The concept and practice of soul retrieval is millennia old and spans cultures, especially in relation to spiritual, mystical, and healing traditions. It refers to a condition in which a shock, trauma, and other severe physical, emotional or spiritual upset causes a part of the self to split off and flee. It’s the condition when the soul splinters and the wounded aspect of the self goes into hiding. Soul retrieval is just what the term implies—the process of coaxing the split aspect of the self to return and integrate back into the self.
In Andean mysticism, soul retrieval is called animu waqyay. The Quechua speakers borrowed the word animu from the Spanish, where it means “soul” or “spirit.” Waqyay means “to call” in Quechua. In this sense, soul retrieval Andean-style is a calling back of the soul, restoring the partial or fractured self to a whole self.
To tell the truth, in all my queries to paqos (which, frankly, haven’t been a lot), I was never able to learn much about soul retrieval. I hear now that a lot of the younger paqos who travel and teach in the United States and Europe talk about it and teach it, but a lot of what I hear (which, frankly, also hasn’t been a lot) sounds like information tainted by beliefs and practices from other cultures. I am open about my bias that I tend to trust what the older paqos (who had little contact with modern, outside cultures) say more than I do what the younger, most modernized paqos say. So I am a bit skeptical of at least some of what I hear, and I continue to try to sort through information and learn more from reliable sources.
I recently was in Peru and had a chance to talk, over a three-hour dinner, with two anthropologists about many subjects, including both soul retrieval and “secret knowledge” among the Q’ero. One of them has been living among and gathering information from the most respected and reliable paqos in Q’ero. Still, I was not provided much information, really only a few minutes of our hours’ long visit, but what I was told is intriguing.
Let me start with making a distinction between the spirit and the soul. In the Andes, the spirit is that drop of the Mystery that becomes “you” at the moment the sperm and egg meet and the egg is fertilized. It resides in or is encoded in your Inka Seed. Your spirit is pure sami, indestructible and incorruptible.
Your soul, in contrast, is that which informs you at the moment you are born. At that moment of separation from your mother, you become a singular human being and your soul starts to develop. Your soul is growing, changing, responding as you grow. It is the sum total of all your thoughts, desires, experiences, relationships, etc. It is your decidedly human aspect in contrast to your untainted divine spirit. The condition of your soul can cause you to produce hucha. Soul retrieval, thus, is about an assault to the soul that causes a significant fracture to your sense of self as a whole human being. What is being retrieved is the split-off part of your soul. So, to be clear, it deals with the soul and not the spirit.
Like most Q’ero and Andean practices, the form of soul retrieval I was told about many years ago is incredibly simple. To call back the split-off aspect of the soul, the paqo simply marshals his or her intent and then whispers into the person’s ear, speaking to the split-off self, “Come back. Come back.” Using his or her intent and qaway (mystical seeing and knowing) the paqo intends to draw back the wounded aspect of the self. Like all Andean practice, there is no elaborate ceremony. Soul retrieval is all about how energy must follow intent. Just like a paqo talks to an apu, in a normal voice with little fanfare (but with reverence), so too do they call back the split-off soul. It is like a mother calling a son or daughter home to dinner. It is matter-of-fact and practical, but infused with munay (love grounded in will). The power is in the paqo’s intent and munay, not in any ceremony. That’s all I ever knew about soul retrieval for almost twenty years.
This year I learned things are a bit more complex! First, let me say that part of my discussion with these two anthropologists touched briefly on secret knowledge. Over the years there has been a lot of hype about secret knowledge among the Q’ero and others, and yet no paqo I ever talked with (or others I know talked with) ever said anything except that if someone asks for a teaching it is the obligation of the paqo, through ayni, to pass on that knowledge. Of course, they use their judgment about passing on information to others. But they denied there was anything secret in their tradition, and, in fact, stressed that keeping secrets was against the belief system of the tradition, founded as it is on ayni, or reciprocity.
When I talked to the anthropologists, I understood that “secret” is the wrong word to use or ask about. There is not much, or perhaps anything, that is “secret,” but there is knowledge that is “private.” That nuance immediately struck me as important. For instance, in terms of the poq’po (your energy body), we never have anything to fear from kawsay (the living energy) so there is no reason to ever have to “protect” our poq’pos. However, there are plenty of times when we want to be “private,” and so we will pull our poq’po in close to our body and close the “eyes” of the energy centers (the ñawis). So I immediately understood this subtle difference between “secret” and “private.”
I learned that, yes, there is knowledge that is “private” and so not openly shared with others. This is knowledge and practice that has to be earned through long apprenticeship and by gaining the confidence of your teacher.
So what was this “private” knowledge in terms of soul retrieval? Well, since it is private I did not get many details! What I did learn was that there are “levels” of practice when it comes to soul retrieval. The practice moves from the simplest and fastest approach to coaxing the split-off part of the soul home to increasingly complex methods. Or, more accurately, the practices moved from “informal” to “formal.” You try the informal, and quickest, method first, and if that doesn’t work move to the more formal methods. I received only the broadest outlines, but my interpretation is that the calling back of the soul by whispering in the ear is the first approach—the most informal—of practices for a soul retrieval. Another first-line practice is to throw the coca leaves to try to divine what has happened, why the soul split, and how best to recover it.
If those methods don’t work fully or at all, then the paqo moves to a more formal, and elaborate, practice. When I inquired about what some of these more formal practices were, I was given only one example. (We were at dinner, in a crowded restaurant, and so conversation was free-flowing but also interrupted often and disjointed as we skipped from topic to topic). In this example, a paqo would have to do a lot of preliminary work before even undertaking the soul retrieval. He or she would have to determine how and why the split occurred, and where the soul had fled. This information might be divined by throwing the coca leaves. I learned that the soul almost always flees into Mother Earth, so it could be hiding just about anywhere, such as on a mountainside or in a cave.
The paqo then has to determine what the best means of communication is to that spirit being of Mother Earth (the apu, the cave, etc.) where the split-off aspect of the soul is hiding. Before the soul can be called back, that spirit being has to be persuaded to give up that part of the soul, to release it. Only then can the soul be talked to directly and, hopefully, persuaded to come back and integrate into the person. It appears that all the work done by the paqo is with the nature spirit and the split-off aspect of the soul, and not much is done directly with the person for whom the soul retrieval is being conducted (in terms of energy work on their body, ceremony, etc.).
Wow! I don’t know about you, but I found that information incredibly interesting. And hearing about it provoked myriad feelings. I felt humbled by how little most of us who are not native to the mountains of Peru actually know about the tradition. I marveled at how deeply connected to nature and energy the paqos are. I felt chagrin that so much misinformation is flying around the Internet about Andean soul retrieval (at the very least, as regards claims that certain practices are Andean when they clearly are not). I felt honored to have learned this information. And, despite the incredible Italian food and wine I was consuming, I felt hungry for more information, for renewed contact with the paqos, and for an even deeper understanding of the tradition. So, ever the student, my practice continues, as does my learning.