Home, Sweet Home: My Personal Experience with Soul Retrieval

Photo of Cat Saunders for her story about soul retrieval

“After the soul retrieval, I couldn’t seem to get enough peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches. I don’t know what it is about them, but I do know
that I haven’t eaten them since I was a little girl.”  —Cat Saunders

By Cat Saunders

At the time of this writing in October 1991, it’s been more than five months since the world-renowned soul retrieval practitioner, Sandra Ingerman, gave me a soul retrieval. Can I tell you what happened, and how different life is for me?

Right after the soul retrieval, my “inner skeptic” watched carefully to see if anything had really changed. That lasted about thirty minutes! The more profound effects of the work began to manifest a couple of weeks after the retrieval. Several other changes then made themselves apparent weeks and months after the retrieval. Even so, I must say that the session with Sandy made a difference in me right away. Just ask my partner, John. He watched it happen!

John is the proud owner of a very healthy skeptic–one which makes my own look like a veritable Pollyanna. We jokingly call our relationship “a union of the sacred and the profane.” It consists of two people coming together from different ends of the spectrum. To make a long story short, I’ve always been the “high juju queen” (as John affectionately calls me). And John has always been the one whose self-chosen epitaph would read, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Before the retrieval, I was always trying to cajole John to try one form of therapy or another. I acted as if I knew what was best for him. Meanwhile, he was always trying to get me to stop worrying, eat pizza and watch movies, and take it easier. He would say to me, “Learn to procrastinate, why don’t you?” We’re a perfect match.

Like me, John enjoys shamanic work. But generally speaking, he usually agreed to try various therapeutic activities simply to please me. Or he would go because of downright coercion (“we go to therapy, or else!”). Soul retrieval, on the other hand, was quite a different matter.

After my soul retrieval, John watched me with delight as I changed before his very eyes, beginning that first night. As the days went by, it was clear to us both that something really had happened. I was hanging out more, eating pizza and watching more movies (no kidding!). I was also worrying less and learning to be a little flakier. For me, this was a minor miracle. John definitely noticed, and one day he came to me and said he wanted a soul retrieval, too. John–the eternal skeptic–wanted a soul retrieval? Wonders never cease!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack and tell you briefly what Sandy actually did during that fateful day last October. First we finished her interview (see “Soul Retrieval: An Interview with Sandra Ingerman“). Then we cleared the space for my soul retrieval ceremony. First, she asked me to state my purpose (my request for a soul retrieval). Then she briefly described how the process would work. She asked me if I felt safe with her (I did) and if it was okay for her to touch me (it was).

We lit candles and burned sage. Then she spread her blanket on the floor asking me to lie down on one side of it. Next, Sandy began to call the spirits by using her rattle and singing her shamanic song. When she was ready, she laid down beside me, our bodies touching along one side.

At that point, Sandy put on headphones to listen to a shamanic drumming tape during her journey. Previously, she explained that she would journey to her own power animal first to receive assistance in the retrieval. Her power animal would guide her to find the lost parts of my soul. It would also instruct her as to how many parts should be returned at that time.

When Sandy was finished journeying, she sat up and “blew” the soul parts back into me. First she blew the soul parts into my heart. Then she helped me sit up. Finally, she blew them into the top of my head. She blew four times each into my heart and into my head. Then Sandy looked deeply into my eyes and said, “Welcome home.”

To my surprise, I immediately felt “bigger,” as if there was more of “me” inside my skin. I liked this feeling and told Sandy about it. Because I am a former anorexic, it was incredible that I actually liked feeling bigger. It felt good to be more filled up.

Next I listened as Sandy explained that she had brought back three soul parts and one power animal. That’s why she blew four times into my heart and into my head. She said she often retrieves a power animal with the soul parts. But this time was unique. This time, she was instructed to bring back a male and a female of the same animal. But she was instructed to blow them back into me in one breath.

When she told me she had retrieved three soul parts, I was again amazed. Before meeting with Sandy that day, I had gone out to buy her a gift. I came home with a shirt that was silk-screened with three women dancing. I’d also bought Sandy a pair of earrings engraved with three female figures. Apparently, some part of me had known how many parts would be coming home that day.

Sandy’s power animal felt that the dynamics of my childhood were too complex for Sandy to be shown specific incidents. That made sense to me, considering it had taken many years of therapy to figure out those dynamics myself!

Sandy said that I had indeed been abused sexually. I’d mentioned to her earlier that memories of sexual abuse had begun to surface in the last few years. She also told me who the abusers were–without me having shared their identities previously. This in itself was deeply validating for me. Like many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I didn’t remember the abuse until adulthood. As a result, I have sometimes doubted the truth of my own body.

Sandy told me more about the three soul parts, including why they had left and why they were returning. I was deeply touched by the insights that her power animal afforded me. The information from the retrieval shed light on questions that had bothered me for a long time.

I was especially excited about the return of my three-year-old part, who brought back my will. Sandy said–and I knew–that my will had been broken by a devastating experience of sexual abuse when I was three. Losing my will at that age had resulted in a lifetime of internal conflict, confusion, and emotional pain. The early loss of will also contributed to twenty years of various forms of illness, including anorexia, bulimia, manic-depression, and chronic fatigue.

Along with the three-year-old, Sandy retrieved a thirteen-year-old soul part. My thirteen-year-old felt that she had been robbed of being a teenager. She wanted me to primp and preen and take more care about how I dress and how I look. She is kind of shy, and she is all girl. Most of all, she wants to be encouraged to express her femininity. When I heard this, I gasped and said, “I’m gonna get in trouble for that!”

Sandy and I both laughed, because this was the response of the “old” me who had survived adolescence and early adulthood by hiding her womanhood. It had been a matter of survival for me to hide. After all, I had a father who yelled at me (when I was 13) that “ALL MEN WILL EVER WANT FROM YOU IS SEX!”

It was the only time my father ever exploded in anger at me. Needless to say, that statement, delivered in rage, made quite an impression–and it wasn’t good. At the same time, my mother told me that I could not trust myself to say no to a man who wanted sex. No wonder my adolescent soul part had left.

Sandy then talked about an adult part she retrieved. It was a soul part that had left when I was diagnosed years ago with yet another chronic illness. Chronic illness is one of several indications that a soul retrieval might be helpful.

Last of all, Sandy described the animals she had retrieved. I can’t reveal their identity. But I can tell you that the male came to teach me that males can be gentle. This animal wanted to help counteract my experience with abusive men. The female was to teach me about “the joy of passivity.” What a concept!

Passivity had always terrified me. This was because I associated passivity with my mother and also, with being victimized sexually. However, passivity is necessary for the full range of sensual pleasure. So the female animal wanted to help me overcome those old fears. Believe me, she had her work cut out for her!

That night after Sandy left, I was astonished to find myself romping around the house exclaiming, “I’m a girl! I’m a girlie girl!” Sheez, it’s embarrassing to even say that! From the time I was 17, when my “women’s lib” days began, I have adamantly refused to be called a girl on grounds of feminist politics. Knowing this, John and I both laughed about this sudden injection of youthful femininity.

The morning after the retrieval, I woke up to an insistent thirteen-year-old. She informed me that I was to take her shopping for clothes that afternoon. Again, this was new behavior. For as long as I can remember, clothes shopping has always nauseated me. I avoided it like the plague.

Once we were at the store, I must admit that “we” had a good time. I gave her permission to take as long as she liked and buy whatever she wanted. My teenager picked out five pairs of pants and four tops, including pink pants (!) and some tight sweaters with sparkly threads. My thirteen-year-old self said she wanted to show off her breasts. Yikes! This was pretty incredible for a woman who has been hiding her curves in men’s jeans and T-shirts for twenty years.

Another change I experienced was the overnight development of a crush on a movie star I had previously disliked. I thought back to when I’d last had a crush on a movie star. It was 1969 and I was 14. Robert Redford hit the screens as the Sundance Kid and I was hopelessly in love. This time it was someone else (my teenager is too shy to tell you his name). But that unmistakable feeling in my stomach was the same. Oh, what the hell. I’ll tell you who it was: Arnold Schwarzenegger!

My adult self was very embarrassed about this, so I didn’t tell anyone except John for quite a long time. Arnold’s “macho” reputation had always repelled me. So I wasn’t too enthralled with the idea of having a sudden crush on him. Even so, my adolescent self wasn’t in love with Arnold for the macho movies he’d made. She liked his “nice guy” movies, like “Kindergarten Cop.”

To keep my teenager soul part happy and home, I decided to indulge this part of me. I rented the movies she wanted to watch repeatedly–like a true teenager with a crush! Most of all, my thirteen-year-old part liked to rewind the romantic parts and watch them over and over. I can hardly believe I’m admitting this to you!

My adult self thought this might be bad form in front of my life partner, John. But it actually worked out fine, because John enjoys my crush on Arnold. If nothing else, he enjoys it because it’s so out of character for me (my “pre-soul-retrieval” character, that is). Besides, my crush on Arnold made me watch more movies and hang out, which is something John was always encouraging.

After the soul retrieval, I suddenly began to get more physical, too. I started riding my bike every day. I hadn’t been healthy enough in years to do aerobic exercise. Also, I asked John to begin teaching me karate self-defense and to teach me how to lift weights. This was pretty amazing. For years, I’d said that I would never lift weights. Never say never when a soul retrieval intervenes!

At some point, I realized that my personality was undergoing some changes as a result of the retrieval. I realized that I may as well give up the idea that I knew everything about myself anymore. Instead, I decided to adopt an attitude of discovery, exploring the nature of these soul parts and their impact on my life.

These are only part of the wonderful changes that occurred after the soul retrieval. However, it’s only fair that I tell you about the other side of the experience–the painful side. When soul parts return, it’s not unusual for a person to feel the full force of the pain they left in order to avoid. This happened for me. After about a week, I went into a dark depression that lasted three days. This was short compared to my manic-depressive past, but long by current standards. This depression started with a two-hour session of body-wracking sobs that came from out of the blue.

About three weeks after the retrieval, I noticed that all kinds of stressful situations were arising at the same time. They all centered around the issue of will. That is, the issue of determining what is right for me. Specifically, the situations related to boundary and control issues involving friends, business contracts, and clients. They also revolved around legal matters, past relationships, and my role as a public person (in terms of my writing).

For a few weeks nonstop, I experienced nothing but struggle after struggle. In every situation, the “theme” was always the same: Was I going to listen to what was right for me, or was I going to let other people control me? It was really intense.

Fortunately, the return of my three-year-old soul part made it impossible for me not to take care of myself anymore. I could no longer give people what they wanted if it wasn’t right for me. One very serious situation arose because my three-year-old insisted that a legal business contract was not right for me. I had signed the contract only a month prior to the soul retrieval, so it was very awkward.

I am a stickler for honoring agreements, so I resisted this directive because of guilt and fear. But then I asked my dreams for guidance and had four blatant dreams in a row one night. All of them validated my three-year-old’s perspective on the situation. The morning after I awoke from those dreams, I contacted the other party involved in the contract. I called it off before we started the actual work. Although I had to face the consequences, I also felt relieved. My three-year-old was right.

That wise young three-year-old also insisted that I change the form of a relationship with one of my best friends. It was a relationship where my needs had not been getting met for a long time. I was constantly holding back from being myself. The aforementioned business contract was with this same friend. When both situations happened simultaneously, the person chose to stop relating to me at all, despite my preference to work through the conflict together. Because of her response, I had to let go, but I knew I would still hold the door open for healing.

Losing that friendship was a painful experience, because I really loved her. However, I knew that my three-year-old was right to stand up for herself and her needs. I also recognized that from my perspective, my friend’s response to conflict mirrored my parents’ response to conflict. Even while it was occurring, I tried to remember what Sandy had said about soul retrievals ending family patterns.

My relationship with that woman was the only relationship left in my life where I was still stuffing my needs to avoid conflict. In all other cases, my close friends were able and willing to work through conflict with me. All my other friendships deepened after the retrieval.

In the weeks following my soul retrieval, the intensity of being more awake was sometimes so great that I could well understand why the soul parts had left. A few times, I cried for hours until my eyes swelled shut. When this happened, I was terrified that the retrieved soul parts would leave me again. However, they told me that as long as I listen to them, validate their experience, and stay with them through the pain, they will not leave me. Through this process, I understood at a visceral level how essential it is for a child to have a compassionate witness.

Overall, it’s clear that something profound happened when Sandy intervened in the spiritual realms on my behalf. One of the most incredible and impactful changes came about a month later. I woke up one morning at 5 a.m. to my three- and thirteen-year-olds telling me that I was now strong enough–physically and emotionally–to participate in the two-week course in advanced shamanism offered yearly at Esalen. At the time, the course was taught by Michael Harner and Sandy Ingerman through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

I’d wanted to do their advanced training for years, but hadn’t felt safe enough or strong enough to eat, sleep, and be with people nonstop for two weeks. I knew I could handle the training part of it. But living according to someone else’s schedule–without any privacy and without my usual support system–sounded exhausting and downright ghastly to me.

When my “youngster” soul parts told me to go, I gulped. However, I decided to trust them by honoring their request. I immediately grabbed the phone and called the Foundation’s answering machine. Where else can you leave a message about what your soul parts have told you to do?

Later that morning, Barbara Bartholomew (at the Foundation) called back to say the training was filled. Hmmmmm. I refused to believe that my soul parts would tell me to go if it wasn’t really going to happen. So I paid a deposit anyway and got my name on the waiting list.

Two weeks later, Barbara called to tell me I was in. Even the timing of her call was extraordinary. It came the morning after I had sent a letter to my parents, telling them about my childhood sexual abuse (yet another request by my young soul parts). Getting accepted to do the training felt like a “reward” for my courage in confronting the family denial.

The next two months before the training, I alternated between total terror and total excitement. In late January of 1992, I arrived at Esalen to work with my two favorite shamans, Michael and Sandy. The training itself was filled with 45 of the most wonderful people you could imagine. That experience at Esalen was indeed very difficult for me physically and emotionally. I almost “broke” and came home. On the other hand, it was one of the best thing I’ve ever done, and it changed my life dramatically.

For one thing, I’m now doing soul retrievals for other people. It is beautiful and powerful work, and I love being part of the “search and rescue” squad, helping people’s lost soul parts to come home.

Oh, yes. There’s one other thing I want to tell you. After the soul retrieval, I couldn’t seem to get enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I suddenly started eating at least one PB&J, usually two, every day. I don’t know what it is about them, but I do know that I haven’t eaten them since I was a little girl.

This article was originally published in Shamanism (Spring 1992, Vol. 4, No. 4) and updated in June 2017.

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).