Interview with Jungian Analyst Carol McRae: Drumming and Ally Work

Interview with Jungian Analyst Carol McRae: Drumming and Ally Work

On February 22, 2014, the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco will offer the first of a series of eco-psychology seminars and workshops on the environment crisis. These workshops will be from differing perspectives but of one piece: the necessary crisis of consciousness in earth changes and what we can/must do. In this first workshop, Indwelling: Our Human Participation in the Dream of the Earth, analysts Carol McRae and Barbara Holifield will lead participants into active imagination states through drumming and authentic movement. Following is an interview with one of the seminar leaders, analyst Carol McRae, PhD. 
Carol, You approach the psyche in a particular way, using drumming and ally work. Could you say how you came to these practices? 

My shamanic emphasis with drumming and ally work began in 1979 with a dream of a snake jumping at my heart. I tried to deflect the snake, caught it behind its head. The next day I was to be diagnosed with breast cancer and I was afraid. I tried to find someone to help me understand what to do. I looked for help in an academic setting (through thinking) but found no help there. Further work with the dream in active imagination led me to direct conversation with the snake, who called herself Rosie. I have been guided by Rosie ever since. Drumming comes from work I did with a Lakota woman teacher at Rosie’s urging. Ally work comes from the work of another Jungian Analyst, Jeff Raff, who has written The Practice of Ally Work.

Could you explain what you mean by ally work? 

Ally work is an extension of Jung’s active imagination, which invites the unconscious to come forward to consciousness in whatever form it chooses. To find an ally, one develops this capacity of receptivity with a particular focus, that of finding an inner guide, a wisdom figure and connection to the Divine. Rosie is that figure for me.

How do you use drumming in this work?

I drum as the Lakota drum, at the rate of double the human heartbeat. This constant sound creates an altered state over time. From the state achieved, images, feelings, whole stories can emerge. A traditional shaman uses drumming to help her/him in journeying to the underworld, which bears a striking similarity to Jung’s active imagination. The shaman goes deeply into this state FOR the healing of the patient she/he is helping. I go deeply into this state WITH the person(s) I am helping.

Who have been some of your important mentors along the way?

Rosie, of course, is a mentor, a teacher of the highest order. As with Jung’s relationship with Philemon, his Ally, I discovered quickly that Rosie is not me. She knows more than I know and can teach me from her wisdom. Other mentors include Don Sandner, who I consider my spiritual father; Steve Wong, who taught me a combination of psychotherapy and shamanic practice; and Pansy Hawkwing, my Lakota spiritual guide.

What happens in ally work that is potent? How is it different from other ways of approaching the unconscious?

Ally work is particularly powerful because It calls up one figure to dialog with again and again. This figure may first appear in a dream as she did with me. The ally may also come forward in active imagination itself. By setting an intention or focus before opening to the unconscious, one can ask for an ally. Jeff Raff has outlined a helpful approach to this process in his book on ally work, which I use in my classes for helping people to find their own allies. As Jeff says, “An ally is a divine being, a face of God that is unique to each human being. Every one of us has an ally with whom we could live, but of course most people are unaware of this fact, largely because they have been cut off from the imagination.” (The Practice of Ally Work, p. 3) Active imagination is a broader form of contacting the unconscious which is receptive to whatever emerges from the unconscious. Dreams offer invitations from the unconscious to become conscious of particular material which it conveys. Art and dance offer ways to express unconscious material without words and may lead to greater understanding of particular personal material if approached as active imagination, an invitation to unconscious material to come into consciousness.

Do you have stories that you would like to share about your own work?

My work with Rosie has had its dramatic moments, although much of it concerns my everyday learning. During my first vision quest, in this case a 24 hour time by myself in a forest, I had a particularly powerful experience with a woodpecker. For six hours he pecked on trees surrounding where I sat, moving in a clockwise direction beginning in front of me and ending six hours later in the same location at which point he was joined by a female woodpecker and flew away. I considered him a spirit guide (not an Ally, because he was a member of a species, not an individual like Rosie). Ten years later at a new home shaded by live oak trees, a woodpecker flew into a window in a direct line to where I was sitting and died. When I asked him why he had come (in active imagination), he said he had been sent to tell me to take this work seriously. I was to get up each night when I heard a bird song which imitated a woodpecker’s pecking and go outside and speak with Rosie. I did this practice for about an hour each night around 3AM for three years. The woodpecker as a spiritual helper specializes in helping me get through difficult places. He opens a new space with his pecking.

Why do you think these approaches can help us in the crisis of the earth changes? 

This question is very important to me. I am very concerned about the crisis of climate change. It offers us both a horrifying possibility, the loss of much of the human race because we are destroying the earth system that sustains us, and an opportunity to develop a deep connection to the earth and a sustainable relationship to all that is in it. I feel ally work offers a way for everyone to feel a deep connection within themselves and to recognize all of earth and the beings on earth as related to them in a giant pattern of allies, our connection with the Divine. One of the major maladies of Western Civilization is loneliness, a break in connection with anything beyond oneself. Ally work offers a constant connection and a deep ongoing relationship. One is never alone again. Furthermore, the Ally, often an animal, connects one more deeply with the earth. Earth connection is what is lacking in our culture. We have thought of the earth as something to harness for our own purposes rather than a being to respect and relate to, to cherish even. All kinds of attention to the unconscious: dreamwork, art, dance, Jungian Analysis help to heal the split we feel between and within ourselves. For me, ally work, in particular, offers a way to heal and to dialog about what we can do to make this planet a sustainable environment again.

What advice do you have for those who would like to begin these kinds of work? 
I recommend reading Jeff Raff’s book and doing the exercises he describes. This can lead you to a sense of deep connectedness. The process is not always easy. He describes the resistances that may come up at each stage. It helps to join— or form— a group of people committed to exploring in this way. You can share difficulties and discoveries together. I encourage you to keep at the process; it may take time to access the ally and to stay connected to Her/Him. It’s worth the effort. Don’t forget how connected we all are to each other and to the earth and all its beings.