by Sinead Fine (MAHA)

“Remember, when you feel those things, it is not fear attacking you. It is God moving through you.”

Often there is a time when a person feels they have to look within. Not always… but often, this precipitates the Descent into Darkness.

This is a life changing process that can begin at any time, last for weeks, months, or years and ends as abruptly as it began. It involves changes so rapid that the person may find it difficult to operate in everyday reality. They die to their old way of being, in a painful journey that often leaves many scars. Afterwards the person has an expanded level of being, increased awareness of oneself and ones environment. Most importantly, it leads to union with the divine cosmos, resulting in gifts of power, healing and wisdom.

Since the dawn of man, when he first asked questions of the stars, moon, life, death and nourishment – this dark death has come upon him allowing him to evolve in tune with his spiritual searches. By touching on the divine, one plummets to the depths suffering psychological and physical torment. Christian mystics, Zen monks, Shamans, Sufi masters, initiates of Kabbalah and Buddhists have all gone through similar styles of dismemberment. Poets such as Mirabau and Eliot tried to convey in rhyme and sonnet while Holst explained in melody. Writers such as AE and Christinsa Grof spoke of visions while artists such as Blake and Bosch painted them.

In this article I will explore how people generally experience this descent and the reasons behind it. Non–recognition leads to ignorance, administration of Prozac and other depressants and the label of psychotic and insane on the individual. Those in the healing profession can educate the public about this transformational time and aid in the healing process.


DescendWhat causes descent? It could be something as simple as prayer, energy work, healing, making love or giving birth.

More dramatically it could be terminal illness, an accident, a near death experience or an operation. A serious loss of a loved one through death or separation has been known to trigger it off. LSD, Ecstasy and psychedelic plants have often begun the unraveling. Sometimes self help groups, counselling, psychotherapy and hypnosis can relive memories or pose questions such as ‘Who is God?’ or ‘What meaning do I have in my life?’.

Perhaps it began with an initiation into a religion, reiki, shamanism, land and deity-based beliefs, or a re-dedication to a childhood religion.

Here is an example:

You cannot sleep. You cry like a babe at the slightest thing. You have terrible nightmares of dungeons, skulls, abyss and the underworld. You may not sleep because of terrible insomnia. You get visions of bats, vampires, famine victims, descending staircases, dark transport that leads nowhere. You feel like someone is ripping your insides out, while you beat at your chest or pull at your hair. Rocking yourself to sleep, you are convinced you’re insane. Waking in the morning, you feel as though someone put you on a rack. Every bone hurts, and bruises cover your body. You look haunted in the mirror. You lose your appetite. You take in tobacco, drugs, food and alcohol to numb the pain. You crave meat where once you were a vegetarian or indulge in relationships to forget. Your chest aches, your throat hurts. Loneliness haunts you, for no one seems to understand – you don’t even know why it’s happening. You thought you were happy!

Then interspersed is spontaneous breathing and amazing visions. Electrical tremors run through your body. You have creative urges that keep you up half the night writing music or poetry. You feel union with the divine, understanding life completely. Yet the next moment you are paranoia personified where voices taunt and ridicule you.

Others see you crumbling, breaking the rules of normal behaviour. To them you are going mad. But in all the madness there is usually an understanding of a greater power controlling this. Yet you no longer have any control over your life – your work and relationships suffer. Loved ones leave, you lose your job. You think of suicide as a form of escape. You fear living, dying, your self, the world, and this nightmare.

One client wrote: “I try to hold onto reality, to not let go, but they tear at me with sharp claws, crying at me to become myself. My fears prevent me walking my path like a dense fog I cannot penetrate. What if people see into my soul and see what is really there? I change so rapidly that I no longer recognise my name or myself. Can I be condemned, called neurotic, insane of psychotic, when it is a power greater than I that controls my universe.”

Another client described the process as being on an anvil and being hammered into shape by spirits who want you to do work for them. Not very fair, but it echoes back to tribal societies and similar situations of initiation.

In cultures that had shamans, the above symptoms were usually seen as a calling. A psyco-cultural function that the tribe accepted as calling to be a shaman.

Illness, accidents or other factors could create a change in the individual. This change was often termed shamanic death or illness. The death is not physical, but the death of the person’s unawareness, lack of connection, and inertia. The death uncovers the ‘true’ self.

However, many were often frightened by the responsibilities which would ensue, and would hide their calling. But once called, the victim could not hide from the spirits and would gradually weaken or die if he did not accept his vocation. Sometimes shamanic calling was encouraged by wilderness retreats, vision quests, painful ignitions, confinement, death and resurrection.

Andre Nataf, a renowned scholar stated, “…to be initiated is to truly begin to live.” The process could be terrifying but the end result was clarity and wisdom. According to Joseph Campbell and anthropologists Marvin Harris and Michael Harner, there are stages, which can be summarised as follows:

  • One – Descent into the Underworld, which included symptoms such as depression, hysterics, nightmares and even coma.
  • Two – Dismemberment and death
  • Three - Integration of new persona and great significant teachings.

In modern day terms it could be described shamanically with emphasis on what will be gained from the experience, once it is over. It could also be described in Jungian terms.

According to June we access the divine archetypal drama, the world of myth. For example it could be compared to The Quest of the Hero, who sets off on the perilous journey, through trials to return scarred but wiser and with the end product whether it be a fleece or grail. Or compare it to The Descent of the Goddess, (In myths such as Inanna’s descent or Persophone’s abduction), where she has to sacrifice everything for archaic knowledge. The rites of Isis and Osiris, or the Orphic cult, are other descriptions of this state, as is the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Corybantic rites.

To make the descent or journey is to burn away all from your bones. The underworld creates conflict and metaphoric death, from which one is hopefully reborn.

There is the danger, however, of getting stuck. Stanislav Grof maintains that though a frightening process, if the person is supported, confronted and allowed to integrate the process it can be evolutionary.

‘What is actually disappearing is not ones reasoning ability, although it may seem that way for a while, but the cognitive limitations that keep one constricted and unchanging…People can confuse death of ego with desire for suicide’, Grof explains. Some make the descent, but turn back prematurely. Change is too great, the pain too much, the journey too long.

They return to safety of the known – rather than to venture into the unknown. The danger in this however is it will usually return with more force at a later time, and then too overwhelming. Arnold Mindell states, “Either you become fluid, or nature erases you in its own way’. Therefore it is important that help be available. Perhaps there would be less suicides, addictions, depression and spiritual starvation if people going through the above could understand the process better.


Grof, Stanislav and Christina, The Stormy Search for the Self Harper SanFrancisco, 1991
Halifax J, Shaman, The Wounded Healer Thames and Hudson 1982
Harner, Michael, The Way of the Shaman Harper SanFrancisco 1980
Mindell, Arnold, The Shaman’s Body Harper SanFrancisco 1993
Nataf, Andre, The Occult W & R Chambers 1991