For more than a decade, Sandra Ingerman has explored the use of shamanic journeying from a psychological perspective. During a journey on behalf of one of her clients, Ingermans animal allies introduced her to a healing method she calls soul retrieval after the classical shamanic practice.
excerpts from an interview by Roberta Louis
I was first introduced to core shamanism at a weekend workshop led
by Michael Harner while I was working on my Masters in counseling psychology at the
California Institute of Integral Studies. At that workshop, I learned how to journey
and contact my own spirit helpers in a safe way. I had a profound experience of meeting up
with a power animal who was able to answer a lot of questions that had been troubling
me. It was such an incredible experience for me that I continued to journey a few times a
At that same workshop, I met a woman with whom I started drumming once a week. I kept on taking workshops with Michael, and at one of his workshops, I asked if anybody wanted to join us for drumming and forty people responded. Before long, I was organizing drumming groups in San Francisco and Berkeley.
I soon began to incorporate core shamanism into my private counseling practice. Ive found that journeying is very effective in counseling, because it helps empower clients to get their own answers. After a few years, I started to teach workshops in San Francisco, and then Michael invited me to join the faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. I have not studied within any traditional shamanic cultures because Im more interested in shamanism from a psychological perspective than from an anthropological point of view. My main interest is in working with people in our culture.
A lot of what Ive learned about shamanism in the last eleven years comes directly from my own journeys, and my soul retrieval work is largely based on my own experiential process. My power animal taught me the technique in a journey while I was working with a client who was an incest survivor. Years later, I began reading literature on traditional soul retrieval and I was amazed I felt as if those writers in the early 1900s were plagiarizing my work. The fact that I could get the information I needed on my own, without having to go to an external source, validated the experiential method of learning.
I consider the soul to be the essence or vital nature of a person. Dictionaries, philosophers, and even the Catholic Church define soul as the essence of a person, the vital part that keeps a person alive so my definition is quite traditional. Soul loss is when we lose a part of our vital essence. In classical shamanism, soul loss often manifested as illnesses, comas, or near-death states and meant that the life force had left the body. Soul loss, as in modern times, occurs when a person suffers a trauma. For example, incest survivors often remember the experience of being raped or abused from the perspective of looking down at their bodies. Similarly, people who have had serious accidents frequently recall out-of-body experiences.
Soul loss is not necessarily a bad thing. Its a way for the body and psyche to survive severe trauma. However, problems develop when the soul part that split off doesnt come back on its own. The soul may have gone out so far and so fast that it cant find its way back. If it left because of child abuse, it might not want to come back. Soul loss in todays society usually manifests as a symptom called dissociation when people feel that theyre watching life as if its a movie and theyre in an observer role. In clinical terms, dissociation is the separation of whole segments of the personality from the mainstream of consciousness, which can result in feelings of estrangement and depersonalization.
Other common symptoms are when people feel as if theyre spaced out all the time or when they cant remember certain traumatic events, or entire ages of their lives. I can understand not remembering things that happened before the age of five years old, but when a person cant remember even one day of being nine, thats a signal something is wrong. Another symptom of probable soul loss is when people have themes, such as not being able to trust, that go on throughout their lives.
Addiction could also indicate possible soul loss. Ive found that when people have lost soul parts, they may try to numb themselves so as to not feel the emptiness within, or they may attempt to fill themselves up with something external.
Chronic illness may also be an indication of soul loss. If people are not fully in their bodies, they may not be vital enough to protect themselves from different illnesses, or they may be unable to keep spiritual intrusions from entering them. Chronic depression could be another symptom of soul loss, although it could also be caused by power loss.
There is a difference between soul loss and power loss. I define power loss from the point of view of core shamanism, which teaches that we all have power animals around us who protect us and keep us healthy. If a power animal goes away and another one doesnt come in to take its place, we experience a loss of power which could lead to chronic problems such as depression, illness, or misfortune.
If a person came to see me with chronic depression, I would journey to determine whether the problem was soul loss and/or power loss. I would ask the power animal who helps me in healing clients what the person needed at this time. Its often more than one thing not just a soul retrieval. There are three main forms of shamanic work that I do with people: power animal retrieval, soul retrieval, and extraction of spiritual intrusions.
Sometimes, if a person is too fragile at the moment for me to do a
soul retrieval, I just do a power animal retrieval. I journey into nonordinary to search
for a power animal if it is willing to come back and help the person at this point in
time. I am astounded how often clients confirm that the retrieved power animals have been
important motifs early in their lives.
Every soul retrieval is different. Ive done hundreds of soul retrievals, perhaps a thousand, and no two have ever been the same. Although there are guidelines, I always treat each person and each situation as unique. The key, for me, in doing soul retrievals is working with Spirit. The challenge is always how to move myself out of the way so that the universe can heal. I have a song that helps me raise my own power, move myself out of the way, and call my helping spirits to me. Then I use drumming either live drumming or a tape to help me reach a deeper state of consciousness where I can track the lost soul in nonordinary reality.
This work requires intention and trust knowing what you need to do and trusting that youre going to get the necessary spiritual assistance to do it. My intention as I go into the journey is to look for any lost parts of my client that would be helpful for him or her to have back at this point in time. Usually I feel a tug on my solar plexus, as if Im being pulled in a particular direction, and I follow the pull into nonordinary reality. My intention and my power animal help me track the soul in nonordinary reality, just as one would track an animal or a lost object in this reality.
The soul might be in the Upperworld or the Lowerworld, or it might still be stuck in the Middleworld at the time and place of the trauma. For example, the soul might still be stuck in the living room of the house where the childs father hit him. It might be stuck at the scene of an accident.
Usually when I find the missing soul part I experience it as a being about the same age the client was when it was lost. If something happened to a client at the age of four, Ill see a four-year-old child in nonordinary reality.
Next, I approach that part and talk to it. I try to be aware of its emotions whether its scared or angry or happy to see me. I ask that part if its willing to come back with me. If it says yes, I take it and continue my search, because often other missing parts may also be ready to come back to help.
If a part doesnt want to come back with me, I negotiate with it. For example, if it is a child that was abused, I might point out to it that the situation has changed the client is an adult now and can protect it from the abuser. I dont lie to the part, however. If I know that my client is still in a bad situation, struggling with alcohol or drugs or suffering from an illness, I wont promise the missing part roses when it comes back. I explain whats happening and then ask if its willing to return and help at this point in time. So far, in my experience, every part has eventually agreed to help. Often the soul part will even tell me how it can help. For instance, it might tell me its the strong part, the compassionate part, or the part that knows how to love.
Next come my biggest challenge. Its very easy for me to see the souls in nonordinary reality, but I find that crossing the worlds with them is the hardest part of doing soul retrieval. For me, it takes extreme concentration to pull the soul or soul parts with my hands from nonordinary reality into ordinary reality. I bring the soul to my heart, then I get up and physically blow it into my clients heart center. Next I help the client sit up, and I blow it into the top of his or her head. Again, I have to maintain extreme concentration in order to actually see the soul fill the clients body.
In core shamanism, we talk about three worlds the Lowerworld, the Middleworld, and the Upperworld. There are many different levels in the Lowerworld and the Upperworld, so its very difficult to describe them. For example, you might see a desert or forest in one part of the Upperworld, and then you might find yourself standing on clouds in another part. Incidentally, people learning how to take shamanic journeys are often surprised to find that these worlds are not the same as heaven and hell, and that neither world is better or worse than the other.
The Upperworld seems more ethereal to me. I might know that Im standing on something, but I might not be quite sure what Im standing on. The colors are lighter or brighter than in the Lowerworld. The Lowerworld is very kinesthetic for me. I can really feel myself sticking my fingers in the earth and I can feel the air on my skin. I can experience myself in nonordinary reality walking through a forest and hugging a tree and feeling the bark. Although a lot of people have that sort of experience in the Upperworld, I dont.
We probably have all had missing soul parts, but I dont think every person needs a soul retrieval. Also, soul retrievals are not something that a person needs to do once a week for the next five years. A lot of people ask, How many soul retrievals will I need to become whole again? I generally find that unless a person has very serious problems, one or maybe two soul retrievals should be sufficient. Theres usually one significant soul part, or perhaps several significant pieces, that a person needs retrieved in order to move toward wholeness.
Finally, I would like to suggest that soul retrieval could be used for planetary healing. Obviously, if we as individuals are whole and are acting in a life-giving way, were going to stop abusing and destroying the planet. The Earth is a living organism. I sometimes wonder if it is possible to retrieve the planets soul. The only way I have worked with this concept is to restore pieces of land that I felt had lost their souls. Sometimes when I walk onto a piece of land. Ill get an intuitive hit that it has lost its soul, so Ill journey for a ritual that I can do to help. I often feel my own personal work is moving towards looking at how we can use shamanic journeying to heal the environment.
I would also like to say something about community. I feel very strongly that the isolation and lack of real community in our culture has contributed to the amount of soul loss that were seeing today. During my research into how traditional shamanic cultures used to do soul retrieval, I found that they usually considered it very important to have community members present at the ceremony. I try to educate my clients about the importance of having a support system of people around them who care that the souls has come back. This need for community becomes even more crucial as we look at planetary issues. One of the most important ways of supporting our own wholeness is to join together with other people to work on healing the planet.
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Roberta Louis is an associate editor of Shamans Drum Magazine in Ashland, OR. This interview was printed with her permission, 541-552-0839.
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