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Shamanic Concepts: Soul Loss

by Rev. Criss Ittermann, L.F.

"Soul retrieval" is a concept brought by Sandra Ingerman to Core Shamanism as taught by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, founded by Michael Harner. For more information, please consult The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, Soul Retrieval by Sandra Ingerman and The Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

The modern concept of soul retrieval is based on parallels from various shamanic cultures that relate to their concepts of soul essence and soul loss. Like many concepts from other cultures, one must set aside one's cultural beliefs long enough to grasp the different paradigms. Soul, in this case, is the way those cultures define it. The term "soul" is the closest English approximation of what they conceptualize. This is not the Christian concept of soul (a subtle body part which belongs solely to you and which will pass on into another life), although it has similarities.

Your soul, here, is your essence, a bundle of your spiritual energies. It's how the "molecules" of your immortal spirit connect to your conscious and physical forms. That connection can be lost. Essence can be lost. Generally it's lost through anything traumatic. This essence is conscious, and it also can choose to vacate due to difficult situations. This is the concept referred to as "soul loss".

Repeated oppressions, abuses, brainwashing, and so forth will often result in soul loss. Soul loss often occurs through abuse to a child, for instance, or by abuse from loved ones later in life. Sometimes essence can be frightened out of you for a time by a jolt, a loud sound, an accident, etc. A portion of soul is lost when there is a trauma to the body. When a dearly loved person dies, sometimes a part of your essence tries to follow them.

When soul loss occurs, the essence generally goes out of body and finds a place and/or time in the otherworld(s) where it feels safe. Occasionally it torments itself by finding a place in the otherworld to get stuck in the very situation which made it abandon the body. It can't get out of this time-loop, and needs help to realize that the situation is ended/over and it is safe to come home. Rarely, it tries to follow someone else around, either on this world, or into the afterlife.

If you lose all of this essence, it is thought that you die. Your immortal spirit is no longer connected to your physical form. There is no more essence of life in your body. Loss of much of your essence can lead to disease and disability (and thus possibly eventually death anyways), or to feeling like you're not whole, like there's a part of you that is missing and that there is something or someone out there that can fulfill you. Sometimes soul loss contributes to psychological illnesses. Often we seek out other people to fill this empty space, but sometimes it's our own essence that was lost and is missed.

In our culture, soul loss is occurring to various people all the time. Thankfully, sometimes the parts return spontaneously after time (after illness, grief, periods of withdrawal, etc.). However, most people are walking around missing portions (sometimes very generous portions) of their essence, partially because there is a lack of persons trained to note when loss has occurred and return the essence to the body.

Shamans whose cultures use this paradigm generally recognize the symptoms, or know the events in the lives of tribemates. They know when there is a portion of essence that must be returned to the body lest illness should result. A soul retrieval in a case where loss is known to have occurred generally takes place within 3 days of the loss, to prevent development of weakness and illness due to the loss of essence.

In the Core Shamanic teachings, soul retrieval is done during a shamanic journey to the otherworlds. The shaman enters a trance state and goes out of body to hunt down portions of your essence. If you've experienced multiple soul losses in your life (most of us have), then the shaman may bring back more than one piece of soul. Sometimes additional soul retrieval journeys must be performed several weeks later, after the new pieces are settled in.

People who are new to this paradigm may be helped by having the entire physical process explained to them, along with the subjective experiences of the shaman during the soul retrieval.

The shaman enters the trance state using whatever method works best for them: singing, movement and dance, calling on their spirit helpers, chanting, playing drums or rattles, using a journeying tape, etc. By the time the shaman lays down next to you, generally touching at arms and legs, they are in a nonordinary state of consciousness.

In the otherworld, while the shaman's body lays still beside you, the shaman requests the presence of a trusted guide for the journey. They ask the guide to take them to a portion of your soul which is ready to come home. "Ready" is relative to both you in the body and the soul part lost; if you or it are not ready to be reunited, that part will not be retrieved. On some occasions, the spirit guide may say "not right now, this person isn't ready".

The guide brings the shaman to the area, or gives directions or hints to find the piece. Sometimes the shaman must put their own essence at risk for you; it's their job, and the lost soul part realizes how important coming home is, if someone is willing to be hurt to get them. Sometimes it takes some convincing to get the soul part to come home. Whatever the shaman can do, they will, on your behalf. It's part of their calling as a shaman and a healer. Every soul retrieval is unique.

The retrieval itself probably takes about thirty minutes or so. All you must do is lay still, be present in your body, and truly welcome back the lost parts. It helps a lot to be ready for the unexpected.

The shaman will return your essence to your body, usually by blowing it into your heart chakra, then guiding you to sit up and blow it into your crown chakra. They will perhaps shake a rattle around you or dance around you to seal the essence in your body so that it does not get lost before it is integrated. They may hand you a crystal that they kept with them on the journey to help your returned soul essence to feel at home. They may sing to you or tell you a story afterwards, while the shaman is still in the trance state. Then the retrieval is technically over, and the shaman may come out of nonordinary reality to speak with you.

Generally the shaman will tell you some portion of their journey, asking if anything is relevant. Sometimes they see the events that lost that portion of spiritual essence. Sometimes they don't. Whatever you are told, it's your job to listen at that point, and to come away feeling love for the hurt part of you that tried to run away to protect itself. Generally it needs tender loving care, nurturing, and acceptance.

As your life situation improves (whether through soul retrievals or just your own work on your life, in spite of having not had soul retrievals), it might become more common for soul parts to return spontaneously as portions of your essence are convinced that your life has improved, and that they're honestly wanted back. Some pieces still might be stuck and blind to your current circumstances, and the shaman becomes the intermediary to explain to them that it's time to come home. Often you can't do this for yourself, as you yourself are sometimes part of what scares the soul part.

Having friends and family around who honestly want you to be and feel more whole, who honestly love you (all of you, even parts that aren't home right now), can be extremely helpful in a soul retrieval.