Soul Retrieval

Miracles with Power Animal Allies

by Renna Shesso  © 2004, 2013


Drum pounding steadily, lights dim, I lay down on my back, close my eyes and see the Great Plains washed in the deep colors of twilight. Mentally moving to the drumbeat, I envision my descent into Mother Earth, first stepping down a ladder and then diving headfirst down a slippery tunnel.

I emerge in the Lower World, a place within each of us where our Power Animals and other spirit helpers dwell, part of the internal geography that shamanic practitioner/writer Michael Harner identifies as Non-Ordinary Reality. This place is indeed far from ordinary, and after sixteen years I thoroughly believe the reality on this spiritual plane presents an elegant, subtle and often humorous counterpoint with what we call waking reality.

My Personal Journey

My path to this work didn’t begin on a particularly joyful footing. One afternoon during the summer of 1986, I suddenly experienced a vivid memory of childhood abuse. Although I was seeing a therapist, the issues I pursued with her involved depression and relationships; we had discussed my family’s dynamics, but the subject of incest had never been broached. Abuse was nothing I suspected, discussed with friends, or read about (this was 1986, after all, when the subject of sexual abuse was still fairly uncommon outside clinical texts).

At first, the next steps seemed clear.  The work with my therapist took on a clear focus, and, of vital importance, my own Craft practices gave me protection and some measure of healing on a spiritual plane that modern psychiatry can’t provide.  But something crucial was missing. Although external aspects of my life were smoothing out, I still felt internally incomplete, fragmented.  My spirit had been injured by the abuse.  Dealing with recovery as a logical grown-up didn’t repair that childhood soul-injury, and my otherwise-excellent therapist’s only spiritual advice concerned the goal of feeling Christian forgiveness for the perpetrator.  Buzz-phrases about "getting in touch with your Inner Child" triggered anything from annoyance to grief.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t find that joyous, frightened, conflicted kid I vaguely remembered being, and all the stupid exercises that involved hugging fluffy stuffed toys weren’t helping a damn bit.

In the midst of mounting frustration, a women’s retreat to Chaco Canyon in late 1988 put me in touch with a teacher who beat on a huge drum and urged us to follow its rhythm to the place where our Power Animals would be waiting.  Much to my surprise, one was waiting, an animal with which I’d had a strong, albeit long-forgotten, childhood affinity.  I returned to Denver, got a drumming tape and continued to journey as I’d been taught.  I found that unlike the empty silence of Eastern meditation styles, Power Animal journeying could include transformation into one’s Animal, interactive direct communication with the creature (often shot with valuable insights and advice) and best, surprising amounts of humor.

That joyfulness gradually convinced me I wasn’t imagining all this stuff.  Not only was my Power Animal’s sense of humor significantly different from my own, he also found laughable the very situations that I considered the least amusing.  My Power Animal certainly wasn’t my "Inner Child," but I realized that since his roots as my guardian-companion dated back to my childhood, he knew that child-part of me, which convinced me I was going in the right direction.

The following year I read a life-altering article on contemporary Soul Retrieval by Sandra Ingerman in the Shaman’s Drum magazine.  What she described immediately rang true.  Ingerman wrote of working with her Power Animal and other spirit helpers to locate, retrieve and help reintegrate soul-fragments that have been lost through various forms of trauma.  She mentioned having particular success with abuse survivors and before I’d finished reading the piece, I’d vowed to pursue Soul Retrieval.  Within two months, I took a basic shamanic workshop with Ingerman; in 1991, I experienced Soul Retrieval during the workshop with her in which I first learned to perform the technique.

The Soul Retrieval Process

The idea behind soul loss and retrieval is very straightforward: In traumatic situations, some part of one’s soul may split off and hide to escape the trauma. For example, we’ve all heard people speak of not remembering the instant of impact in a car crash, or "going numb" during an emotional crisis.  This "splitting" is a useful survival technique but it becomes a problem if we remain fragmented after the trauma passes.  Since this occurs on the spiritual plane, that’s where the search and retrieval need to take place. Happily, Power Animals are able to help—after all, this is their turf.

When I journey on behalf of someone who suspects him/herself to be suffering from soul-loss, I first establish a clear intention (as crucial here as in any magical working) and then establish a strong connection with my Power Animal.  He does the real work, while I provide the physical link with the client.  Traveling with my Animal into Non-Ordinary Reality, I watch and follow him on the quest for missing soul parts.  Our route may take us into the Lower World, an Animal-dominated place within the heart of Mother Earth; into the Upper World, where human-form spirit helpers predominate; or into the Middle World, which looks like our world but isn’t in the same time zone.  A soul-part stuck in the Middle World might still be in 1956 or 1974 or whenever, still in the family Chevy at the time of the car crash, or still hiding in the treehouse to escape domestic violence.

While what I see may unroll like documentary news footage of the actual events, my training and experience have taught me to suspect that my journey-view of the client’s past is being played out metaphorically.  Since there is no way to determine whether I’m seeing a soul-loss scenario literally or symbolically, I prefer to journey aloud, narrating as I go. This allows the client to hear and interpret the details reported, preferably with friends present to take notes and offer support through their own good, clear intentions.  The soul-part recovered will still be the same age it was at the time of the trauma and may still remember all her/his reasons for splitting, but also holds all the potential of that individual child at that age.  This is not a wounded “inner child” - this is the smart-survivor soul-part that left to avoid being wounded.

The client’s future role in all this is to truly reintegrate this retrieved part, so I also ask if there’s a Power Animal-ally for this soul-fragment.  Generally, a Power Animal or other spirit-plane ally quickly appears on behalf of the recovered soul-part.  Somewhere in the course of the journey, I’ll also ask my Power Animal what else can be done on the client’s behalf, and often I’m directed to do some Shamanic Extraction.  Soul Retrieval locates and returns a vital part that should be there but isn’t.  Shamanic Extraction does just the opposite, identifying and removing the spiritual manifestation of disease — dis-ease — something that is there but shouldn’t be, not necessarily negative but definitely misplaced.  I complete my journey by thanking my Animal and any other spirit helpers, returning to this plane and physically blowing the retrieved soul-part(s) and/or Power Animal(s) into the client’s body.

Power Animals and Community

Power Animals are central to shamanic practices. While I initially viewed them sort of like Wiccan-friendly alternatives to Guardian Angels, over the years my view on this has deepened.  As there are fewer and fewer living animals on our planet, perhaps the remaining creatures have a greater-than-ever need to manifest in spirit through us.  We need them: They have access to information we’re going to need to survive.

And there’s another crucial connection here as well, one that indigenous cultures understand and honor: The role of supportive community in healing work.  I’ve written elsewhere about the differences between Wiccan and New Age thought.  One of the main differences I perceive is an insistence in some New Age thinking that each individual "chooses" and is solely responsible for creating his/her own reality for good or ill.  Taken to extremes, this can become "blame the victim" thinking that denies the web of life and aggravates our isolation.

In fact, we are interactive beings whose lives interconnect, and whatever ails us doesn’t occur (or get "chosen") in a vacuum: Abusive families, germs, industrial pollutants, random violence and other factors all have impact.  By the same token, just as we don’t get into problems entirely on our own, neither do we need to solve them in isolation. There is incredible strength in unity when our intentions are clear and combined. The shamanic practices I’ve described occur between people.  These practices work because one person is willing to act on behalf of another, to intervene on a spiritual level under the direction of personal spiritual helpers.  Being a stubbornly self-sufficient person with a boatload of old trust issues, this emphasis on connection at first made me apprehensive, but I’ve come to recognize and appreciate it as an integral part of the healing process.

The trust and connection between people, and the joy inherent within the person/Power Animal alliance, are forms of energy that create well-being.  Having your soul-parts back, feeling whole again after months, years, or even decades of fragmentation… that’s magical and miraculous.

Blesséd be,



Suggested Reading, both by Sandra Ingerman:

- Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self,

    San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991, 2006.

- Welcome Home: Following Your Soul’s Journey Home,    

    San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993.

Seven circuit labyrinth, spectrum colored. Drawing © Renna Shesso 2006.