Sadly, traumatic events in the form of abuse, harassment, community violence and/or environmental degradation darken our news headlines nearly every day. Research documents a startling prevalence of one particular aspect of trauma – childhood abuse and neglect. The National Center for Victims of Crime 2012 Fact Sheet reports that one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. In related research, the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) Study indicates that two-thirds of adults report experiencing abuse, neglect, poverty, or other forms of adverse childhood experience (CDC, 2014). Collectively this research suggests that many individuals who seek assistance from contemporary shamanic practitioners have some history of childhood abuse or neglect.
Gratefully, working to heal the impact of abuse, trauma, and violence is work that shamans have done for centuries. Shamans help individuals who experience abuse or survive traumatic events by recovering lost soul parts, releasing energies that became lodged in their energy field during or after the experience of trauma, and clearing ancestral or soul lineages that carry trauma imprints. Shamans help communities that have endured traumatic experiences by holding ceremonies to restore harmony and by transforming generational trauma. Shamans support the land and those in relationship to the land by clearing the imprints of war and violence that seep into the very soul of Mother Earth. Modern shamanic practitioners join this long legacy of healing work on behalf of those who have experienced abuse and trauma.
Current psychological research asserts that the experience of childhood abuse is a qualitatively different experience than many other forms of trauma. The application of this research has led to an understanding within our health care systems that we must modify traditional treatment approaches when working with clients who have experienced childhood abuse. Within traditional physical and behavioral health care settings, the outcome of these modifications is referred to as trauma-sensitive care (Bennington-Davis, 2014).
I believe that modern shamanic practice must also accept the challenge of working toward trauma sensitive practice. In particular, traditional shamanic interventions – soul retrieval, spirit release, and/or curse unraveling – often need to be modified to address the particular and unique dynamics that arise when a client has experienced childhood abuse. When integrating what psychological research has demonstrated into shamanic practice we can offer deeper, more profound healing that moves with greater ease for our clients who are survivors of abuse and for ourselves when working with these clients.
Before looking more deeply at the ways we can adopt traditional shamanic interventions in pursuit of trauma sensitive practice, it is helpful to have a general framework for understanding the impact of abuse experienced in childhood.
The Impact of Abuse
Despite the plethora of ways abuse can occur and the broad range of unique individuals who experience abuse, in my experience the impact of abuse moves along a relatively predictable trajectory. First, a child experiences an incident of abuse or violence. This experience of abuse in childhood is almost universally too difficult to manage. Children do not have the cognitive, emotional, or spiritual resources to make sense of abuse. Thus the next step in the process is the use of dissociation. Dissociation is the most readily available, easily accessible, and effective coping strategy for abuse. Consequently, most if not all survivors employ it as their first effort to cope with the onset of abuse.
The actual mechanism of dissociation is straightforward. Dissociation is simply the mind’s choice to shift conscious awareness from where we are physically located to some other location. We all dissociate to some degree. A simple example of mild dissociation is “missing” the exit on a familiar route because you are day-dreaming about something else. Similar to dissociation, guided imagery, mindfulness meditation, and shamanic journeying all harness the mind’s ability to shift its conscious awareness. By contrast, over time, dissociation becomes an automatic, instinctual response not the intentional and disciplined shift in consciousness employed when using guided imagery, mindfulness, or journeying.
Dissociation is an effective coping strategy for abuse because it decreases the child’s sense of presence and in-the-moment awareness, even though he or she physically remains in the overwhelming, painful, abusive situation. Eventually, the child returns from the dissociated state. At this point there are essentially two options for the child.
One option is the reality that the perpetrator, often somebody on whom the child is dependent – is unsafe and unreliable. The second option is to decide he or she has done something to cause the abuse. This option, though false, creates the illusion of control – if I am to blame, I can make it stop. Thus in an effort to create control, the child blames her- or himself and shame is born. The birth of shame leads without fail to the child fracturing her or himself into an outer self (mask) and a hidden inner self. This split is represented graphically in Figure 1.
The outer self or mask is that part of the child that he or she believes is wanted or desired by others. This can range from a quiet, shy person who never gets in the way or needs anything, to a super-responsible child who always does what is expected, to the family clown who tries to defuse situations with humor to anything in between. Each of these external manifestations is an attempt to stop or control the chaos and violence in the environment with the ultimate goal being to obtain love, comfort, and nurturing that is safe. The inner part is the aspect of the child that he or she believes is “bad” or “broken” and thus creates the abuse. Again there is a broad range of inner parts – loving, angry, sad, needy, clumsy – that get hidden in an attempt to secure love.
While self-blame is adaptive because it creates an illusion of control it is a myth and rarely serves to stop or even reduce the frequency of abuse. Additional occurrences of abuse further fragment the child deepening the separation between the outer and inner selves and likely creating fragmentation of the inner self. This deeper and more profound fragmentation of the child’s sense of self ultimately leads to dis-integration. This is shown graphically in Figure 2.
In summary, the process of coping with abuse leaves an individual fragmented or dis-integrated on multiple levels of experience – psychological, energetic, and spiritual. Fragmentation and disintegration leads to soul loss, makes an individual vulnerable to energetic intrusions, and compounds the impact of trans-generational imprints. The absence of integration makes it difficult to maintain healthy boundaries, manage emotions, develop intimate relationships, and live an embodied, soul directed life.
Let’s now turn our attention to how this fragmentation impacts shamanic practice and the ways that traditional shamanic interventions can be modified to support trauma sensitive practice for survivors of childhood abuse.
Soul retrieval is an ancient technique used, for centuries, by Indigenous healers across a wide variety of cultures to address the issue of soul loss. The essential beliefs related to soul loss and soul retrieval include: 1) experiences of trauma often lead to soul loss; 2) soul loss can manifest through emotional, physical, relational, and/or spiritual challenges; and 3) shamanic practitioners can travel to non-ordinary reality on behalf of a client, locate lost soul parts, and return them to the client thus alleviating the symptoms of soul loss. Beliefs about how soul loss happens, the process for conducting soul retrievals, and understandings about the imprint of the trauma and the returned soul part vary across diverse shamanic cultures.
Arguably the leading teacher of Soul Retrieval for modern practitioners in the west has been Sandra Ingerman. Her groundbreaking book, Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self offers a thorough review of the soul retrieval process. As outlined by Ingerman the essential aspects of a soul retrieval include 1) having a strong trusting relationship with guides, 2) establishing sacred space, 3) setting a clear intention, 4) travelling into non-ordinary reality on behalf of a client 5) locating the soul part (or parts) of the client that is willing to return and that is helpful 6) obtaining the soul part, and 7) blowing this soul part directly into the client’s field.
Notably for our discussion here, Ingerman suggests that soul parts return with all of the pain they experienced upon leaving. She suggests however that working through that pain is a part of the post retrieval process. By contrast, some traditions believe that soul loss happens to protect the client from the pain of whatever experience created the soul loss. As such, the returned soul part is absent of any memory or imprint of the original trauma. Of importance, neither Ingerman’s protocol nor traditions that fundamentally believe lost soul parts are protected from the impact of trauma translate well to the unique experience of childhood abuse.
Childhood abuse almost always occurs repeatedly over a period of time. Thus there is a relatively good probability that, at least, some soul parts have experienced abuse before they went away and thus likely contain residual trauma. As such, while a lost soul part might leave before it experiences the imprint of that specific trauma, with childhood abuse the soul part likely has the imprint of some trauma. In my personal healing process, and in several early experiences with my clients, leaving the client to integrate and work through the pain returned with the soul part was very overwhelming and destabilizing. To account for these issues, I recommend adding a healing journey when doing soul retrievals with individuals who are survivors of repeated abuse, especially childhood abuse.
After retrieving the lost soul part, I take the part to a healing space in non-ordinary reality. Here Compassionate Healing Spirits offer healing to this soul part – on all levels, all dimensions, and all realities. After the healing is complete, I return the squeaky-clean soul part to the client as has always been done. In my experience, the addition of this healing journey has made the integration of returned soul parts less overwhelming and more manageable.
Another challenge when performing a soul retrieval for a client who is a survivor of childhood abuse is lack of progress because of internal fragmentation. Recalling Figure 2, repeated occurrences of abuse can lead to deeper fragmentation between the inner and outer self as well as fragmentation of the inner self. In my experience each occurrence of fragmentation– initially with the inner/outer split and then splitting of the inner self – leads to an occurrence of soul loss. Thus if a soul retrieval is for a fragmented piece of the client’s inner world the client might experience limited if any noticeable impact of the soul retrieval.
This reality was brought home to me through my work with one client in particular. She grew up in a horrifically violent home and also experienced childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by her father. In one particular meeting during our time together, I was doing a curse unraveling to address the energetics of a repetitious very mean spirited thing she had been told by her father. As part of the curse unraveling, I was also shown to do a soul retrieval, which I did.
In the weeks following the soul retrieval, there was virtually no noticeable evidence of any energetic, emotional, or behavioral shift for my client. This was not the first soul retrieval I had done for her and it was quite unusual for her to experience no shift at all. What I eventually discovered was that I had returned the lost soul part to one of the client’s fragmented inner parts. Looking again at Figure 2, I had essentially returned a lost soul part to one of the small darker triangles seen at the top right of diagram. This inner fragment was not yet very well integrated into her conscious psychic space. Thus, the client was not able to access, in any discernable way, the increase in vital life force that resulted from the soul retrieval.
Because of this experience, I now ask my Helping Spirits to show me where I am returning lost soul parts. If the retrieval is for a fragmented inner piece and done as part of some other primary work (e.g. a curse unraveling or spirit release) I might not even mention the soul retrieval to the client at the time it is done. Rather I trust that the soul retrieval supports the client’s overall healing process and the impact of that will be revealed to the client when he or she is able to more deeply integrate the inner piece. If the primary purpose of the healing journey was to do a soul retrieval and I end up returning the piece to a less integrated inner piece, I will be particularly careful about how I share the healing story with the client.
The fragmentation that happens as a result of abuse makes survivors of abuse highly vulnerable to suffering beings and other spirit intrusions. It is vitally important while doing spirit release and psychopomp work with clients who have a history of childhood abuse to remain cognizant of the likelihood of inner fracturing. Specifically, the inner world of clients might be fractured enough that aspects of their self feel foreign to them. Even more likely there might be aspects of their inner world that they want to eliminate.
For example many individuals who grow up in physically violent homes experience an environment where anger – a natural human emotion – is confounded with violence – an unacceptable behavior choice about how we express emotions including anger. As such, when they experience their own natural anger, they fear that they might become violent. To prevent this from happening, they suppress their anger, thereby creating fragmentation.
Over time, clients can become profoundly disconnected from this aspect of their inner world – their feelings of anger. Because of this profound disconnection clients’ anger can be experienced internally as a “foreign” or “unwelcome” aspect of themselves. Again, these disconnected parts are reflected by the smaller deep colored triangles on the upper right hand side of Figure 2. Because the client has most of his or her conscious awareness in the outer self – working to get approval from the outside world – he or she can be very unaware of the internal aspects of psychic space that have been cast off.
Additionally, fragmented and disowned inner parts (often referred to as the shadow in shamanic work) invariably draw in like energies. Thus a client who has split off his or her anger will quite likely have suffering beings or other spirit intrusions with similar heavy energy present or even entangled with their cast off inner part. I have integrated two practices into my protocol for compassionate spirit release that help me maintain awareness of the possibility of disowned inner parts that belong to the client.
One of these is to hold the intention, whenever I am creating the container for release work of any kind, that only parts that do not belong to the client can be removed. I have established this understanding with my Helping Spirits, I repeat it when I establish sacred space, and when necessary I say it aloud to the client. This practice sets the ground rules for what is allowed as part of the work. Having this ground rule has kept me out of trouble multiple times.
Second, I have worked with my Helping Spirits to develop a process by which we work collaboratively to discern the difference between inner parts that feel “foreign” and entities that do not belong to the client. Now that I have this collaborative discernment process with my Helping Spirits, I apply this process before doing spirit release or psychopomp work or any kind. For me, if my discernment process is not completely clear I delay whatever release work might have been planned. I always want to make sure that I am 100% clear on how to track what belongs to the client and what does not belong to the client as this keeps me from unknowingly aiding entities that would engage in soul theft by taking parts of my client that belong to him or her.
Traditionally shamanic practice is confined to work in non-ordinary reality. By working in non-ordinary reality – whether that is lower, middle or upper world – soul level healing for an individual, a community, an animal, or the land is supported. When our human experience – body, mind, energy, and soul – are well integrated healing on the soul level has a “trickle down” affect bringing balance to other dimensions of our experience. This trickling down of healing from the soul dimension to the energetic and psychological dimension is more difficult for clients who experience childhood abuse. Because of the fracturing caused by the experience of abuse, and seen graphically in Figure 2, it can be difficult for clients with a history of childhood abuse to realize the desired and anticipated trickle down of healing from the soul level to other dimensions.
I find this to be particularly true when doing curse or contract unraveling work. Integrating simple somatoenergetic interventions can support clients in more fully integrating the soul level healing that curse and contract work has to offer. One such somatoenergetic technique that helps clients more fully integrate a curse or contract unraveling is a chakra clearing.
One method of performing a chakra clearing, is a relatively simply three step process – intention, identify, clear. Begin by holding the intention to identify energy related to the recent curse or contract unraveling held in the client’s chakras. Then using whatever intuitive sense you have (e.g. clairvoyance, clairsentient, etc.) scan the clients energy field, looking for the presence of grey or congested energy. Finally clear the blocked chakras either with the help of your Healing Spirits or by using healing with spiritual light. One might also offer a chakra meditation for a client as aftercare in this situation.
These are only two possibilities, among a full range of options, for healing work or client exercises that can help survivors of trauma more fully integrate soul level healing into their energetic and physical bodies. The key point is to be aware that fragmentation can impede the integration of soul level healing and to ask your guides for whether or not there is something else to be done that would support the client in her or his continued healing and integration.
Shamanic practice, as it has for many centuries, offers profound healing and hope for individuals who have been impacted by trauma and abuse. Because of the prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect, many of the clients that modern shamanic practitioners work with are likely survivors of childhood abuse or some other adverse experience. It behooves us to learn how to modify traditional shamanic interventions to account for the unique ways that childhood abuse impacts development. Implementing these modifications allow shamanic practitioners to offer trauma sensitive practice. Trauma sensitive practice in turn offers profound healing with greater ease for clients who suffered abuse in childhood. When this happens shamanic practice can offer medicine for the body, mind, and soul. May it be so.
Sources For ease of reading I will use the generic “child”. However everything that is discussed applies to the experience of abuse for adolescents. Moreover, experiences of personal violence or oppression can happen later in life. Adults can experience some of the same fragmentation though often this is mediated by earlier life experiences. The focus here is on the experience of abuse in childhood and the impact of this on development.
Bennington-Davis, M. (Nov., 2014). The Neurobiology of Kindness. Minnesota Psychological Association president’s conference. Minneapolis, MN.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). ACE Study. Injury prevention & control: Division of violence prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html#.
Ingerman, Sandra (1991). Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self. Harper Collins: New York, NY.
National Center for Victims of Crime (2012). Child Sexual Abuse Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics