Soul Retrieval

The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies - Howard G. Charing 2017

Soul Retrieval

The soul is not in the body, but the body in the soul.


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. More than two thousand years ago, Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle, in his book De Anima (On the Soul), acknowledged that this is one of the most challenging enigmas for a philosopher to master. In Greek, the word for soul is psyche, and this term in contemporary usage has varying interpretations. It is worth noting that the term psychology literally means “study of the soul,” and euphoniously speaking it rolls off the tongue more easily than, say, “soulology.”

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. Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River”—that’s soul to me. What moves our soul also moves our body. The African saying “If I can talk, I can sing. If I can walk, I can dance” speaks about soul. The purpose 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.

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 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 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.

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 reexperiencing 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.

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. 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 practices are separate rites in the Bon tradition and are widespread not only in the Bon tradition but in all Tibetan Buddhist schools.1

Across the globe, the great visionary artist and sage Pablo Amaringo, from the Amazon rainforest, created a painting based on traditional Amazonian lore entitled Searching for the Lost Soul, in which he describes the shaman recovering a lost soul that has been taken by a sorcerer and restoring it to the body.

In the Peruvian Andes, musicologist and author Peter Cloudsley and I asked local traditional curandera Doris Rivera Lenz whether the concept of soul loss is known in the Andean culture. She replied, “Yes, when a child has an accident or suffers a traumatic event, its soul can leave its body and it may get ill. This is known as susto. If this happens, an offering is made in the place of the accident to heal the child” (see color plate 2). She continued, “There are many ways to call the soul. You can get hold of a piece of the person’s clothing, make a little doll, and decorate it with flowers or something that the person finds attractive, and you call the soul in the place where the fright took place. You can call up elements like herbs, a dove’s nest, feathers, tobacco, or coca leaves. However, before you begin the ceremony, you must first ask permission from Pachamama (Mother Earth).”

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 “powerfull,” there is no room for illness or disease, which are often regarded as invasive forces.

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 focuses 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 soul retrieval and therapy combine well together. The most beneficial approach is first the recapitulation of the lost life force, 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 liberation that allows a person to move forward and live a life of fulfillment.

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 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; after all, I was following the thread of her asthma.

I suggested that I take a shamanic 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.

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.

After a serious accident or major surgery, I hear people say, “I haven’t felt the same since then.” Dr. Steven Cartwright, a homeopathic doctor who was awarded the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to conduct a field trip to Peru for studying indigenous medicines, wrote following a soul retrieval session with me. During the field visit he had suffered serious injuries in a road accident.

I had been involved in a road accident five months previously that had left me with a badly broken leg, and I was in an awful state of depression, lacking energy and vitality. I could only describe it as feeling that I was “not here.” I felt half dead to the world, really unable to function effectively or with any enthusiasm.

During the soul retrieval session, it was explained to me that a large part of my life force had left at the time of the accident and was still at the scene in a state of shock. The road scene described matched the actual place. I realized that it was true, and that I wasn’t here—I was five thousand miles away in Peru!

Within minutes of the soul retrieval, when my lost soul parts were being blown back into me, I felt alive again for the first time in five months. The effect was so dramatic—enthusiasm, vitality, energy, and joy returned. It was like something that I had never experienced before.

It’s been some weeks now since the soul retrieval, and I can say it’s been the most extraordinary therapeutic experience I have ever had. I feel that I am “here” again, back home.

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. Never has this been more remarkably demonstrated to me than when working with a woman whose returning memories led to the police reopening a forty-one-year-old murder case. I wrote a brief account of this story in the book Plant Spirit Shamanism, published in 2006. It feels appropriate to narrate the complete version in this book. I am grateful to Joanne, who gave her permission and supplied the newspaper cuttings from the 1950s.

Following a soul retrieval session, Joanne called me in consternation because certain memories were resurfacing and were causing her great discomfort. We arranged a session to address this, at which she told me that she had started to have flashbacks to when she was five years old. She was haunted by the memory that her mother had murdered a woman in the town where she grew up. She told me that the brutal stabbing of this elderly widow had shocked and traumatized the townspeople, and there was great a fear of “a murderer within our community.” The police interviewed more than one thousand people in the investigation, but the murderer was never found, and the case remained unsolved for forty-one years.

Usually I am reluctant to discover things of this nature; I do not feel that it is appropriate to be involved in work where a finger could be pointed at people for their misdeeds. It could lead to becoming entangled, so I tend to be circumspect in these matters. However, this situation was different because it had risen subsequent to a soul retrieval session with me, and I was obliged to follow it through because of the responsibility I felt toward Joanne.

I journeyed back in time to the north England town of Bradford, and I alighted in one of the old-time streets. I studied the area carefully, saw the shop, and went in. Inside, I was struck by the very specific smell of old-fashioned wood lacquer accompanied by lavender and spices. I witnessed the murder inside the store, and to my astonishment I saw that the murderer was a woman disguised as a man. I followed her into the street and saw the young Joanne, whose hand was being held by her grandmother. Her grandmother had the manner and appearance of being a “lookout.”

All this time I was carrying out a simultaneous narration of the journey so that Joanne could follow what I was experiencing. When the journey was completed, Joanne was in a state of sadness and relief. She told me that she knew my journey was true when I described the very distinctive smell of the wood lacquer, lavender, and spices. She knew without a shred of doubt that this event had happened and that her mother had carried out this terrible action.

A few days later Joanne called to say that more memories of that time had resurfaced. She remembered the motive for the murder: the shopkeeper was a moneylender, and her mother was in serious debt to her. She also told me that she had gone to the police, who had reopened this case; however, her mother was terminally ill, and therefore the case could not be effectively pursued.

Later, she contacted me, and I was touched by what she told me. She had gone to see her mother, who was on her deathbed. Her mother was unable to speak, but could hear. Joanne said, “Mum, I know you did it. I know you murdered her.” Her mother could not speak, yet she started to cry. It was no longer a secret; this was a true confession, which at the very last moment reconciled Joanne with her mother. Shortly after this Joanne’s mother went into a coma and died.

This whole story moved me, and the beauty of it was that Joanne could at last put this disturbing episode to rest and move on with her life. I was also touched that her mother could finally unburden herself of this monstrous act at the moment before she died. This doesn’t take away my feelings about the clear conspiracy to murder the elderly shopkeeper, but I was very happy for Joanne.

A concluding note on this: Joanne later sent me some newspaper clippings about this murder. When I looked at the photographs, the images matched the surroundings I had seen in my journey.