Recently, I was talking to a psychologist friend of mine about the burden he felt from carrying the sad stories of the people who came to him for help. “People do such terrible things to one another,” he said.
“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “But what I think about most when someone leaves my office is the stunning dignity with which they have endured. I am more awed by the resilience of the human spirit than I am saddened by the things people do to one another.”
I wondered after speaking with him why I didn’t feel similarly burdened by my own work. I, too, have borne witness to unspeakable sorrow and tragedy in the lives of my clients. I have felt equally humbled and honored by their trust and willingness to open a window onto their shattered lives. But I have felt blessed, not burdened, by the gift of their stories, no matter how dark the tale, and I realize this is because, once handed these stories, I am able to see them—within the framework of the shamanic journey—in a unique light. I am able to watch them transform into a thing of beauty.
You live the story you tell about yourself. You become the character that stars in that saga. If you tell a story of victimization, then you remain a victim. If you tell a story of irrevocable damage and loss, then you fail to heal. It isn’t what happens to you that matters—it’s how you tell the story.
As a shamanic practitioner, I view my role as the provider of a new story. A story where there is learning and therefore healing. A story where the soul moves beyond the illusion that welded it to its tragedy, and finds instead the peace that can only come with deeper knowing.
When you are stuck in a story of how life has diminished you, your soul wanders, unable to know its own magnificence. This is what we call soul loss in shamanism. Shamans find the landscape of the spirit world littered with the unfinished stories of people’s lives. We call them soul parts, and returning a soul part to a client requires the telling of a new story. For the client, integrating those soul parts requires the living of a new story—a new version of “this is who I am.”
My helping spirits have taught me that before I return a lost soul part to a client, I must facilitate the learning of a new truth for that soul part (and therefore, the client); I must help it come to some new realization or epiphany that will take it beyond the limited perspective that brought it into non-ordinary reality in the first place. Sometimes the spirits will take the soul part to high cliff or treetop, so that it can truly see. Sometimes the soul part will be brought to the middle of the sea or a dark pocket of outer space, so that it can feel profundity. It does not matter where we go to find the story—it only matters that we find it.
For me, this is the real retrieval—finding the moral of the story. This is the reminder that even within the terrible things we do to one another, there is a still point of beauty and grace. One teen-aged soul part—having lost her self-esteem—realizes that the world would not be the same without her. A child soul part learns she was not the cause of her parents’ sorrow. The soul part of a young mother realizes she did not lose her stillborn daughter because her daughter exists in everything she is.
There came a time—some years after the death of my father—when I suddenly realized all the strength and knowing I had gained from his passing. It was the death of my father that put me on my spiritual path, a path I might never have taken if his loss had not been so profound. When something so deeply painful becomes neutralized, loses its emotional weight and resonance, and becomes instead something poignant and inspiring, the story is complete. Neither good, nor bad—it just is.
I realized then that if I can bring every experience of my life to this point of equilibrium, I will achieve something far greater than any sorrow I have ever known. And so may it be.