Modern Shamanism and Modern Medicine

Notes for the Physicians Roundtable Conference, Orlando, Florida: June 3, 2017

What is Shamanism?

My simple definition is,  "A shaman is a person who crosses between the world of ordinary physical reality into the world of spiritual reality, at will, to connect with Compassionate Beings and becomes a facilitator and bridge for the Compassionate Spirits to impart healing and wisdom. The shaman can work on her own behalf, or to help other individuals, families or entire communities."

The term "Shaman" comes from the Tungus tribe in Siberia, and means "one who sees in the dark". Anthropologists have applied the name to native healers across the globe, including the Native Americans. Modern shamanism is a revival of ancient practices by modern people. Pioneer anthropologist Micheal Harner researched native tribes across the globe, and found common practices that shamans use to connect with the Spirits and impart healing and wisdom. He calls these techniques "Core Shamanism" and trains people worldwide through the organization he founded, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. (2) . I trained with the Foundation beginning in the late 1980's, and completed the Advanced 3 Year Training Program in 2000. 

Sandra Ingerman, an early member of the Foundation, and the innovator who revived Soul Retrieval as a modern shamanic practice, furthers the definition of shamanism, in order to give some understanding of what shamans actually do:

 "A shaman is a man or woman who interacts directly with spirits to address the spiritual aspects of illness, perform soul retrievals, divine information, help the spirits of deceased people cross over, and perform a variety of ceremonies for the community. Shamans have taken on many roles in tribal communities. They have acted as healers, doctors, priests, psychotherapists, mystics, and storytellers." (1)

Indeed Shamanism can address every aspect of our troubles, physical, emotional and social. I will cover two core shamanic techniques here and explain how they can interface with other modalities to support recovery and wellness.

Intrusions, Extraction and Power Infusion

Shamans address the same illness and conditions that all our modalities seek to heal. In shamanism, we talk about the root cause of the illness as an intrusion, an energetic entity or form that is doing harm to us being where it is. Intrusions are the energetic aspects of illness. They are the dark shadows of pressure that sit on our shoulders. They are the stabbing energy from verbal, psychic and physical attacks. They are the ghosts of lost wandering souls who move into our warm spaces. They happen to us when we are vulnerable.

Intrusions are also created by us from our own suffering, our own fear and anger. And they can be carried through the lineage, like old karma in our bones. Or like a gene whose activation is adverse, and runs in the family line. 

Intrusions can block our physical flow. They can interwind with our tissues to create physical blockages and restrictions. They can cause disease. At their extreme, they can drive our impulses and thoughts. All the medical modalities deal with them one way or another, finding them through energetic testing, or physical screening, or mental evaluations. Treating them the best they can through the tools we have. This is what we do. 

Before I get to how Shamans remove intrusions and deal with them, let me explain a core understanding in the Shamanic view - nature abhors a vacuum and intrusions can lodge in us when our beautiful soul essence is not fully engaged in our physical form. This is a situation we call soul loss, and I will explain it in depth later. 

To find intrusions, the shaman journey with her Spirit helpers, and asks to see the intrusions in the clients form. I work with animals a lot, so I will refer to "clients" rather than "people". The Spirit help er will allow the shaman to discover the intrusions, in a way that make them clear to the practitioner. This may be by touching the client and feeling their energy, hot or cold, or out of place. More likely it is by seeing the intrusion in some metaphorical form, maybe a dark cloud, or a knife stuck in the back. A sticky web though the belly, a void in the brain, maybe a shadow standing next to the client, or a denseness and color change that looks out of place. The helping Spirit will explain how safely remove and deal with the intrusion, and share if there is any background information that needs to be explored or understood. Shamanic healings can be quite in depth and cover a lot of ground, but it usually starts with scanning the body and spirit for intrusions. Notice that the Helping Spirits are imperative for our work. We do not presume to know what to do, nor that we alone can do anything. We are bridges to the Spirits, and they do the work though us, in partnership with us, when the client requests the help. 


Once we see where the intrusions are, our helping spirits remove them and encapsulate them in a way to prevent them from getting into someone else (or sneaking back into the client). Once they are fully removed and encapsulated, the spirits will transfigure the intrusions into something else, generally something that is no longer harmful. Often they will return the energy to a pure state of undefined potential, so that it can become part of something beautiful. In some cases a tiny bit of this energy is then returned to the client in the form of a homeopathic remedy. 

Large scale intrusions, such as lost wandering souls who walk into a client and can create great havoc, are dealt with differently. An energy with identity and form is not always transmuted into source energy. They often just need to be loved; to be guided to the place where their soul can heal and thrive. Always, without exception, the intrusions are managed through a process of compassionate healing. The compassionate Spirits use COMPASSION as their only tool. 

Power Infusion

Since intrusions come where our core power has been vacated, the shaman's job is never complete without infusing the client with the requisite power to help them heal and become whole again. Most often this involved some level of soul retrieval, which I will cover below. But we often need extra help and support from the healing power of our spiritual community. The Spirits will gather remedies of healing power from the world all around us. Everything in the world expresses Power in its own special way. The spirits will use the Power of specific things to do specific healing work. We do not need to have any personal knowledge about that things special qualities in order to use it as medicine in a shamanic healing. We do need to have experience following the explicit guidance of our teachers so that we are in alignment with their purpose!

  • Spirits have Power
  • Plants have Power
  • Minerals have Power
  • Places have Power
  • Heavenly bodies have Power
  • Natural features have Power

The Spirits know just what is needed. They bring it through the practitioners bones into the client, and fill them up with the support they need. 

Finally, in my Shamanic practice I like to bring a Power Animal or an ancestral helping spirit back to connect with the client in an ongoing way. This Spirit will become active in the client's life, guiding them and protecting them. 

Soul Retrieval

Sandra Ingerman wrote her first book, Soul Retrieval, Mending the Fragmented Self in 1991. This started a revival of Soul Retrieval, and today there are thousands of shamanic practitioners offering Soul Retrieval, many trained by the Foundation, and/or Sandra and her students. She is an extraordinary teacher and writer, and so I will share her short explanation of soul loss and soul retrieval, before sharing my experience as a practitioner.

Shamans look at the spiritual form of illness which might manifest on an emotional or physical level. When I was doing the research for my book Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self I found that most shamanic cultures around the world believe that illness is due to the loss of the soul.

It is believed that whenever we suffer an emotional or physical trauma a part of our soul flees the body in order to survive the experience. The definition of soul that I am using is soul is our essence, life force, the part of our vitality that keeps us alive and thriving.

The types of trauma that could cause soul loss in our culture would be any kind of abuse sexual, physical, or emotional. Other causes could be an accident, being in a war, being a victim of a terrorist act, acting against our morals, being in a natural disaster (a fire, hurricane, earthquake, tornado, etc.), surgery, addictions, divorce, or death of a loved one.

Any event that causes shock could cause soul loss. And what might cause soul loss in one person might not cause soul loss in another.

It is important to understand that soul loss is a good thing that happens to us. It is how we survive pain. If I was going to be in a head on car collision the last place that I would want to be at the point of impact is in my body. My psyche could not endure that kind of pain. So our psyches have this brilliant self protect mechanism where a part of our essence or soul leaves the body so that we do not feel the full impact of the pain.

In psychology we call this disassociation. But in psychology we don’t talk about what disassociates and where that part goes. In shamanism we understand that a piece of the soul leaves the body and goes to a territory in what shamans call non ordinary reality where it waits until someone intervenes in the spiritual realms and facilitates its return.

Although soul loss is a survival mechanism the problem from a shamanic point of view is that the soul part that left usually does not come back on its own. The soul might be lost, or stolen by another person, or doesn’t know the trauma has passed and it is safe to return.

It has always been the role of the shaman to go into an altered state of consciousness and track down where the soul fled to in the alternate realities and return it to the body of the client.

There are many common symptoms of soul loss. Some of the more common ones would be dissociation where a person does not feel fully in his or her body and alive and fully engaged in life. Other symptoms include chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, post traumatic stress syndrome, immune deficiency problems, and grief that just does not heal. Addictions are also a sign of soul loss as we seek external sources to fill up the empty spaces inside of us whether through substances, food, relationships, work, or buying material objects.

Anytime someone says I have never been the same since a certain event and they don’t mean this in a good way soul loss has probably occurred.

You can really see how much soul loss there is today as we put money over life. Anytime someone says that we have to kill other life forms for material gain that person must be suffering from soul loss. Anytime someone feels that buying one more car or that gathering material objects will bring happiness that person is suffering from the loss of soul. As you can see we are looking at a great deal of planetary soul loss today as you watch how we behave towards each other and the rest of life.

Coma is also soul loss. But in coma there is more of the soul out of body than in the body. Coma is very complicated to work with today for many reasons. It takes skill on behalf of the shaman to find out which way the soul is trying to go. Does the soul want to reenter the body or does it need help transcending which would lead to the death of the patient? There is a lot to say about this topic and it is beyond the scope of this article.

Today there has been a resurgence in the interest of the practice of shamanism. We now have many hundreds of wonderful shamanic practitioners reintroducing the practice of soul retrievals into our culture.

It is interesting to note that as soul loss was so understood in shamanic cultures people who suffered traumas were given a soul retrieval within three days after a trauma occurred.

Today as we have not been practicing soul retrieval modern day practitioners are going back ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years or even more looking for lost soul parts.

Also in a shamanic culture the individuals knew what was out of balance in their lives that might have caused an illness or issue to occur.

In our culture we are unaware of what is out of spiritual harmony that is creating illness. And because often our soul loss happened so young we are unaware of the unconscious patterns we are living out due to our first experience of soul loss. We are always trying to retrieve our soul. And how we do this is by repeating the same trauma over and over again. The names might change of the people involved in our life story, but the story is often the same.

The effects of having a soul retrieval vary person to person. Some people feel that they are more grounded in their body and feel more solid. Some people feel lighter and a joyful way of being returns to them. For some memories of the past traumas might be triggered bringing up a variety of feelings that must be worked through. And for some people the effects are too subtle to notice a change until further work to integrate the soul is done.

As people feel more present in their bodies and in the world they become more conscious of behavior that might be out of balance and disharmonious. When we are numb we might be aware that things in the world are not right but we can easily distract ourselves from feeling a need to change. When we are fully “inspirited” there is no place to retreat to and we are more inspired to change our lives.
Artistic carving of a North Coast ceremonial canoe by Jimmy joseph kwakwakawak

Artistic carving of a North Coast ceremonial canoe by Jimmy joseph kwakwakawak

As a shamanic healer I have performed thousands of Soul Retrievals for people and animals. In fact, most of the healing sessions I do involve some level of soul retrieval, for it really is the light essence of that person's soul and without it we are not fully present, healthy and empowered. 

What causes soul loss?  Trauma (abrupt and/or insidious),  Physical and emotional stress,  Philosophical choice, and many other things. 

Abrupt trauma (often with shock) can blast our soul right out of us. Car wrecks, other accidents, being a victim or witnessing violence, living through a terrorist attack, sudden loss of a loved one, the list is long. Many people find that their souls come back to them with time and therapy. But not always, and not necessarily completely. Soul retrieval is appropriate for all shocking events. It will speed recovery and make it more complete. When I retrieve a soul that has been shocked out of the body, I find the soul at about the same age and place as where the shock happened, and I negotiate with the soul to come back home. There is always some aspect of extraction and power infusion that accompanies this work. Often people who have soul retrieval after a shock event will feel the soul come back with force, and gratitude. 

Insidious trauma makes soul retrieval more complicated. If a person was abused as a child, or in a relationship, of underwent extraordinary stress over a longer period of time, there was probably some psychological adaptation that made that situation survivable. The soul may have leaked out part by part, drip by drip over time. The retrieval process I use follows the intention of the client. If they set the intention to have their creativity restored, I will follow that thread and find the creative parts that left. Those parts may point to others. And eventually a collection of parts will be ready to come home. The Compassionate Spirits always guide these sessions, and they make sure the the client is ready to receive the parts we bring, and that the parts are the appropriate ones for that person at that time. 

Soul loss usually involves adaptation - the person adapts to being only partially present. Overtime these adaptations become choices, and we create a framework to view the world built around our incomplete perceptions, and who we believe we are. Some of these adaptations can be quite sticky, and therefore soul retrieval is usually one part of a person's complete therapeutic and medical program. 

Soul retrieval can be part of a shamanic healing session even for minor things, since our soul can take a holiday for the smallest reasons. But large scale soul retrieval is a very good idea for those with chronic illness,  especially illnesses of the immune system. These cases are usually accompanied by large scale soul loss, loss of core vitality. Its a chicken and the egg as to which causes which, but if you query a client with a disease like chronic fatigue, you will often find the issues started with the impact of a trauma, or after a long period of insidious stress. If the disease has an infectious root, like Lyme's, then the soul loss may be the result of emotional and physical exhaustion. Either way, soul retrieval can help someone cope with, and sometimes even overcome, chronic illness.

Case #1:  

My practice involves a lot of animals, and my circle includes intuitive animal communicators. For years I taught shamanic healing for animals, and most of the students were active in the animal communication world. Cathy was a professional animal communicator, and she wanted to take my classes, but she was too tired from her chronic fatigue to be able to keep up with a class. I offered to come stay with her and teach her over a period of several weeks - it helped that she lived in a vacation spot I loved. She learned well, but it was hard for her to be present. Clearly she needed some deep work done. She shared that her childhood had been really hard because mom was really messed up and distant. And her partner for many years had anger issues, and she walked on tip toes. For most of her life she had been hiding her light. She was living with chronic fatigue and as it turned out, sleep and rest were a great escape. She decided, however, that she really wanted her essence and power back. 

I performed a form of Soul Retrieval we call Faery Doctoring, taught to me by Tom Cowan (3). Over the years Cathy's essence of soul had moved out of her body and had collected with the people of the hills called the Sidhe. Cathy knew this in her heart. Her soul was not scattered through the history of her life events, instead as each part left, it found its way to her alternate reality home with the Faeries, protected and secure. This was nice for the missing soul, but terrible for her physical form. To recover her physical power, she needed to bring that soul back home into her bones. 

The session was quite long, as I negotiated with the soul to return. She was also in a journey trance, tracking me as I worked. I speak my journey's out loud, so my clients can follow along. Finally, when the Faeries approved and her soul agreed to come back, it was time for Cathy to open her second chakra - her uterus - and allow her soul to return, as though she was rebirthing herself into herself. When I gave her the instruction, she tried  - but then she suddenly screamed, "NO you cannot come back here!" and opened her eyes in panic. At her core she did not want to be whole in her body again. And she knew what was keeping her from recovery, her comfort with the life she had created to adapt to her illness and her randomly abusive mate. 

For the next few days she mediated and journaled, looking for the place in her own heart where the desire to be strong and healed was greater than the protection she felt being ill. Finally she said she was ready. We did the retrieval again. The Soul was ready and waiting, and the ceremony went quickly. She embraced her soul and nurtured it like a small child. 

Her recovery was remarkable. Immediately she felt stronger and more energetic. Within a few weeks she was at about 80% of a normal person's activity load (up from about 30-40%). For the first time in years she could go through a day without having to sleep. It was incredible. But after about a year she backslid, and explained it to me as her conscious choice, her sovereign right. I honored her decision. That was many years ago.

I have connected with her this week, and she still has chronic fatigue. However she has changed her social network, and she made a conscious choice to manifest wholeness and happiness, and her soul is  fully engaged in her body. She also learned that she has Lyme's, and it has brought a host of other issues - and likely is the root cause of the chronic fatigue. Lyme's! 

Case #2

I have been working with a woman with Lyme's disease and a chronically hyper sensitive nervous system. Her troubles began between 5 and 10 years ago when she was betrayed by her family and underwent a severe shock to the soul. Her situation became worse when she became involved with a unethical "healer", a person who wants his young women clients' absolute devotion. My first session with her, two years ago, involved disconnecting her from this man's snare, and doing a deep healing to clear the trauma she had suffered both from him and her family issues. I retrieved soul after I cleared the intrusions out of her body and energetic field. In a soul retrieval session, the Spirits will return the parts of the soul that are best for the client at that time. If the client is not fully ready to receive the soul, or cannot nurture it, soul may slip away again. This is not a problem, it just means that healing is a process. As always, I left her with a Power Animal and Spirit Guide to protect her and help her in an ongoing way. She called me a month or so later to say she was much better. 

She contacted me again yesterday for a second session. (She was responding to my request to the Spirits that I be given a fresh case for this conference! Thank you Spirits.) It was time for her next layer of healing. Her biggest complaint was her hyper sensitive nervous system, and her psychological response to the fear of being overwhelmed by other people energy. She has become somewhat agoraphobic. She is still engaged with the world and is healthily social, but she is very careful about it. 

I did a deep clearing and soul retrieval, this time asking for the helping Spirits to completely restore her soul, and to empower her for complete recovery.  The journey was intense and interesting. The clearing involved her being unshaped, her physical and energetic structure dissolved so that no intrusions could remain hidden, and then the Spirits doing a deep scrubbing clearing of her energy. A glowing light remained In the center of her dissolved form. This was her intact soul, brilliant and beautiful. My teacher guided me to capture the signature of her soul in my shamanic tool, and use it to find her lost soul parts. I went to the Sidhe, showed my tool to my Sidhe teachers, and was guided through many layers to a Sidhe village. There she was, a beautiful young woman, married to a striking Sidhe man, with two children. What was not to love? I spoke with the man and woman and explained that I was a human sent to recover this soul, so that my client could become well again. The husband immediately stood up and said, "we will go with her, and we will be beside her through the rest of her human life. When she crosses we will all return here, and really, we will not have skipped a beat, as human lives are so short. Honey do you want to go back, knowing I am with you?"  She did. 

A power animal of the Sidhe came in and took the family back through the layers to the sacred circle where I work. My client opened her heart and her soul came back in. Strong and powerful. The husband and children stood witness. They will be there with her from here forward. She can be with them as she journey's, and as she gains strength and power, she will become able to walk between the worlds, sharing her life with them as easily as we do with our physical families. This is not uncommon. 

As this was just yesterday, I don't have feedback yet on her results. But I can tell you that she felt her light come home, and it gave her great joy. 

Something to consider

My discussion with this woman was very interesting! She told me that her research has uncovered that many people with Lyme's begin their symptoms after a sudden shock trauma, and that Lyme's is often accompanied by other illnesses, such as Epstein Barr. As she was sharing I heard my teachers whispering in my ear. They said that the shock and the soul loss that goes with it provides the opening for the Lyme's to rise from dormancy to power. Lyme's tricks the immune system and confuses it. This confusion allows the opening for other illnesses to become active, and the immune system is unable to address them. It is a chain reaction. It is incredibly important to unwind the confusion and restore the immune system's intelligence. This is part of the shamanic healing process. 

The word betrayal is important. My client's soul left because of a core betrayal that shook her self identity.  Did she really want to be here anymore? The immune system keeps us alive and healthy - does it work less effectively when we aren't sure we want to stay? Should I be asking to retrieve the soul parts of the immune system? 

There are more questions than answers. But one thing I believe: the Compassionate Spirits understand what we need, and when we ask them for help, and we are a clear channel for their compassionate power, healing can happen. And I trust the Spirits. 



1) Sandra Ingerman:

2) Michael Harner and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies:

3) Tom Cowan: