Soul retrieval

I’ve had a few review books about shamanism in the last few years. One of the concepts this has introduced me to, is of soul retrieval. When a person is deeply distressed by an event, a part of their soul can, in this perspective, be broken away and lost to them, which in turn will add to ill health, depression and so forth. One of the jobs of the shaman is to go and retrieve those lost pieces of self.

However, every book I’ve thus far read has suggested that we can heal ourselves and make the spirit journeys to pick up bits we are missing. The odds are your lost soul fragment will be at the place the trauma occurred, so you just spirit journey to there, and call it back, and reassure it, and bring it home. Easy! Umm.
The first thing to say here is that in genuine trauma situations, revisiting the memories is the worst thing you can suggest a person does. In cases of mild upset, revisiting will help resolve what happened, but do we really think mild upset causes loss of soul? Revisiting memories of trauma can readily cause traumatised people enormous suffering for no gain at all. Forgetting is often the best sort of healing for PTSD and encouragement to go back there is encouragement to go into hell and risk brining that hell back into your life. I worry about this advice, and what people are being encouraged to do.

Battered, lost, with my sense of self in tatters and my life in pieces, I did try some of this, in desperation and because I was told it was doable and a good idea. I won’t make any claims at all for my skills in journeying and I am no kind of shaman. I was entirely unable to help myself in any way by this means, and the revisiting of sites of old wounding did me more harm than good. It may be that someone who knows how to do the work could do that for me, but I cannot do it for myself.

However, what the last few years have also taught me, is that there are other ways to bring back my lost sense of self and put myself back together. Places of safety, laughter, love and friendship do far more to heal those wounds and tackle the feeling of loss than classic ‘soul retrieval’ work ever did. In remembering who and how I used to be, and seeking out the places of good memory, I have managed to re-find a lot of missing pieces. People who have been important parts of my life historically, and people who’ve come into my life more recently in good ways give me moments when I can quite honestly feel myself healing, growing over the holes, putting back together. Some of those have been really unexpected.

Whether you rationalise this as psychological process or want to think in terms of magic and soul doesn’t entirely matter. There is a process, and for me it has been a very clear one. Going back to the places of wounding just opens those wounds a bit further, feeding my feelings of loss, distress and anguish. Going to the places that are good for me, that feed my soul and remind me of who I am, and connecting with the people who allow and enable me to be something that feels like an actual me, not a fake, or a product of damage – that works.

We are far too quick to ascribe to ourselves titles that should represent years of deep and dedicated study. We are far too quick to tell each other that, once you’ve read this one small book, you can do all the work of the traditional witch, shaman, wise-woman… it is a dangerous line of thought to adopt, especially in face of any serious issue or wounding. When we are down and vulnerable, being told how to magically fix that is so tempting, and it is so easy not to question the wisdom of it, but it can be a costly mistake to make. It is the person being told they can do the shaman’s work for themselves, with no proper support from anyone, who is most at risk. This troubles me.

I wish that more writers of New Age handbooks took the time to find out about the impact of trauma and poor mental health. I suspect really these books are written for and by people for whom getting a bit upset is the greatest trauma they have known. We all measure pain by our experiences of it, but if life is safe, easy and brings little more than angst, it is not difficult both to treat that as far more serious than it is, so go and play at soul-retrieval, feel better and tell other people to do the same. It is not, I think, what the practice of soul retrieval was originally intended for.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

27 responses to “Soul retrieval

  • Running Elk

    Detest (hate would be too strong) that term with every fibre of my being. As meaningless phrases go, it has to be the worst that the fluffies have come up with. It’s not even a rough translation of what a shaman is attempting to do in such circumstances!
    As to being able to do such things on your own… I still find it incredible that they regurgitate this nonsense…
    Can’t wait for your post on the self-delusion… 😀
    Anyway, I’m free the fifth week in June and the vicar may be available… 😉

  • Raphael's Legacy by Barry Hardy

    I honour and respect the deep sincerity and both balanced introspection and external enquiry that you have applied within this post, there is indeed much to learn and much to guard against on all our healing journeys. I guess that’s why the safest healing journeys are those journeys in which the “soul searching” for healing is implored to walk the road of bones. For in doing so, the light before them is almost blinding at times, whilst the froth and chaff simply falls away before them in equal measure too. That said; very big thank you for sharing your insights, may your onward journey continue as is from your higher heart and may you always walk and heal within your own personal power, sincere regards, Barry

    • Nimue Brown

      “walking the road of bones” now there’s an evocative phrase. Going to the bones to find out what endures, where the core and the strength lie… that’s a powerful journey to make and something a person can imagine and explore on their own terms and perhaps in ways that will be more effective for that.

  • phyllomania

    Wow, doing one’s own soul retrieval?? Yikes. In my experience, you can have the healing work done, but it only sticks if you then do the living work of finding “places of safety, laughter, love and friendship,” as you say. Thank you for the essay.

  • Léithin Cluan

    Agree entirely. I think this comes from the appropriation of the concept of ‘shaman’ into societies which don’t have the structure to support the kind of work that these people actually do in tribal societies…

  • linda gaylord

    I think all those books should come with the disclaimer “do not try this at home”…I have enjoyed reading your recent posts about the books in your collection.I have had much the same feelings myself about magic and healing in the popular press in the last few decades.each person’s experience is chiefly their own–no two people are exactly alike,so their spiritual experiences are therefore inherently different and not repeatable by another person.writers write and healers heal…

    • Nimue Brown

      Yes indeed, rather than active encouragement to go it alone, with a set up tht suggests all is safe and lovely… some warning that it may cause more harm than good and isn’t suitable for everyone would be a start.

  • hereisfaith

    I’ve been reading about soul retreival myself, but wouldn’t do it on my own , nor after just reading a book on the subject. I think, it’s irresponsable of any author to suggest such a thing in their book.

    • Nimue Brown

      Indeed. I think in a place of wellness, I would be wary and not pick up a practice like that, but, when you’re falling apart and someone who seems to now their stuff says ‘do this, it will help you’ it is so alluring, and there’s far less room to think critically. It is indeed irresponsible.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I have read some books on shamans, but I have also read some boos talking about native healers and my understudying this was a work of a very special person and even then with a training by another healer, hardly something anyone can do. This type of work required a trained healer, nothing less. I cannot even imagine someone attempting this for yourself for the vary reasons you suggest, the danger of redamaging oneself.

    Running Elk, I believe I have heard Indians refer to fake white shaman as plastic shaman.

    I have forgotten most of my life. Occasionally my sister will tell me a bit of it and then I understand why I have forgotten. I would not even let a psychologist or a psychiatrist try to make me dig those bad times up to understand the problem. Some things are far better buried. Meanwhile over a great deal of time I have became a usually happy person and that is fine as far as I can understand.

    • Nimue Brown

      Some things are definitely best left behind. Trepanning apparently has its uses, but I wouldn’t want to do that to myself, alone and unsupported either, and I think this work needs presenting more in that light, than as a safe little plaster for the soul.

  • Pixie

    I think we’ve read the same soul retrieval book. But, I do see value in doing the work – but as you stated, there are limits to the kind of trauma we are talking about. However, this going back and revisiting the trauma is also something done in cognitive therapy as sometimes there are patterns that initiate from it. As a PTSD sufferer I would LOVE to forget: but I cannot forget, I can only learn from those experiences and learn to let them go.
    But I do agree with your basic premise that this kind of work really probably shouldn’t be done alone, or at all for some individuals.

    • Nimue Brown

      There’s another thing, because no two of us are quite the same in what we’ve been through and what we need, and the less nuanced the advice is, the less helpful its bound to be. For some of us, the most important lesson is to establish that what happened was not normal, or typical and that we do not need to go round expecting it to happen again, victims of one-off horrors. Some people cope best by understanding what happened and why. I get most mileage out of just not thinking about it. Some warning that it isn’t for everyone would make the advice on how to do it safer.

  • Sylvia Pearson

    Absolutely not on your own, but have done this as part of a structured learning, where it has to be safe and protected to go looking anyway. It isn’t a one off eureka, but it’s a framework I have found very useful and healing in a sustained way and you don’t go anywhere unless your readying for the work.

    • Nimue Brown

      I can imagine that with support, a framework, a teacher this would be a whole other experience. Possibly even with better teaching in book form and better written advice, there would be more scope, but some of what’s out there, worries me.

  • Hilde

    I’m one of those people who put in years of training with a reputable shamanic practitioner (Caitlín Matthews), and I’m still wary of calling myself a shaman and practice as a healer. Reputable practitioners DO NOT put soul retrieval techniques in books, because they require proper guidance and training. They advise people to seek out a live teacher.
    Secondly, lost soul parts rarely (in my limited experience never) stay at the place of trauma. They run and hide, often very far away. They need reassurance that it’s OK to come back home, and often there are conditions the person will need to fulfil. If this doesn’t happen, the soul part may indeed leave again.
    Thirdly, trying to do anything but a centring meditation for yourself is a bit like taking out your own inflamed appendix. It has been done, but it’s far from ideal and you’d have to really know what you are doing.
    I could go on for hours. You are so right, Nimue. Suggesting to vulnerable people that they try healing their own traumas in this way is deeply irresponsible.

    • Nimue Brown

      Many thanks for this insight.Part of the problem is that publishers are experts in publishing, not in Paganism, and do not have any way of knowing what is good content, and what is problematic.

      • Hilde

        Very true, Nimue. Also, they want to sell as many books as quickly as possible. They are no longer interested in the slow selling solid stuff. So they want fluff that can be turned into pretty coffee table books, or that are aimed at beginners. Writers like Caitlin despair and refuse to sell out in that way, so there are fewer good books among the fluff.

      • Nimue Brown

        That reflects wider trends in the book industry as a whole, which I find troubling. There is not much investment in depeveloping authors any more. I’ve been lucky to find a few smaller houses that are truly good places to be, but many publishers are simply prouction lines turning out a product.

  • Sam Staskiewicz

    If one has a model of soul retrieval that treats the soul as having a substance, soul retrieval is a very complicated business. I call this a sub-category of the mana family of spiritual conceptions. Everything is a type, located in a specific space and time. One has to be aware of properties and navigate conditions with great trepidation.

    There is another way. Its more of a network based conception of spirituality. Analogy:There is an account based setting with different sorts of services where you can sign out on all devices. Netflix as one example will let you order your account to be signed out from all devices.

    You may counter that spiritual stuff doesn’t work that way. I’m telling you that it can. In meditation you can uninvest in everything past present, distant and near. A great deal of stuck energy from anytime or anywhere will come back to you. Some may require awareness and processing, some wont so much.

    Rinse, wash, repeat. Probably some negativity and trauma using up our personal resources isn’t even about us personally and will drop off easily when we do a deep “reboot”. Other stuff will take time. You don’t have to deal with anything in its entirety at any given time. Always affirm you are safe and have time to sort and process.

    Being totally local, in time and space, but feeling everything truly you being drawn back in as though your a magnet. This could work.

    If things are too much to handle you may need helpers. Helpers are never far away

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