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How to Mend a Fractured Spirit

A journalist explores the history and healing of soul retrieval, an age-old practice with tangled interpretations

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Mindahi Bastida, a wisdom keeper from the Otomi-Toltec tribe in Mexico and author of Ancestors: Divine Remembrances of Lineage, Relations and Sacred Sites, performs a ritual known, in English, as soul retrieval. During these sessions, he calls back the souls of people who have experienced hardship that caused them to lose a part of themselves. He makes a fire, lights traditional incense, and puts chewing tobacco on different parts of the person’s body to provide “a reconnection to this dimension.” Throughout the course of this ceremony, the person’s soul is thought to come back to their body so that they can feel like themselves again.

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Ancestors: Dive Remembrances of Lineage, Relations and Sacred Sites by Mindahi Bastida

Many people in different cultures practice soul retrieval under the belief that life’s “big-T” traumas (major events) and “little-t” traumas (small, recurrent events) can cause pieces of the soul to break off and drift away. Soul retrievals take many forms today, with a common goal of helping people lead lives that are true to who they are on a deep spiritual level.

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Soul Loss—What Are the Signs Of A Lost Soul?

The concept of losing one’s soul may seem odd to those  of us who grew up without a cultural concept of it. But Indigenous people such as the Otomi-Toltec take it as a given that when someone experiences trauma, part of their soul goes missing. “The soul can be misplaced or misguided, and you can even lose your soul when an accident happens — for example, a car accident,” says Bastida. “Part of your energy is stuck somewhere where the accident or where the phenomenon happens.” Sometimes, the Otomi-Toltec believe, the soul can be taken over by demons or spirits, which calls for more elaborate rituals to get it back.

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Image Courtesy of Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash

This phenomenon is often known as soul loss. Symptoms of soul loss may include being “lost in thought,” experiencing hallucinations or psychotic-like symptoms, and other signs of mental illness, says Bastida — but many Indigenous people conceptualize these as spiritual rather than psychological problems. Someone may also experience soul loss through emotional abuse or a shocking event; it’s similar to what we think of as dissociation, says Ursula Macheke, who identifies as an initiated African shaman who performs soul retrievals.
Physical illness is also seen as an indicator of soul loss in some cultures. “Part of the model of illness is, if you get sick, your soul leaves your body,” says Manvir Singh, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis who studies shamanism. “Part of what shamans do is they summon your soul back.” Ensuring that one’s soul is intact is part of overall health, according to Bastida. “We need to take care of this body, but also in conjunction, we need to take care of our souls so our spirits are able to transcend.”

Where Does Soul Retrieval Come From? 

So many cultures have soul retrievals, it’s hard to pin down one origin of the practice. There are soul retrieval rituals in Siberia, Indonesia, and South America, says Singh, but it looks different in different places. In fact, “soul retrieval” itself is a Western term, and while its roots may be  Indigenous practices, Indigenous cultures may not conceptualize it the same way as modern Western culture. “The practice of calling back parts of yourself and restoring yourself to spiritual wholeness in a ritualistic manner, if you are unwell or suffered a traumatic incident, has so many unique expressions in different cultures,” says Lorna Liana, a practitioner trained in Tibetan Bon shamanism. “If you were to ask an Indigenous person about their ‘soul retrieval practices,’ they would probably look at you and have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Litha Booi, a sangoma — or ancestral medicine practitioner — in South Africa, holds circles where he does energy healing for the purpose of helping people recover their souls. While this isn’t called a soul retrieval, he believes it is his culture’s version of it. “From an African perspective, it’s impossible for any community to thrive without balance and harmony, and we don’t do the individual thing; we do a collective process,” he says. “When something happens to you, it affects all of us. When you have soul loss, people will say, ‘There’s something wrong with this guy. He’s not the same.’ And then we have rituals that help to realign him or her. Everyone’s soul is impacted; everyone’s soul needs to be retrieved. That community gathering creates the retrieval process.”

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Because soul retrieval has been passed down from many places, some practitioners aren’t entirely sure what tradition their own practices came from. Sometimes, it’s a mish-mash. Psychic Deborah Graham, host of the podcast The Psychic Connection, says her own soul retrieval practice was passed down from a grandmother who was part Indian and part Greek. 

Much of the knowledge of soul retrieval in the West comes from the book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Romanian historian Mircea Eliade, which was first published in English in 1964 and describes shamanic practices based on a synthesis of rituals from all around the world, according to Singh. The 1980 book The Way Of The Shaman by anthropologist Michael Harner was also instrumental in introducing the West to shamanic practices. Based on his work with South American tribes, Harner wrote this book as a “guide for New Age practitioners to use what he claims is this universal spiritual practice of shamanism,” says Singh. 

These books spawned a movement known as neoshamanism, which adapts old shamanic traditions including soul retrieval to modern Western society. “I think the same things that make soul retrieval compelling and intuitive to people around the world are also what make it compelling and intuitive for attendees at Burning Man,” Singh says. 

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Who Performs Soul Retrievals? 

While a variety of people offer soul retrievals, not all of them have the skills or background to perform them effectively or respectfully. Some non-Indigenous people offer soul retrievals today, which Bastida is wary of. “There are so many people now who call themselves shamans who say ‘I went to this place and I was trained,’ but it comes through the lineage. It comes through the years. It comes from the very hard training, and it comes from the touch of the spirit,” he says. “If you don’t go with a traditional healer, you might go with collateral consequences. Your energy that is being healed could become worse. It may be that some people in the Western world are touched by the spirit; I know some of them. But there are very few, and they still lack a connection with the environment.”

Some consider non-Indigenous people performing soul retrieval to be a form of cultural appropriation. “There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation,” says Crystal Mathews, a social worker of Shawnee and Cherokee descent who has studied soul loss from an Indigenous perspective, . exploring the practice as a healing modality for those impacted by incarceration.

Matthews’s work offers an example of how soul retrieval practices can be integrated into—and used to heal from—contemporary institutions. But, she also offers a word of caution: “Even if someone feels like they are appreciating a culture, knowledge, or way of practicing, they could still be appropriating, especially if they are profiting from it. Appropriation, to me, is really using knowledge out of context. Appreciation can be done, especially when one approaches with humility and respect.” At the very least, soul retrieval should be handled with the utmost care, and its origins should be acknowledged. “We should all engage in anticolonial work and have a respect for Indigenous knowledge systems and Indigenous experience,” says Mathews.


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What Happens During a Soul Retrieval?

The specifics of soul retrievals vary from culture to culture. Shamanic healer Phillia Kim Downs, for instance, was initiated and trained in soul retrieval by the Q’ero lineage in Peru. In Q’ero tradition, the shaman starts the session by calling in elements such as the earth and sun to assist with the session. Then, they shake a rattle or pound on a drum to enter an altered state of consciousness, where they have visions conveying guidance for the client. “The client’s role is to stay open and receptive to the flood of unconditional loving support and wisdom,” says Downs. “Clients may experience physical sensations such as heat, cold, tingling, vibrations, or energies moving up and down or may see, sense, hear, or feel things.” If she’s doing a session in person, Downs will blow on the client to transmit the healing to them; if she’s doing it remotely, she blows onto stones and crystals that represent the client’s chakras.

Macheke’s soul retrieval process stems largely from core shamanism, a modern neoshamanic set of practices that draws from Mongolian and Siberian shamanism. The client first journeys to the “upper world,” a spiritual realm above the Earth plane, where the shaman enlists a “helping spirit” to retrieve the soul’s lost parts. “We look for the part which is dissociated with the support and help of that spirit, and we have a conversation with this part and encourage this part to return,” she explains. If the part comes back, she blows it back into the person, sings a song to anchor it there, and guides the helping spirit back to the upper world.

Booi’s people, the Nguni in South Africa, call in their ancestors and ask them to help cleanse the energy of the community. They might drink a traditional beer, and sometimes, animal sacrifice is part of the ritual. “From a Nguni cosmology perspective, it is the animal that does the retrieval, the cleaning,” he explains. “As soon as the blood is spilled, there’s a process that has occurred. It asks the ancestors to do the work on the other side.”

What To Expect After a Soul Retrieval

It can take months or years after a soul retrieval for someone to get their soul fully back, says Bastida. In Downs’s experience, people begin to see changes after about a month. When people’s souls do re-enter their bodies, they often report living life in a way that honors who they are, rather than the expectations others have for them. 

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Image Courtesy of Aldebaran via Unsplash

“The soul is an eternal consciousness that is deeply connected to and created by the divine,” Downs explains. “It is source energy. It is our highest self — not the identity who you were raised to be, conditioned to be, programmed to be, or indoctrinated to be.” A soul retrieval is “a true return of your power, your light, your wisdom, your medicine, your grace, your gifts, your clarity, your courage, your willpower, and life force that comes back,” she adds. “Individuals often experience a profound sense of renewal, increased energy, and a reconnection with their purpose.”

After her first soul retrieval, Macheke remembers feeling as if she connected with a part of herself that had been missing since her teens. “There’s a feeling of wholeness,” she recalls

Why do Soul Retrieval?

Booi believes that everyone has some form of soul loss. “From a shamanic perspective, everybody needs to have a soul retrieval because somewhere along the line in your life, you had some sort of trauma, and there’s an aspect of the soul which is dislodged,” he says. 

However, the choice to undergo a soul retrieval is a personal one, and if someone is uncertain or hesitant, this can hinder the process. “If you are skeptical or feel unsafe at all at any level, it closes your energetic field, which makes it more difficult to access the information for your soul in spirit space,” says Downs. “That’s why it’s incredibly important for the client to stay open and receptive. People who may be experiencing severe mental health issues or those unwilling to engage in the necessary introspective processes may not benefit fully.” Graham has turned people down for soul retrievals because she intuitively sensed that “their energy was not ready or connected.”

Those who choose to receive soul retrievals should prioritize their well-being and self-care before and after the ceremony. “We believe that the soul needs to be stronger, but the only way to be strong is when you are healthy with your body and healthy with your energy,” says Bastida. “We need to carry out good thinking, good thoughts. That’s how we can recover our integrity.” 

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