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The Shaman's Work With Soul-Loss

by Jonathan Horwitz ©

 
   

 

For thousands of years shamans have known that one of the major causes of illness and other forms of imbalance in our world is soul-loss. A shaman is a member of the community who is able to change his or her state of consciousness and thereby come into contact with another reality, which he often refers to as the world of the spirits. The shaman knows the spirit world and how to move there. The shaman goes there seeking help and advise from his spirit helpers and teachers, both for himself and others in the community. Sometimes the shaman goes there to seek for a lost soul. If she finds it, she brings it back home, reuniting it with its physical body. This work is called soul retrieval. 

My introduction to soul retrieval came rather abruptly some years ago when I was in Inari, Finnish Sapmi (Lapland). A Sam¡ woman I was talking with said to me: "Someone has stolen my soul. Can you get it back?" For some time I had been working shamanically with power loss, but I had never gotten the job, either from someone seeking help or from my spirit helpers, to go out and search for a soul. Even though shaman's all over the world have been doing it since before the beginning of time, this was something new for me. 

What Is Soul? 
We are all born with the power we need for our lives. Some of this power is in the form of soul. While we are all brought up with the concept of "soul", many people are in doubt as to what soul is, or even if it really does exist. I generally think of soul as being our life spark, our essence, our life energy. From the animistic experience of the universe, all things have a soul, and by definition are alive. The shaman is aware of this, and, by altering her state of consciousness, is able to come into contact with these soul essences. By communicating with these spirits, the shaman can learn many things, and perhaps even ask them for help in healing. 

Most traditional peoples are aware that animals, including humans, have at least two souls. One of these souls is the fixed soul, the soul that belongs to the physical body and takes care of the normal body functions, for example growing, breathing, digestion, heartbeat and the circulation of blood, reproduction, and all of our natural bodily cycles. The second soul is often referred to as the free soul, or spirit, that which feels and has emotions, that which leaves the body at night during dreaming, or during a shamanic soul-flight. Indeed, some peoples, including the Inuit, are aware that each part of the body has its own soul, and the Evinki, the people whose language gives us the word shaman, were aware that human beings had up to seven souls, each with its own function. 

What Is Soul-Loss? 
Soul-loss is when some of this vital, free-soul essence leaves our body, thereby depriving us of our full power. Soul-loss can be seen as a built-in adaptive/ survival mechanism. Many wild animals, for example foxes and wolves, are known to chew off their own leg in order to escape from a trap . The human psyche (Greek for soul) will do the same. If life is too difficult, the part of the soul which is most affected will leave us. The main organism will survive, while the lost part drifts off. If we are lucky, it will quickly return. If not, we may never see it again. This is soul-loss. 

How Does Soul Loss Happen? 
It has been my experience in working with people that in most cases soul-loss occurs because we give our souls away. As stated before, each of us are born with the amount of power we need to live, but, in the process of growing up, of being socialized, something happens. We are taught. We are taught how to "fit-in", and our teachers, be they our parents and family, or school teachers, or playmates, or even the family dog or cat, all show us how the world is put together - in the way that they see it. Some of them try to teach us well, taking into account as much as possible who we already are. Others of them try merely to form us or control us after their own wishes. At a very early age we learn that if we respond to our environment in certain ways we will most likely obtain certain results, both positive and negative. In many cases, this leads to healthy patterns of personal interaction and development, if those who raise us are well-balanced, aware individuals. However, in other cases, the desire to please others can often lead us to be untrue to ourselves. 

Already in early childhood many children start to give over their power to their parents who have forgotten or never heard Kahlil Gibran's words: "Your children are not your children." If the parents are not well balanced, or if they have deep troubles of their own, it is often up to the child at an early age to attempt to achieve balance in the home. Sometimes this is impossible to begin with, and, sometimes, to be the way we think others want us to be, it means that we cannot be ourselves. If these conditions persist, that part of our soul which is ignored, or deprived, will leave. This is soul-loss. In school the desire to be accepted by our classmates will often cause us to do things which may not natural for us to do, for example, ganging up on the "different" one. This desire to be accepted all too often turns to fear of being left out. And later in life, to keep a lover or friend we ignore ourselves and our feelings in an attempt to keep the relationship in tact, because we have learned that being true to ourselves threatens the relationship. We suffer in silence, and by doing so we throw water on our own fire. What then happens to the heat? This, too, is soul loss. 

I once worked with a woman whose father had died when she was a young girl. Such a situation in itself often leads to soul-loss, but in this case the problem was further complicated by the mother's deep grief and resultant alcoholism. The daughter, in an effort to restore as much as possible the former secure family situation, tried in her own childish way to fill her father's shoes. Though she herself was also heartbroken, she was never able to express it for fear that her mother would totally fall apart, taking with her what little family structure there was left. This developed into a behavior pattern as an adult in which she was always helping other people, while ignoring her own needs, what psychologists today call co-dependant behavior. The shaman calls it soul-loss. 

 

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Saying Good-bye to the Soul
Soul-loss often happens in a vain attempt to maintain contact with someone who is leaving or has left us, for example when someone close to us dies. We hear stories of people who cast themselves into the open grave of a loved one at the funeral, that they, too, may go. And they often do, as a part of their soul leaves with the dead one. This was the case of one person I worked with who as a teenager put her picture in her dead father's pocket as he lay in the coffin at the wake, so that she could be with him always. 

We have all experienced the sadness of parting, leaving someone we love dearly, knowing that perhaps we would never see them again. In an effort to ease the pain we say: "A part of me will always be with you." And we mean it. We give that loved one a piece of our soul. But the sad part of it is that the object of your love can't use your soul. Indeed, it may add to her pain or even cause illness. And you are left with less power to handle the pain of parting, and many other situations to come after as well. Although heart transplants may work, soul transplants do not. A much wiser, and more loving, form of parting is to give back any pieces soul you may have collected from each other, thus, by saying good-bye to the other you say hello to yourself. 

Traumatic Soul-Loss
Soul-loss can also occur due to traumatic experiences, for example accidents (both witnessed and experienced), surgery, or physical and emotional abuse, incest, or intense pain. Violence in the home is also a major cause of soul loss, as are extended periods of anxiety. Many people have had out of body experiences, especially during traumatic experiences. The reason these are remembered is because the soul comes back. If the soul doesn't come back, there is no acute memory of the pain, only the dull knowledge that the incident happened, if any memory at all. 

Although many actions taken by one person can lead to soul-loss in another, the purposeful taking of another's soul is rare, though common enough. These acts are generally undertaken by people whose own soul is so damaged and depleted that the only way they know to get power is by taking it from someone else. These people often die at a young age, but generally not before they have caused great damage to others. 

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Casualties of War
Warfare is probably the single greatest cause for soul-loss on a global scale. Everyone loses. The civilians caught in the crossfire, their families and loved ones, to say nothing of the soldiers themselves, and their loved ones. Even the "victorious" soldiers returning home from war often have extreme difficulty in adjusting to civilian life again, and frequently try to fill up the hole in their soul with drugs and alcohol, sometimes turning again to violent behavior in their frustration. 

It is interesting to note that the Navajo have a special ceremony, The Enemy Way, for the returning warrior. It is designed to cleanse him of his experiences and reunite his spirit with his body so that he may come into balance and take his place in the community once more.

There are many other reasons for soul-loss. Very often there are well known standard phrases in our language which indicate this as well, for example, with the death of a loved one ("When my husband died, I felt that part of myself went with him."), an accident ("I was scared to death"), a failed project ("I put my soul into this work"), physical or psychic abuse of any kind ("My spirit was broken"), divorce, or the end of an important relationship ("She stole my soul"). Even a violent argument can lead to soul-loss ("I was beside myself with rage"). Indeed, our lives today at the end of the twentieth century in overcrowded cities with incompetent politicians and seemingly uncaring bureaucrats, runaway technology, and global pollution seem rife with possibilities for either receiving soul-loss or inflicting it. 

Surviving and Adapting 
Why does soul-loss happen? As Sandra Ingerman points out in her book Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, soul-loss is generally a matter of surviving and/or adapting. We all have our limits as to how much we can take. But what happens when we reach our limits, when we can't back any further into the corner? Then it is time for action. But sometimes it just doesn't seem possible to take the appropriate action. We don't have the power. "If I try to do something, he'll leave me. Then where will I be?" Or, "If I say anything, I'll get fired! Then what?" When this is the case, that part of the soul which reacts most heavily to the situation knows it is time to leave for some place safe, and does so, both for it's own survival and for the survival of the organism as a whole. 

An excellent example of this in my own life happened when I was drafted into the army in 1964. I had been actively trying to avoid the draft for two years, but finally I gave up. To my surprise, I was able to adapt to the army with relative ease. Twenty years later, when I had a soul retrieval done, I found out why: the day I became a soldier was the day I lost a very important part of my soul, a part which perhaps could not have survived in uniform. It was a part which I did not have, but could have used, for twenty years. 

Symptoms of Soul-Loss
The most extreme and dramatic form of soul-loss is coma. Otherwise, symptoms of soul-loss may or may not be immediately apparent. The first symptoms are often a felt loss of connection with one surroundings. Soon it becomes a felt loss of connection with oneself, a loss of being in touch with the body, a feeling of being empty, feeling numb, or not feeling anything, but seeing life go by as if it were a film starring someone else. 

Very often when people come to me for the first time they express it quite clearly. "I don't know what the matter is, but I feel as though I've lost touch with myself." If they have, it is a very serious matter, because it often means that they have also lost touch with their own internal back-up system, their hopes and dreams, their beliefs, their self confidence, and their own code of ethics. People who suffer from soul-loss often have a difficult time being honest with themselves, blaming other people where the solution to the issues in their lives often lies with their own actions. Lack of grounding is often a clear indication of soul-loss. 

Another important symptom is memory loss. A woman once said to me, "The only thing I remember about the last two years of my marriage is signing the separation papers." Repetitive negative behavior patterns, for example becoming evolved with the same type of partner with disastrous results, time and time again, often points at severe soul loss. People who suffer from soul loss often are attracted to powerful people in hopes that some of the power will rub off and fill the hole, instead of seeking to regain their own power. It is also a normal reaction for people who are suffering severe soul-loss to try to fill the empty space by taking soul from others. This often happens under the guise of repeatedly falling in love in an attempt to find a new life, or at least new energy to continue with the old life. The inability to find joy in life is a major clue to soul-loss. 

People who always have a reason for not being able to do the things they want to do, whose way is blocked, who feel fear instead of love - these people could easily be suffering from soul loss. People with soul loss are often looking for substitutes for life. Be it career, drugs, internet, sex, role-play, or alcohol, addictions are often used in an attempt to fill the gap left by the departed soul. Constantly seeking the quick fix is another hallmark of soul loss, as is, of course, the opposite: total apathy. As we all have seen, if not from our own lives then from the lives of others we know, these patterns of behavior almost never help the situation in the long run, and generally make matters worse. 

Shamanic Soul Retrieval
Although all of the symptoms described above sound like normal fare for the psychologist or psychotherapist, shaman's have been taking on cases like this in other cultures for generations, and are beginning to do so again in our society. The shaman's way of working, however, is quite different than the modern therapist's. The shaman does not try to use his own knowledge, abilities, cleverness or power to help his client. The shaman relies on her spirit helpers and guides to bring the power (energy) to do the work, and to bring her into contact with the client's own spirit power (soul) in order that it may be brought back home to the client's body. This means that the shaman must know her way around the land of the spirits, and that she has a powerful and clear working relationship with her spirit contacts there. This comes through having experience and trust. Once she has contacted her spirit helpers, the shaman explains her mission, and then follows directions. Finally, if all goes well, the shaman finds the lost soul essence and is able to bring it back, whereupon the soul is returned to its proper home. 

While this may sound very simple, in fact it is not, and there are many pitfalls. One of the most important things for the shaman to remember is to follow the instructions of the spirits. A classic case of shamanic soul retrieval which failed because of instructions not being followed is the story of Orpheus and Euridice. Interestingly enough, the very same story, almost to the smallest details, was well known amongst many native American groups before the arrival of European culture. 

Sometimes the events of a journey may be confusing for the one doing the shamanic work. I once did a soul retrieval for a friend in Denmark. One of his complaints was extreme memory loss from his childhood. All of his knowledge of that time of his life came from other people. On my journey for him, my spirits took me to a house that was burning. They took me into a room where there was a small boy, trapped by the flames. After we finally got him outside, it was clear that he wanted to show us something, and we followed him to the top of a nearby burial mound. Then my spirits said that I should take this child-soul back home to my friend. I did this, even though I had no clear idea about what was going on. 

As I told my experiences, my friend was clearly amazed. "When I was a boy, I didn't really like being in the home. I had a favorite place where I used to play, and that was an old burial mound from the stone age on my father's land. I was always going up there. Then, when I was about six, my mother accidentally set the house on fire. I was rescued in the last minute." After the soul retrieval he made a pilgrimage to his childhood home. Other people were living there, but it was the burial mound he went to, and standing there he felt complete, with his feet well planted on the Earth. And he began to remember. 

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Some years ago, a woman who had been on an introductory course with me called to ask if I would do a soul retrieval for her. I replied that I would try. When she came for the appointment, we had a long talk. It turned out that even though she was a mature woman she still had a difficult relationship with her mother, and was sure that her mother had taken some of her soul. When I made my journey to the world of the spirits, I was sent out to what is sometimes referred to as The Void, which could be described as a black hole in the universe of the Spirit World. I found her there, floating in a dream-like state. Aiding my spirit helpers, we brought her to consciousness. She seemed much younger, around twenty, and she seemed very satisfied to be where she was, and had no desire to return. "No one hurts me here," she said. Through talking with this spirit I found out that my client had fallen in love and quickly married at a young age in order to escape home, but it had been out of the pan and into the fire, and her rescuer soon had her in another prison. To survive, an important part of her soul left her. Eventually, I was able to convince this young spirit to return to its middle-aged body. 

In talking with the woman about this afterwards, she was surprised. "How could you know about that? Yes, it was a disaster, but I thought I'd gotten over that years ago. But it did change my life. I've never had a lasting relationship since then. I've always blamed it on my mother's pestering." My spirit helpers had told me that she should have two more soul retrievals done, and we did them over the following year. It turned out that her mother did have a piece of her soul, and she had a piece of her mother's which were exchanged. The last piece I found in the non-ordinary reality of the middle-world on the street where she lived, looking for her home. 

There were several lessons here for me. The first was that one doesn't always find what one is looking for, but sometimes something else entirely. Often people will want a certain spirit essence returned. Soul retrieval is not commission work. The spirits decide. Sometimes I have felt that the person coming to me badly needed a soul retrieval, but my teachers in the spirit world made it clear that the time wasn't right, that other work needed to be done first. Another lesson was that it sometimes happens that someone who comes to have a soul retrieval done is carrying around spirit parts of someone else. This is useless baggage which has to be removed - and returned! Finally, people who are on the mend, for example after the first or second soul retrieval, or some other successful spiritual work, often start to live their lives in a more aware way. The results of this are that their spirit starts to "call home" the rest of the missing soul power. 

Asking for Help
Often when people hear about soul retrieval it immediately rings a bell. Almost as often they ask, "Can I do it myself?" I feel this attitude reflects one of the major illness of our time - the illusion that we, as individuals, exist in a vacuum, independent of the rest of the community, the rest of the world, and the rest of the universe. It is this attitude which in the end cuts down rain forests for capital gain without thinking about ecological debt. The shaman works by asking for help. The person suffering from soul-loss must also ask for help. 

While it is possible to have a spontaneous soul retrieval, for example in a dream or on a shamanic journey, it seems difficult in most cases to purposefully do a soul retrieval for oneself, perhaps because what we call the ego so eagerly gets in the way. One client came to me complaining of fearfulness and an unnatural timidity. She was sure that she experienced soul loss after an recent automobile accident. She had made a shamanic journey to the site of the accident, and had fleeting glimpses of herself, but contact was impossible. When I journeyed to the site, I found her sitting in the tree her car had smashed into, swinging her legs. Her spirit complained that her host had been reckless, and was in the habit of taking un-necessary risks, and refused to come back. However, by promising on my client's behalf that changes would be made, I was able to get the soul to return. 

Care and Treatment of the Returned Soul
The most surprising aspect of soul retrieval is how powerfully it works. In most cases, the returning soul brings with it the power of the situation which caused it to leave, and this power must be welcomed home. This means that the client is forced to deal with those issues after the soul retrieval, and it is important to tell people this before they have the work done. For this reason it is also important to find out if the person coming for help has a support system, be it friends, family, or a therapist. If he doesn't, then perhaps some other form of treatment is advisable. 

I once did a soul retrieval for a client of a therapist I know. The woman and her sister had been victims of incest over a six year period from when she was eight to fourteen years old. Finally, she told her mother. Eventually it had gone to court, and the step-father had been found guilty. Both the therapist and the woman felt that they had gotten stuck in their work, and both felt that it was necessary to go deeper. The therapist suggested soul retrieval. I was able to bring back this woman's eight year old soul captured by her step-father, the vital innocent essence she had lost at his first intrusions. The therapist later told me, " It seemed as though we had to start from the beginning. Even though she had been over it a thousand times before, the depth of actually experiencing it all over again with the awareness of the eight year-old self was more than agonizing at times. It was hard, but it was worth it, and the work went much faster because of the eight year old's power." 

Fortunately, most of the people who come to me for help do not have such terrible stories to tell, but I am constantly amazed by what people can survive. Sadly, the way they have survived is through soul-loss, and surviving is not the same as living fully. To live fully, we must be whole, that is, to have all of our soul. To make sure that the returned soul stays, it is important that it is made welcome, and that the issues which arise as a result are dealt with in a positive way. To this end, it is helpful if the receiver of the soul retrieval is able to make a shamanic journey to the returned soul, so that they can get to know each other. If this is not possible, then it may be up to the shamanic practitioner, or a psychotherapist with knowledge of shamanism, to help with the reintegration. 

My own experience was that after my soul retrieval I began to have war dreams again. For some ten years after my return from the war in Viet Nam, I would often awaken from violent dreams which centered around my experiences there. However, I wasn't able to cope with these dreams, and finally they stopped. But after my soul retrieval they started again, and soon I began remembering events I hadn't thought about since they had happened. The difference was that, with the help of my wife and my returned soul, I was able to look at them, and take the teachings they had to offer me twenty years later. This series of dreams culminated after eight months, the length of time I had been in the war, with a key dream which opened the door to a new chapter in my life. 

Teachings of the Soul 
One of the major teachings many people mention to me after soul retrieval is what a valuable gift life is, no matter how difficult. They no longer feel that they have to indulge in substitutes for living. One woman half-jokingly told me, "It's really terrible! I have a much harder time lying to myself. I'm afraid she'll leave me again if I do." Many find that their returned selves will not suffer the abuse that they were subjected to before, and that they subjected themselves to before. Suddenly people, find the strength to start to look at their lives realistically, and to start to make the changes needed so that they can actually enjoy themselves. 

Another important teaching I've often observed is what I'd call "the step beyond forgiveness." The realization that the thing which caused so much pain, perhaps for years, no longer matters. Most importantly, people start to see how the things they do fit together and are connected with not only their immediate surroundings, but with the rest of the Universe as well. 

Soul retrieval, despite its power, is not a quick fix. Nor is it the automatic answer for all problems, and many of the symptoms of soul-loss could also be symptoms of something else. Perhaps the central idea of shamanic soul retrieval is to put people back into touch with their spirit power, and by doing so put them back in touch with the power of the Universe. Just because this happens does not mean that you will have a trouble-free life. What it does mean is that you will be equipped to face what comes your way. Recently, one man told me a month after his soul retrieval, "I feel that I'm here for a reason. I don't know what it is, and maybe I'll never find out. But I'm no longer afraid of trying to find out." 

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SUGGESTED READING:
Sandra Ingerman:
Soul Retrieval.  (Harper 1991) 
Mercia Eliade:
Shamanism.  (Princeton 1964)
Michael Harner:
The Way of the Shaman. (Harper 1980)
Jonathan Horwitz: Animism: Everyday Magic. In:  Sacred Hoop, No.9, Summer 1995.
Annette Høst: Blessed By the Moon.  In: Sacred Hoop, No. 10, Autumn 1995.

 

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