I am a shapeshifter. Many times, every day.
I put it to you, that you are too.
And I mean this quite literally.
The shapeshifting to which I refer is not in a physical sense, such as that displayed by Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. When I speak of shapeshifting, I am really speaking of looking at this shamanic tool through the prism of Carl Jung’s notion of alchemical symbolism, the essence of which is that there are myriad symbols that parallel the individuation process. The purpose of these symbols is to, among other things, lead to the creation of inner stability and a sense of direction even amidst stormy emotional and environmental conflict.[i] In this case, the specific mythological symbol I am writing about is the werewolf, and it just so happens that I can use Remus Lupin to make my point.
In the Half-Blood Prince, Remus spent most of his time as a man, but turned into a werewolf only to then later return to human form. His transition from man to werewolf was on the full moon (luna). Whilst a werewolf, he was in a quasi-disassociated, fugue state. As a werewolf, he could potentially kill his nearest and dearest and, acting almost exclusively on animal instinct, was capable of causing great destruction and chaos. With the rising of the sun (sol); exhausted, dishevelled and bedraggled, Remus the werewolf would resume his form as Remus, the human man.
There are two aspects of this short, discursive description of Remus Lupin that I wish to draw out…
The first point is that Remus’ transitions were caused by a natural phenomenon; the light of the full moon and the rising sun. The symbolism and meaning of sol and luna are themselves vast subject areas that I am not discussing here. In this present case, I am going to use the simplest metaphorical interpretation possible, the night represents an unexpected experience (i.e. one that comes out of the darkness of night), and in which the light of the full moon so acts as to pull an unconscious trigger. The beauty of the full moon translates to the beauty inherent in the interaction that initiates this entire alchemical process of transformation. The rising of the sun represents shedding light on unconscious processes in order to bring them into awareness. With the awareness that has been brought through the union of the polarities, sol and luna, new structures and modes of being become available to the inner alchemist.
The second point is that Remus assumed a different form. Humanoid to a point, but more animal than human. Human/ animal hybrids have appeared in art all over the world and at different periods, from the Minotaurs of Ancient Greece to the depiction of Hanuman in Hindu iconography, and cave art all over the world, such as the Dancing Sorcerer at Les Trois-Freres in South-West France. The correct word to describe this sort of image is ‘therianthropy’. The word itself is derived from the Greek for beast and human. Venetia Robertson, an academic who has looked deeply into therianthropy, made an important observation when she said that therianthropes act as animals, not like them.[ii] Applying this to the example of Remus, whilst a werewolf he behaved as a werewolf, not as a human acting like a werewolf. My feeling is that there are some lessons to abstract from the mythology of the werewolf, as typified by (in this case), the character of Remus Lupin. More honestly, almost everything in this post (other than the explicit discussion on hermeneutics) came to me in a sort of dream state, between sleeping and waking this morning. I felt compelled to write it down, and this post is it…
When perceiving a strong experience, I dissolve into it. Losing my sense of self, I leave my mind in order to become the sensation. For example, in the precise moment I experience a strong but beautiful smell, such as a truly amazing rose, my ego dissolves into my sense of smell. For the duration, I am the experience itself; I become the all consuming experience of the scent of a rose. There are no interfering thoughts, impulses or sensations. If I was hungry before smelling that rose, I am oblivious to that hunger for the duration, and have my hunger return post-experience.
During that process, I have shapeshifted. Instead of changing my body from human to werewolf, I have shapeshifted the fabric of my being; from one with a mental picture of ‘I’ to a single all-consuming perception. Whilst this is a lovely aspect of human consciousness, there is another side, for when I experience something by which I feel violated; such as my sense of sacred being made (as I see it), profane, I become the experience of anger. I have sometimes allowed my-being-embedded-in-anger to speak. This is where I have inflicted damage in arguments past, and uttered sentiments, once spoken, that could not be unsaid. The wounds caused when speaking from that place ate at the foundations of the relationships in question, much akin to termites consuming the frame of a house until there is little left but the outer shell. Applying the insights of alchemical symbolism and therianthropy, it is more useful to suggest that in those moments, I was the werewolf and the werewolf was me.
Becoming a conscious shapeshifter: the work of the Jungian magician.
I used to teach law at university. One of the tasks I had to accomplish was the process of teaching first-year students how to read text-based sources of law. Although it was called something else, the essence of my method was to help students engage in a form of conscious shapeshifting. I came to this perspective after I realised that people don’t ‘do’ law (which is skill-based); rather they ‘be’-come lawyers (which is identity based), and thus, my job was to help students that chose to shapeshift the way they see themselves into a law student. When looking for pathways to help achieve this end, I happened across the notion of hermeneutics and the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. In simple terms, ‘hermeneutics’ means the way by which people generate meaning from something.
The essence of Gadamer’s perspective was that people are shapeshifting all the time; such as when we dance or interpret art. Although instead of ‘shapeshifting’, he called it ‘spiel’, which means ‘play’ in German. Francis Mootz, is an academic who has studied hermeneutics in detail and described it nicely when he said:
To be at play with a work of art is to relinquish the pretense of subjectivity and to follow the possibilities offered by the work, without losing one’s individuality or perspective (an impossibility!) or wholly subordinating the meaning of the artefact to one’s creative powers. The work of art has an autonomous existence apart from the viewer’s subjective aims, and like two dancers who are given over to the dance; the artwork and the individual each make claims of meaning upon the other….Because of the nature of play, the artist can never concretise a single given meaning, nor can the spectator freely ascribe any meaning to the artefact. The play is beyond the creator and the interpreter… Though works of art lack any timeless objective meaning, play does culminate in an answer to its implicitly posed question: one recognises and appreciates the dramatic contrasts of a painting, or subtle nuances of a symphony.[iii]
The notion of ‘play’ in this context is better illustrated with the example of two people surrendering to a dance.[iv] During the dance, both parties enter into a liminal state; one in which their identity becomes permeable, each willing to be led by the other within specific parameters. These parameters define the type, duration and nature of the dance.
With regard to explaining how conscious shapeshifting helped me to teach people how to read text-based sources of law, the hermeneutic dance is situated in that part of the student’s identity given over to ‘be’-coming a lawyer, as well as their biases, experiences, expectations. The text’s identity is the interpretation that aligns with its effective legal history. My duty was successfully discharged when the two identities fused in the student’s psyche, and the student had shapeshifted into someone that could interpret text-based sources of law like lawyer (or at least like a human being who genuinely embraced shapeshifting into a law student that did their work). Those students found and utilised the Jungian magician within themselves.
The difference between a purely skills-based and ego-centric approach to learning to interpret sources of law, and a shapeshifting identity-based approach may seem like a small distinction to make; people still need to read x number of cases and complete the same tasks to the same standard, but in practice the difference between a skills focus and an identity focus is an inch that might as well be a mile. In shapeshifting their identity, the effort to actually do the work is decreased and students acquired a measure of humility and patience for themselves. To explain this a little more: sometimes, when tired and with tons of work still to do, and the path ahead feels challenging to everyone, shapeshifting can help move forward productively and in a less burdensome way. For if someone is able to see their efforts as an extension and manifestation of self, then the load feels lighter when compared with someone else that is forcing themselves to perform that same task. The former move toward effortless effort, whilst the latter perpetrate violence against themselves. In this way, effective learning was assisted by the process of conscious shapeshifting. I have seen similar transitions toward effortless effort made by some first-time parents. They invest a tremendous amount of energy into their new born child, but, their burden is lightened a little when they have shapeshifted into parents. This shift in identity carries with it an expanded capacity to do with grace the things the need to done.
You may now have worked out that I am of the opinion that one can choose to bring awareness to the times at which to shapeshift (i.e. anyone can become a conscious shapeshifter). Reasons for this could be in order to be a more loving parent, or to express any strong emotion healthily, or to learn a new skill to name but three. Bringing one’s attention and conscious awareness to unconscious shapeshifting results in staying in one’s centre, rather than becoming led by the trigger. The effect of this is to no longer shapeshift when those triggers arise. In this instance, finding and holding one’s centre does not mean suppression of the self and the subjugation of experience. Rather it means learning how to be graceful when triggered. This is accomplished by learning to examine rather than react to impulses that have precipitated an unconscious response in the past. Whilst not easy, this skill can be learned. Often the triggering thought or emotion provokes a line of self-inquiry, or is linked to a traumatic experience that the subconscious is letting me know about. In any event, there is work for me do in order to shine that light of awareness on my unconscious behaviours. And it is for this reason that one must be brave in order to face and tame the werewolf. When one is able to remain in centred presence when confronted with such triggers, then one has moved from reaction to response by moving from unconscious to conscious. The alchemical union between these unconscious and conscious aspects of the self is symbolised in the story of the werewolf. From triggering by the light of a full moon (luna) and the unconscious/ involuntary process by which human becomes a werewolf (reaction). The werewolf runs amok, and does not necessarily reflect the priorities of the metamorphosed human. Indeed, real damage may have been caused. After a time, the werewolf is then, by the light of sol (conscious awareness and attention), able to return to human form, which itself symbolises one’s centre (or axis mundi).
So to bring the ideas in this post together, shapeshifting is natural and we do it all the time; such as when we are in any strong experience, be it fighting, making love (hopefully not both simultaneously) or eating a truly delicious salted caramel mousse. There are two poles when shapeshifting; conscious and unconscious. Unconscious shapeshifting occurs when, much like Remus Lupin, one is triggered by something – pleasant or unpleasant and one becomesthe perception or feeling. At such times, real and meaningful personal growth can result from examining the triggers that allow shadow aspects of the psyche to be expressed. Thus, by bringing awareness to unconscious shapeshifting, one is walking the path toward greater conscious awareness of self by slowly cultivating the skills of self-relating that allow one to choose when and how one falls into a particular experience. Conscious shapeshifting can be as simple as re-defining self, which can express itself in many different ways for two reasons; first, shapeshifting is not a fixed process with a determined outcome; and second, one’s sense of self is not a static locus of being.
To me, shapeshifting gives form to one manifestation of flow in the human experience and better equips me to navigate that flow then I otherwise would have been. The flow of which I speak is a torrent of experience and perception. Sometimes I am the river, and other times I am a white water raft careening along the top, bouncing off rocks, sometimes partially submerged, and sometimes, for brief periods even upside down, but able to retain at least partial control. When centred, one’s archetypical magician becomes a wizard when he (or she) knows when to shapeshift, and that the reason for the shift is that the change aligns with the realisation of purpose, such as learning a new skill. If applied with greater finesse, such as consciously choosing to shapeshift in order to take another step along the path to fulfilling one’s life purpose, then it becomes a powerful shamanic tool deployed in everyday life geared toward living a life imbued with greater meaning. I’m not fully there yet, but at this stage of my life I can see the benefits of becoming more conscious with my shapeshifting, and so I will keep at it, even though its &*%#ing difficult.
[i] Schwartz-Salant, N. (1995) Jung on Alchemy, Princeton Paperbacks, 3 – 14.
[ii] Robertson, V.L.D. (2013) ‘The Beast Within’, 16, 3, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 7-30.
[iii] Mootz, Francis J. III, “The Ontological Basis of Legal Hermenutics: A Proposed Model of Inquiry Based on the Work of Gadamer, Habermas and Ricoeur” (1988), Scholarly Works, Paper 49, 531-3.
[iv] “Play is thereby close to dance, which is movement that carries away the dancer”: Ricoeur, P. (1981) Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Thompson, J. trans and ed, 186.