Belonging: A Shamanic Tale of Death and Unbehagen

by Ingo Lambrecht, PhD

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For shamans, the indigenous healers, death has always been related to the transformatory process of becoming a healer. This article explores this complex and close relationship between death, belonging and culture, and how this involves an Unbehagen in the establishment of a new identity, be it a shaman or a psychoanalyst.



 Introduction: Belonging in the Face of Death

  For shamans, belonging to a culture of healers requires a transformation that involves death: the death of one’s previous life allows a new one to arise. Among shamans, the connection of death and Unbehagen (discontents) has always been explicitly acknowledged as intrinsic to the transformation process; below I will use examples from shamanic material to illustrate this.  Becoming a shaman involves difficult changes and psychic work. And, I would argue, this is also the case for psychoanalysts. I use this transformation from layperson to healer to show the relation between belonging, culture and death. While the connection between shamans and psychoanalysts might seem unusual, Lévi-Strauss (1963) claimed the shaman as the first psychoanalyst. Both professions demand that those who wish to belong, and become healers, have to experience and endure their own transformation through their respective healing processes. Exploring these changes from a psychoanalytic framework allows us to think about what these professions share. The psychoanalytic lens is applied here not in a reductionistic manner, but rather as an invitation to think about these processes in one way among many other possible understandings. 

Belonging:  Death in Relation to Culture

     For psychoanalysis, belonging to a culture is not a simple or obvious achievement. Freud described this relationship as containing a fundamental tension – a tension between civilization and the individual – that arises out of the conflict between an individual's desire for instinctual freedom bumping up against culture’s opposing demand for conformity, a demand that requires us to repress our wildest instinctual forces. Our socialization and belonging to a culture creates an ongoing discomfort, a discontent, our Unbehagen. The term Unbehagen, often translated as “discontents,” fails to capture that sense of terrible unease suggested by the word in German and that I hope to evoke in this writing. Discontents and dread as Unbehagen hover within us, the price we pay for belonging, safety and productivity in culture; an Unbehagen generated through guilt and the law, a product of the superego, the same superego that becomes the container of the death drive (Freud 1929).

     Death holds a problematic position in psychoanalysis. From Freud, through Jung, over Klein, Kohut and Lacan, death has been minimized, reduced, pathologized, or repressed altogether (Razinsky 2014). Freud formulated the death drive, which is fueled with a self-destructive ethos (Freud 1920), but death drive and death are often merged even though they are clearly two different concepts. Freud was at first dismissive of concerns, or fear, of death (thanatophobia), interpreting them as expressions of unconscious fears such as castration or abandonment. Only one of his articles, which received relatively little attention, places death in the forefront. Published in 1915 during a most horrendous and traumatic war, he presents his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (Freud 1915). It is a discussion on attitudes towards death, which comprises a rejection and denial of death in the “cultural-conventional attitude.” For “primeval man,” and in the unconscious, death is wished for when it is the death of another, but is denied in terms of oneself.

     However, he later contradicts himself in this text and minimizes death, stating it has no place in the unconscious because it cannot be represented, and because fear of death is always secondary to other psychic factors. Freud goes as far as claiming that humans could not fear death because they have not experienced it (Freud 1915). Indeed, our grief and the processing of the death of others, loved ones and ancestors is no reflection on death itself. Nevertheless, Freud’s belief that the unconscious is unable to hold the positivity of death is debatable. Processes in the unconscious do not need the positivity of form or image to have an effect. We fear death without having it represented to us. For the infant, the powerful strength of a baby’s attachment results from the threat of non-survival without a parent (Bowlby 1969). The fear of death is present at the moment of birth, likely even before. This fear is a central response and has a profound impact on the relation of our unconscious to consciousness in the form of severe splitting or dissociations when we are faced with trauma. These powerful self-protective processes imply that our brains and bodies shut off and protect us from those overwhelming experiences that threaten our survival.

     Bowlby (1969) explored how the abject terror of unmet needs, and ultimately death, form the infant’s attachment. Babies are comforted through touch and caring, by the mindful presence of the omniscient parent (Schore 2003), who through their reverie or acting as a container, can help metabolize these terrorizing affects (Bion 1962) and create a safe holding space (Winnicott 1971), providing a secure base for belonging. Socialization and enculturation take place before children have the cognitive or emotional capacity to understand this process. But early on, children come to equate being good with safety, and being bad with anxiety (Sullivan 1953). Feeling safe and secure leads to a blanket of comfort and the possibility of keeping our terror of death at bay. For adults, the comfort of psychological equanimity against the fear of death is achieved by transferring this sense of security from parents to other “parental” figures, institutions, groups, cultures, beliefs, religions, and philosophies. Belonging, then, allows us the safety that protects us against the dread of death, or the haunting of Unbehagen

     Freud described the Unbehagen in culture as emerging from civilization’s repressive function. However, following my argument, belonging to a culture also can be understood as providing a sense of safety. It is a belonging that defends against a fear of death, a defense upheld by strong adherence to a culture, nurtured by feelings of security. This intense belonging, and the accompanying fear of exclusion, helps us understand why we can form such deep attachments to cultures, institutions or groups that become constitutive of our identity. Not belonging, risking exclusion, can trigger dangerous, risky and deadly outcomes – think of the early hunter-gatherer societies, where social exclusion led to certain death in the wilderness. On the individual level, internal feelings of dread against the ego, unleashed by the superego, because of transgressions (whether perceived or real), as well as the terror of loss of relationships that keep us safe, are powerful dynamics that keep us in line, following the law, belonging to institutions and identifying with societal roles. Belonging is now understood as seeking to survive in the face of a denied or split off fear of death. Unbehagen emerges into consciousness as soon as the individual is at risk of being excluded.

     Rank (1941) brought death to the center of psychoanalysis. His existential slant was already historically embedded in Europe through Kierkegaard’s (1844) work, in which he argued that human existential awareness of death leads to an overwhelming “dread,” as he called it, that we will inevitably die. For Rank, this dread not only propels us towards belonging in spite of our instinctual urges, but also becomes part of the productive and creative process of art, myth and philosophy, which are creative acts that manage the primary separation anxiety of the birth trauma. Culture, for Rank, is the creative attempt to master the fear and pain of separation anxiety, where death is the final separation. Rank creates a dialectical model, where we move between union and collectivity, and separation and individuation, and neurosis is the unresolved compromise of these two fears, the “fear of life” (Lebensangst) and the “fear of death” (Todesangst), “a fear of both going forward and of going backward” (Rank 1929–1931, p. 124), so common in neurosis.

     The “fear of life” is the fear of separation and individuation. The “fear of death” is the fear of union and merger, the loss of individuality. Both separation and union, however, are desired as well as feared because the “will to separate” correlates with the creative impulse and the “will to unite” with the need for love. Between these two poles of fear, the individual traverses a life, thrown back and forth. Unlike many psychoanalytic theories, for Rank fear cannot be traced back to a single root that can be overcome. 

     The anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973), in his work Denial of Death, incorporated Rank’s emphasis on denial rather than Freudian repression, and formulated a denial of death in the development of art and culture. Interestingly, Rank’s dialectic of fear of life and death has been experimentally tested in the form of the Terror Management Theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski 2004), which demonstrates a direct link between fear of death and a rigid conviction in relation to one’s worldview and ideology, thereby resisting different and, therefore, threatening worldviews. A challenge to our worldview triggers a fear of death that is masked though various defenses and emerges as a call and defense for our truth. “Acknowledging the validity of an alternate conception of reality, […] would expose them to the unmitigating terror of death that their cultural worldviews were created to mollify. […] From this perspective, humankind’s long and sordid history of violent inhumanity to other humans is understood as (at least in part) the result of a fundamental inability to tolerate those who do not share our death-denying cultural constructions” (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski 2004, p. 18).  

     Rank (1932), therefore, raises this important point of what makes it so difficult to shift cultures, when unlearning or breaking out of our conditioned paradigm from the inside is “a separation [that] is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas that one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom, and in some form, won over a part of one’s ego” (p. 375). Our identity becomes merged with what is true, and thus to challenge my truth, is to trigger a fear of death, which is managed by a strong defense of my truth, which at times can become fierce, irrational and deadly. These close and emotional attachments to culture and theories are witnessed among both psychoanalysts and shamans – certainly no less than any other religious, political and philosophical positions. Observe psychoanalysts at conferences, and the way some (not all) interact, with such intensity, ruthlessness, and biting critique, all in the name of truth, of course. Unbehagen stalks psychoanalytic conferences with glee. Observe some sangoma (shaman) meetings and you can appreciate Kleinian envy rippling through the relational networks. It has little to do with rationality. People do not shift cultures or beliefs because of reason and logic but rather because of attachment or belonging.

A New Belonging: A Passage through Unbehagen

     When belonging allows us a secure attachment and a defense against a fear of death, it begs the question: What happens when a person adopts a new culture? For example, how does an ordinary person become a shaman, or a psychoanalyst for that matter? What psychic work does such a transition entail? It is at this point that it is necessary to go beyond Unbehagen as merely being the result of a fear of death, but also to postulate and highlight the productive and creative aspect of this dread, as proposed by Rank. Rank (1932) formulated the function of creativity in art as a process of “stepping out” of a frame, a form of unknowing in the context of a prevailing worldview or ideology. He was the first to suggest that creativity enables us with the capacity to separate from internal mental objects, neurosis, beliefs, and internalized institutions. New ways of seeing and understanding emerge for the artist and viewer, giving birth to fresh perspectives and insights. It requires a form of unlearning and unknowing, which for Rank was a form of birth, a separation that is productive, even if anxiety and terrible unease, or Unbehagen, arise. Such Unbehagen arises as the secure safe base of old ideas is left behind, and the risk of being excluded from a culture is triggered. The very act of creativity holds within it the possibility of a new space, a space outside of culture, and thus dread or Unbehagen arises in such a space (Rank 1924-1938).

     In shamanism, we can appreciate this clearly, where this notion of shifting from one culture to another is often symbolized in terms of death, and expressed in stories, symbols and practices. In fact, to become a healer is to die and leave one’s ordinary life and become born anew. This is not a new tale – traditional societies have made this connection to death in the developmental process of becoming a shaman and have spoken of this since ancient times (Walsh 2007, Winkelman 2010). We see this, for example, among the Plain Indians of North America, where the experience of death and rebirth is found in the vision quests; among the Siberian Yakut, where the shaman becomes an observer of her own death in the form of dismemberment; among the Aboriginal wise men, who in visions see stones being placed in their skeletons (Halifax 1982); and among the South African shamans, the sangomas, who believe that the ancestors transform the novice from an old form into somebody new (Lambrecht 2014). For the sangoma, becoming the shaman requires the death of one’s previous life through an apprenticeship (ukuthwasa) that allows you to take on your new identity, but this process is feared, as it entails madness, insane pain, and acts of wild behavior; the more you resist the call, the more severe this process is. Death through madness is a real danger in this rebirth needed to become a sangoma, a process that resonates with Rank’s view that the core of madness contains the fear of death. During this crisis, the overwhelming and terrifying death anxiety, this Unbehagen has to be tolerated creatively trough therapeutic work to form a new life.

     Just as one has to go through his or her own analysis to become a psychoanalyst, apprentices enter a shamanic path by undergoing their own healing of the initiation crisis or illness. In my personal trajectory towards the sangoma tradition,[ii] which provides a living example, this began, as it often does, with an act of divination or reading to understand an illness or mental anguish. With this reading, comparable to a form of diagnosis and formulation, the illness, crisis or reason for referral is revealed to be the call from the ancestors to become a sangoma, to give up an old life and create a new one. Sangomas are accustomed to the resistance that many potential apprentices will have towards this call. But refusal is dangerous; it can lead to prolonged illness, deformity, madness or even death (Hammond-Tooke 1989). Such resistance forms part of the initiation crisis, bringing on further pain as the ancestors increase the initiation illness. The ego resists, does not want to give up an ordinary life, and often prospective apprentices mutter that the training is too hard, too alienating, too weird, and too expensive – familiar protests during a training analysis. The resistance is fueled by the realization that a radical life change will occur once the “call” is accepted. Among the Zulu, such an acceptance is called the ukuvuma idlozi, “the acceptance of the ancestors,” the beginning of life as a novice (Berglund 1976).

     An apprentice usually knows what it takes to become a shaman; your old life will be discarded, you will be cleansed internally and externally, and you will be separated out with various taboos around sex and food (prohibited from eating with others, no sexual contact), and different clothes, among other prohibitions. Old relationships will wither as new ones arise. Internally your world changes to the rhythm of fierce drumming and trances, while medicine dreams fill your nights. The aim is to create a new being that can be a clear vessel for the new relationship with the ancestors; new relationships with different parts of self or inner objects are all part of this journey and the shamanic healing process.  

    Many cultures and forms of training have integrated and navigated such shifts and thresholds in belonging through specific rites of passage. Maybe this structure is a way of making the Unbehagen of our transition bearable. With Van Gennep’s (1960) conceptualization of the “rite of passage,” rituals act as thresholds between life and death. Therefore, the rite of passage found in the training of the sangoma occurs in the context of a supportive as well as charged environment (Berglund 1976), similar to Winnicott’s notion of holding. 

     In this psychoanalytic reading, during the dialectical struggle of becoming and being, the ukuthwasa, as an apprenticeship, embodies, and can be interpreted, as a particular crisis of a person who is experiencing a dysfunctional relationship with the ancestors. The crisis is about the novice shifting from the old life into a new set of relations, namely those with the ancestors. In some ways, the thwasa (the apprentice) inhabits a liminal space – “betwixt and between” as Turner (1977) puts it – and in this space, Unbehagen arises. The crisis experienced during this process is an identity crisis, where the family and the old social identity are on one side and the new identity as an apprentice with the teacher on the other. This can cause and erupt into struggles of old identity and new belonging, as Rank predicted in his dialectic. The rituals for each stage play a part in the resolution of this conflict created by afflictions, separation anxiety, identity crisis and a continued feeling of ambiguity, along with ambivalence of the “betwixt and between.” The rituals function as stabilizers or containers of dread in the rite of passage. As an intrapsychic conflict, the ancestors could be viewed as directing the person towards a vocation, namely being a sangoma, in order to heal the split functions or aspects, or part-objects of the psyche.

     The story of the sangoma Nomsa highlights this. She told me of her long resistance towards entering the ukuthwasa. She fought off the call of the ancestors, until her fear of killing her own child through her maddening pain, as well as coming close to committing suicide, made her take up the training that healed her pain. Resistance to the unconscious material in opposition to the conscious material finds its reconciliation in the acceptance of the call to become a sangoma. The acceptance leads to an Aufhebung or resolution of the dialectical struggle, or resolution in the form of a creative and unique synthesis in the dialectics between complex unconscious and conscious needs during the initiation illness and training (Lambrecht 2014).

     In this regard, it is important to bear in mind Mircea Eliade’s emphasis on the fact that a shaman’s initiation crisis is not central in and of itself, but rather its purpose is paramount. He noted that the shaman “is not only a sick man, he is a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself” (Eliade 1964, p. 27). The shaman becomes the “wounded healer,” which many psychoanalytic schools consider to be an essential component of healers or psychoanalysts. Through the healing of their own pain, they are able to empathize, understand and heal more effectively the wounds of others. The way of the shaman as a “wounded healer” is an inner journey “resulting from a crisis of death and rebirth, a transformation of the profane individual into one who is sacred” (Halifax 1982, p. 4).

    In the revealing words of one sangoma, the aim of the training is “to remove everything that connects the pupil with his old life. We want to make a new man of the future member of our guild. […] We want to create another heart for him, a heart as the spirits like it. For this purpose we apply a cleansing process of the inner man by enemetics and purgatives until nothing of the former substance that kept the person alive is left in him. Then we clean the outer man by extensive washing and by inducing perspiration with the help of blankets and hot stones. We also apply the smoking cure, and by the time this is all over the pupil is as soft as wax bodily and mentally” (a sangoma quoted in Schimlek 1950, pp. 101-102). In this context, the novices learn about who they are, where they are coming from and where they are going (Hirst 2005). The Unbehagen during this shift is worked through in this therapeutic rite of passage. 

     Not dissimilarly, the ancient and modern shamanic tale of belonging and becoming finds echoes in the path of becoming a psychoanalyst. For the analyst, an initiation illness or mental anguish drives him or her into analysis, where the strange experiences of free associations, interpretations and analysis lead to old parts dying off, withering away or being transformed, while new inner relations arise. Here, too, a new being emerges with different relationships to inner ancestral parts. 

     As with sangoma training, by the time you have successfully become a psychoanalyst, the training and analysis could have paid off your mortgage. You accept taboos around sex and food, such as who you can’t sleep with, and who you can’t have over for dinner, even if you like them and often see patients more often in the week than family and friends. You can never lead a normal life again, and so you go to reading groups and conferences with other psychoanalysts, who understand how mad your world is, not dissimilar to shaman meetings, where your strange and ambivalent position in the community is appreciated. This entry into such a healing profession carries with it a discontent of being, an Unbehagen of where we come from, and where we might be moving towards, namely a new culture of healing.

Conclusion: Parallels in Passages

     Speaking as a shaman, I realize this paper could be read as psychologizing or psychoanalyzing shamanic processes. There are, of course, important differences between shamanism and psychoanalysis. I hope to avoid an either/or position on this, but hope to acknowledge and consider the psychoanalytic processes. If anything, I might be shamanizing psychoanalysis – perhaps to highlight the conscious awareness of Unbehagen and death in the process of becoming a healer. Both healing professions, from my personal vantage point, express their destructive and creative edges in an amusingly similar manner when it comes to protecting their culture in the face of Unbehagen.

     Shamanism could be said to share with psychoanalysis an offering to the patient of a myth or imagery, be it traditional or psychoanalytic, such as Oedipus. Not so different from the analyst, a shaman, as a “protagonist of flesh and blood,” becomes a “medium for transference” (Lévi-Strauss 1963, p. 219). Both professions have their own structured initiations – psychoanalysts have their training analysis, shamans have an initiation illness – often relegated to a “culture-bound syndrome” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013, p. 749). More kindly, it could be viewed as a spiritual crisis or a “spiritual emergency” (Grof & Grof 1989; Lukoff 2011), a strange entanglement of madness and the transformation, finding its expression in the ukutwasa of South African sangomas (Lambrecht 2014) or the matakite among Maori tohungas (Bidois 2012), all of which are analogous to the “dark night of the soul” of many Christian medieval mystics. The training analysis as an initiation illness is its own culture-bound syndrome, emerging from its own time and place.

     Accessing the world of ancestors is somewhat reminiscent of psychoanalytic work. Psychoanalysts equally hark back to their ancestor Papa Freud, while adhering to further lineages and creating new genealogies that coalesce into different schools – as do shamans. Psychoanalysts venerate the words of their ancestors in the holy texts of dead psychoanalysts, setting up institutes or temples in their honor. Instead of hearing ancestors as do the sangomas, the psychoanalysts read their words and stay true to their practice through veneration and training. Veneration is practiced in the name of survival and self-interest, purity, science and practices, through institutions such as specific schools, supervision, conferences, reading groups, and certificates. All of which reflect both the belonging and becoming of a psychoanalyst. 

     In regard to the psychologizing of shamanic practices, therefore, more of a both/and position has been taken here, and to use a shamanic symbol, this process of dying in order to become a healer is addressed from a “middle world” perspective in this paper. Visualize the world tree, found in many stories across the world, with the dark, painful, pathological underworld at its roots, the ordinary normal life of the middle world above ground, and the sacred upper world in the high branches. Shamans, like psychoanalysts, have traveled for themselves, and for their patients, from the pathological underworld to the normal middle world. This was the focus of this paper, namely what do shamans and psychoanalysts possibly share in relation to culture, death and belonging, with Unbehagen in the ordinary or middle world? Shamans are specifically trained to access the upper world through trance states, where death and Unbehagen are experienced even more acutely. This upper world of the sacred and paranormal is, of course, historically a touchy and ambivalent taboo subject for psychoanalysis. For shamans, this is a necessary world in terms of their training and identity. Perhaps psychoanalysts will come to familiarize themselves with it as the profession evolves. 

     As I have shown, one way to consider the relationship between belonging and culture is to wonder how the role of death and the related Unbehagen propel us. The aim in this paper was to highlight how the fear of death, articulated in a dialectical manner by Rank, explains the hold cultures have over us, and why we are prepared to fight and die for ideas and beliefs. Furthermore, the dynamic also highlights our creative capacity to escape or enter other cultures, and how this becomes a rite of passage across at times stormy dialectical processes filled with Unbehagen. This Unbehagen occurs both at the point of loss of culture and in the transitional rite of passage towards a new belonging. 

     From my shamanic perspective, the processes of becoming and belonging to a healer culture are always revered and honored, perhaps partly because these processes make us aware and ask us to overcome the Unbehagen that accompanies the change and transformation from layperson to healer. Dread and death, therefore, have always been part of a healer’s path. Perhaps in understanding this, embracing psychoanalysis and becoming an analyst could be understood as mirroring an ancient tradition, a tradition that has richly captured this process in stories and practices.



[1] Otto Rank, (1884-1939) was Freud’s right-hand man for over twenty years.  Especially relevant for this topic, he was a member of the secret committee or “ring” that defended itself against the heretics of Adler and Jung (Grosskurth 1991). Fearing for the survival of psychoanalysis, belonging to the “ring” becomes a defense against a fear of death, death of ideas, attachments, power, and identity of a specific psychoanalytic culture. This is often a denied and repressed part of psychoanalytic history, namely the cultish aspect of its culture, still unconsciously expressed by some followers today. However, the term “cult” is often used disparagingly by the establishment against competition. It is worth noting that without a dominant metanarrative, one person’s culture is another person’s cult.

[2] It is, of course, beyond the scope of this article to outline and capture the complexities of becoming a sangoma, as described fully elsewhere (Lambrecht 2014). Only some aspects of this process are brought to bear on this topic.



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Address correspondence to:

Ingo Lambrecht, PhD
55 Woodlands Crescent
Browns Bay
Auckland 0630, New Zealand

Ingo Lambrecht, PhD, has been a clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic therapist for over twenty years, and has practiced in South Africa and New Zealand. He works in the public sector and has a private practice. Currently he is providing clinical leadership at Manawanui Māori Mental Health Service (ADHB) in Auckland, New Zealand. Dr. Lambrecht has presented internationally and lectured widely on the complex clinical work regarding the cultural-clinical interface for indigenous people. He has published various articles and book chapters, and is the author of Sangoma Trance States (2014), which weaves personal experiences of being trained as a sangoma, a South African shaman, together with the complex relations of clinical psychology, anthropology, and indigenous knowledge.


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