Soul Loss and Soul Retrieval
As an unconventional psychospiritual intervention, shamanic healing has been reported to heal all kinds of grief and depression, even depression that has lived within the client for years. Soul retrieval is of special interest. Soul retrieval is a spiritual technique in which the shaman journeys on behalf of the client to the Spirit World to retrieve parts of the client’s soul or spirit that fled the person when a trauma occurred. When the shaman returns the essence of the client’s soul part to him or her, healing takes place. This sort of traumatic intervention has been performed for centuries in indigenous cultures the world over, and is reported very effective by those who have experienced it (Ingerman, 1991). The description of soul loss “shows remarkable similarities to what contemporary psychology calls ‘dissociation’…in that human beings can split off parts their psyche in response to trauma” (McKinnon, 2012, p. 189-190).
The Shamanic Journey
“The ability to enter altered states appears to be a learnable skill,” and with practice becomes easier and easier. Indeed, shamans have developed a “technology of the sacred for modifying consciousness” (Scotton, 1996), which actually seems to be what the human brain is designed to do — easily enter altered states. We do it all the time: while driving, reading a book, watching television, or daydreaming. It is the human ability to enter an altered state of consciousness with ease that allows hypnotherapy to be so successful with most clients.
The shamanic journey may be a mystery to some, but, as McKinnon relates, most “therapists are familiar with creative and guided visualization, and the shamanic journey begins as a visualization, but, in my experience and the experience of many clients, it leads us deeper and is more profound” (MacKinnon, 2012, p. 171). The client also journeys with spirit helpers, which are animal guides or other spirits. Very often the first journey a practitioner might recommend is a journey to meet a power animal or other helping spirit. We lead the brain through altered states through the use of percussion or repetitive sounds (usually drums and/or rattles) that encourage the theta state. The therapist could also use a simple trance induction to start the client off.
Journeying can be used for so many things. It’s a way to tap into the personal unconscious to learn about “our task in this world, our shadows, our spiritual selves, our connection with our ancestors, our essence qualities, and so on” (McKinnon, 2012, p. 173). The client can journey to find something that needs to be released or let go of, retrieve soul parts, discover solutions to an issue, find a power animal, heal an emotional wounding…the list is endless.
One caveat: the therapist should not teach journeying to a client with dissociative disorder, PTSD, or other severe trauma in the early stages of therapy. Care should be taken with a client diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. These clients may not have a strong enough sense of Self to withstand the altered state of consciousness necessary to journey into what dream shaman Robert Moss terms “the imaginal realms.”
A Word About Dismemberment
The client may experience a particularly powerful form of healing while on the shamanic journey, a healing event referred to as dismemberment. The person who journeys is taken apart in the Otherworld (sometimes down to the bone) by the helping spirits, and then re-membered, or put back together again. It is a sign of initiation and can be a profoundly healing experience.
Interestingly enough, therapist and shamanic teacher Sandra Ingerman considers depression a rite of passage, an initiation into the shamanic mysteries that requires ego dissolution (also known as dismemberment), entering the void, finding illumination or the reconstruction of the self, and at last the re-emerging from the darkness transformed and stronger, having released old parts of our stories that no longer serve us (Simon, 2014, pp. 152-153). The person then becomes the “wounded healer,” her own wound making her more compassionate and empathic and able to better help those with a similar wound.
Because of space constraints, this discussion only touched on some elements of shamanic practice and a few ways that shamanic methods could be integrated into transpersonal psychotherapy. Although shamanic practice may seem simple and straightforward on the surface, it takes many years of training to reach a level of mastery. As with any therapeutic modality, it is crucial that the therapist have more than a superficial understanding of shamanic practice before utilizing shamanism in the therapeutic relationship.
While existentialism was born of the human boundary situations of aloneness, meaninglessness, responsibility, and death, transpersonal psychology seeks to draw from the wisdom of each of the great spiritual traditions to answer and even go beyond the existential questions. The transpersonal field delves into stages of development and states of consciousness that take us beyond the individual into a greater whole. Shamanism, as one of those great spiritual traditions, can help our clients understand their connection to all of life and the universe; in effect, finding that the answers to those existential questions are to be found in the balance of mind, body, and spirit. Shamanic methods can foster successful completion and integration of spiritual emergency, which can ultimately move the individual into a higher level of consciousness.
(Excerpt from “A Transpersonal Approach to Existential Crisis: Shamanic Methods in Therapeutic Practice” (graduate paper)
© 2016 – Cindy L. McGinley. All rights reserved. )
Ingerman, S. (1991). Soul retrieval: Mending the fragmented self. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
MacKinnon, C. (2012). Shamanism and spirituality in therapeutic practice: An introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Singing Dragon.
Scotton, B. W., Chinen, A. B., & Battista, J. R. (1996). Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Simon, T. (Ed.). (2015). Darkness before dawn: Redefining the journey through depression. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.