Shamanic work sometimes takes us to places that, at first, seem dark or frightening. This is often true when clients first begin to work with their dead loved ones. As the work unfolds, however, light is cast on what is hidden in death, and clients often discover great beauty in the transition that is the “successful” death of a loved one and his/her transition to the Light. Possession, which is a condition in which a disembodied, earth-bound soul is unable to cross over, but instead becomes attached to a living human, is the most misunderstood of our shamanic work with the dead.

Our modern ideas about possession and depossession have been shaped by our culture. I recall, as a teenager, my exquisite fear while watching “The Exorcist,” that pea soup-spewing portrayal of a young girl’s demonic possession. Her ordeal, and the processes used to depossess her of her fictional demonic attachment, were truly the stuff of horror. That level of horror in both affliction and cure is what most of us visualize when we think about possession.

Though demonic possession does occur, the preponderance of possessions are far simpler and less horrifying. To understand what possession really entails, it’s important to understand what the process of death entails.

Shamans recognize that our world is a reflection of the spiritual world; we call the world that is a spiritual version of our own the Middle World.  As we transition from our human bodies, our soul moves into the Middle World to do the work in which we end our attachments to our human existence, which allows us to return to our true nature and join ourselves to the Light of the Divine. Sometimes, a soul has a difficult time during this transition, and can end up being “stuck” in this Middle World.  There are many reasons why a soul may not be able to move out of the Middle world and to the Light. Souls are sometimes lost or confused about what has happened to them, sometimes because death was sudden or unexpected, or because they are afraid of the process itself. Others may remain because of attachments to people, objects, emotions, places or other things. Some remain out of a desire to “protect” or complete a relationship. There are many reasons a soul may not move on to the Light. Over time, these disembodied souls may find themselves drawn to the Light of a living human being’s energy field. For any number of reasons, a disembodied soul may find comfort and Light in that living being. And, as the attraction grows, these disembodied souls eventually attach themselves to the living human’s energy field, which is when the possession deepens.

Unlike in those rare cases of demonic possession, this kind of possessing being has no intention of possession. In fact, many of these possessing beings are completely unaware that they are possessing beings. In the process of depossession these beings are often very surprised to find they are where they are, and some are even surprised to discover they have died. As the possession deepens, the possessing being becomes more integrated into the living human being’s life, sometimes eventually affecting the physical life of the living host. The living human may be “overshadowed” by the possessing being, and begin to experience the fears, desires, tastes, ideas, memories or even the illnesses of the possessing being. In the possessing state, these disembodied beings may crave the world experience they had in their human bodies. They are distinctly separated by death from feeling those experiences. So, driven by ignorance and desire to experience, they may urge the host human to deeper levels of experience, sometimes resulting in addiction or dangerous behaviors.

Old shamanic cultures understood that souls sometimes required help in crossing over, and did psychopomp work to help ensure success. When that work failed, and possession occurred, they also understood that possessing beings needed to be helped to move away from their living human hosts, and then helped to transition to the Light. As modern shamanism recalls those old understandings and re-introduces them, the shamanic depossession processes have also been coming into regular shamanic practice. In this work, the practitioner calls the possessing being to step away from the living human, then uses traditional psychopomp techniques to assist the possessing being in completing his/her transition.

Betsy Bergstrom, a very gifted shaman and teacher, has developed and teaches the most beautiful and effective techniques of depossession named Compassionate Depossession. This technique recognizes that there are two beings suffering in a possession: both the hosting human and the lost soul that is overshadowing that human. During the Compassionate Depossession process, the practitioner tends to both of these beings, gently assisting the possessing being to leave the hosting human’s energy field, then helping that suffering being to return to the Light, with the assistance of compassionate helping Spirits of death and transition. Unlike the ordeal of depossession depicted in The Exorcist and other media, Compassionate Depossession is a quiet conversation with all involved beings, an awakening to what is true, and a Light-filled release of the possessing being from the bonds in which he/she is caught. The living human, in turn, typically experiences physical and emotional release from the tensions, stresses and even physical pain that are produced by the overshadowing. Betsy extensively discusses possession, its roots and causes, and how and why depossession is a very effective technique in a lengthy and thorough interview. Because I’ve experienced both the peace and the effectiveness of this technique, it is the one I use in helping my clients through depossession.

Possession of any kind is an undesirable state for any living human, because it drains the life force of the living human, sometimes to a great degree.  Betsy notes that the average possession or overshadowing can result in physical and mental illness, memory loss, identity confusion or loss, anger, fear, depression, mood swings, voices in the head, experiencing what seems like a past life, nightmares and sexual stimulation.  She also notes that addiction can have its roots in possession. The much rarer demonic possession can also present these symptoms, but that such beings also present a very strong “aura” that can be felt as very unsettling, sometimes described as “evil.”

Compassionate Depossession can be an important component of healing using shamanic techniques. It can play a big role in both releasing energies that do not serve a client, as well as assisting in the thorough re-integration of returned soul parts. In my practice, clients typically feel immediate emotional and physical release when a possessing being is helped to complete their transition. Clients are routinely awed and moved by the beauty of the process, often in marked contrast to the trepidation they had about how frightening the work might be.