In many ancient shamanic traditions, one of the primary forms of healing a shaman performs is known as “soul retrieval”.
If a person in the community falls mysteriously ill, a shaman can determine if the person’s suffering is rooted in a case of “soul loss.” By entering into an ecstatic trance, the shaman can then journey into the spirit realm and retrieve the person’s lost soul, thus returning them back to health.
In my study of shamanic practices over the years, I have always resonated deeply with this ancient art of finding a lost soul.
I’ve always been drawn to learning about the suffering we experience when we lose touch with our souls & the path we can take to retrieve that connection.
I believe this state of “soul loss” isn’t something confined to ancient hunter-gather societies that practiced shamanism in the distant past, but instead speaks to a universal human condition - a condition that may be more prevalent now in 2020 than any time in human history.
For those of us living in a modern, largely secular society, what could it mean to experience “soul loss”?
What would that experience feel like?
How would we go about retrieving our soul?
What exactly is our “soul” in the first place?
Obviously, it’s a hard word to define. Although it is commonly used synonymously with “spirit”, soul and spirit actually refer to different dimensions of our being.
When we connect with spirit, we touch the transcendent Oneness, the Divinity within all things, what the Jewish tradition calls the “Ruach Adonai”: the spirit, or breath, of the Lord - the same breath God breathed into Adam that gave life to humanity.
Spirit transcends all boundaries and categories, ungraspable and unknowable, but ever-present and all-sustaining.
The soul, in contrast, is more personal, more intimate. Soul is the Oneness manifested in this particular time & place, the transcendent come down to earth in the form of you & me & each of us - as completely unique individuals.
Soul is where the spirit meets the body, where the Divine intersects with “your one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it.
Your soul is tied to all that makes you uniquely you - your gifts, your passions, your great loves, your light & dark, your wounds & your healing.
Your soul is your unique place in the world, your inner home, the space where you truly belong.
To lose this soul is to suffer greatly, for what you have lost is yourself.
Experiencing a disconnection from soul is to feel like you’re living a life that isn’t really yours. You feel dislocated and dispossessed, a refugee stranded far from your home. You feel uncomfortable in your own skin, unsure of your own voice, uncertain about your simple right to exist in the first place.
I went through a period of life about 2-3 years ago that I associate strongly with a feeling of “soul loss”.
A series of deep disappointments & heartbreaks had really rocked my foundation and broken my basic sense of who I was.
To begin, I was still feeling the emotional aftermath of a divorce a few years prior. I had recently fallen in love with a woman again, but that relationship had just ended with her departure for Thailand.
I had left my career as a high school teacher to start a business as a writing coach, but I was such an utter beginner as an entrepreneur that business was often very slow & my bank account frequently hit zero.
I was also going through a painful falling out with a close friend & long-time creative collaborator. With that relationship in jeopardy, I felt like my creative voice as a poet & writer no longer had a home, no longer had a safe place where it belonged.
In short, life was kicking my ass. And it kept kicking me when I was down, or so it felt.
Over the span of a few months, these feelings I associate with soul loss grew worse and worse. I had lost all sense of confidence in myself. My body felt consistently weak & drained of energy. I couldn’t write and my creativity felt completely blocked. Everything just felt wrong, like I had no business being where I was, no right to simply take up space.
Simple tasks felt like monumental ordeals. Just going to the grocery store took incredible courage. I remember one day getting into my car to head to a favorite coffee shop. I hadn’t left the house for several days and I thought getting some work done at this cafe would be good for me. Driving down the road, I began to feel overwhelmed with this combined feeling of anxiety, terror, inadequacy, and sadness. I pulled off to the side of the road & just tried to breathe for a few minutes. Finally, I just turned around and headed home. I would try to face the world another day… maybe.
Thankfully, I began seeing an incredible therapist around this time. During those Wednesday morning sessions my therapist, I began to work my way out of the darkness. As we began to talk through & heal all those recent wounds and traumas - everything that had dislocated me from who I am - I believe we were practicing the art of soul retrieval, the work of returning me to myself.
I found out a bit later that my therapist, along with his degree in counseling, also had shamanic training and had once led shamanic drum journeys. That training showed up in our therapeutic work, as he led me into guided visualizations designed to help me explore inner places within me that needed healing.
My official diagnosis, from a Western psychology perspective, was that I was experiencing an “adjustment disorder,” once commonly referred to as “situational depression.” I remember feeling relief at the time of this diagnosis, finally having a name for what I was feeling, a context for what I was going through.
I have enormous respect for the insights of Western psychology, but I believe other cultures have always had their own methods for identifying & curing these invisible ailments of the mind and soul. Their terminology and methods may be quite different from our own - but precisely for that reason, they may possess insights and perspectives we are missing.
In the eyes of the DSM-5, I had an adjustment disorder. But on the level of my felt experience, it felt like I had lost myself somewhere in the midst of all those disappointments & heartbreaks. That precious inner source of passion, confidence, joy, and love had gone missing. It felt like I had lost my soul.
But thankfully, after several months of therapy and then mentoring from a spiritual life coach, my soul started to return to me.
With those two loving individuals holding space for me, I could speak out loud what mattered most deeply to me, what I was really passionate about, and who I felt called to be. I was able to forgive and release everything that had gotten in the way of me being who I truly am. I rediscovered my purpose for being here on this earth, in this particular body, in this particular life.
I found my soul again.
My body started feeling stronger, I regained a sense of confidence, and my creativity started flowing once more. One of the first messages I received from my returned soul was “You need to move.” I asked myself where my soul had felt most at home and the answer immediately came: Asheville NC & the Blue Ridge Mountains. I started driving to Asheville every chance I could get, going on hikes through the mountains, looking at houses for sale, and feeling the excitement of starting a new life in a new place.
Out on one of those hikes, I began writing a poem that has become very important for me, entitled “Where Your Soul Belongs.” Towards the end of the poem, I wrote:
Your wings await you
across the river
and through the trees,
beyond the blue
to that far country
where the voice has always called you.
May you follow it,
wherever it may lead.
May you follow it, to the place where your soul belongs.
With the help of some creative friends, I recently completed a short film project featuring the words of that poem, accompanied by beautiful music and gorgeous footage shot here in the Blue Ridge Mountains (you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/A28f-jDDRPw). When I finally got to see the final draft of the video, I realized in that moment that this particular journey of soul retrieval was complete. My soul had been lost… but now it is found. My soul is right where it belongs.
It struck me that this art of soul retrieval is at the heart of my work as a spiritual life coach. When I think of all the clients I have worked with since the start of my coaching career, one thing that unites them is a desire to reconnect with who they really are, to recover a deep connection with their innermost self, to retrieve their soul that had somehow gotten lost along the way.
Just as my mentors, counselors, and coaches have held space for me & my soul, it is my deepest calling in this work to reunite people with their souls, with that most unique & sacred part of themselves.
Through deep inner inquiry, guided visualizations, and holding space for their most personal truths & most cherished dreams, I help clients every day restore that connection to soul.
If you have been struggling with a period of soul disconnection and are ready to reclaim a deep relationship with that most sacred part of yourself, I’m ready to join you on the path back to your soul.
I invite you to join me for a free 30 minute conversation, what I liked to call a Pathfinding Session, an opportunity to talk about the path of soul recovery that we can explore together & how incredible it will feel to live deeply from your soul once more.
To schedule your free Pathfinding Session today, head to my website apathtocallyourown.com and click the Coaching tab above.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Thanks for reading.