MPD and Shamanism
The Process of Dissociation
By Devlyn Young
In lower East Manhattan, a young woman wakes up in terror, finding herself in a place she’s never been and doesn’t remember traveling to. She finds a suitcase, open at the end of the bed, with clothes in it that she would never wear in public, or even buy. She sits on the edge of the bed, confused and weeping.
In Chinle, far out on the Navajo Reservation, a grandmother rushes to the door of her hogan, hearing her grandson scream in pain. By the full moonlight, she sees a wolf attacking him, and shoots the wolf dead. She tends to the bites and claw marks on her grandson that night, and calls for the Tribal police to come. They find only the body of a man, shot through the heart, with a bone bead clasped in his hand.
Braving the chilly Minnesota snow, a young man starts his old Chevy truck. He is heading to the city’s theater for the night’s performance. Modest in his manner, he has no idea of the depth of his acting gift, which holds audiences spellbound by his ability to so completely mold himself into his characters that they forget it is just a play.
A young woman, following her call to the Incan shamans of Peru, has learned not only the art of entering a creature’s mind, but also of becoming one with it. She soars out above the gigantic figures drawn on the Nazca plains, and finally comprehends their meaning. She has not just left her body in trance; she has manifested into another form.
Psychomorphism is a change in the shape, or state of being, of the mind. In certain teachings, the mind is considered to be everywhere present in the body, and so this change – this shift – also occurs everywhere in the body. Psychomorphism is the subconscious ability of an individual to so transform thoughts, feelings and behavior as to present as an alternate and distinctly different individual. In shamanic ceremonies, all participants – including the Shaman – perceive this psychomorphic shift. In dissociative disorders, however, this process is most often triggered by actual traumatic situations, and is repeated as often as is deemed necessary for survival, thereby creating many alternate selves. Each projected Self is created specifically to endure a particular situation and thus can present as a different gender, age, and sexual orientation, as well as having different allergies (or none), medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, myopia), and different physical, emotional, and intellectual attributes. This change is usually perceived by others, but - in dissociative disorders - is generally never known to the Original Self.
However, unlike Shaman shape-shifting where the Self never loses grasp of its own Identity, dissociative transformation often occurs at the expense of the original Self’s identity, causing its extinction, repression or permanent alteration. If it is simply repressed, then there exists the opportunity to access it, and – perhaps – heal the Whole.
Dissociation, then, is the identifying behavior, while psychomorphism is the process involved. Each represents, respectively, the manifestation and the executive process, used by the individual to cope with core issues and the systemic belief system.
We know that dissociation is the disruption of the integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception. This disruption may be sudden or gradual, transient or chronic. In the process of psychomorphism, this dissociation is not linked to any neurological discrepancy, medical condition, or substance use. It is rather connected to the pre-disposed ability of an individual to so transform, under actual, threatened, or perceived traumatic situations into another person or entity. In any such exposure to trauma or triggers, this psychomorphic process becomes automatic and beyond the control of the Original Self. Ramifications of this include the likely use of shifting in all future events, whether the threat is actual or perceived, until the individual no longer reacts in any other way.
What has come to my attention is the similarity of the evidence and manifestations of MPD to those overt mannerisms of the shape-shifting shaman of indigenous cultures. As I mentioned earlier, in this shamanic process, not only does the shaman believe, perceive and attain a different “identity”, but the observers themselves also perceive and believe that exact change – that transformation into a “new” identity. There are no observers who are not touched in some manner by this.
Such shamanic transformations are documented in indigenous cultures, like Peru, Haiti, the Amazon, North America and Wales, by Michael Harner, Alberto Villoldo and Brian Bates, to name a few. This psychomorphic, or shape-shifting, ability is a controlled and focused activity, consciously sought and attained in an intentionally altered state. It is used commonly for healing and learning, although in the hands of selfish individuals it can be used to harm, or even kill. In the Western technological society, such controlled and focused talents are usually found in individuals who perform activities that utilize camouflage or deception, like acting or espionage.
In the case of a person with MPD, however, this process seems to be a subconscious, uncontrolled, and unfocused reaction. The psychomorphism is often triggered as a protective agent against traumatic events – a subconscious reaction to actual and/ or perceived threats to the individual’s safety, throughout their entire life. As healing is attained, the dissociative individual may achieve more awareness, focus and control of this psychomorphic activity.
Indigenous cultures rely on the Shaman (or similar-type person) to understand the psychomorphic talent present in an individual, nurturing and refining it, with long hours spent on experiential instruction. This person is not shunned, exiled, or treated as if insane. Such earth-based societies understand all things – all Creation – as being interconnected and having some Spiritual intent. That’s why Shamans, who understand the deeper purpose of all things, are honored and trusted by their communities. The Shaman who can shape-shift does so with the knowledge that, as all things are One, he or she can become as one with anything else – like Wolf, Eagle, or Badger – for a particular intent and period of time. The significant difference is that they do not lose a sense of their own identity.
In contrast, in the Western medical model societies – and currently in assimilated acculturated native tribes, the MPD person is labeled as “disordered”, “dysfunctional” and “incapacitated”. At the point where this psychomorphic activity impairs the functioning of an MPD individual – at home, work, school, or other important social interactions – intensive individual psychodynamic therapy is typically advised, sometimes in conjunction with less traditional energy-work. As the “presenting” Self and alternate selves take turns shifting into social awareness and presence, to cope with the daily concerns of life, none hold any permanent identity. They usually develop self-medicating and self-numbing behaviors in order to deal with this sense of inner emptiness, loss, sadness, overwhelming pain and fear, and unexplainable rage. These are directly associated with the division of self from self through psychomorphic activity.
In a healing sense, this knowledge can facilitate reason and purpose for convergence of identities by demonstrating the “issue” as a positive gift. Bringing unhealthy and non-productive behaviors to the attention of the “presenting” Self, and restructuring that particular response system, has some influence on the behavior of the other selves. However, true and sustainable healing can only occur within the Original Self. This is not to say that the “presenting” Self can’t, in and of itself, develop and maintain appropriate and productive behavior. But an extensive and pervasive healing – that is more than trappings or “smoke and mirrors” – must come through communication, and cooperation, with the Original Self, using a clear understanding of the psychomorphic Gift. This occurs as trust is built with the counselor or therapist who holds a nurturing, non-threatening space in which all the presenting “others” – as well as the Original Self – feel accepted and safe from danger. The psychomorphic ability will continue to give protection, until such safety and trust is accepted as real, and the Self of Origin chooses to heal.
There appear to be phenomenological similarities between the shaman shape-shifter and the person with dissociative identity disorder or MPD. While there do exist identifying symptomology and descriptive factors concerning MPD, the crux of the issue – the processing etiology of this adaptive response which I call “psychomorphism” – is conspicuous by its absence. Understanding the phenomenology behind this psychological manifestation currently seems directed by research that either “rules out” or “finds similarity to” previously documented disorders or diseases. Careful empirical observation and identification of symptoms, reactions and effects on physical, mental, and emotional behaviors are documented to determine whether someone has or does not have such a disorder. But the process is still unknown.
Understanding the underlying concept of psychomorphism gives clients a key to unlocking their own healing by presenting an opportunity for success. However, in the majority of cases, there is no communication or consensus between the Self of Origin and the “presenting” Self, nor among the different alternate Selves. If there is some continuity (defined as co-consciousness), then a subconscious thread of the original Self can be accessed within each alternate Self. Using some kind of contract, like an MPD Code of Honor, can help unify a diverse community of individuals, and create a common goal of “wellness” for the Self. The goal of successful therapy would be to develop such continuity and communication, including the knowledge of psychomorphism as the key and focus to healing.
Currently, there is no known data concerning the absolute correlation of the shamanic shape-shifting ability and the evidence of multiple personality disorder – nor whether all those identified with MPD actually have the psychomorphic ability of a shape-shifter. It may be that some other factor is involved. However, as there is a significant similarity in the presentation of these two phenomena, such a study seems appropriate and meaningful for the healing and functioning strategies of those who have been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. Perhaps some kind of collaborative study could be designed and developed between medical anthropologists, who are more familiar with how indigenous societies identify and nurture shamans, and Western psychologists who are interested in exploring this connection. With such a collaborative effort, perhaps the true significance of psychomorphism – in the healing of dissociative disorders – can be discovered.
MPD Code of Honor
An MPD Journey
An MPD Theory