Carving out your Path

Crafting a sense of soul


‘[P]sychic reality can only be grasped through non-rational awareness ... [by] the fool (in the positive sense) ... who does not follow a straight path, who surrenders the security of a rational, one-sided attitude ... [whose] spontaneity is not destroyed by the tension between opposites, and so can follow every path, without being determined by reason or collective norms.’

– Françoise O’Kane, from Sacred Chaos

Spirituality and transcendence

Most of the various schools or centres of spiritual and metaphysical teachings breed cultures of goal-directedness, of achievement, of levels of advancement and hierarchies, of progress and of linear formulas for how we should change or be transformed. There are many schools, teachers and therapists who overtly and unashamedly teach and further such values, while there are also many others whose teachings caution against this way of thinking and yet still tend to have this effect. That is the point of using the word ‘culture’ in this context; the culture of a school sprouts and takes root beyond conscious intentions and is palpable to those with eyes to see its ‘presence’ in the very 'air' emanating from its halls, gardens, practices, rituals, personal interactions and dining tables. The values mentioned above may be termed ‘transcendent’. That is, they focus and aim on facilitating our getting beyond ‘the ills’ of where we are now in order to arrive elsewhere, somewhere ‘better,’ ‘higher,’ ‘full of light,’ where we are no longer beset by ‘darkness'. The problem with such cultures is that transcendent values reinforce ego. Any model or fantasy of ‘progress’ breeds in us the illusion that we are in control of the process. The instant our inner work focuses on an end-goal and measuring our progress, we are no longer deepening into soul. Our awareness shifts out of the present moment and becomes clouded by images of who or

what we should be or become. Subtly, the entire culture here revolves around ‘me, myself and I’, even while professing to ‘sacrifice the self’. Furthermore, transcendence is fundamentally in denial of the reality and importance of death as an inherent part of life. All this strengthens the culture of ego.

In contrast, true spiritualty involves opening to, becoming aware of, and surrendering to whichever ‘forces’ are present now. This inevitably involves surrendering control, and opening to receive the effect of ‘the active ingredients’ inherent to ‘what is,’ for them to transform us without our controlling the direction this takes us, and without any attachment to it taking us either ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘forward’ or ‘backward’. For the truth is, all such directions of movement are simply moments of an eternal journey, and all such directions are equally needed and valid in any authentic journey. To impose only ‘up’ and ‘forward’ as ‘right’ is a hallmark of ego. True spirituality also involves letting go of any preconceived idea we may have of any destination we ‘should arrive at.’ This means, we accept that there are no guarantees, of what we will become and of where we will end up. This is the crux of true surrender. Ultimately what we surrender to, is that existence as it is, is perfect and does not need our interference ‘to turn out right.’ At the same time though, we do learn to recognise the nature of the many ‘forces’ inherent to what is, and how, ultimately to fully open to them and their alchemical influence on us, including how to be moved by them into ‘action through non-action’.π Transcendent values are in their very nature rational, linear and one-sided; and as the quote above points out, this provides the ego with a false sense of security while these values are in their very nature unable to help us grasp soul and to cultivate a sense of soul.

‘True spirituality’? ‘Forces’? ‘Spiritual path’? There is something unfortunate about choosing these words, but sometimes we have to compromise in order to communicate effectively. ‘Spirituality’ is unfortunate in that it may not be the correct term at all. For the realms into which we open are not only the rarefied realms where the spirits dwell. We don’t try to reach somewhere high or outside of us. Rather, we open to what is immanent or inherent to all of existence, and we don’t only open to the pleasant while overcoming or avoiding the unpleasant. And we ‘do’ this opening mainly in our bodies. Also, if we are truly opening, at first we experience these realms primarily as chaos. That is, until we learn, gradually, to see more clearly into them. And ‘seeing’ is not really the correct metaphor for how we perceive here; hearing comes closer, but smelling perhaps comes closest. It is no coincidence that the limbic system in the brain is at the same time our ‘antenna’ for emotions, memoryπ and the olfactory sense. And ‘metaphor’ is not merely a nicely sounding word to use here, but in fact the essential one: for it is not by literal smelling, hearing or seeing that we sense into these realms. In fact, to differentiate the landscapes, creatures, moods and stories present there, the perception we need is more often than not akin to a mixture of various senses. ‘Forces’ is unfortunate in that it evokes the mood, the ambience, of this journey being a scientific or metaphysical endeavour, whereas it really is much closer in nature to an unfolding story of fiction peopled by, amongst other ‘actors’, personalities, characters and forces. It is also unfortunate that we speak of ‘a path,’ which inevitably brings with it associations of being linear and having a particular destination. Whereas ‘the true path’ is one without fixed destination, yet one where many moments involve choice. And it goes this way and that, forwards and backwards, and does so outside the reach of any ‘natural law’.

Soul and psychology

The romantic poet John Keats, who lived about 200 years ago, said in a letter to his brother, ‘Call the world if you please, “The vale of Soul-making.”’ As James Hillman points out in his book, Revisioning Psychology, this means the very purpose of our lives is ‘to make soul’. Indeed, the word ‘psychology’ is made up of the Greek words Psyhceπ and Logos, roughly translated as ‘soul-speech’, or ‘the ideas that cultivate soul,’ or ‘the cultivation of soul through communication.’ The core significance of this is that psychology has to cultivate a sense of soul in order to truly be psychology. How many of us who are in therapy truly feel that our work there cultivates soul? We have to question this. ‘We have to question? Really?’ Yes, it is a matter of whether our lives will be soul-full or not. And if the very purpose of life is to make soul, what possibly could be more important than this?

What then does it mean ‘to make soul’? Of course, it entails much more than can be dealt with in one article. In this endeavour we are yoked into keeping pace with one step at a time, and our point of departure here is the quotation with which this article opens, by Jungian analyst Françoise O’Kane, from her very important book, Sacred Chaos. Anyone exposed to the world of psychology, therapy or spirituality should feel red lights and loud alarm bells wailing when reading her simple, concise statements. She is not isolated in saying what she says there; these ideas are fundamental to the culture of Archetypal Psychology as described by James Hillman. At core what it says, is that scientific-mindedness and soul are fundamentally incompatible. This is so radical to the world we live in that it needs to be re-stated: soul cannot be understood, nor cultivated, through rational science.

Psyche with Persephone's beauty

Western culture today still prides itself, like a blind acolyte, on its fantasy of ‘being scientific’, which in its nature really resembles patriarchal colonialism. For scientific-mindednessπ is indeed simply a fantasy. And it is the fantasy of white males from Northern Europe who adopt an attitude of stern authority and violent aggression to expand their control over natureπ and others. Scientific rationality is a fantasy that dismisses the validity of so many truly soulful experiences. Based, for example, on one of its root-fantasies: that what ‘cannot objectively be corroborated is not real’. But how can one ‘prove’ the validity of the experience of seeing bright yellow? By pointing out that what you see ‘in fact’ vibrates at a particular speed that can be measured? Scientific-mindedness renders the world quite colourless. In contrast, O’Kane tells us that ‘soul can only be grasped through non-rational awareness’. This statement of hers reaches far and deep. ‘Far,’ in that in one fell swoop, it dismisses at least 80% of all psychology that is practiced in our world today. And ‘deep,’ in that it overtly implies that as long as the very language we use to talk or write about soul does not have a non-rational, poetic quality to it; or does not provoke deeply felt and somewhat mysterious experiences to rise inside us; then our soul-speech is not ‘psychological’ in the true sense of the word. Even if

what we say seems completely in line with what O’Kane says. A language styled by rational academic concepts or a language that evokes a dry kind of mental arithmetic, cannot cultivate soul no matter what it says.

We see the security that a rational one-sided attitude brings, reflected in the confidence with which many people proclaim rational recipes for the achievement of psychological goals. Yet this ‘self-help’ mentality does not do justice to the complexity and mystery of soul. Just as the most precise rational description of a powerful image we had in a dream last night is incapable of evoking the depth and emotional possessive quality we actually felt in the dream, so soul evaporates under the light of rational recipes ‘for success’, or any other recipes regarding soul. Now perhaps we come closer to glimpsing how poetic language and the arts are ultimately the only way to fully ‘grasp,’ ‘contain’, and re-awaken the experiences of soul. Also now we possibly see more clearly how the self-help mentality is a defence of ego against the fundamental uncertainty of our existence and why opening to that uncertainty is so essential to an authentic spiritual path. Unfortunately, ‘self-help culture’ is widely spread and accepted in our world today. It is a pestilence and can only obscure us from ever making soul. From this perspective, in most of the world we live in today, God is indeed dead. But who was it that originally said we are never really separated from God? That any such feeling of no longer feeling God’s presence is merely due to our illusion of ever having been separated from God in the first place? So, for many of us, our way back starts with truly appreciating the depths to which we are permeated with logical rational recipe-thinking. Then only can we appreciate the extent of work needed in order to learn anew how to make soul, and then only do we experience that urgency so essential for such work.

The cauldron and the fire

With all of this said, it may seem that soul-making and ‘the true spiritual path’ are indeed the same thing, and ultimately there is some truth to this. But then, it should be alarming that no less an authority than James Hillman often points out that soul-making is different from following a spiritual path. In fact, he even seems to suggest they are mutually exclusive; that is, they are not merely two opposite poles of the same world, but two entirely different worlds that one cannot inhabit at the same time. It is important to understand that this is overtly true for those spiritual schools mentioned earlier; the ones who espouse rational and linear recipes to arrive at spiritual goals. And it is likely Hillman’s strong stance towards spiritual traditions was to counter the wide-spread acceptance of these schools. For the very culture that permeates them, kills soul. So, although it is likely that Hillman’s point, as always, is much more nuanced and subtle than can be done justice in this limited article, our basic stance here is that some measure of spiritual discipline is essential to cultivate the shifts in awareness needed before we become capable of even beginning to make soul.

However, the relationship between spiritual discipline and soul-making is not linear, i.e. we don’t ‘first do only the one then the other’. We open to the practices from both at the same time. And so we discover there is indeed a quality of opposition between the ‘spiritual path’ teachings and the work of soul-making. That is, they both seem to reduce, counter, frustrate and even destroy the effects of the other. But this paradox should be viewed in the light of the archetypal processes inherent to Opposition as we encounter them in the I Ching. Even as cosmos emerges from chaos, it contains powerful oppositions. These oppositions keep intact the very live tensions necessary to facilitate the processes of birth and death giving rise to a diversity of life forms, while facilitating profound refinement of relationships among the life forms inside the cosmos. In other words, opposition does not have to become hardened into unresolvable conflict. Practically, when we feel ourselves frustrated and ‘stuck’ amidst what seems like the contradictory practices of the spiritual path and soul-making, it is really indicative of something rigid in how we have come to habitually apply the teachings. Somewhere, we have become too literal in our application – that is we have fallen again into formulaic thinking and application.π This is always a sign that further refinement and depth is asked for in our inner work. The energy of opposition is itself the fuel for refinement if we are able to surrender deeply enough into dialogue with these energies and not simply respond by overlaying them with ready-made formulas.

This paradoxical nature of the spiritual path and soul-making is in fact necessary. It provides infinite oppositional energies that are usually felt as very uncomfortable and disruptive tensions. Learning to contain these energies always fills our bodies and beings with intense anxiety, irritation and restlessness. Yet, if we learn to hold these tensions correctly and to open into the gentleness, tenderness and receptivity demanded, these tensions can do their work on us, rather than us telling them where they should go. We surrender into being ‘worked on’ by the ‘chemical reactions’ released through our containing these tensions. This discomfort contains the energy for an infinite potential of refinement and infinite journeying into the depths of being. In other words, both the work of tending the cauldrons of soul and kindling the fires of spirit are needed, and if a path honours only the one and not the other, it cannot be the true path.