on soul

I think the question we have to ask ourselves is: “Do you believe you have a soul?” John Cusack

I nearly wept when I read this question, posed as it was in the middle of a discussion about the impending US election – the most soulless circus in town. I can barely read the headlines, let alone an entire interview about the fascist threat facing my country of origin. My jaw clenches with stress whenever I read or see anything about the current president or the sycophants enabling him or the corruption and injustice in which he revels. But that’s not what I want to write about: please don’t take me down that rabbit hole.

I’ve been reading a lot about soul recently: James Hollis, Thomas Moore, Robert Sardello, John Cottingham, James Hillman – philosophers and psychologists whose primary concern is that of the soul. I’ve also been writing in dialogue with my friend Steve Thorp, on the subject of soulmaking. You could say I’ve been slightly obsessed with discovering what we mean when we talk about the soul.

Cottingham takes his reader through a careful history of the concept of soul, as seen through the lens of the great philosophers over the centuries. He concedes however that “The philosophical temptation is always to classify the transcendent. If this means to give a positive characterization in literal language, such an undertaking is impossible…. Many writers trying to grapple with this have had recourse to metaphor.” 1

Is the soul transcendent? Or is it grounded in our daily lives, is it embedded in each moment, in each breath we take? Is a soul a thing, or a process? Thomas Moore suggests that “ ‘Soul’ is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance.” 2

In the article I was reading, Cusack introduced soul to the context of our world situation:

Q: How do we get out of this mess?

Cusack: Usually everybody tells you you have to separate church and state. But I think the question we have to ask ourselves is: “Do you believe you have a soul?”

If you do believe you have a soul, then other people have a soul, then you have to start looking at being a different way. You have to start by not worshipping capitalism. You have to start to have different values.

The guy that I read and study, Rudolf Steiner, says that we live in an age of materialism, and our thinking is even materialistic, and we need to know spiritual truths and spiritual laws, and if we don’t learn them or embrace them out of our own free will, we will have cataclysms.

Right now, we need to be shaken out of our materialistic, self-centered view of the world, where people are either customers or marks. Capitalism will sell you the rope to hang yourself with and then make you pay for the coffin and pass the debt onto your kids.

So people need to awaken to the fact that human beings have souls, and we have to treat each other with compassion and grace. 3

Is soul the missing piece in our world’s troubles? The way we get out of the mess that we ourselves have created? Have we arrived here through neglect of soul? Robert Sardello reflects here:

We are now in the midst of a time when there appears to be very strong concern for the world – for ecology, preservation, restoration, control of pollution, recycling, saving the animals, saving the forests, curbing corporations, saving the planet. The world is very much on our minds. All of these actions are… on the side of illusion, because they all assume that it is we who can gain control through enacting measures of restraint on destructive forms of consciousness; they do not propose a radical alteration of consciousness itself. Alone, these measures encourage the illusion that with carefulness and planning, we can be in charge of the world…. For the real problem is diseased consciousness. We can throw money, programs, policies endlessly into these world concerns and absolutely nothing will be different. 4

Diseased consciousness! How on earth do we heal such a thing? Is it even possible?

Ironically, the scholars of soul remind us that soulmaking is not about fixing or curing. Moore lays it out: “So, the first point about care of the soul is that it is not primarily a method of problem solving. Its goal is not to make life problem-free, but to give ordinary life the depth and value that come with soulfulness.” 5 And Hollis explores “some of these underworld regions we have all experienced and long to escape. I will not offer solutions to the dilemmas they constitute, for they are not problems to be solved. Rather they are omnipresent experiences of the journey assigned to us by psyche.” 6

We must embrace a paradox: to solve the world’s troubles we must abandon the project of solving the world’s troubles, and turn instead to the inner work of consciousness and soul. We must have the courage to live from our hearts. Moore puts it like this: “This is another aspect of the life of the soul: It doesn’t always fit within conventional boundaries….That may be the reason why we don’t have a terribly soulful society: We choose standardization and compliance over listening to our hearts and living from love of both self and other.” 7

What does it mean to live from one’s heart? Well, Cusack suggests that we “treat each other with compassion and grace” and he so rightfully repositions the argument away from the methods of solution to the question of soul. When we begin with this question (a question, mind you, not an answer) we let go of that project of solving the world’s problems and instead turn to our fragility, our vulnerability and also our innate magnificence. The political emergencies of our time are crises of soul.

And here I give a nod to the brilliant book Spiritual Activism by Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael. It points to a political activism which embraces soul:

The causes to which any of us might apply ourselves in life should be more than just personal passions. They should also be wake-up calls to those around us. Equally, wake-up calls to our own deeper selves and thus, spiritual journeys; a form of activist pilgrimage through life. What makes “spiritual” activism so exciting is that it approaches demanding issues in ways that invite an ever-deepening perception of reality and of our positioning – individually and collectively – within it. 8

I circle back to where I started: the US election. Marianne Williamson, previous candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, points out that

We must awaken, now. It is a political awakening. And what’s very important is that we must never go back to sleep. If anything–there will be a lot of changes after this. As soon as this man is out of the White House, there are going to be some big changes, including changes having to do with executive authority. That’s a given. But there has to be changes in each and every one of us, or this stuff will be back. 9

Personally, I don’t think “this stuff” will ever go away, it will always be present in some form or another, whether simmering in the background or bubbling up into the mainstream. The challenge for us is to live with heart, with soul, and to bring compassion into the world. We do this moment by moment, breath by breath, person by person, and choice by daily choice.

1 In Search of the Soul, John Cottingham, p.150-151

2 Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore, p.5

3 https://progressive.org/magazine/john-cusack-interview-nichols/

4 Facing the World with Soul, Robert Sardello, p.32-33

5 Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore, p.4

6 Swamplands of the Soul, James Hollis, p.15-16

7 Ageless Soul, Thomas Moore, p.105

8 Spiritual Activism, Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael, p.11

9 https://www.washingtonpost.com/washington-post-live/2020/10/14/transcript-conversation-with-marianne-williamson/

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