What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? Shamanic soul retrieval


I think Jimmy Ruffin had a point.  For thousands of years, shamanism has been pushed underground and, with it, a very important role which the shaman used to perform: retrieving lost souls. This is why we live in a world today of half-zombies, the dispossessed and the preta or ‘hungry ghosts’.

As I walk this land of broken dreams,
I have visions of many things.
Love’s happiness is just an illusion,
Filled with sadness and confusion…

The fruits of love grow all around
But for me they come a tumblin’ down…

I walk in shadows,
Searching for light.
Cold and alone,
No comfort in sight.
Hoping and praying for someone to care,
Always moving and goin’ nowhere.

What becomes of the broken hearted
Who had love that’s now departed?
I know I’ve got to find
Some kind of peace of mind

Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown soul ballad was such a worldwide hit in the summer of 1966 because it hit a nerve ~ it sang to us of the human condition which is so marked by soul loss. And so the greatest contribution modern shamans make in helping to heal our fractured mind-body-spirit continuum, and our relationship to the Land, is in bringing back the practice of soul retrieval.

I’ll be explaining in this article about why and how the soul gets lost, and how the shaman brings back the lost soul, or missing soul part.

What is soul loss and soul retrieval?

A Native American shaman, interviewed by an anthropologist and recorded in Mircea Eliade’s seminal work: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, describes soul loss and retrieval thus.

“…the shaman is absolutely necessary, for only he can see and capture souls. In the societies that, in addition to shamans, have medicine men and healers ~ these can treat certain maladies but “soul loss” is always the business of the shaman.

“The flight of the patient’s soul may be due to many causes: dreams or traumas may have frightened it away, and the loss can cause sudden death.

“When someone dies suddenly, there is time to get a shaman. If the soul has not gone far, he can bring it back. He goes into a trance to bring back the soul. When the soul has gone a long way to the afterworld, a shaman cannot do anything. It has too much of a start to the Land of the Dead and he cannot overtake it.”

Mircea Eliade continues that it is in primarily in searching for the patient’s soul that the shaman uses his knowledge of the topography of the Otherworlds and his capacities for ecstatic clairvoyance.

The loss of a soul, which has either strayed away or been abducted by a spirit or a ghost, is extremely widespread in the Amazonian and Andean regions, but also to some extent in South America. Among the Apinaye, the shaman says that he goes to the Land of the Dead, who are stricken with panic and flee, whereupon he captures the patient’s soul and brings it back to the body.

A Taulipang myth relates the story of a search for the soul of a child that the moon had carried off and hidden under a pot. The shaman goes up to the moon and, after many adventures, finds the pot and frees the child’s soul.

These stories are told by shamans of indigenous tribes whose healing techniques derive from those practised for possibly thousands of generations previously. There is often a theatrical quality about them, and sometimes the shaman will act out the journey in front of the whole tribe, because the telling or dramatising of the story in the ‘ordinary reality’ is as intrinsic to the cure as the shaman’s therapeutic actions mirrored in the Otherworlds.

I can’t say that I’ve ever scared away the denizens of the Land of the Dead. In fact, I’ve always found them to be extremely helpful. But then I’ve never tried to retrieve a soul of a dead person. I’m not even sure that it would be approved of in our modern Western society.

What are the symptoms of soul loss?

Robert Moss, the author who writes about lucid dreaming, has produced a very good analysis of how soul loss affects us today.

“On a visceral level, we all know how soul loss comes about. We suffer pain or trauma or abuse, we are overwhelmend by grief or guilt or shame, and part of us goes away because it doesn’t want to stay in a world that seems so harsh and cruel. We are compelled to make a wrenching life choice, leaving a partner or a job or a home, and part of us resists that choice and parts company with our dominant personality, clinging to the old relationship or the old place. Soul loss deepens when we fall into depression or addiction or make compromises with the world as we understand it, giving up on our big dreams of life. Lacking the courage and confidence to make that creative leap, or to trust ourselves to love, we wimp out – and part of our bright spirit, disgusted with us, goes away.

“Good analysts and therapists can help us to recognize parts of ourselves we have repressed and denied, including the famous Shadow, the term especially favored by Jungians for what we have tried to relegate to the basement of the personal unconscious because we would rather not own it as a part of ourselves. The shamanic concept of soul loss reaches further. It recognizes that soul healing is not only about recognizing and integrating aspects of the self that we have buried or denied; it is retrieving pieces of soul that have literally gone missing and need to be located and persuaded to return and take up residence in the body where they belong.”

He goes on to add that, in his own practice, he has identified five different forms of symptoms, or complexes of symptoms, which indicate that retrieval healing may help.

•    Loss of vital energy ~ like ME or chronic fatigue
•    Loss of younger self ~ feeling old before your time
•    Loss of animal spirits ~ feeling separate to Nature
•    Loss of ancestral soul ~ feeling alienated from the ancestors or natural tribe
•    Loss of connection with the Greater Self ~ the Wasteland

There is a further symptom that I’ve identified in my practice, which could be called ‘continually revisiting the scene of the crime’. If the soul loss occurred through, say, abuse from a loved one, the person may continually find themselves in serial relationships with abusers. It’s almost as if they keep attracting to themselves the same unhealthy relationships or the identical patterns of life events because they want to keep revisiting the scene of the crime in order to discover what they’ve lost. Of course, the attraction of life patterns takes place in the subconscious and so they’re probably not aware of it.

How is the soul retrieved?

In order to recover the soul, or part of the soul that has absented itself, the shaman undertakes a journey into the other dimensions, where he or she meets with their spirit allies who guide the shaman to where the soul or soul part has lodged itself. The shaman then brings it back to the client … although, at times, the soul may need to be persuaded that it is now safe to return.

As Mircea Eliade says, shamans are familiar with the landscapes of the Otherworlds, and also there are certain key places that they know to look out for.

If the soul fled for some reason during childhood, it could well have ended up in what we call The Cave of the Children. Rather like the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, these children are often victims of such emotionally and physically painful abuse that it was intolerable for them to stay in the body, and they just fled.

In fact, the story of Peter Pan as the little boy who refused to grow up is a very good allegory for soul loss, where often there is arrested psychological development.

Another place shamans may get taken to by  spirit guides is what’s known as the Ocean of Souls. (You can see where Dante and John Bunyan got their inspiration from!).

Once the soul or soul part is located, we bring it back and reintroduce it to the client, who, by the way (in case you were wondering) does not have to visit any of these strange and surreal locations, but can just relax while the shaman does all the work.

So I hope this has gone some way to explaining a little about soul retrieval, who needs it and why, and how it works. But do ask if something doesn’t make sense ~ although, in another way, it has to be said, none of this makes sense. Shamanic work isn’t rational and it certainly isn’t scientific. But it works! And it has worked for thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of years.

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