Soul Retrieval is a powerful topic for people walking the shamanic path. This article is about my experiences learning and conducting soul retrieval, but it is equally about doubt and wonder, because my thirty plus years on the shamanic path is ever and always about the flow between these two energies. I begin with a description of my training from twenty-five years ago:
It is 1992. I am in Taos, New Mexico, sitting cross-legged in a dim, wooden-floored room in a comfortable conference center. I am one of thirty people who have traveled from far and wide to be here, to learn how to retrieve lost souls. The shaman is teaching us how to travel to the spirit world, discover where the lost soul has gone (or who has stolen it), and how to coax it back into the person’s body where it belongs. This may require negotiation, or trickery, or a fight with the spirit that stole it. It requires asking the spirit world to teach you a healing song. It requires a large crystal to light your way in the other world. It is a seven-day course. I’m in the seven-day course because I want this. I can’t imagine anything more fascinating and worthwhile in this lifetime than helping someone to retrieve their lost soul. But inside, I’m moaning with doubt and fear.
Soul retrieval is a cross-cultural shamanic healing practice, remarkably similar from culture to culture. In shamanism, the soul is not, as it is commonly imagined in western theology, an intact being, trapped inside a prison of debauched flesh. According to the shamanic view, the soul is an energy field. The body is part of this energy field too – the part that is discernible by the five senses, as the nineteenth century visionary artist William Blake said. The soul is the part of the energy body that is not discernible by the five senses. The body is the densest part of the soul – the part that does not survive death. What we perceive as death is only the body’s limited, dense perception, and what we fear in death is only the body-based ego’s fear of what it does not comprehend. So in order to work with the soul, we need to “see” it using other senses. We need shamanic sight.
Soul retrieval acknowledges that, as we move through life, traumatic experiences can cause disruptions or breakage, or even shredding of our soul/energy field. Parts of it can split off and become lost in the other world, leading us to feel a general sense of absence, an un-wholeness, a pervasive feeling of not being all quite “there” — an aching ennui, a steady depression, a darkness (mild or severe) permeating our days and nights.
“Trauma” can take many forms. Violence, or accidents, or illness, or shocks to the emotions are traumas. But long periods of common humiliation can do it too – such as junior high school, or many office jobs, living in an addicted family, or living under capitalism. Living a life that you know is wrong for you, but living it for all sorts of very good reasons — like, “just six more years of this shit and I’ll retire with safety,” or “I have to stay in this marriage so my kids/parents/friends won’t think ill of me. Any of these sustained traumas can drive chunks of your soul away. Carl Jung said Western culture as a whole suffers from a loss of soul.
“Trauma” is a mythic term, meaning a trauma that seems mild to one person may be felt very deeply by another. The avalanche of internet news coverage, the depravity of politics, the surreal quality of the deadline and spreadsheet workplace – our lives are filled to overflowing with various traumas to the soul.
There is a darker side to this too: Parts of our soul can be stolen. Soul is life force — the animating force that makes us alive — and most of us have met people who seem to suck the soul life out of us. In shamanic terms these are soul vampires. Most of the time they are driven by envy, which is cross culturally recognized as the most powerful inducement for people to hire a sorcerer, or perform sorcery in order to shamanically whack someone else.
Envy can take many forms, but another word for envy is hunger. We can find ourselves in relationship with someone who is constantly trying to shave off portions of our energy so they can eat it for themselves, because they are hungry for the soul energy that has gone missing from them. Sometimes, people will try to slice off or steal our soul energy merely to keep us weak so they can control us, and continue to feed off of us.
My modern, logical mind wants to scream and run at these ideas, and call them horror movie fantasies. But I think about politicians who play on our fears in order to propel themselves into power, and then translate those fears into policies that suck life out of the people who voted for them. I think about advertisers who tell us a single repeating story: you are lacking power, and our product will restore your lost power. They are promising to return our lost soul, but they don’t really intend to. They want to keep us powerless to sell us the next product. That’s vampirism.
The 1992 workshop in Taos culminates with students performing our first soul retrieval on each other. I think about cosmetology school, and when the day comes to give each other that first perm or dye job. Everyone glances furtively around the room hoping to get paired with this person, and please God not with that one.
I sit with sullen Kaye, who has not spoken a word all week. I drum and tentatively sing my new healing song that I learned by lying in an icy stream for the twenty-five minutes the day before. I enter the other world with an animal guide close by, directing me.
After some difficulty swimming through a thick darkness, I come upon a six-year-old girl in a nightgown, squatting behind a rock, frightened. I ask her if she belongs to Kaye, and would she like to come back to the world where Kaye is waiting to welcome her. She shakes her head “no” and points behind me. I see a tall man with shiny greased-back black hair dressed in a military uniform with many shiny medals pinned on. He stands erect and menacing. I realize that he is guarding her, and will not let me bring her back. I have no idea what to do.
So I offer him some food from a bag attached to my belt. He eats it and perks up a little. I ask him if he needs help. He says “yes,” a little in disbelief. We swim together through thick darkness — my crystal lighting the way. We eventually come across a man who looks just like the uniformed man, but with a wild, desperate look. I don’t want to get too close, but I point the uniformed man to him. He goes to — himself, I suppose — and the two men, now somehow one man, vanish into the darkness. I swim back to the girl. She wraps her arms around me, and I am overcome with what will become a marker for me in all of my healing and prayer work: a deep feeling of grief released, of great sadness and weight lifted, a cleansing, like in that icy stream, and replaced by a light and joyous springtime breeze. Now, nearly every time I create a ceremonial space, this feeling sweeps over me, and that is when I know things are moving correctly. The girl and I swim back to Kaye. I complete the ceremony in the way we were instructed — by blowing the soul into the top of Kaye’s head, and then into her back.
I describe to Kaye the story of my journey into the other world. She is astounded and slowly tells me that her father was a tall, jet-black-haired ex-marine. She was terrified of him, because he wasn’t all quite “there.” Was it possible that I accomplished the freeing of Kaye’s soul piece by performing a soul retrieval on her dead father? My mind spins.
When I came back from Taos, I perform about a dozen soul retrievals for people because we are supposed to practice. I don’t feel right charging money for this work — an issue that is heavy with vitriol for many people until they decide to get over it. But I ask people to pay me in food and I end up with twelve roasted chickens. People always seem to connect shamanism payment with chickens.
After a dozen clients, I quit retrieving souls. Something about this work — about me doing this work — did not seem right. Was I afraid of claiming the role and responsibilities of a soul-retrieving urban shamanist? Did I feel it just was not right for someone trained for a week to be dabbling with other people’s missing souls? Did I believe that I did not have the personal strength, wisdom or power to deal with this powerful work? Did I not believe in any of this new-age crap? Was I afraid that some malevolent soul-eating force would grab hold of me, and that I would become a dead-eyed, stumbling, freak, babbling in the dark corner of the state asylum, the bloody tail of a freshly chewed rat hanging from my cracked lips? Did I believe that being trained in weekend workshops and occasional seven-day retreats made me a suburban shamanic dilettante, a well-intentioned new-age idiot? Did I believe that struggling with one’s power and how to use it is the core of the shamanic spiritual path — indeed of all paths? Did I believe that struggling against your call happens to every religious person who has ever lived? Did I believe I was called to do this work? Was I afraid of it? Yes. Yes to all.
Twelve years pass. I live life, get married, work jobs, and keep studying shamanism. I watch in dizzy, blissful, wondrous horror as my first child comes wriggling squinch-faced out of the cosmos of my wife’s body and into this world. That is still the most terrifying beauty I have ever witnessed, and if you ever need an antidote to male arrogance, merely attend a birth. I establish twice-monthly drumming and ceremonial circles and they thrive. But no soul retrievals. Until one evening Melinda from the drum group asks me if I know anything about this thing called soul retrieval. I swear I open my mouth and say “no,” but for some mysterious reason it comes out “yes.”
A week before Melinda’s ceremony, I had a flash-thought: I had quit soul retrieving because I needed to become a father before I understood life well enough to do this kind of work. Having children — the frustrations, the worries, the duty, the grief-laden weight, the devastating, unearthly love that comes with fatherhood — gave me a bond with the life force that, before then, was rather abstract. I look back before I had children, and what I was afraid of and what I thought I had sacrificed, and what brought me to my knees in wonder and joy, and honestly, it all seems a bit thin, like the difference between seeing a picture of the icy stream and laying down in it for twenty-five minutes until you begin to sing.
One of my teachers says we can only learn shamanism through wakan experiences – by coming into direct contact with Holy forces that show you unequivocally how simultaneously small and immense you are. Reading is valuable, and taking classes with teachers is important, but only being opened by the Holy can teach you, only relationship with Spirit can teach you how to work with Spirit, including how to do soul retrieval. Sometimes that opening is ecstatic, and often it is full of fear, grief, pain and confusion.
My last task before driving to Melinda’s ceremony is to drop my son off at his grandma’s house. As I walk with him along the back sidewalk to the car, I suddenly see an astonishing sight — a white-tail deer standing in the alley, looking at me through the wire gate. This is not a miracle. We live one block up from a creek that runs for miles through the center of the city, it is certainly plausible that a deer would make its way along that creek from some of the wilder areas fifteen miles in either direction, over the highways and rush hour streets and yards, and up our alley, to stop at the wire gate and gaze at me. This is not a miracle (is it?). But I have lived in this house for ten years, and have never before that moment seen a deer in our neighborhood, even while walking along the creek.
I turn to my son and stammer: “Deer! Deer! ” My son turns around to see, but it is gone. I dash to the alley, look in both directions. There! A flash of white tail vanishing around the side of the neighbor’s arbor vitae tree. It has gone between two houses to the next block over. We race between the houses and burst onto the front yard on the next block. No deer anywhere. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it was a — dare I say it? — a vision. Maybe I’m merely insane. Then a tiny red car appears out of nowhere, and sputters to a stop in front of me. The window rolls down. An old woman with the most gnarled nose I’ve ever seen, whose frizzy hair seems to fill the entire front seat of her clown car leans out the window, looks deep into my eyes and asks in a sandpaper voice: “Did you see the deer? Did you see it?” It’s not a question. It’s a test. I’m dizzy. Is this woman real, or a spirit?
Yes, I say, carefully, I saw it. She smiles. “Fukkin’ unbelievable. In the middle of the city. A fukkin’ deer. Bless the everlastin’ soul!” She cackles, the window rolls up, and the tiny red car squeals away. My son and I go back home, him complaining bitterly that I’m trying to trick him because he never saw a deer. To this day he claims I made it up.
Big Steve, the rationalist, says it’s just one of those meaningless experiences that my human mind, because it has developed over eons some evolutionary advantage of drawing meaning out of random flukes, has manufactured into a validating, so-called “spiritual” experience.
I don’t want to describe exactly what happened in Melinda’s soul retrieval ceremony. But one element fills me with wonder. When I brought back the piece of soul that was missing, I got a distinct feeling that it was not the only thing that needed to come back. I looked around in the other world, and saw a timber wolf wanting to come along. After asking it and considering it for a while, I invited it to come back as a protecting spirit for Melinda. A few days later, she told me a string of odd coincidences: for years she had carried a picture of a howling wolf in her wallet. She had forgotten about it until I mentioned the timber wolf at the ceremony. She had also forgotten that she had a little ceramic figure of a wolf on her home altar. Her partner, Frank, had, given it to her long ago. The next morning after the ceremony, she received in the mail a solicitation to adopt a wolf for Defenders of Wildlife.
Melinda wanted a soul retrieval ceremony because she felt that this would break a stagnating barrier that seemed to be holding her in place in life since childhood. A few months after the ceremony she called to tell me she was pregnant. Years later I performed her wedding with Frank as their two children looked on.
Writing this now, after moving into full time shamanic work for the last several years, I have this to say:
I do soul retrievals all the time now in my practice, and they hardly ever look or feel like they did in my week-long training. For example, I don’t use a crystal to light the way in the otherworld. I still think that’s pretty cool, and I suppose I could use it, but I just don’t seem to need it. Also, that healing song, given to me by that icy stream, has been with me now for all these years and has never ceased to be powerful and effective. I have many more songs now, but that one will always be special to me.
All ceremony – including soul retrieval – is about the resuscitation of beauty. We live in a culture that doesn’t understand beauty, and is afraid of beauty. Beauty is manifested spiritual power; it is the breath of the divine, almost but not quite made physical and palpable. All shamans are in the business of the resuscitation or nourishment of beauty.
In our culture, we confuse money with beauty, and status with beauty, and dominance with beauty, and this has caused immense damage to our souls, and when the soul is damaged, we cause damage to our lives and to the world. Institutional religion confuses beauty with obedience. We feel how this poisons us, but often cannot articulate it for years, decades.
Beauty, by its nature, refuses to be tamed by humans. Beauty comes not to obey our small ways, but to shatter the smallness that has been imprinted on us in so many ways. Beauty is a spiritual power, the breath of the Holy, and it does not arise from the senses or the intellect, but comes from beyond both. Beauty is what transforms us, what bends reality anew, what calls the soul back, for the soul does not wish to return to a body devoid of beauty.
So, let us be about this business of resuscitating beauty, in ourselves, in others who ask us to, in the world in which we live. It is a task made huge by our many generations of communal soul loss, so let us be about the task with patience and fortitude.