Soul Retrieval: The Ancient Shamanic Tool For Healing Trauma, Releasing Emotional Wounds and Letting Go of the Past
BY HOWARD G. CHARING
shamanic healing techniques have been successfully used for thousands of years to help people miraculously let go of old trauma, emotional wounds, hurts, self-sabotaging patterns, energetic blocks, illnesses, diseases and more.
“The soul is not in the body, but the body in the soul.” — Alan Watts
For thousands of years the most prodigious philosophers, sages, and theologians have attempted to define the soul. A copious number of treatises and books endeavor to nail down this concept. Several definitions for the soul are in existence today, so to provide a working definition in a healing and transformative context is difficult but necessary; I refer to the soul as life force. This is the life force that animates our physical life on Earth. Our soul is metaphorically in the body, in our guts.It responds to life, to rhythm, to joy, to music. The purpose of the shamanic healing practice of soul retrieval is to gather as much of our life force as possible in order to live this life to the greatest degree that we can as human beings. In many respects, there is nothing “sacred” or extraordinary about this per se; it is a natural expression of life.
The Biogeometric Structure of the Soul
Circumventing the definition debate, my subjective perspective and vision of the soul, or life force, is of a biogeometric structure that contains our memories, our emotions, and our experiences from our very beginning in the physical world, the moment of our conception. I usually describe the soul using the metaphor of a three-dimensional tapestry with a geometric structure consisting of threads, fibers, and filaments. Each thread is a discrete element, a story or an experience that stretches back in time. In the process of shamanic soul retrieval, you are bringing all these threads of life force back into your being. In addition, these threads form part of a larger geometric structure that includes our parents and our personal ancestry, which also stretches back in time and is part of a larger, more encompassing structure, and so on. If you follow this to the ultimate conclusion, we are an integral part of an all-encompassing biogeometric structure, and I refer to this as planet Earth and, by extension, the universe.
When people say to me “I want to heal the Earth” or “The Earth needs healing,” I suggest to them that the key to this is in healing themselves. If we are an intrinsic part of the Earth, then personal healing and transformation are explicitly influencing the anima mundi, the soul of the world. This is nothing new or fanciful. The understanding that humanity is a strand in the “web of life” is part of an inspirational ecological philosophy of the Native Americans. As a pithy Lakota proverb puts it, “The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.”
Soul retrieval is one of the most effective and well-known shamanic healing practices to restore lost life force. The loss of life force is known as soul loss, and this can take place when we suffer a trauma, have an accident, separate from a partner, experience the death of a loved one, or go through a pervasive period of difficult circumstances.When we undergo a severe trauma, typically a part of our life force goes away so that we can survive whatever is happening to us. It is a way for the body and consciousness to survive the trauma. Problems develop when the soul part or fragment does not return.
Soul Loss: How it Happens
Often soul loss happens when we are very young and are without a frame of reference for the experience, and we are therefore unaware of the dissonance within our being and the unconscious disruptive patterns that repeat in our lives because of that early soul loss. In some way we are endeavoring to reclaim our lost life force by repeating and re-experiencing the emotional wound over and over again. This can be very painful to live through, but we need to know that our consciousness, in a consummate self-revealing function, is showing us that we need to restore our life force and heal. This is where soul retrieval techniques and meditation can become valuable.
Shamanism does not dwell on past events; there is only a vast, awesome, ever-moving, great moment of now in which there is no separate past, present, or future. During a shamanic healing session, a practitioner can journey outside of linear time to go to the place where that traumatic event is still occurring for a person, locate that person’s life force, which is held in that energetic event, and restore it. When this has been carried out, the deep healing can truly begin.
The concept of soul loss and the ceremonial retrieval of souls are found in many cultures. For example, in the Tibetan Bon tradition, one of the most important practices performed by Tibetan shamans of the Sichen path is soul retrieval, of which there are two forms—lalu, meaning redeeming, or buying back the soul (the vital energy or core essence), and chilu, redeeming the life energy (the energy that maintains the functions of the mind and body). These soul retrieval techniques are separate rites in the Bon tradition and are widespread not only in the Bon tradition but in all Tibetan Buddhist schools.
A number of symptoms are associated with soul loss; for example, people feeling that they are observing life as an outsider, rather than engaging and being fully involved; feeling that they are “spaced out” a lot of the time, not really present in life; experiencing pervasive fear, or an inability to trust people. I have also found that severe depression can be a symptom of soul loss. Chronic illness may also be a symptom, and this directly relates to personal power or life force. In the shamanic worldview, power and health go hand in hand. If the body is “power-full,” there is no room for illness or disease, which are often regarded as invasive forces.
Healing Trauma and Emotional Wounds
In my practice I have worked with many people who have undertaken considerable work on an original trauma but who remained stuck in their recovery. The concept of soul loss as a survival mechanism is understood and termed dissociation in modern psychology.The fundamental difference between soul retrieval and psychotherapy is that soul retrieval techniques focus on the return and integration of the lost life force, rather than on the original trauma itself. Psychotherapy does not ask, “Where is the lost soul part, and how do we get it back?” In my experience shamanic soul retrieval and therapy combine well together.
The most beneficial approach is first the recapitulation of the lost life force through soul retrieval, followed by therapy to support the person through the process of consciously integrating the uncomfortable feelings as they unravel and are released. The unraveling of the emotional filaments can be a challenging process because the person may experience the raw pain of the original emotions. This is a fundamental part of the transitory healing process. There is no shortcut; when deep wounds heal, painful feelings are released. However, this phase will pass. In Amazonian terms, this is called purging. It is a form of shamanic healing and liberation that allows a person to move forward and live a life of fulfillment.
A Story of Miraculous Healing With Soul Retrieval
Earlier I advanced the notion that the threads contained in our individual soul connect to larger structures, or fields, of consciousness. Here is a story (out of many) that illustrates this; the name has been changed for privacy. Helga, a German woman in her early thirties, came to see me with severe asthma, which she had suffered most of her life. I must point out that her intention was purely to relieve the asthma and not to pursue any soul retrieval exercises or related work.
As I made my initial energetic connection to her, I felt an overpowering sense of smothering, oppression, and choking. The feeling was so strong that it didn’t seem possible that it came from her. I started to energetically move through the layers of her soul tapestry, and as I followed a thread I entered Germany during the Nazi era. I saw swastikas and heard voices and the marching music of that time. Although it was all unexpected, I have learned through experience to trust my vision and intuition during shamanic soul retrieval work; after all, I was following the thread of her asthma.
I suggested that I take a shamanic healing journey to explore the source of her asthma. She agreed, and I started to journey. At my initial “conference” with the spirit guides, they issued me with a gas mask. Again, this was unexpected, but I put it on and moved through the entrance. I came into a town filled with thick yellowish pungent fumes. I walked around the town covered in this thick yellowish fog, and then I felt a “pull,” a kind of magnetic attraction to enter a particular house.
I went in and descended to the cellar, where I found Helga as a young girl of about eight or nine. She was sitting against a wall with her knees drawn to her chest in great fear and anxiety. I gently approached her, told her who I was, and explained that I was there to rescue her and take her home to her future projection. I speak German well enough to have said soothing words in her mother language. She responded warmly and was very willing to return with me and leave her dismal hiding place.
Through this soul retrieval exercise and journey, I brought her back. In that reality she was a little girl, and in our physical reality that little girl represented energy, or life force. I blew the returned soul part into Helga’s chest, at which she let out an enormous shudder. Very deep breathing followed this release. Helga immediately stated that she felt energized, clearer, and lighter in her body, and she didn’t have the feeling of being crushed in her chest.
Once she had rested, we spoke again, and she told me that in the town where she had been born and had spent her early years there was a factory where the poisonous Zyklon B gas used in the Nazi extermination camps was manufactured. She said, “Although everybody knew this, no one ever talked about it or mentioned it.” This young woman who had not even been born at the time of World War II had suffered what I can only describe as an existential trauma. Her lifelong breathing predicament connects directly to the poisoned atmosphere (figuratively speaking) of this town and its dark secret.
A few weeks after our session, Helga called me and said that the asthma had vanished, she could breathe well again, and she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her. She was very happy, and she said that the night after her soul retrieval she had gone to bed early and had had the best night’s sleep for ages. The following days she had felt joyful, yet with a tinge of sadness as some of the emotions relating to the retrieval worked through her. It took about two weeks until she really felt good about herself. She was delighted to have this confirmed by the people around her, who said that she looked radiant. I too was delighted to hear this.
This acted as a reminder to me that concealing dark secrets creates a soul wound, whether in the individual or the collective. The clear implication is that atrocious and heinous events in the history of a people or a nation need to be brought out into the light of day. The truth, however painful, can lead to healing and reconciliation. This concept is valid on both the personal and collective level and is an important aspect of shamanic healing, which recognizes both light and dark.
One of the essential characteristics of life force is that it contains memories, and in piecemeal fashion following a soul retrieval, memories join together similar to a jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece. The psyche does this as a way to shield the person from being overwhelmed at the sudden return of distressing memories.
Shamanic soul retrieval is one way to restore and maintain our life force and power. Through this technique we receive our own life force. Another way to maintain our life force is not to hold on to anybody else’s. In our lives, we take and sometimes hold on to the energy of others. Although this is often called soul theft, I find the term to be far too emotive and prejudicial; I prefer to call this soul entanglement. This is something that many of us do, and it should be looked at in a nonjudgmental way. In some respects, it is the other side of soul retrieval and soul retrieval techniques can still be applied.
Soul entanglement can be a learned generational behavior and often occurs within families. It is an unconscious act. In fact, if the people involved knew what they were doing, they might well be very upset and readily gravitate to shamanic soul retrieval techniques.
We become entangled with people’s life force in many ways, as these examples illustrate:
+ When we are jealous of another person’s position, abilities, or status. Envy is a common cause.
+ When a person wants another person’s identity or feels the need to be like him or her. This also occurs when we hero worship or idolize someone.
+ A very common way to take another person’s power is to judge that person. An additional facet here is that the judgment on another person reveals more about the person who is making the judgment than the person being judged.
+ When we overcare for someone, causing that person to become too dependent on us. This can result in the person losing the strength and will to support him or herself.
Soul entanglement creates a number of problems that may require shamanic soul retrieval work:
+ The life-force energy of all parties can become diminished. The entanglement becomes a burden, a weight. Interactions are sticky and inconclusive.
+ Relationships can be held on to, causing difficult, ragged, and unsatisfactory completions.
+ We may even take on someone else’s shadow and find ourselves working with another’s feelings, which may be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. The “shadow” in this context refers to the Jungian metaphorical concept of our unknown, even unenlightened, emotions that conflict with our conscious self or personality. These emotions are denied the light of expression within our conscious personality and hence are experienced as darker or as shadows.
Workshop participants taking part in the soul retrieval/release exercise outlined below have expressed the sensations of entanglement in a number of ways. One said that the soul parts felt like “barnacles on the hull of a ship holding me back and weighing me down.” Another said, “It felt like I was covered in clinging seeds and leaves.”
All parties experience benefits when we return another person’s life force through shamanic healing techniques. This is some of the most profound and healing work individuals can undertake. I get a lot of feedback from people who do this soul retrieval work, and I have been told many times about relationships between partners, parents, and children changing and improving. To provide a simple analogy, it is like an energetic tug-of-war in which both parties are pulling on the rope. When one person releases the other’s entangled life force, that person has effectively let go of the rope. Then when the other person responds, there is no more rope to pull or exert pressure on.
Even though we may understand this instinctively and would like to untangle and release another person’s life force, it may be difficult to recall or remember people’s names or faces. Either we were embroiled in an unpleasant event or, in most cases, the act was carried out unconsciously, without awareness. This is the clear problem.
The tools, methods, and practices of shamanism and shamanic soul retrieval can be very useful in this act of releasing. Unconscious memories are hard to access, while spirit guides and higher order consciousness provide a means to gain entry. Spirit guides and our higher order consciousness know us perfectly: they know our personal history, our strengths, our qualities, our foibles, and our personal symbology. (Higher order consciousness is the term I use to denote the universal interconnectivity of a vast infinite field of consciousness. We are an integral element within this field even though we may not perceive the wider field, in much the same way that an individual water droplet forms part of a raincloud.)
Soul Retrieval Exercise: A Ceremony to Release the Life Force of Those with Whom You Are Entangled
Embark on this shamanic healing journey with the intention of asking the spirits to tell the names, or show the faces, or let you know in any way you can understand the people whose life force you are entangled with and are still holding on to. This journey can be carried out in either the upper or lower world. You can also meditate with this intention and allow the insights to surface.
Allow yourself about twenty minutes for this shamanic healing journey. You may be guided by your spirit ally to a place where people whose soul parts you are entangled with are gathered, or you may simply become aware of who they are. All methods are valid in this soul retrieval exercise; there is no right or wrong way to do this. Sometimes people in the journey are guided to a lake and find reflected in the water the faces of those with whom they are entangled.
When you have returned from the soul retrieval journey, it is a good idea to write down the names while the memories of the journey are still fresh in your mind. Please keep in your mind that you should not judge yourself for the entanglements; it is something we all do. The difference is that you have an opportunity to restore the balance.
Now you know what you need to release and return. This can be best achieved by a ritual or ceremony or another shamanic healing technique. These methods have great power in this reality; they are ways of combining the heart, mind, spirit, and body in a single physical action and intention. Religions from all over the world have long recognized the importance of ritual and ceremony. They offer a means for us to communicate with spirit allies and higher order consciousness. In Western culture, we have forgotten that ordinary and non-ordinary reality belong together; they are two halves of one whole.
A fire ceremony is one option for releasing soul parts. This can be carried out alone or with others, and it can be very healing if this ritual is witnessed by friends. The participants can support you by using a rattle, gently drumming, or chanting. To start the ceremony, you need a location, preferably outdoors, that provides a way to safely contain a fire. If you are holding this ceremony indoors, you will need a metal or ceramic bowl and a candle. Feel free to improvise; a wok works well too.
Call in the spirits, ask for their assistance, and state your intention very clearly: “I am releasing the soul parts of others that I am holding on to.” Then, still maintaining a ceremonial space, tear the paper into strips, one name to a strip, and burn each strip of paper. As each strip burns, visualize, imagine, feel, sense, and intuit the soul part being released from you and returning to the person. After each name has burned, you may want to make an offering to the spirits to thank them. You can add a pinch of cedar or sage to the fire. The act of releasing and returning the life-force energy of others through shamanic soul retrieval techniques and meditation brings with it a sense of completion and a general feeling of satisfaction. To use a metaphor, it is like finishing a chapter in your life.
After completing the ceremony, it is still possible over a period of time to recall additional names, faces, incidents, and so on. This is normal. You have opened the door to these submerged memories. The fire ceremony can be repeated at any time.
This piece on shamanic soul healing is excerpted with permission from The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies by Howard G. Charing
About The Author
Howard G. Charing is an author and visionary artist who leads international workshops on shamanism as well as plant medicine retreats in the Peruvian Amazon. For over 25 years he has worked with some of the most respected and extraordinary shamans and elders in the Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Philippines. He has run training and developmental courses on behalf of the prestigious Foundation for Shamanic Studies and worked with Eagle’s Wing Centre for Contemporary Shamanism, one of the foremost training organizations in Europe. Visit his website: shamanism.co.uk