be by animal. Strange dreams or visions of animals devouring or pulling apart the physical form until it becomes nothingness.

From there it can be reformed, re-membered, and when this occurs the initiation is complete. A new self occurs, a new perspective, a new way of being in the world.

Shamanic dismemberment most simply defined is dreams or visions of being physically dismembered (eaten, torn apart) as a form of initiation. 

The result is a considerable ego death, in which parts of self that were dis-eased (mind, body, and/or spirit) are removed and a restoration of health occurs.

However shamanic dismemberment is not limited to visions or dreams of animal attacks, but also of encounters with the elements (being dissolved, torn apart, cut apart, dying) or of other encounters that serve the same purpose.

For example, while working with Sven* he talks about seeing ants swarming his body and taking him away, morsel by morsel. This gradually merges in another session with seeing workers in his body, small men who were like construction workers, repairing his body.

In modern spiritual practice it is important to separate existential psychological crises from spiritual occurrences. This is not because they are opposed (spiritual occurrences typically have existential psychological crises as a part of them), but because care on an individual level can be quite different.

Freida* comes to me with visions of being a mermaid and of visiting lost cities under water. She feels a significant part of her human self has died and become one with the mermaids. She has visions of her human death by stabbing and then visions of herself underwater as a mermaid.

My purpose as a spiritual worker is not to disrupt anyone’s Atlantean dreams. The titles and diagnoses of modern psychology are not my line of work. The ultimate question in spiritual work is if what we are experiencing is connecting or disconnecting us. 

If something is connecting us: to ourselves, to earth, to sky, to one another, to the divine, it is a sign that our visions and allegories are serving us well.

If what we envision is separating us, it is a question of if our mythologies are serving us. If they are allowing for us to serve full human lives; if they allow for us to feel alive and give us a sense of purpose.

This question will separate out– in modern practice– the need for reconnecting work (or referral to talk therapy if the person is not at a point to question their understandings of reality) versus the need to assist someone through psychological and spiritual initiatory processes.

Even when purely metaphorical, the dreams of being chopped up into pieces, devoured, or torn apart signify an important emergence and the death of a self so a new self can be reformed.

In the case of shamanic dismemberment a drastic shift in consciousness will occur. While a shift in consciousness will occur with any metaphorical death, in this case we are talking about degrees. A much larger shift in perspective will occur as a result of spiritual death and dismemberment.

Shamanic dismemberment is also incredibly physical. This will not occur in metaphorical death, in which what occurs remains as an abstract concept, interesting to the mind but without change occurring in the body. 

Changes to the body, including pain or feelings of emptiness occur during dismemberment. During re-memberment, healing often occurs. This can be quite a drastic shift.

It is possible to have a partial dismemberment, in which a diseased part of the body is removed or destroyed and when it is re-membered, the problems which it originally had significantly lessen or cease completely.

Any shamanic dismemberment will lead to a shift in how we inhabit our bodies; our relationship with them. Spiritual work must be embodied to be ensouled. In our bodies: the feeling, sensate, and animalistic aspects of ourselves lies our power. Dismemberment dreams will also often include connection to the elements, either in their primal form (fire, water, etc) or through encounters with nature. Ultimately, shamanic dismemberment offers us the opportunity to move beyond the fear of death and to connect more deeply with the elements.

When we are connected to our bodies, we are connected to our souls. While certainly plenty of mental shifts occur as a result of spiritual practices and initiations (like shamanic dismemberment) without being connected to our bodies they will remain an abstraction and we will not live them out in our daily lives. They will not change our hearts, or reconnect us to the sensate world, one another, and to a known/felt understanding of the divine.

As a result of shamanic dismemberment we come more into our power. This may be the restoration of vital energy and a greater enthusiasm for life. This may also be a specific power or gift that has been restored, uncovered, or offered to us as a result of “passing” our initiation.

Someone may experience one shamanic dismemberment but it is typical for those who are called to spiritual work for a living to experience many of them.

While it can be moderately successful to envision a dismemberment, the most helpful advice that I can offer is that doing personal healing work will either eventually offer this process, or a different one, that will put you in the place that is right for you. 

For example, it is typical in the spiritual awakening process for people to have dreams and visions of giving birth, either to themselves or to another. This is a significant dream which offers fertile ground for the dreamer. It can allow for a road map to occur, for an understanding of what is occurring in our spiritual lives to be put into context. This is no better or no worse than shamanic dismemberment– simply different.

In shamanic dismemberment there can be a failure to make it through the complete initiation. In this case repetitive dreams or feelings of being lost (between doorways, so to speak) can occur.

It is possible to be dismembered and for no re-memberment to occur, or for only partial re-memberment to occur.

Cases like these often present like a dark night of the soul, as while being dismembered a significant aspect of our power and ability to connect to the divine is lessened or lost.

Visiting a competent spiritual worker who can help to bring back any missing aspect of your power, or to complete the initiation is then helpful. 

It is often– that like with so many things in our lives– moving forward and becoming more of who we are intended to be is rightfully scary.

We need people in the modern world to understand experiences like these for themselves and for others. This not only can put themselves at ease, but to understand that there is magic in the modern world. There is soul. It is just under the blanket of not-knowing that we have personally and collectively shielded ourselves with.

* Names made up, stories either examples (not real, but examples from nearly twenty years of practice) or used with permission.

Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual practitioner, teacher, and author. Her books include The Shamanic Workbook series.  

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