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.