Soul and Aging


So long as you have not experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are a troubled guest on the dark earth.                                                                                   Goethe

When I think of the soul, I think in terms of depth and substance, weightiness and earthiness.   I associate it with the body, especially the heart.  In Greek, the term for soul is ‘psyche’ and its symbol is a butterfly.  A butterfly?  What could be lighter or more ethereal than a butterfly?

At first glance this seems difficult to reconcile – at least it was for me – but of course it makes perfect sense when I think of the life cycle of the butterfly and how this symbol provides a clue to the life of the soul.  Like the caterpillar which dies and transforms within a chrysalis before emerging as a butterfly, we, too (our reality, not our soul), die before entering a more spiritual plane in life.

This theme of death and transformation has been in the air for me lately.   This past weekend was Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection after his death on the cross, and for Christians and non-Christians alike, it is a holiday marking the arrival of spring after the starkness and emptiness of winter. 

Shortly before Easter I listened to a homily by Alisdair Smith, deacon at Christ Church Cathedral, in which he referred to John 12:24.

I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and       dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears         much fruit.

This verse is not only a kind of foreshadowing of the crucifixion, it is also a reference to the process of transformation within humans. 

We might well ask what the growth of “fruit” or the emergence of the butterfly, for that matter, symbolize in regards to human life.  What does this other side of 'death' look like?  Alisdair gave us some clues.  He spoke of a concept called ‘gerotranscendence’ - kind of synchronistic for me, as it is mentioned in the text book from which I was teaching at the time (in a Psychosocial Development course), though I hadn’t paid much attention to the word before. 

The term, gerotranscendence was coined by Lars Tornstam, a Swedish sociologist and gerontologist, who integrated the work of other theorists with his own findings from over two decades of empirical research on aging. What he found was that for many older individuals, there is a shift in consciousness that is often overlooked.  He describes this shift as being “from a materialistic and pragmatic view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one” and in which there is a re-definition of “time, space, life and death.”

A significant number of elders experience, among other things, “an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction.”  They become less self occupied and are likely to become more selective in terms of how and with whom they spend their time.  They are often drawn to solitude, while at the same time finding community meaningful.  To me, this sounds a lot like being a contemplative.

It is also reminiscent of Jung’s theory of individuation (which apparently influenced Tornstam).  Jung believed that during the middle passage (mid-life), the unlived life (and shadow) collide with the present identity, resulting in a kind of death of the old reality.  Jung views this as a necessary occurrence because it opens the possibility for there to be a deeper and more expansive awareness of the deeper self and of life.  But he noted that unfortunately, our culture does not provide much support or guidance for how to navigate this profound and often stormy passage, or what follows.  He wrote,

Wholly unprepared we embark upon the second half of life...we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before.  But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true will be a lie.

He suggests that because this time is so crucial, we really need special "colleges", but he tells us that if we are able to engage our soul more consciously,

it is as if a river that had run to waste in sluggish side-streams and marshes suddenly found its way back to its proper bed, or as if a stone lying on a germinating seed were lifted away so that the shoot could begin its natural growth.

Jung and Tornstam are not the only ones who have observed the phenomenon of a soulful second half of life.  While attempting to put all these puzzle pieces together last week, I received daily newsletter emails from author and wisdom teacher, Richard Rohr, who was also pre-occupied by the mystery of the later years.

The journey into the second half of our own lives awaits us all.  Yet not everyone embarks or continues on the journey, even though most of us get older.  The “further journey”seems to be a well-kept secret.  Many people do not even know there is one.  There are too few who          are aware that there is more to life.

This “well-kept secret” is that of the “twice born.” It appears that it is available to anyone but is a choice, the choice being whether we are going to die to our old identity and attend to the reality of the soul.  We do not know where this will take us.  As Jung writes, the process of becoming our true and whole self is a risk, but it is also

an act of high courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence coupled with the greatest possible freedom for self determination.



Alisdair Smith, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, March 19, 2018.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, March 28, 2018.

C.G. Jung, The Development of Personality: Papers on Child Psychology, Education, and Related Subjects, 1981.  P. 171



Cultivating Soul


The main thing is, that one has a soul that loves truth and that accepts it where it is to be found.  Goethe

I love soul.  I love the depth and substance it brings to life.  I am much more drawn to peoples’ souls than I am to their accomplishments or what they own or how conventionally attractive they are.   I love soul in the eyes of animals and art that conveys soul.  I could live without most things but it is hard for me to imagine a meaningful and satisfying life without soul and soul connection.  Which, I suppose, is largely what drew me to study for two degrees in Psychology, though I didn’t know at the time that ‘psychology’ essentially means the ‘study of the soul.’

Unfortunately, anyone who has taken a university course in Psychology can tell you that most of contemporary psychology is bereft of soul.  You will learn lots about behaviour and cognition but not the soul.  Psyche, the Greek term for soul, is defined in English as mind, and in the west, at least, mind is mostly interpreted as brain.

The brain is currently the focus of an enormous amount of psychological research, and I even heard one prominent psychologist refer to the brain as ‘the holy of holies.’  Research on the brain is interesting but the brain is not synonymous with soul.  Apart from the likes of Carl Jung and James Hillman (it is the rare university Psych. course that addresses their work in any depth), soul is mostly ignored in ‘the study of the soul.’  Therefore, I propose, only partly tongue in cheek, that we develop a true study of the soul and call it Soulology.

First, of course, we would have to ask what we are referring to when we speak of soul, and as I discussed in my last post, this is a difficult, if not impossible task, as we cannot locate it.  It does not seem to exist in physical reality.  Still, we need to address questions such as how we differentiate it (or not) from the higher self and the spirit and so on.  Is the soul spiritual or psychological or both?  Is there an anima mundi (world soul)?  Do all living beings have souls or just some? 

Of course, plenty has been recorded regarding these topics going back to the Egyptians who believed there are five aspects of the soul, the most important being heart.  Certainly philosophers and theologians have written more about the soul than psychologists.  Soulology would have a foundation that would only need to be integrated.

Ultimately though, it might not really matter what the soul is or if we can ever truly define it.  Perhaps what matters most is the development of the soul, with which numerous theorists from Carl Jung to Teilhard de Chardin to James Hillman to the poet John Keats have concerned themselves.  Theologian, Cynthia Bourgeault believes it is “our obligation”  to develop our soul.  How then, do we develop the soul?  It seems there is an essential clue in the word psychology (soulology) itself.

The psychologist Thomas Moore must have had the true meaning of it in mind when he wrote his book, Care of the Soul, because when you go deeper into the etymology of ‘ology’ ('study of') you find it means ‘to devote yourself to’ and ‘to cultivate.’  Psychology  (Soulology), in essence, means ‘devoting oneself to and cultivating the soul.’  The essential clue to the development of soul is in the meaning of ‘ology’ and for me, particulalry in the concept of cultivating.  While care is important (the soul thrives on beauty, music, substantial food, fine craftsmanship, etc.), cultivation can take development even further.

We can cultivate in test tubes and therefore it might be possible to cultivate a soul in a space station (after all, some astronauts have had profound experiences in space), but I suspect there is something about earth that is essential to the cultivation of the soul.  It also needs the waters of life, nutrients, light and darkness.  The soul needs enough room, and we need to protect it from pollution, which includes noise pollution.  The soul apparently thrives on truth, authenticity, and genuineness, which we also call nature.  It meets itself in nature, and finds itself reflected in world soul.  Pruning is important, that is, removing and letting go of what is no longer alive.

We need to keep an ‘eye’ on our soul , that is, we need to attend to it to make sure it is flourishing, and make any needed adjustment.  And as Harold Buhner says about communicating with plants, we can listen to them if we are centred in our hearts.  I suspect this is true of listening to the soul.  The soul itself is our main source of information of what it requires.  It will communicate with us if we know how to listen.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that we are not the ones inventing or creating soul. As with anything in nature, all we can do is do our best to provide the best conditions. Whether something thrives or struggles is, to a great extent, out of our hands. 

Richard Rohr believes the soul is formed at birth and we need to discover it, which is different from Bourgeault's view that we are born with only the potential of a soul.  Where they are in agreement is that we have a destiny, and as Rohr puts it, if we do not "live our destiny to the full" our (soul) "will never be offered again."  He adds, "the discovery of our soul is crucial and of pressing importance for each of us and for the world." And he suggests there is more to discovery than awareness.  In fact, he seems to imply a kind of cultivation when he says we must "grow them up."  

Of course, a field of Soulology would take all of this much further, and it is certainly an area of study that I could see devoting myself to.  I realize now that when I decided to major in Psychology, it was the soul which drew me.  However, much of my learning about it has been apart from formal education, which is maybe as it should be.  Anyone can be a soulologist.  There are no degrees required.  It really just takes some devotion and some basic gardening skills.





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.



As every blogger knows, starting can be a bit daunting.  I still recall my beginning post for my first Urban Contemplative site in 2010.  The Olympics had just started here in Vancouver, and my topic was hospitality.  Though I had been opposed to having the Olympics in Vancouver, I had to admit I was blown away by the spirit of good will that was palpable nearly everywhere you went.  I had never experienced anything like it, to that extent at least.  In any case, I am writing the draft of my first post for this blog while the Olympics are happening in South Korea.  It feels like some kind of full circle.

Much has changed in the world and for me personally during that orbit and though I would have predicted then that in eight years I would have a deeper contemplative life, I really can't say that I do.  Since that time, I have acquired a dog (a relatively barky one) and a husband, and my amount of quiet, alone time is considerably less.  I also purchased a piano a few years ago and started lessons again.  Like many, since the advent of smart phones and Instagram, I have taken up photography on a new level, and I have also become something of a foodie.  Of course, all of these can translate into contemplative activities.  It's just that I am now a lot busier.  I had time in my early blogging days to post nearly every day.  Now, once a week feels ambitious.

Other changes include no longer renting, as we have a condo - a big plus, but I can no longer fancy myself as a Bohemian writer as my lifestyle is, in many ways, typically middle class.  Do I still qualify as a contemplative?  And we have a part-time home in the Comox Valley.  Am I even authentically urban?

My husband and I have spiritual practices.  We do our best to live simply and try to purchase as little as possible.  We strive to shorten our 'to do' list, and still, nearly every evening we ask each other where the day has gone.

A few years ago I was in a weekend retreat led by the contemplative writer, James Finley.  I practically cornered him.  "I know it's your break," I said, "but I have to ask.  How is it possible to be a contemplative in the city?"  I have mostly forgotten his words - I think they had to do with quality of presence - but there was no doubt in his mind it is possible, and that was what I was really desperate to know.

Certainly if one is in a relationship, it helps to have a partner who shares similar values and intentions.  I also have the good fortune to be married to a biologist and landscape ecologist, who can identify most birds and trees, and I pay more attention now to both.  He also can read the history of landscapes and on our dog walks, he considers how land features initially influenced development (though today it's usually the reverse.)  He points out where creeks once were and where they are still running beneath pavement, out toward the ocean.  Now I experience landscapes a little differently.

It also makes contemplative life easier that we are both generally quieter people and even on our walks together and at mealtime, we are often silent.  Though we spend a great deal of time together, often we are working on separate projects at home.  

We are both grateful for our quality of life, but neither of us feel we are living up to our contemplative ideal.  And maybe we never will.  Maybe it is the nature of the times.  And, as my spiritual director says, maybe it is how it needs to be right now.

And that's what I am here to write about.  Not how to be a perfect contemplative, but how to stay as true and connected as we can be, even when our lives are busy, messy, noisy, distracting, and chaotic.  Maybe that's exactly how they need to be.

As in that 2010 first post, I am including a poem.  Last time it was one by Rumi.  This one is by Rainer Maria Rilke.  

Widening Circles

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out over this wondrous world.

I may not complete the last one

but I give myself to it.


I circle around God, around the ancient tower.

I have been circling for thousands of years

and I still do not know if I am a falcon,

a storm, or a great song.