Ritual, Healing, and Cultural Context in Shamanism and Psychotherapy

A few years ago I was working on a mental health services delivery  project for a state-wide health agency. The target area was Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, a remote, scenic, part of Vermont with a rich history of community. One day I was given the task of driving up and meeting with a leader in the Christian faith community in one of the region’s larger towns. I was told, before I left the office, the person I was meeting knew all about my background as a shamanic healer. I had two hours to fret and worry on the drive up. How would an Evangelical Christian respond to my work incorporating traditional Native ideas about, and approaches to, mental health and healing?

I needn’t have worried. Over tea, the woman and I discussed a wide range of issues facing both her faith community and the community at large. She spoke passionately, and at length, about her experiences of visionary healing, and her appreciation for Native people and our willingness to use visionary approaches, and to join the battle against the forces of Evil. Although I tried to explain Native cosmologies are not usually about dichotomies between good and evil, she dismissed my gentle attempts at correction. I was, after all, engaging spirits, not all of which are friendly. This was a clear moment of intercultural miscommunication.

Bridging Indigenous and Western worlds of mental health and healing is filled with opportunities for both returning to wholeness and for miscommunication. I am reminded of this each time I suggest a “soul retrieval” to a client. “Soul retrieval” is a term made popular by anthropologists, and refers to the process of inviting disassociated aspects of Psyche to reintegrate with Self. The idea is that under severe stress (warfare, traffic accidents, domestic violence, etc.) parts of Self may fragment and go, or be sent by Self, into non-ordinary reality for safe keeping. One may understand this process as literal or metaphorical. Either way, the fragments may be recovered through a brief ritual, or “soul retrieval“.

Soul retrievals involve the healer searching, in non-ordinary reality, for lost aspects or fragments of self, negotiating for their return to their “owner”, and returning the parts. Usually only one soul retrieval is required, although parts may return over an extended period of time as they perceive Self as safe and welcoming. The healer may use her breath to blow returned parts into the crown of the client’s head, or may place them temporarily into a container (often a quartz crystal) which the client can keep close until they perceive all returning fragments have reintegrated with Self. The effect of the soul retrieval is to increase the client’s sense of Self and wholeness. (It is important to note that not everyone needs, or will benefit from, a soul retrieval. Often fragments return of their own accord during the course of therapy.)

The purpose of counseling, or any healing, in Indigenous cultures is to aid the client to find balance. Soul retrieval is one tool for accomplishing that. It is not esoteric, having been used successfully in innumerable Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Yet it may seem quite odd to persons of Western heritage. For persons whose orientation is strongly Western, I may frame the soul retrieval as a ritual that utilizes powerful metaphors of hurt and healing, for it is that. Other clients may think of, and experience, soul retrieval as literal.  Ultimately, the ritual works on its own merits, and it is quite useless to insist that one interpretation of the ritual is more valid than another. (Even this ambiguity, a crucial aspect of healing, can create cultural misunderstandings!)

Healing, of body, psyche, or spirit, is strongly symbolic, and takes place in cultural context. As our world grows ever more interconnected, opportunities to learn the best, most effective, healing practices from other cultures proliferate. So do opportunities for appropriate, confusion, and misunderstanding. Building bridges between cultures requires an awareness of both the benefits and pitfalls of such endeavors. It also requires a willingness to translate as best as one is able, to laugh when culture and language undermine our efforts, and to respect the wishes and limits of those from whom we learn, and those we wish to serve.

2 thoughts on “Ritual, Healing, and Cultural Context in Shamanism and Psychotherapy

  1. “I was, after all, engaging spirits, not all of which are friendly. This was a clear moment of intercultural miscommunication.”


    And something with which many of us who engage in such practices can no doubt sympathise. Sometimes it cuts far deeper than misinterpretation of an internal metaphor. In discussing plans for our wedding, for example, which will be held in the Medicine Wheel on the property of an Elder, my fiance and I encountered resistance from one family member who didn’t want their children to participate in the ceremony because they were too young, and it would be difficult to explain to them that we worshipped a “different God”.

    In this case, further translation was impossible.

    Although, to be fair, there is great love and respect on both sides. And if a bridge in this matter is ever to be built, these would certainly seem to be the necessary material…

    1. “In this case, further translation was impossible.
      Although, to be fair, there is great love and respect on both sides. And if a bridge in this matter is ever to be built, these would certainly seem to be the necessary material…”

      These do seem to be essential, and sure make life richer and more rewarding. Your wedding plans sound splendid. I hope the one family member recants and has a delighted time.

      I often wonder how Late Capitalism manages to seem to make cultural differences vanish. So much richness gets lost, and so many misunderstandings ensue. Perhaps it is just too much work to allow complexity…..

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