I have been wanting to write about soul but have been procrastinating. This site is largely about living soulfully, and it occurred to me that I may need to say more about what I mean by that. But what do I mean? Soul can be different things to different people, and the more I think about it and look into it, the more questions present themselves.
Because of what it evokes for us, the term soul is widely used to sell all kinds of products - cars come immediately to mind, and thus its meaning has become even more confusing. It may be a marketing buzz word, but that doesn’t mean we comprehend what it is.
Many dictionaries define soul as spirit, implying the terms are synonymous, but this description would not only be challenged by numerous theologians, it would no doubt also be troubling to a lot of atheists. Though for many, soul is a spiritual reality, I have known several fervent atheists who speak of their soul with no sense of contradiction. Everyone knows what ‘soul deadening’ means. The word soul is inclusive and doesn’t turn some people off the way the concept of spirit can – except maybe when it is overused - or misused.
Would it be accurate to say that soul is more body related, and more personal than spirit? We have a sense of what soul music and soul food refer to. They are substantial and earthy. You experience them in the lower chakras. But that doesn’t mean soul is located there. It remains elusive.
There are numerous popular books about soul such as Chicken Soup for the Soul and Care of the Soul, and all of their various offshoots . Even Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, doesn’t actually define soul, though he does say it “is not a thing.” He describes it as “a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance.” He does not use the word in the religious sense, he explains, “or as something to do with immortality.” (p. 5)
Depth psychologist Carl Jung also differentiated between the psyche (which means soul) and the religious soul, but I believe that was largely because of the time in which he lived. Jung, and others in the field of psychology, were under tremendous pressure to distance themselves from religion and become “true scientists” rather than pseudo ones. But reading Jung can often be confusing because at various times he employs the word soul to mean personality, and in other contexts he seems to equate soul with the unconscious and even nature. Yet, in many cases, he also implies something spiritual. Personally, I question whether it is helpful, in our time at least, to distinguish between a spiritual and psychological soul. It’s hard enough defining one of them.
For James Hillman, former Jungian and founder of Archetypal Psychology, the soul has a “code” which he compares to how an acorn has a blueprint for becoming an oak. According to him, we also have a kind of daimon, our personal genius, which strives to keep us on track and bring this code to manifestation and completion. Some would argue that this is essentially spiritual work.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest, author, and Wisdom School teacher, also seems to view the soul in both psychological and spiritual terms. Among other things, she describes (in a lecture) the soul as
the deepest, and most personal, private, inward sense of my own identity as experienced through that really unique capacity that only we humans have of self reflective consciousness...Who I am as a soul is experienced as a unique person with a unique set of qualities that makes me different from everybody else and [I have] a unique responsibility to discover these and tend these.
Soul has to do with authenticity, she says. It “has the deep inner sense that when we came into life we were entrusted with a talent, with the gift or the potential of who we really are, and that soul is the one that’s going to keep us on task about actualizing it.”
She adds that heart and soul are “joined at the hip”, and that if we live in violation with our soul over time, we lose our vital energy and “joie de vivre.” But this can happen easily because “we are conditioned to numb out its voice.” There is work to be done, she says, and it begins by waking up to its voice.
Bourgeault particularly stresses our responsibility to develop our soul. In fact, she calls this an "obligation". Which is what I will write about in my next post - if procrastination doesn’t get the better of me.