Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my friend and mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, about the concept of what shamans in indigenous cultures call “soul loss.”
It’s not a diagnosis recognized by Western medicine, but our entire culture suffers from soul loss—a loss of meaning, direction, vitality, mission, purpose, identity, and genuine connection; a deep unhappiness that most of us have come to consider as simply ordinary.
The soul is our source of absolute uniqueness, a place within that connects you not only to your own value and essence, but also to the value and essence of every other living being. What makes soul loss so subtle and dangerous is that very few people have realized that it has happened. Most of us do not know that we have disconnected from our soul and have come to accept as normal a numbness and lack of meaning in our lives.
Because we all belong to this culture, we all suffer from soul loss. It’s epidemic and blinds us from seeing the potential for joy and wholeness in ordinary life. When you heal from soul loss, you see familiar things in new ways so you can increase your joy in what you already have.
Not sure if you’re suffering from soul loss? Take this quiz:
- Do you feel not as good as other people?
- Do you know you are much more than you are today, but you’ve lost touch with how to get there?
- Do you yearn to be of service, but you have no idea what you have to contribute and why it matters?
- Do you find yourself striving in vain for an impossible-to-achieve standard of perfection?
- Do your fears keep you from living large?
- Do you worry that you’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, young enough, [fill in the blank] enough?
- Do you feel like a victim of circumstances that are beyond your control?
- Do you feel like your daily life is meaningless and task-driven?
- Do you often feel helpless, hopeless, or pessimistic?
- Have you lost touch with the joy in your work or family life?
- Do you often feel you don’t really matter?
- Do you feel that you’re always trying to fit in and belong?
- Do you feel beaten down by the challenges you face in your life?
- Do you feel fatigued, even when you’ve had plenty of sleep?
- Are you able to accept love and nurturing?
- Are you depressed, anxious, or chronically worried?
- Do you feel like you’re not appreciated enough?
- Do you find yourself judging others?
- Do you numb yourself with alcohol, drugs, sex, television, or excessive busyness?
- Are you disappointed with life?
- Do you protect your heart with steel walls?
- Do you question whether your love makes a difference?
- Do you often feel alone and isolated in a crowd?
- Have you forgotten how to dream?
If you answered YES to several of these questions, you may be suffering from soul loss without knowing it.
The soul is often misunderstood, but poet Mark Nepo, who is a dear friend of Rachel’s, describes it best in Unlearning Back to God: Essays on Inwardness 1985-2005:
Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry; an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologians call it the Soul, Jung calls it the Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qalb, and Jesus calls it the Center of our Love.
To know this spot of Inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed, but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin, while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. Each of us lives in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over, only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.
When the film is worn through, we have moments of enlightenment, moments of wholeness, moments of Satori as the Zen sages term it, moments of clear living when inner meets outer, moments of full integrity of being, moments of complete Oneness. And whether the film is a veil of culture, of memory, of mental or religious training, of trauma or sophistication, the removal of that film and the restoration of that timeless spot of grace is the goal of all therapy and education.
Regardless of subject matter, this is the only thing worth teaching: how to uncover that original center and how to live there once it is restored. We call the filming over a deadening of heart, and the process of return, whether brought about through suffering or love, is how we unlearn our way back to God.
The more your soul get covered over, the more depressed, isolated, hopeless, meaningless, and burned out you feel. But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
How soul loss shows up at the doctor’s office
As physicians, Rachel and I have had years of experience diagnosing soul loss in our patients, but Western medicine has no framework for this kind of diagnosis, and as doctors, we’re not taught to treat this kind of suffering, so we wind up mistreating it.
What people suffering from soul loss need is the deep medicine of reconnection with the soul.
But in our culture, we tend to treat soul loss too superficially. We treat the chronic pain with pain medication. We treat the insomnia with sleeping pills. We treat the weight issues with diet and exercise. And most damagingly, we may label soul loss as mental illness, such as depression, and cover up the symptoms with psychiatric medications that may make things worse by slapping a Band-Aid on a wound that’s not healing underneath the bandage.
The treatment you really need
Sometimes the soul needs space in order to heal, and this may require the courage to make some external changes in your life. Perhaps you need to switch careers in order to give the soul more room to breathe. Perhaps an unhealthy relationship is constricting the soul, and it’s time to get into therapy, set boundaries, or even end things. Perhaps you need to find more people to love or relocate to a place that helps your soul come alive.
Perhaps you need to give your soul permission to engage in more creative activities. Such eternal changes may be part of the prescription the inner doctor of your soul writes.
But very often, those kinds of major life overhauls are NOT NECESSARY!
Reconnecting to the soul allows you to find peace and happiness right where you are in ways that are much simpler and more profound than you might think. It can be astounding to discover that you’ve had what you needed all along and have been looking in all the wrong places. Perhaps all that is needed is to see the life you’re already living in a different way.
Ten ways your soul guides you in daily life
If you’re suffering from soul loss, what can you do about it? The first step to healing from soul loss is learning to reconnect to the guidance of your soul. In order to help you, Rachel and I are offering a free tele-class 10 Ways Your Soul Guides You in Daily Life. We invite you to join us by registering here.
We hope you’ll join the live healing circle of those who are already registered, but even if you don’t join us, remember: your soul is always with you.
You are always being guided. You don’t need anything outside of you to heal from soul loss. You already have all that you need to heal yourself.
@LissaRankin (Click to Tweet!)
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities—HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.
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*Image courtesy of Lel4nd.January 26, 2014