Neoshamanic Concepts: Soul Loss
by Rev. Criss Ittermann, L.F.
"Soul retrieval" is a concept brought by Sandra Ingerman to Core Shamanism, a neoshamanic spiritual framework, 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.
This concept is thought by anthropologists and neoshamanic practitioners to be the primary framework of trauma as noted by indigenous cultures. This framework likely developed in parallel across the Earth on different continents, in tribes that have been separated for tens of thousands of years. These ideas have supported informed trauma work and healing within individual indigenous cultures for many thousands of years, far far longer than psychology or even Traditional Chinese Medicine & Ayurveda have been around. These beliefs, their medicine and understanding of the world, spirit, healing, nature, and how everything interconnects is neither primitive, nor an accident.
Where neoshamanism and especially Core Shamanism as taught by Harner & Ingerman (and those they have trained) blends the commonalities between many cultures into one framework or understanding of this concept, individual indigenous cultures may have much deeper, ancient, or specific teachings and frameworks, religious beliefs such as specific beings, rites or rituals, and how to recover lost connections with much more colorful nuance to their beliefs around trauma. White people were given trust and wisdom by indigenous peoples, so that these commonalities could be woven together into a shared human framework that anyone can use to promote healing, and they deserve respect for the specifics of their tribal practices and sacred ways.
This article discusses the commonalities of the shared human framework called "Core Shamanism" by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. In no way does this article discuss any particular tribe's practices or the actual indigenous frameworks for trauma for any particular tribe or peoples.
A note on seeking out healing work in a neoshamanic or shamanic paradigm. Whenever possible, if you have the access, means, & connections, please go out of your way to seek out assistance (with cash in hand) from indigenous practitioners (whether they are tribally trained or neoshamanic practitioners). Help prevent the exploitation of ancient tribal arts & help correct theft from & oppression of indigenous people. Your absolute last resort should be to seek out white practitioners. When seeking trusted and trained white practitioners, note that the Foundation for Shamanic Studies does give back reparations to indigenous people in case that helps you find ethical practitioners. We do not offer paid neoshamanic services.
The modern concept of soul retrieval is based on notable parallels from various indigenous shamanic tribal teachings that relate to their concepts of what Sandra Ingerman called "soul essence" and "soul loss". Like many concepts from other cultures, one must set aside one's own cultural beliefs (and often terminology) long enough to grasp the different paradigms. Soul, in this case, is an English gloss for a concept in these paradigms, or another way of looking at it is that 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 in this sense 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, the connection to your soul essence can be lost. Generally speaking it's lost through anything traumatic. This soul essence is conscious (in shamanic theories, all energy is conscious, all things whether or not they are obvious in physical form have consciousness and spirit), and it also can choose to disconnect from conscious and physical form due to difficult situations. This is the concept referred to as "soul loss".
Repeated oppressions, abuses, brainwashing, and trauma will often result in soul loss the loss of this connection between self and essence. Soul loss often occurs through accidents and illness. It can also happen from abuse to a child, or fights with 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 disconnect from the mortal world to follow them.
In Reiki there's a concept of "No Time, No Space" Hon Sha Ze Sho Nen. This is not solely a Reiki concept: Albert Einstein noted that time was a human concept, that space itself does not exist as we understand it. All things are, right here, right now. We observe things in terms of time and space, but everything exists and just is. Thus when you understand this on an energetic level, you can do distance healing, or you can send someone healing for something that happened last week, or a surgery that will happen next week. This concept also exists in this neoshmanic framework as well. All things exist, here and now. We just observe them differently in our human form.
Thus when soul loss occurs, when essence disconnects from us, it can get stuck in our concept of place and/or time in the otherworld(s). Sometimes it gets stuck where it feels safe, or it can also get stuck in the very situation which disconnected it from our body. When it gets stuck, 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. Whatever is going on, it's not about what is happening so much as it is about recovering the connection.
In trauma circles we say that stuck parts or people are in the "There & Then" and they need to rejoin the "Here & Now" this is very much the same concept, although oversimplifed perhaps. Neoshamanism brings a much more recognized, authenticated, and deliberate framework as well as addressing the consequences of this disconnect of "parts of you" or "parts of the people in your system" and what it means to your overall health and well-being.
If trauma continues, new traumas ensue, if a person were to lose all of the connection to their soul essence, it is thought that they will be so disconnected from the vital energy of life that they will die. Their immortal spirit is no longer connected to their physical form, and that connection that all things have to their essence is what gives them existence. As more soul essence is lost, as the connections are lost, it leads to disease and disability, loss of will to live (suicidal ideation), or to feeling like you're not whole (depersonalization), like there's a part of you that is missing and that there is something or someone out there that can fulfill you (codependence, addiction, etc.). Soul loss is thought to contribute to many psychological illnesses, certainly anxiety, PTSD, depression, etc. 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 people all the time. Thankfully, sometimes parts return spontaneously after a time (after illness, grief, periods of withdrawal, etc.), and this is a good thing. However, many 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 help return the essence to the body. And as a culture, we are not taught to seek out this type of help when we experience traumas.
Ingerman says that shamans whose cultures use this paradigm generally recognize the symptoms, or know the events in the lives of tribemates, and thus 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, she says, to prevent development of weakness and illness due to the loss of essence.
In the Core Shamanic teachings, soul retrieval is done on behalf of someone in need of healing (a client, let's say) during a shamanic journey to the otherworlds. The neoshaman enters a trance state and goes out of body to seek portions of the client's lost essence. If the client has experienced multiple soul losses in their life (most of us have), then the neoshaman may bring back more than one piece of soul to help it reconnect. Sometimes additional soul retrieval journeys may be performed several weeks later, after the returned connections have 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 neoshamanic practitioner during the soul retrieval.
An area is set up, usually with a blanket on the floor, or a padded mat or futon mattress, and the client lays down flat on it, perhaps with a blanket to help them remain warm and comfortable.
The practitioner enters the trance state using whatever method works best for them: singing, movement and dance, calling on their helpers, chanting, playing drums or rattles, using a journeying tape, etc. By the time the practitioner lays down on the ground next to the client, generally touching at arms and legs, they are in a nonordinary state of consciousness (likely a theta brainwave state, around 7-8Hz).
In the otherworld, while the practitioner's body lays still beside the client, the practitioner requests the presence of a trusted guide for the journey. They ask the guide to take them to a portion of the client's soul which is ready to come home. "Ready" is relative to both the client remaining in the body and the soul part lost; if either are not ready to be reunited, that part will not be retrieved. On some occasions, the guide may say "not right now, this person isn't ready" indicating that either the client in the body is not ready, or there are no parts ready to reconnect, or possibly both.
Usually people do not request a soul retrieval unless something is ready to change, so the healing continues. The guide brings the practitioner to an area or time/place in the other worlds, or gives directions or hints to find the lost piece. Sometimes the practitioner must put their own essence at risk; it's their job, and through the hardship a lost soul part realizes how important coming home is (how dedicated and trustworthy the practitioner is, how earnest the client is that they want it to come home, how safe it really is, etc.), if someone is willing to be hurt to help them return. Sometimes it takes some convincing that the Here & Now is really safe to get the soul part to come home. Whatever the practitioner can or is willing to do, they will, on the client's behalf. It's part of their calling as a practitioner and a healer. Every soul retrieval is unique.
The retrieval itself probably takes about thirty minutes or so. All the client must do is lay still, be present in their body, and truly welcome back the lost parts. It helps a lot to be ready for the unexpected.
The practitioner will return the lost essence to its body, usually by blowing it into the heart chakra, then guiding the client to sit up and blow it into the crown chakra (as taught by Ingerman). They will perhaps shake a rattle around the client or dance around the client to seal the essence in their body so that it does not get lost before it is anchored. They may hand the client a crystal that they kept with them on the journey to help the returned soul essence to feel at home. They may sing to the client or tell them a story afterwards, while the practitioner is still in the trance state. Then the retrieval is technically over, and the practitioner may come out of nonordinary reality to speak.
Generally the practitioner will tell the client some portion of their journey, asking if anything is relevant. Sometimes they return with stories actually related to the events that caused that portion of spiritual essence to become lost. Sometimes they don't not all lost soul parts are stuck in a time loop related to their trauma. Regardless, the client's job is to listen at that point, and to come away feeling love for the hurt part of that tried to run away to protect itself. Generally it needs tender loving care, compassion, nurturing, and acceptance. Also, setting a good example by living a trustworthy life and taking good care of ourself is a good way to help welcome them back and help them see that life is good and safe and it's okay for them to stick around.
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 practitioner 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 safe friends and family around you 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 after a soul retrieval as well.
For more about soul retrievals and the neoshamanic perspective/lens for plurals & multiples in particular, please see our article at Kinhost.org.
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