The greatest contribution of the ancient shamans to our medicine and healing today is the understanding that in the course of any life we are liable to suffer soul loss - the loss of parts of our vital energy and identity – and that in order to be whole and well, we must find the means of soul recovery.
On a visceral level, we all know how soul loss comes about. We suffer pain or trauma or abuse, we are overwhelmed 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.
In my own practice, I have come to distinguish five forms of soul loss or disconnection that call for healing. I have yet to encounter a human being who is immune to any of these.
Loss of vital energy
You suffer from chronic fatigue. You find yourself torpid and listless, reluctant to get out of bed. Your days seem drab and gray and joyless. Your immune system in blown and you seem to pick up every passing bug. There is something missing in you and you try to stuff the whole with sugar or booze.
Loss of younger selves
You have lost younger versions of yourself – the young child with abounding energy and that beautiful imagination, that fine romantic who was hurt or betrayed as a teen, that inner poet or businessman who wanted to make different life choices from the ones you made. These younger selves have gifts and energy you can use in your life today if only you can find out where they are and discover how to bring them back.
Loss of animal spirits
Indigenous and ancestral shamans know that we are all connected to the world of the animal powers, and that by recognizing and nurturing our relation with animal spirits, we find and follow ther natural path four eneries. Yet many of us have lost this primal connection, or know it only as a superficial wannabe symbolic thing that we look up in books and medicine cards without feeding and living every day.
Loss of ancestral soul
This is a two-edged affair. When we live oblivious to the fact that we are always in the presence of the ancestors – those of our bloodlines, those of the land where we live, and those of our spiritual kin in a broader sense – we are likely to be the plaything and even the tenement for entities we don’t necessarily want to have near us. When we awaken to ancestral soul, we become ready to claim the connection with wisdom-keepers and protectors who can help us to re-establish heathy psychic boundaries and clear out what does not belong with us.
Loss of connection with the Greater Self
Ultimately we can only make peace between the many aspects of our selves, and follow a path of true spiritual evolution by opening or re-opening a direct and conscious connection with the Self on a higher level – the Self that is no stranger. When we clear the right space within our embodied selves, we may be ready for the deep and beautiful act of soul growing that I call spiritual enthronement, bringing a part of the Higher Self to live in our bodies and infuse our lives and our life choices with its radiance.
I have learned that dreams often show us where soul had gone, and offer paths by which it can be reached and encouraged to come home. Through the techniques of Active Dreaming, we can learn to help each other to become the shamans of our own souls and the healers of our own lives.
I wrote this article early in 2011 and then expanded it into key chapters of my book Dreaming the Soul Back Home: Shamanic Dreaming for Healing and Becoming Whole (New World Library). The original article elicited a tremendous response; this feels like the right time to share it again.
Art: Edvard Munch, "Lady from the Sea" (1896)