Soul Retrieval: An Interview with Sandra Ingerman

Photo of shamanic soul retrieval practitioner Sandra Ingerman
Sandra Ingerman

“If we are totally home, we can no longer repeat behaviors that
are not life-supportive. It’s that simple.”  —Sandra Ingerman 

By Cat Saunders

In our culture, it is the exception rather than the norm for people to feel whole. Sometimes when people don’t feel whole, they fill the inner emptiness with other things. This other things may be substance addictions, co-dependent or abusive relationships, workaholism, or even chronic illness.

On the flip side, people who do not feel whole may engage in the endless pursuit of yet another therapy or the ultimate spiritual “high.” None of these habits or behaviors are wrong. But if people are always looking outside to fill themselves up, it may be time to try another approach.

In shamanic terms, the experience of not feeling whole is literal. Parts of the soul may have “split off” and gone to other realms. This happens in order to allow the physical body to survive trauma or loss. Once these soul parts are gone, people may suffer physical, psychological, or spiritual loss of power. This power loss, in turn, can prevent people from leading completely healthy, creative, fulfilling lives.

For thousands of years, shamans worldwide have worked with people to return lost soul parts to restore vitality and well-being. To do this, a shaman journeys into “nonordinary” reality, searches out the cause of the trauma, and retrieves the lost soul parts.

These ancient methods of soul retrieval are part of a body of knowledge, called core shamanism. Anthropologist and shaman Dr. Michael Harner gleaned these core techniques over many decades of cross-cultural study. He has shared these techniques with people all over the world through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which he founded.

One of Harner’s protégés, Sandra Ingerman, has become a world-renowned practitioner and teacher of soul retrieval. To her work, she brings her background as a psychotherapist. This background has helped her bring ancient techniques up-to-date with the present state of human consciousness.

After I’d been journeying for many years, I met Sandra in 1986, when I participated in the Foundation’s professional training for shamanic counseling, taught by Michael and Sandra. Working with Sandra, I was touched by her patient and calming presence, her humor, and her profound respect for the planet and all beings.

After meeting Sandra, I knew I wanted to learn soul retrieval from her. I waited years for her to come near Seattle, where I live. It didn’t happen. However, when I heard she had written her first book, Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, I jumped at the chance to interview her. She agreed to meet with me during a whirlwind stop in Seattle during her book tour in the fall of 1991.

Not only did Sandra give me an interview, she gave me the soul retrieval I had waited five years to receive from her. To read about my soul retrieval with Sandy, please see “Home, Sweet Home: My Personal Experience with Soul Retrieval.”

The hours we spent together that afternoon at my home changed my life. I’m certain that thousands of people would join me in thanking Sandra for her wonderful book. We can also thank her for contributing profoundly to human and planetary consciousness by teaching this ancient method of healing.

Cat: Don’t worry. Sandy, I’m not going to ask you to define shamanism! But there are so many different perspectives on what the word “soul” means. Would you define “soul” from a shamanic perspective?

Sandra: Soul is our essence. It’s our vitality, our life force. Basically, it’s what keeps us alive.

Cat: What is the relationship between trauma and soul loss?

Sandra: What is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another person. But if an event or situation is experienced by a person’s psyche as traumatic, then soul loss is likely to occur. Soul loss happens so that the body can survive the trauma.

Lots of shamans think people in this culture are crazy to use alarm clocks because they can cause soul loss. I’m sure most people can relate to that! But just how traumatic an alarm clock is for one person may be different from how traumatic it is for another.

Cat: So it’s even possible to have cumulative soul loss. For example, a sensitive person could be traumatized by waking to an alarm clock every day for twenty years.

Sandra: Yes. The person keeps numbing out repeatedly until some part of the person “leaves home.” In more serious cases of trauma—a car accident or surgery or abuse—immediate soul loss is probably inevitable. I don’t think a being can handle serious trauma without some level of dissociation. Dissociation is simply a psychological term for the shamanic experience of soul loss.

Cat: In your book, you say that we couldn’t function unless we have more than half of our soul parts present. Would you say a little more about that?

Sandra: You need to have more of yourself here in ordinary reality than you have in nonordinary reality, or you wouldn’t be conscious. If more of you is on the other side, you would either be in a psychotic state or in some kind of unconscious state, such as coma. At the other extreme, I think that death is full soul loss.

Cat: What do you mean by the statement, “Soul loss begets soul loss”?

Sandra: This has to do with the relationship between intergenerational family patterns and soul loss. Let’s say there was a divorce in your family and you, as the child, believed that your father left because of you. The pain of that situation may have been unbearable, so that you experienced soul loss.

When you grow up, you will more than likely choose partners who will abandon you, just as your father did. In this way, we attempt to relive the pattern from childhood that did not get resolved.

Another possibility might be that your soul was stolen by a mother or a father who tried to use your energy or your power in some way. As an adult, you will probably keep attracting relationships where you again have your soul taken by the other person.

On the other hand, you may take other people’s essences because yours was taken as a child. Unresolved patterns can show up with us acting out either side of the old situation.

The main point in regard to soul loss and family patterns is that you will tend to create relationships with other people where you can relive your old pattern in an attempt to resolve it in present time. Unfortunately, since soul loss occurs each time the traumatic situation is repeated, no one is “home” enough to stop the cycle. That is, no one is present enough to stop the pattern by making different, life-supportive choices.

One of the most exciting things about soul retrieval is that family patterns actually end. I’ve watched this happen over and over. If we are totally home, we can no longer repeat behaviors that are not life-supportive. It’s that simple.

Cat: One of my clients who has worked with you tells a story about you doing a workshop on soul retrieval. Apparently, one of the participants was a woman who was in an abusive relationship. She was also a survivor of incest.

In your workshops, you advise people that soul retrievals may cause dramatic changes in some cases. The punch line of this story is that after her soul retrieval, the woman was literally unable to go back into the house where she lived with her abusive partner.

Sandra: Yes. That was a hard one for me, because she had children, and she wasn’t used to taking care of herself. It was a positive thing which happened, because it moved her to a place of crisis. Suddenly she was on her own with kids to support. It was extremely challenging.

That situation happened at the very beginning of my work with soul retrieval. It was a big lesson for me in terms of ascertaining the level of support in a person’s life before beginning the work. It’s essential that people have a good support system. Then if a major change happens, they can call on their support system for help in integrating the changes.

Cat: How about support during the soul retrieval itself?

Sandra: It’s wonderful when that can happen. I often ask a client to bring someone to the retrieval if that feels right. Especially, it’s good for the client to bring someone who cares about the soul parts coming home. In the Buryat culture of Siberia, a lot of care was given to whom was invited to the ceremony.

For example, if it was a soul retrieval for a child, other children would be invited. If it was a soul retrieval for a middle-aged woman, other middle-aged women would be invited, and so on. Sometimes in my own work, clients have arrived at my house with carloads of their whole extended family!

Having family or friends present at the retrieval not only makes the soul parts feel more welcomed. It also offers the client a fair witness to the process. After the soul retrieval is over, the client will then have others to validate the experience.

Cat: While we’re on the subject of support, would you talk about why it’s important to have another person do a soul retrieval for you?

Sandra: In shamanism, the power of healing comes from another person being willing to intervene in the spiritual realms on your behalf. I have worked with clients who say, “I want to do it myself.” What they report is that they were able to locate their souls when they journeyed, but they couldn’t get the soul parts back inside their bodies.

The process of actually bringing the soul back was the part which clients had trouble doing themselves. I don’t say it’s impossible, but I do notice that it usually doesn’t work. However, if someone really wants to do it themselves, I say it’s certainly okay to try. If the person doesn’t feel any effect, I would suggest asking for help.

I have strong feelings about this issue. I think we’ve gone overboard with self-healing. In my opinion, an enormous amount of soul loss happens in our culture because of the isolation people feel. Generally, we have lost our sense of community. Tribal cultures are well aware of the necessity of community in terms of maintaining individual well-being.

I wonder what’s so wrong with having somebody work in the spiritual realms on your behalf? The self-healing work will still be important, because you will still have to take responsibility for your life in a whole new way after a retrieval.

Nobody but you can make the necessary life-decisions, and follow through with the necessary actions, in order to support the retrieved parts. There will be plenty of work for you to do on your own.

But I think it’s really beautiful to have another person witness and help with soul work. With incest survivors, for example, a soul retrieval can be incredibly validating because the person who goes after your soul parts can sometimes see what happened to you.

Cat: Does soul retrieval ever happen spontaneously?

Sandra: I think it does. Sometimes if you’re already working with the spirits, they will do a soul retrieval for you as a gift or a healing. I get letters from people all over the United States saying that their power animal or their teacher did a soul retrieval for them.

I’m sure it also happens for people who aren’t on a spiritual path and who aren’t aware of their spiritual helpers. I don’t think it’s the norm, but it does happen.

Cat: What if a survivor of incest starts having memories? Does that mean that part of her soul has come back?

Sandra: There is a possibility of that, because when a soul comes back it often brings back memories. But it really depends on how the survivor feels afterward. If she says, “Wow, I feel more here,” or “I feel like something’s really different,” then I would say there may have been a spontaneous soul retrieval. But if the memories come back without an accompanying difference in how the person feels, then my guess is that soul retrieval did not occur.

Cat: If a person knows the age at which a trauma happened, is it possible for you to go after that particular soul part?

Sandra: Yes. However, it’s important to realize that I—as the person doing the soul retrieval—am not in charge of which parts come back, even though it’s valid to have an intention of asking for the return of a particular part. I always ask my power animal what is right for the person at that time.

Cat: Is there any way someone can be harmed by a soul retrieval?

Sandra: The only way that could happen is if the person doing the soul retrieval doesn’t follow the instructions of their spirit helpers, and instead makes their own decisions during the retrieval. In that case, the practitioner might bring back too many parts. This might result in an experience of more painful memories than the client can integrate at that time.

If worse comes to worse, of course, I tell the client that the soul parts can always leave again, if for any reason the client feels overwhelmed. But this doesn’t usually happen if the practitioner follows the instructions of his or her spirit helpers.

On the client’s side of things, I really trust that each person’s psyche knows how much the person can handle. Since I trust the client’s own process of healing, and trust that each person’s psyche knows what’s best for that person, I don’t have to push the river.

Whatever soul parts come back will definitely start to move things, so I don’t have to be in a rush to make it happen. Things are happening as fast as they can.

I like to tell the story of one psychotherapist who called me up after she had her own soul retrieval by another practitioner. She said that her whole practice involved working with survivors of sexual abuse. She knew that she was also a survivor of sexual abuse, but she had no memories.

This woman had done hypnosis, regression—and everything she could think of—in order to go back and uncover the memories, without success. After her own soul retrieval, she said that all of her memories came back, and that they came back in a very gentle way.

Cat: Would you talk about how psychotherapy and soul retrieval can work together?

Sandra: One of the reasons psychotherapy is not as effective as it can be is that the psychotherapist is often trying to talk to a person who is not home. The part they are addressing may be floating out in the universe somewhere, so the therapy never seems to go anywhere.

I’ve trained a lot of psychotherapists in soul retrieval. The reports that have come back show that the psychotherapy changes dramatically afterward, and it changes because the part that was missing is back.

After soul retrieval, the therapy doesn’t have to focus so much time on the emptiness or the hole or the issue of dissociation. The part is back, so the client can really deal with what happened, finish the issue, and move on.

I can’t make blanket statements about how much faster therapy can move with the help of soul retrieval, but I will say that for most people, therapy doesn’t have to take years if missing parts of the soul are brought back and integrated.

Psychotherapy and soul retrieval are not in conflict with each other at all. Often when clients come to me, I will tape what I see on the soul retrieval journey. Clients will then take these tapes to their therapists to work with the information. It’s important to say that while the soul retrieval itself is fast and powerful, the real work of integrating the parts comes afterward.

It’s helpful to have support to do this integration work, from friends and your community, if possible. Also, it can be helpful to use a psychotherapist after the retrieval. With support, it’s easier to learn new tools and make the changes necessary to keep the soul parts from leaving again.

Cat: How much training do people need before they begin working with clients?

Sandra: A person can be trained in soul retrieval through beginning and advanced workshops given by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. After learning how to do it, I ask people to practice before they start doing soul retrievals professionally. Once they start doing soul retrievals professionally, I tell them to be honest with their clients.

When I started doing soul retrievals with people in Santa Fe, I was very clear with people. I told them that this was a new method I had learned, and that I’d had really good results with it. Then I asked if they would like to try it and see what happens. I tell people that I cannot make promises about results. But I can tell them some of what they might expect, based on other people’s experiences.

I think that people understand honesty. It’s good to tell people that you are just beginning, and give them the option of trying it out.

Cat: It seems like you are not only trained in soul retrieval, but that you are also gifted in this form of healing work. Is it necessary to have a gift for doing soul retrieval? Or are most people able to help others in this way simply by being trained?

Sandra: I collected more than a thousand case studies for my book. Most of these were mine, but I also used the case studies of some other practitioners. The feedback I’ve gotten is that there are probably some people who are more gifted at it than others. But the spirits want soul retrieval to happen so much that they facilitate the process, even with beginners and with those who aren’t as gifted in doing it.

In terms of the workshops I teach myself, I’d say that 90% of the people who do soul retrieval for the first time report a totally synchronistic, fantastic experience. So I think that although everyone may not be able to do soul retrievals well, most people can at least do them.

Cat: Do you ever find soul parts which absolutely refuse to come back?

Sandra: Some people who have studied with me say that occasionally they find a part which refuses to come back. But that has not been in my experience yet. I’ve always been able to work out what’s happening with a soul part and get it to come back.

Cat: I was touched by the level of compassion you showed in your book, particularly in relation to your emphasis on not tricking soul parts into coming back. Would you say more about this?

Sandra: One of my tasks in doing shamanism, whether it’s teaching or working with clients, is to update it to the evolution of consciousness in the 1990’s. I don’t think that any of my clients would appreciate me saying that I dragged their soul back against its wishes.

Cat: That’s abusive!

Sandra: Yes. I can just see my clients walking out, yelling at me, if I did that! My main purpose in doing soul retrieval work is that I want the client to feel better after they leave my office.

This doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be any emotion that comes up for the person afterward. There might be some sadness or some anger that is experienced in relation to the past memories coming back. But overall, I don’t want to do something that makes the client feel worse.

Obviously, if a person comes to me feeling bad because of soul loss or power loss, it’s not going to make the client feel better if I bring back a part against its will. That’s just common sense.

Cat: What are some of the reasons why a soul part might not want to come back?

Sandra: There are a number of possibilities. For example, since time is not relevant in nonordinary reality, a part may not realize that the person is not still living in the same traumatic or abusive situation that caused the soul part to leave originally.

In this case, I would talk with the soul part and update it to the current life of the client. I might also explain how the soul part might be helpful to the client now. In doing this, I am always honest with the soul part.

Say I’m working with an alcoholic. I won’t say to the soul that everything is going to be okay when the part comes back. Perhaps its adult part is drinking alcohol. If so, I would say there’s a good possibility that the person is drinking alcohol because the soul part is missing. Then I would ask if that part is willing to come back and try to help the situation. I’ve always gotten a yes.

Another reason the soul part might not be able to come back is because it has been stolen. In classic shamanism, there are a lot of methods for dealing with souls which have been stolen. For example, the traditional way is to trick the thief into giving the soul back.

When I first started doing soul retrieval, I would do this. I would bring back a soul part and then tell my clients that I had tricked the part back from their mother or father, or whomever had taken it. But my clients would get angry with me!

They would want to know what happened to their mother or father after their soul parts were retrieved back from them. I would say, “Who cares about what happened to them! They stole your soul!” But my clients felt a tremendous compassion toward their abusers. They were then worried about the well-being of the thieves after the retrieval.

What I learned from that was that the evolution of consciousness is different now than what it was in tribal societies. I’ve had to find another way. Basically, that way involves negotiating with the thief. I explain that the client’s energy or soul is useless to the thief. Then I find a way to do a healing for the thief, so the cycle of trauma is completed once and for all.

Often I give the thief a gift in exchange for the stolen soul, as a form of healing for the thief. Again, I listen to my power animal’s instructions about how to retrieve the soul in every situation. There are many ways to creatively retrieve a stolen soul without perpetuating the abuse through trickery.

Cat: If you know that you have part of another person’s soul, why is that so easy to give back, compared to having your own parts retrieved? Is it simply because you know where it is–you have it–and where to send it?

Sandra: Right! You know it’s not yours and that it needs to go! This is something I’ve been researching. I’m not 100% sure what the effect is on the person who gets the part back from you. But it’s not unusual to hear that the people on the receiving end have something synchronistic happen for them, too.

For the person letting go of the soul part of the other person, it can result in a tremendous shift. To release another person’s soul part is to release a burden, because another person’s life essence is unusable energy for you.

Cat: Does anyone ever get all the lost parts of their soul back? And if so, how can you tell they’re all back?

Sandra: I don’t know if we ever get everything back, or what that’s like. I can only speak from my own personal experience. Since I had my soul retrieval many years ago, my life changed dramatically. The way I would describe it is to say that I feel extremely awake.

Before the retrieval, I felt like I was sleepwalking. I actually used to tell people that! Now I feel fully awake—which of course has its problems, too! To live in this world and be fully aware is a big challenge.

Again, I think that what we’re aiming for in doing soul retrieval is to increase the feeling of being more awake, more aware, and more able to make conscious, life-supportive decisions. It’s amazing that after a soul retrieval, a lot of people say that the world even looks different. It’s as if everything is more alive.

Cat: When you’re working with a client, how do you know when to do a soul retrieval and when to do an extraction?

Sandra: The first thing I do, always, is go to my power animal and ask what the person needs at this point in time. In many cases, a person may need both an extraction and a soul retrieval. The most likely order of work would be to “take out” first, before bringing back parts of the soul. But of course, that could be changed in particular circumstances.

Cat: Can the same symptoms be a result of either soul loss or intrusion?

Sandra: Yes. The same symptoms may mimic each other in power animal loss and soul loss. Power loss often manifests in chronic illness, chronic misfortune, or chronic suicidal tendencies, for example. These same symptoms may be the result of soul loss.

An extraction would be done for the purpose of removing a spiritual intrusion. Intrusion is more likely to manifest as localized illness, such as cancer or a localized pain. But the intrusion might come in because of previous soul loss.

In other words, power loss, soul loss, and intrusion are often interrelated. That is why it’s necessary to ask what is appropriate for the client–which method and in what order.

Cat: Is it possible that you might bring a person’s soul back first, and then the intrusion would leave because the person is all “filled up”?

Sandra: Sure, that’s a possibility. The same thing could also happen with a power animal retrieval. That is, when a power animal comes back, the power animal can sometimes get rid of the intrusion.

Cat: Apart from spontaneous retrieval, is shamanic soul retrieval the only way to get soul parts back in an intentional way?

Sandra: No, shamanism is not the only way to do soul retrieval. There are psychotherapists who have come up to me in my workshops and told me that they do soul retrieval in their practices. It might take longer in whatever their method is–whether it’s guided visualization or hypnosis or whatever technique they employ.

Shamanic soul retrieval is simply the way that I work, and it is a very powerful and fast way to do soul retrieval. But I don’t think it’s the only way.

Cat: I appreciate your open-mindedness. In my own practice, I believe that soul retrieval is my true intention. I know of other therapists’ work that also has the ultimate effect of retrieving lost soul parts. But basically, this work is usually arduous and long-term. I believe there must be other ways–such as shamanic soul retrieval–which are faster.

Sandra: Absolutely. If there’s not, then there is no life after healing, because the whole life is about healing.

Cat: That brings me to my last question, Sandy. On our way here in the car, I asked you about the cutting edge of your thinking. You started talking about life after healing. Would you like to say more about that?

Sandra: There’s this idea that you always have to be working on the next step of your healing work. That’s fine, but there’s got to be more.

The first part of the healing process does involve an exploration of our own woundedness. You can’t skip over that without moving into denial and more chaos. But a lot of people now have done a tremendous amount of work on themselves, and they are ready to move on. A lot of time and creative energy is freed up once your life is no longer filled with drama and illness and pain.

I wonder…what do these people need to keep making life-supportive decisions in a culture that doesn’t really support personal empowerment? How can we help these people tap into their creative potential? I think the answers to these questions can be found by moving away from man-made laws and going back to the laws of nature.

For example, we can look at how nature exists. I think of the cycles of nature and realize there is a time to be fully creative and active in certain areas of our lives. Then there are times when we just need to ride out a cycle. How can we teach people to discern the difference between these parts in the cycle of creation?

There’s a lot about the creative process that we don’t fully understand. There is also a lot that we can learn from observing and following nature’s example. With nature as our guide, we can create new road maps for life after illness. That’s the next step in my work.

This interview was published in its entirety in Shamanism (Spring 1992, Vol. 4, No. 4). For another interview with Sandy about her second book, Welcome Home, please see “Life After Healing” reprinted on this website.

Sandra Ingerman, M.A., C.S.C., is a world-renown shamanic practitioner and the author of many books, including Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self (HarperSanFrancisco, a division of Harper-Collins).

For more information about Sandra and her work, or to obtain a referral for a practitioner of shamanic soul retrieval, please click here.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).