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Your Inner Tribe: Shamanism and Parts-of-Self

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WE ARE A MULTITUDE - Body, Ego, Spirit & Soul

Shamanism understands that we are not a single "I” but are instead made up of different "parts-of-self" – an “inner tribe”. As with any tribe, for it to be healthy, each of its members needs to be honoured and understood, and brought into healthy relationship, and much of shamanic practice is about doing this. 

Although we can divide the parts-of-self into any number of sub-divisions, in this approach, Therapeutic Shamanism and Core Animism, we concentrate on the four primary ones: as well as honouring the middle-world self and its different sub-parts, this includes honouring Body, Soul and Spirit.

In this blog, we will focus on middle-world self and the crucial shamanic practice of soul retrieval – finding lost soul parts, bringing them back, and helping them to integrate again.

Before we proceed, let’s briefly recap the four primary parts-of-self, each of which, from a shamanic viewpoint, corresponds to (and is an aspect of) one of the main shamanic realms.

The four main parts are:

OUR UPPER-WORLD SPIRIT

This aspect of ourselves corresponds to the shamanic Upper-World. It is pure consciousness, a fragment of Father Sky (or God, if you like), in the same way that a water drop is part of the ocean, or that a spark is part of a fire. It seeks to soar and transcend, gaining a broader perspective; to rise above things and see the bigger picture. One of the reasons people often experience positive benefits from having a regular meditation practice is that, in meditation, we are connecting to and cultivating this part of us. To have a healthy connection with this part requires us to live ethically, morally, and with kindness and compassion. Neglecting these values deteriorates our well-being and affects this part negatively.

OUR PHYSICAL BODY

This part of us corresponds to the physical Middle-World. This part of us corresponds to the physical Middle-World. It needs to have its physical needs met − clean water, warmth, healthy food, fresh air and shelter. It also needs to know that it is safe from harm, and to have somewhere it can rest and sleep. In addition, it needs to be allowed to do what it was designed to do, which is to move around (instead of sitting at a desk, or in a car or on a sofa, for most of the day).

In our culture, we tend to think of the body as not ‘us’ but some ‘thing’ that we inhabit, a ‘vehicle’ for the soul, a kind of biological car that we drive around in. The body is far more than just a vehicle though. Remember, in shamanism, everything has a soul, is alive and conscious, and can be communicated with. Everything has its own unique qualities and gifts, and that goes for the body, too. Our bodies are a conscious part of us; a part of us that has its own wisdom and intelligence. This wisdom includes that the body always knows the truth. 

The other middle-world part of us, our ego, that we will look at shortly, is essentially a collection of stories that we tell. As such, it can (and usually does) make up all sorts of stories, believe things that are not necessarily true, and has an amazing capacity to screen out and ignore what does not fit its narratives. “My mother (or father, partner, sister, brother etc) loves me really” for example, even though all the evidence may be saying otherwise. By contrast, the body always knows the truth. Hence the psychiatrist and author, Bessel van der Kolk, saying ‘The body keeps the score’ and Wilhelm Reich, the founder of body-centred psychotherapy, saying ‘The body never lies’.

OUR LOWER-WORLD SOUL (with a capital S)

This part of us corresponds to the shamanic Lower-World. Our Lower-World Soul is our true Self-identity. Our Soul is our truest self, our true nature. It is a part of us that is wild and free; part of nature; part of Human, of Animal, a sibling to Plant and Stone, and a child of Mother Earth. It is both who we truly are deep down, and the blueprint for what we are meant to grow into and become in the world.

Soul needs us to live a life that is authentic, a life that is true to our Soul. It needs to express itself in the world and be allowed to blossom and thrive. It must be connected to nature. Without connection to nature, it withers and weakens. Sadly, though, since we domesticated ourselves and turned our back on the Lower-World and nature, it is a part of themselves that most people do not even know exists. Read more about Soul

OUR MIDDLE-WORLD SELF – EGO OR SOUL with a small S

This part of us corresponds to the shamanic Middle-World. It is both a personal and a collective construct. It is made of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and of the stories society tells us. It is the domesticated, socialised part of us. It is also the part that most people identify with as being who they are. 

Take me for example.
Amongst many, many other things I am ‘Paul Francis’. I am ‘male’. I am the ‘son of a vicar’. I am a ‘teacher’. I am ‘British’. Now let us look at these. ‘Paul Francis’ is just a name – a collection of letters when written, a sound when spoken, a series of gestures in sign language. It does not have any objective meaning or identity other than the stories and ‘identity’ that I (and others) give to it. What does being ‘male’ mean? Aside from biology, it is a whole miasma of socially-defined concepts, and notoriously hard to define and for people to agree on. ‘Son of a vicar’ is a whole web of stories that I bring to it. ‘What does it mean to be ‘a teacher’? British’ is a human construct, and again notoriously hard to define and for people to agree on what being ‘British’ even means.

Middle-World self is what we will be looking at in more depth in this blog.

A quick word about Lower-World Soul and middle-world soul:

As we’ve seen, middle-world soul and Lower-World Soul are not the same thing. L-W Soul is not something we lose, but something we have to find (if and when ready), a lifelong process and not something we can retrieve via soul retrieval. On the other hand, middle-world soul-parts can become lost. So most shamanic soul retrieval is of middle-world parts, and (relatively) is an event more than a process. 

Read more about soul loss and soul retrieval

OUR MIDDLE-WORLD SELF

FORMATION OF SELF-IDENTITY

Remember, our middle-world self is a collection of stories, and that’s a healthy thing and how it should be. As we are growing up in our family, tribe, or culture, adults guide us on what behaviours are acceptable. It’s how we socialise and learn to be a part of a group and a natural part of the process of becoming fully human.

Unconditional positive regard

However, for socialisation to be productive, the adults in charge of the process must make a clear distinction between the unwanted behaviour and the person. Healthy guidance says, “We love you, but we don’t like this behaviour.” If a child is labelled as “bad” or “terrible” for their actions, or if punishment is shaming, that damages healthy development.

We all crave love, affirmation, and validation of who we truly are, not what others want us to be. When significant people like parents, relatives, peers, and teachers, extend unconditional positive regard, a concept coined by Carl Rogers, the founder of counselling, we’re provided with the essential support to develop a strong personality and fulfil our potential. By being loved simply for being ourselves, we’re encouraged to follow the original instructions of the real self and thrive into the person we were meant to become.

Conditions of worth

Unfortunatelly, in modern societies and families, more often than not, we face something more conditional. We are only loved and accepted if we behave in a certain way or adopt a certain identity, and the more that happens, the more we build up a set of ideas about ourselves (a self-concept) based not on our authentic experiences, but on the values, judgements and expectations of others.

Rogers called these powerful conditional messages about what is acceptable ‘conditions of worth’. Over time, these become internalised as if they were our own and turn into ‘conditions of self-worth‘. They become a story we tell ourselves about who we are and we trust that made-up story more than we trust the original instructions of our Soul. We learn to block those because they are threatening to the world as we know it and to the safe persona we spent so much time crafting.

Incongruence between real self and persona

No matter how we try to silence the real self and live in a safe persona, the incongruence doesn’t go away. Because there is an inherent tendency in us towards actualisation, like a seed waiting to sprout—a vision of what we could be—and deep down, we all yearn to grow into that potential.

This gap between the real self and the persona causes a split in our psyche. In therapeutic shamanism, we talk about fort holders – parts that stayed and marched on in the name of a construct we built for ourselves – and orphans – parts that were sent away because they didn’t align with a persona we built to fit what others wanted us to become.

Let’s look at both in more detail to understand what they are and how shamanism (and psychotherapy) can help us heal and integrate them into our inner tribe.

FORT HOLDERS AND ORPHANS

The fort holder is the part that stayed behind and soldiered on. This is a construct (and so, part of the middle-world self). It is learnt behaviour, beliefs and strategies that we adopted to survive and do the best we could in the circumstances.

The historic (child) fort-holder cannot be ‘retrieved’ in the way a soul part can, as by definition it stayed there. It can be given respite care and help. It is also usually still with us in adulthood though, and in control of much of our behaviour and thoughts (until dealt with). This present (adult) fort-holder needs to be thanked and then told to stand down (or another more useful role found for it).

The fort-holder is itself comprised of a variety of sub-parts such as the inner critic, the perfectionist, the pusher, the pleaser, the self-saboteur, the joker, the pacifier, the rebel, and so on.

Therapeutic Shamanism helps fort holders heal by:

  • Meeting those part(s), and compassionately and respectfully listening to them. Just as we generally feel better when we feel heard and understood, and if we are shown empathy and kindness, this applies to inner parts of us too. The fort holder parts of us are often exhausted, but keep loyally soldiering, trying to look after us in the only way they know how. Meeting them, listening to them with kindness, thanking them, can go a very long way in helping heal them.
  • Respite care. In shamanic journeys, we can meet the fort holder part(s), and take them to the Lower-World and/or Upper-World, and ask our shamanic Guides to give them the healing they need too. Known as a ‘fort holder respite journey‘, this can be an immensely powerful thing to do. 
  • Therapeutic Shamanism contains many practices to help us grow into becoming truly Adult. By doing this, we can step up and take more healthy responsibility (and, response ability) in our lives. This can then take some of the burden off our fort holder parts, allowing them to step back and ‘stand at ease’ at last, whilst also enabling us to learn to respond to situations in more constructive ways and less out of old habits and patterns.

The orphan is a part of us that we have sent away. It could be our self-confidence, assertiveness, inquisitiveness, vulnerability, playfulness, sexuality, innocence, etc.  − whatever part (or parts) we felt we needed to send away in order to try and ‘fit in’ and survive. It is cast out, exiled, and so becomes parentless and abandoned (an orphan), a lost soul part. It needs to be found, healed, and integrated back into the self, a process known as shamanic soul retrieval.

Shamanism helps orphans heal by:

  • Soul retrieval journeys. This involves learning to journey to find the lost soul part. It may be still in the middle-world but stuck back in a particular situation back in the past, or it may have gone to the Lower-World or Upper-World, or even to the Land of the Dead. Then, meeting the part with kindness and compassion (it is, by definition, a traumatised part, and one that feels alone and abandoned), and then asking for it to be given the healing that it needs. It is then about persuading the part to come back, if and when it is ready. 
  • Once the part has returned, there needs to a process, over the next few weeks or months, of regularly checking in with the returned part, making it to feel welcome and valued, and helping it integrate back into its rightful place as a member of our inner tribe, whilst navigating the changes in ourselves that this will inevitably bring.
psychotherapy and parts-of-self work

Many modern psychotherapies have also come to understand that we are made up of parts-of-self. This includes therapies such as IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy), Voice Dialogue Work, Transactional Analysis, and various other psychotherapies that work with the idea of “sub-personalities”. In these, it is understood that the issues people present with are often due to their various parts-of-self being in an unhealthy relationship with each other, with some parts having too much power and other parts being marginalised and repressed. The aim in therapy then is to help the client meet their different parts, establish healthy dialogue between them, and work towards them becoming a healthier “inner tribe”.

Doing this can be highly effective. It does, however, assume that all the parts-of-self are present and “in the room” to be dialogued with. Shamanism knows that sometimes, when soul loss happens, a lost soul part is not in the room to be dialogued with. Sometimes, a part is not just repressed but has actually left altogether. The (soul) part literally splits off and goes. In this case, there will be only so far that therapy can go. This is when shamanism comes into its own, because shamanism can find the parts that are “no longer in the room” but which have left altogether.

So the area of parts-of-self work is one area where shamanism and psychotherapy overlap. As well as the similarities though, the different approaches, knowledge and insights that shamanism and psychotherapy have in this area means that they also have much they can contribute, and much they can learn from each other too. 

LEARN ABOUT YOUR INNER TRIBE AND MASTER SOUL RETRIEVAL PROCESS

Soul retrieval is an advanced shamanic technique, and it takes some time to get to the point of being able to do it yourself. However – if you feel the calling, our First Steps course is a great foundation you can build on!

However, if you have done the First Steps, we are excited to announce, that we are running an Inner Tribe course again this summer:

FURTHER-STEPS COURSE

INNER TRIBE WORK: SHAMANISM, SOUL RETRIEVAL, & PARTS-OF-SELF THERAPY

Start date: June 8th 2024.

If an illness has a shamanic origin, the underlying issue is always Soul loss or Power loss. In this long-awaited course, we will uncover the root causes and symptoms of soul loss, learn powerful techniques to locate and retrieve lost soul fragments, bring them back, negotiate their stay, and ensure their integration to the inner system of parts-of-self.

In this course, you can learn about:

  • Your “Inner Tribe. This will include (1) the shamanic understanding of the main parts-of-self – Body, Soul, Sprit and Ego, and (2) drawing on the more psychotherapeutic aspects of Therapeutic Shamanism, the many sub-parts of Ego, including fort-holders such as the protector-controller, managers, fire-fighters, pushers, pleasers, perfectionists, inner-critics, self-saboteurs, and the exiled and orphaned lost soul parts too.

  • Shamanic Soul Retrieval. Traditional shamanic techniques for identifying soul loss, finding lost soul parts, returning them, and integration into the inner parts-of-self. As well as more straight-forward soul retrievals, we will explore other practices such as “singing the souls back home”, how to retrieve lost soul parts from the middle-world (and so, how to do middle-world journeys, including looking at issues such as safety and protection), what to do when soul parts have gone into the Land of the Dead, complications that can arise from ancestral issues, and the important issue of how to heal lost soul parts before returning them. 

  • Soul Retrieval Challenges in Modern Times. For reasons we will explore in the course, soul retrieval is a much more complicated process than it once was. It’s not enough to bring lost soul parts back; we need to ensure there are no other parts-of-self objecting to their return. So, we will look at how to negotiate with fort-holder (protector) parts to ensure that soul retrieval is successful. We will also look at the crucial issue of learning to distinguish between parts-of-self, and parts that may at first appear to be self but which are, in fact, “other”; things that should not be in us (e.g. intrusions, ancestral burdens, “curses”, and possessing spirits).

  • Shamanism and Psychotherapy. We will explore the overlaps and distinctions between the two traditions, leveraging insight and learning techniques from both to achieve a comprehensive balance of the inner tribe, and lasting well-being.

Reading time: 14 mins

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