My First Soul Retrieval

So today I was finally able to take the skills I’ve been developing over the past few years and put them into practice for a long-distance client, doing my first soul retrieval. I don’t want to give info on the client hirself, other than s/he’s had long-term health issues and some other deep-seated factors that had led to an overall feeling of “diminishment”. We suspected a lost soul fragment, but since there are other things that can cause the symptoms that were reported, I went in cautiously.

I actually spent several weeks conferring with my guides about this whole thing, since it was my first time through. Ultimately, Black Bear offered to help guide me through, which was very much appreciated since s/he has done spirit work with me before, though not of this exact sort. My client and I agreed on a time when we could both be available for this, and after a phone call to check in and make sure s/he was prepared and in a good place, and to find out which of hir guides I might run into, I began the journey.

As usual, the horse spirit in my drum came and picked me up as I started to drum. The drumskin was a bit damp from the weather here in the Pacific North*wet*, and her hoofbeats were muffled by mud along the river near my starting place–she needed to take me further up the river to meet Black Bear. She actually carried me inside her ribcage, moving her organs aside, for part of it. I found out later that this was because we crossed the river into the Lower World. Black Bear had apparently made a lot of arrangements on my behalf in preparation for this, for which s/he’ll be getting a nice gift from me. Next time I may have to be the one to negotiate with the River Dragon to cross to the Lower World, but this time I had a lot of help.

When we got to where Black Bear was waiting along the bank of the river, the hose told me she couldn’t go any further. So I stopped drumming, and began to shake my black bear skull rattle. I turned into a wolf, and Bear and I started off further up the river. The place we were at was not at all pleasant. Amid the water-smoothed stones under my paws there were lots of old, dry bones, crab shell pieces, and other dry dead things, dampened only by splashes of fetid water from the river–there was no rain here despite the clouds. There were animals all around, too, coyotes and hawks and deer and other vertebrates, but they were hostile, and Black Bear told me to stay very close so they wouldn’t bother me. Still, they made advances at us like wolves testing a buffalo cow and calf. It was very unnerving.

One thing I noticed about Bear was that s/he was very present and visible in a way my guides often aren’t when I journey. I know they’re there, but they’re not in my direct field of vision. It’s like Bear was more there than usual, and I suspect that if it had just been hir usual presence, I would have had to deal with the hostile animals attacking me, unless I showed myself to be as big and strong as Bear was today. Today, though, I was being protected on this journey.

As we were running along the river, we looked up on the mountain ridges to the north, and amid the trees we saw the lights from houses scattered all along. Finally Bear looked to one way up on top of a ridge, and said “That’s the one we want”. As we approached the ridge it was on, Bear veered off away from the river and to a trail leading up. It was a very narrow trail, with smooth stones, but it dropped off sharply into dark ravines on either side. Bear insisted on going first. “Stay very close to my back end”, s/he told me. “Don’t fart”, I replied. Bear laughed, and we started up the trail.

The climb was actually pretty uneventful–Bear made the way very smooth for me, the dangerous things stayed confined to the dark ravines, and there was no ursine flatulence. When we got up to the top, we saw a lodge like that made by some Pacific Northwest tribes in the middle of a clearing. There was a tall, very thin humanoid guardian spirit with a spear in front of it, with a white bone mask with two black eyes, stiff, grass-like hair all around like a halo, and wrapped in brown rags with no visible limbs or features below the waist, just a drape of rags. Bear told me that since I was the one who sought entrance to the house, I had to go first. This was scary, but s/he told me s/he’d be right behind me. So I cautiously went up to the guardian spirit and got hir attention. S/he didn’t act hostilely at all, simply waited for me to act one way or another. “I wish to know who is in that place,” I said. “Who wants to know?” the spirit replied. “I, Lupa, want to–” and then realized I’d just said my name, if not my legal one then one that I identify with very strongly.

Bear told me quietly to offer something in exchange for the spirit conveniently forgetting I’d said that. So I offered to dedicate something made out of mink skins I got recently to the spirit; while it wouldn’t belong to the spirit, it would have a little something to memorialize it, sort of like a bit of graffiti of someone’s name–not enough connection to the spirit to make it hirs, but kind of like “Kilroy was here”. This was acceptable. Bear then gave the guard a false name of mine to replace the true name that was taken back.

Also, when the spirit spoke with me, the bone face lifted up as if on a hinge, and a little brown weasel poked hir head out to talk to me–“Pay no attention to the weasel behind the mask”. It would have been almost funny if I hadn’t been in a situation where I could have been speared. I had no doubt that the weasel (or weasels, if there were others in there) could have made the “suit” act immediately. Still, in retrospect it was, ah, kinda cute. I wish I could draw better to show it.

I was allowed to approach the house, and I called through the blanket over the doorway that I wished to enter. I negotiated with a voice as to whether that could happen, and finally was let in. There was only one big room, and there were hundreds of weasels running all over the place, doing various tasks. At the very back of the room there was one enormous weasel reclining, with little weasels crawling all over him. Behind him on the wall were rows upon rows of clear glass jars, with colored balls of energy floating inside of them. I would find out later that the big weasel liked the smell of these, and so properly I could call him the Big Old Weasel Who Likes Smelly Things, but for short I’ll just call him the Old Weasel. He wasn’t the totemic weasel. Black Bear, when s/he shows up like a large bear like for this journey, feels like a small part of something bigger. The Old Weasel felt more complete–old, but not bigger than his appearance.

I approached him, but not too closely, with Bear beside me. I asked him if he had anything that tasted like my client, and I breathed out a memory of what s/he tastes like to me through our interactions. He breathed it in, and said yes, and picked out a particular jar full of yellow balls of energy–not a full soul fragment with a personality, but still a substantial part of my client that had gone missing. I told him I would like to give it back to her, and that I was willing to offer part of myself. I held forth a necklace that I had made before the journey.

Now, in the creation of artwork, there is always a piece of myself that goes into what I make. It’s a renewable energy, rather than the core energy that I was trying to retrieve for the client. So that’s what I had in the necklace. Bear also contributed, having me put a bit of black bear hair in the necklace.

“Let me smell you,” the Old Weasel said, “and see if I like it”. I approached closer, but then the Old Weasel lashed out with his huge jaws, and almost bit me. I leaped back, hackles raised. “Ha!” he said. “Almost had you. I could have smelled you across the room, you know”. Then he had a few of his small weasels bring out an empty jar for the necklace. “Not until you give me what I came for,” I said. “Very well,” and he had them bring the jar to me. I placed the necklace in the empty jar, and took the one with my client’s energy. I breathed in the essence of my client and put it in the place where I had stored hir memory.

“Do you have any more?” I asked. “Yes,” the Old Weasel replied, and pointed at eight more jars on the wall behind him. “You can have them if you bring me more of your smell. I like it.” So I’m going to be taking more necklaces to him. Since I’m menstruating, I’m going to make sure they’re made during that time, so I may make one a month for the next eight months, to give myself time to replenish.

We took our leave of the weasels, being sure to back out of the door so as to keep an eye on them. Then we went back past the guard, who couldn’t remember my real name. And when we got to the trail, it had gone all muddy, so Bear and I had a great time sliding all the way down the mountain like otters! We made it back down the river with no problems, too, even with the hostile animals, and my horse was waiting for me. I took my leave of Bear, and the horse took me back home.

I then breathed my client’s energy into the physical necklace I had made, letting it take the place of my energy that had gone to the Old Weasel in the necklace’s spirit form. I’ll be mailing it to the client, who will be wearing it for several days, until that energy reabsorbs back into hir. And I’ll continue this with the rest of the necklaces. I did a followup call with hir to see how s/he was doing and let hir know what happened.

I am exhausted. This was a really challenging journey, but it turned out well. I learned a lot, including some things for when I’m going to have to do this more on my own, making my own decisions and negotiations with the spirits myself. And it’s helped me to see how my strengths, especially artwork, can be woven into my shamanic practice, making it (relatively) easier to do. Most of all, though, this feels right, like I should be doing this.

Shamanism and PTSD

I found this nifty article about core shamanism and PTSD over at Letters from Hardscrabble Creek. This makes me very hopeful, as PTSD treatment is something I want to do some research on once I have my counseling degree. (Neo)shamanism fits quite nicely into ecopsychology–in fact, the first anthology on ecopsychology includes an interview with Leslie Gray, who created what she calls “shamanic counseling”, a hybrid of core shamanism and counseling techniques.

“But wait, Lupa, I thought you didn’t like core shamanism! Why are you singing its praises?” you may ask. Yes, I have some practical differences with core shamanism that lead to me not wanting to practice it myself as a (neo)shaman. However–and this is a big however–I’m also not going to be so territorial that I refuse to pay attention when something I may not incorporate into my own practices is showing significant results for others.

PTSD is different from a good number of mental disorders. It doesn’t respond to many common therapies in the same way that other disorders, such as depression, do–talking openly about what happened can trigger flashbacks and other symptoms which may be very severe. And, of course, as with anything, individual patients may respond differently. So it can be a lot tougher to treat than many other things.

Many core shamanic practitioners strike me as prioritizing the psychological and other technical aspects of what they do than the relationships with spirits, the latter of which is what I put first. However, in this case, the emphasis on psychology and healing seems to be exactly what hits the spot for some PTSD patients. Granted, I would really like to see formal research on it–anecdotal evidence is a good start, but if someone has published research on it, I’d definitely want to get hold of it. And I’d want to know about the long-term results as well, since I don’t believe in instant fixes. I’ve contacted Sacred Hoop Ministry, the folks mentioned in the article to get more information, because this does make me curious.

There is part of me that’s really curious as to whether non-core shamanic soul retrieval would have similar effects, for better or worse. Would one be more effective than the other? Would it depend on the patient? Or is it simply different ways of doing the same thing? This is in light of the fact that the views on journeying may be very different–Harner stated that the shamanic state of consciousness is safer than dreaming, while most non-core shamans paint the Otherworld(s) as a much more dangerous place.

Still, if it works, then I’m not going to complain about particulars. Despite my preferences and biases, ultimately I’m mainly concerned with what achieves changes for the better. There are too many serious problems that need solutions for us to be spending too much time arguing over things that may not ultimately be all that important.

Taking Back the Soul

It all started with a dream (as such things often do).

I dreamed last night (or this morning, if you prefer) that I was getting ready to go to some sort of party. I was already running late, it was Saturday, and it was already 5:38pm–and I was bemoaning the fact that I’d spent my whole day just getting ready for this party. So there I was in what looked like a bad 80’s prom dress (which just added insult to injury). Then the dream took a weird twist.

All of a sudden, a vampire attacked! Not the modern concept, but a Dracula-style vampire, complete with the ability to control animals. And control them he did–the room I was in was suddenly besieged by an odd assortment of critters, including birds, and a very persistent hedgehog. So, this being a dream, I figured that spiritual techniques would work as well as “physical” ones. Taylor, my husband, happened to be there with me, and we began doing the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram to banish these beasties.

I got through the initial Qabalistic Cross just fine, but then I forgot the pentagrams, and began mixing up the archangels. To make a long story short, my LBRP fell to pieces. As this was happening, the vampire had somehow defeated Taylor, and was standing behind me, mimicking his voice to make me think Taylor was still there. As soon as I noticed, I began to run. Unfortunately, since I’m very wolf-identified, the vampire was able to use his ability to control animals to control me. The dream ended before he caught me, but it was still a very telling dream.

Every so often I’ll have a dream where I’m attacked (usually, though not always) by a male adversary. Most times I’ve tried fighting back using techniques from the self-defense classes I took back in Pittsburgh, techniques that would drop a person quickly. But in the dreams, I’d end up weak, and my attacks would be so faint as to be useless. Last night’s odd twist on the concept prompted me to meditate on this during my morning commute.

The central theme seems to be powerlessness. I haven’t the strength to fight back in some of these dreams, and I can look at the areas of my life where I do feel like my hands are at least somewhat tied. I admit that I can occasionally be a bit of a control freak, and that if things don’t go exactly the way I want them to, I get bent out of shape. Rationally, I remind myself that while I have little control over the world around me and all its denizens, I do have control over my actions and reactions, the decisions I make. But what happens when I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do, or where the options are Bad and Worse? (DO NOT WANT.)

Further meditation brought me to the conclusion that, more often than not, when the situation looks bleak, part of it is because somebody, somewhere, has worked to make me feel powerless (whether it was personal or, more likely, not). Something that has been said or done has had the effect of making me feel powerless–and the source of that something has gained in power through what it has taken from me–or, rather, what I have given it. Granted, a person who loses power may be under extreme duress in certain situations, such as someone literally at the business end of a gun. But there are numerous less deadly situations throughout our everyday lives wherein we give up our power to others out of fear.

While there are genuine cases of threat, the majority of the time the perpetrator is a bully, someone who knows that all s/he has to do is apply the right kind of pressure, and s/he’ll get the exact fear-response out of others that provides hir the power s/he feeds on. In truth, if we were to stand up to such people, we would retain our power. Yet from day one many of us are conditioned to give over our power through fear–“Don’t do X, because you’ll get hurt” “Go tell the teacher, because if you get in a fight you’ll get hurt” “Toe the line and be safe, because otherwise you just might get hurt, and what if you get hurt? That would be BAD”. And then if someone does take a chance and happens to fail (even if they end up picking themselves up and moving on), there’s a chorus of “We told you so”, and “That’s why you don’t do X” (never mind that numerous other people may have had success with the same thing, and even most of the “failures” end up surviving to live another day). No wonder bullies find so much easy grazing!

I cannot stop people from trying to feed me fear. Nor can I inoculate people against the insecurity that causes bullies. But what I can do is take control of my own self, my reactions, and my decisions. A good reminder of this came to me last night; I was on the last leg of my commute, the bus that drops me off near where I live, and this guy was handing out handmade bookmarks he’d created with four or five leaf clovers in them, and little sayings and quotes–just to be nice. The one I got was this quote by Charles R. Swindoll:

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.

While simply having a good attitude won’t fix all your problems, it does go a long way in what decisions we make. And the attitude I’ve been trying to cultivate has been one that acknowledges dangers and potential problems, but doesn’t get entangled in fear to the point of immobility. This includes being aware of all the ways I can take action, rather than sitting around, bemoaning my fate.

So it was appropriate indeed that I had the dream I did last night, because it reminded me of the stumbling block that (perceived) powerlessness is, and gave me a reason to meditate on how to combat that ill feeling. There is, after all, a difference between healthy fear, and unhealthy fear-obsession.

I gave some thought on how to really take back my power that I’d given up (and/or had been taken from me). While rationally I realize, with my left brain, that I have a lot more control than I sometimes realize, emotionally, the right-brain part of me has absorbed entirely too much negative conditioning, enough that although I’ve been chipping away at it for years, it’s still a major problem in my life. It’s difficult to get to the root of the problem when it feels so enormous and overwhelming–individual facets are easier to deal with, but working through them individually takes a long time.

And for me, “power” isn’t the best word. The negative conditioning I have states the power is bad if you have too much of it, because it can turn you into a bad person. It’s that whole fear-of-pride thing, the idea that if you happen to rise above everyone else, you deserve to get cut down to everyone else’s level again. It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s story, Harrison Bergeron, in which everyone was forced to be equal with everyone else. So there’s a pernicious part of my conditioning that sabotages my efforts to extract it by saying “You don’t deserve to be anything more than what you are now–and you’re already pushing it!”

However, I’ve been reminded, through the formation of therioshamanism, of the concept of the soul–specifically the idea that the soul can fragment and be lost. To me, soul is equated with power; the more of our soul we lose, the weaker we are. And “soul” is much more personal a concept than “power”–I more easily become indignant and angry at the concept that someone has taken a piece of my soul, than taken power from me.

I still don’t feel confident enough in myself to do a soul retrieval, not just yet. But I know exactly whose filets of soul I’ll be going after once I am ready for that point. Granted, therioshamanism is focused on the animals; however, I believe it’s important to learn various, more generalized techniques–to make a parallel with doctors, even a specialist must get a good education in general practice.

I’m not ready just yet, but I have a goal to work towards.