Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming

reservoir 08The healing work of a shaman regularly involves the practice of “soul retrieval.” To continue my series on shamanism and dreamwork, I’d like to explore some ways that the concept of soul retrieval can give us an understanding of particular kinds of dreams, and help us to fully experience the healing that these dreams may bring.

When an individual or community is disturbed, diseased, wounded, or out of balance, there can be a variety of causes according to the shamanic tradition. But probably the most common cause—a problem that is almost universal in our modern culture—is what is called “soul loss.” Soul loss can occur when something happens to an individual or community that cannot be fully integrated. If the trauma or shock is enough to violate the integrity of the individual (or community), the soul can respond by splitting off a part of itself—in effect, sending that part out of harm’s way, just as city children were sent away to the country during World War II when the cities were being bombed. These soul parts may become lost—unable or unwilling to make their way home after the immediate danger has passed.

As a result of soul loss, the original “home” soul lacks an essential aspect of itself, suffering from the absence of qualities that constitute its wholeness and uniqueness and make it possible to cope with change and challenges. These split-off qualities can include resilience and flexibility, creativity, openness, emotional availability, playfulness, generosity, innocence, discernment, trust… and finally even the will to live.

In indigenous cultures, the lost soul part is seen quite literally as a separated Spirit being—often taking the form of a child or adult at the age when the initial traumatic splitting occurred. These split-off souls continue to exist somewhere in the worlds of Spirit, and a shaman can be called upon to journey into these other worlds, find the lost souls, and persuade or help them to come home. Once returned, these souls must be nurtured and integrated—a process which, like any healing, can be facilitated by the shaman, but is ultimately the responsibility of the one who receives the healing.

Although soul retrieval carried out by a shaman is a specific, intentional effort toward healing, the natural healing tendency of dreams can also reveal processes that resemble soul loss and recovery. A few years ago, I had a series of dreams that involved rescuing children from drowning. The age and sex and nationality of the child varied from dream to dream, as did the circumstances of the rescue, and whether or not the child was saved. [See “Dream Catalysts and Witnesses”.] Here’s an example:

The Boy in the Lock: It is winter in the Netherlands…. We stop at a lock, where the flow of water in the canals is controlled by powerful mechanisms. We need the lock to lift us to the next level, but it seems abandoned and the heavy iron fixtures are ice cold, maybe rusted, as if they’ve been unused for a long time. I look over the side of the lock into a chute containing dark, deep, half-frozen water far below. A 2 or 3-year-old boy sits right on the edge beside me, and by the time I realize how vulnerable he is there, he has fallen in! He sinks quickly. Without thinking, I jump down into the icy water, and go under, too. I’m numbed by the profound cold and weighed down by my heavy coat and boots—paralyzed. The boy’s pale face is barely visible below me in the dark water as he sinks into the depths. I can do nothing. Abruptly, I decide that this cannot happen. I will myself down toward him, and even though I can’t move physically, I somehow reach him and return with him to the surface…

At the time of these dreams, I had suffered a major personal loss, which echoed losses from much earlier in my life. As I grieved in the present, the past grief also surfaced, and I became aware that some essential aspects of myself needed to be restored before I could experience healing.

The drowning children in each dream seemed to be associated with different periods in my early life—and the circumstances of each dream suggested how close I was to recovering what I had lost, and what that particular loss had meant to me. But these associations and suggestions were not spelled out explicitly. As in any dream, the layers of meaning were rich and subtle, and did not yield immediate answers to the questions they raised.

In a shamanic soul-retrieval journey, a skilled practitioner guides the soul home, and then is able to encourage or even direct the process of reintegration that must follow. In a dream like “The Boy in the Lock,” the nature of the soul retrieval process can be a lot less clear.

My own approach to bringing the “rescued children,” or “soul parts,” from these dreams back into the wholeness of my psyche was not mediated by conscious effort or rational understanding—instead it involved remembering, reentering, and reflecting upon the dreams themselves, in all their vivid detail and emotion. The insights needed for reintegration were within the dreams.

In other words, the dreams themselves were the healing. By experiencing “The Boy in the Lock” fully, I had a complete “felt experience” of the shock of the loss, the numbing helplessness, and finally the pure, unhesitating strength of my will to do the impossible and recover the child.

When a person has experienced soul loss, she or he will often feel a profound lack of will, confidence, trust or hope. In soul retrieval dreams, those qualities arise spontaneously in response to a genuine need, and the dreamer is able to recognize this powerful motivation and commitment as a part of him or herself. In a sense, the soul that is retrieved is the dreamer’s own belief in life.

I’ve heard many soul retrieval dreams from others, and in every instance, even when the “soul” is not actually “saved” in the dream (as in another of my dreams, where I could not revive a girl who had drowned), the dreamer is given a full experience of the poignancy of the loss, and a sense of deep empathy that drives a new determination to move toward healing.


  1. Royce Fitts

    I experience this approach as very challenging to my rational mind, and this is a good thing. You handle this topic and the metaphor of “lostness” very well, tenderly and effectively. I “get” a kind of “literal” and “non-literal” understanding of deep, inner woundedness and soul-loss. I appreciate how you weave dreams, and ancient approaches to healing into an understandable possibility for healing. This validates for me non-“speech-ripe” experiences of my own inner pain. Thank you…

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Royce, for the depth of your response–it’s challenging to write about, or even think about, issues of “soul loss” because such traumatic experiences do challenge our rationality and call for an openness/vulnerability that seems unreasonable in the circumstances. As you say, it needs to be understood both “literally” and “non-literally”–metaphorically and authentically. I’m so glad you contributed your experience and perspective on this.

  2. Tina

    Love this line: In a sense, the soul that is retrieved is the dreamer’s own belief in life.
    You bring such wisdom to this world, Kirsten.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina. And the wisdom of my good friends guides my dreaming and my “belief in life.”

  3. Karen Deora

    A great post! Who says you aren’t a shaman?

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Your encouragement means a lot, Karen–Thank you!

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