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The notion of soul is often evoked in discussions of spirituality. A stirring piece of music or an exceptional artwork can "touch one's soul" with the sense that an unmistakably spiritual experience has taken place. While soul is commonly called upon in spiritual discussions, there are few clear-cut distinctions concerning its meaning. The word soul has been religionized in Western culture, and most people associate the soul with theology and religion. In this common usage, soul is often a noun. It is something one has, or a quality one possesses. Soul is the seat of consciousness and awareness, which moves through this life and into the next, whether that is another life, heaven, or oblivion, relatively intact.
Soul has not always been viewed in this way. By contrast, the ancient Greek word for soul, psyche, referred to the deepest passions of the human being. The English word soul derives from the Old English sawol and the Anglo-Saxon sawal, words that have to do with breath or life force. Therefore, another way of thinking about soul refers to a human and universal way that we view the world. We experience life through its mythological and metaphorical lens.
Since Descartes set forth the maxim "I think, therefore I am" more than 300 years ago,Western society has elevated rational thought and paid little attention to the soul. But to understand the soul, we have to seek soul out personally and experientially. Soul can be felt when moved by a poem, stirred by music, or touched by a ceremony or symbol. Soul is the deep, empathic resonance that vibrates within us at such moments. The catch of the breath, the lump in the throat, or the tears in the eyes are signs of the soul's presence. Thus the soul can be felt, touched, and known, but it forever resists a Western need for abstract, operational definitions.
Spirit and soul are sometimes seen as being at odds. Spirit is associated with the soaring, limitless experience of heights and expansiveness. It is impersonal and timeless, concerned with the afterlife, cosmic issues, idealistic values and hopes, and universal truths. Soul, on the other hand, is about depth. It is the wondrous approach to daily life that involves us in history and cannot be separated from the body, family, immediate context or mortality. Spirit and soul cannot exist without each other. They are two sides to the same coin of human experience. Most important is a critical view that does not elevate one over the other.
CARING FOR THE SOUL
Thomas Moore focuses on the sacred in his work with soul. Care of the soul is concerned with attending to the small details of everyday life. Unfortunately, soul has been neglected in our fast-paced, superficial culture, leading to "loss of soul." When soul is neglected, it does not just vanish. Instead, it makes its absence known as obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning.
An important part of spirituality, then, is concerned with caring for soul by becoming attuned to the ways that soul manifests in everyday life. Because soul speaks through images and myth rather than logic and abstraction, it requires one to be aware of its style of communicating. This involves becoming aware of the qualities of soul in one's life, such as subtlety, complexity, ambiguity, and wonder.
Soul making is a term used by many writers throughout history. It implies that soul does not simply exist in stasis must be cultivated in our inner life through imagination. By focusing on the dreams, images, symbols and fantasies produced by soul, we weave meaning through the everyday events of our lives. There are many ways to nourish the soul. Meditation is popular spiritual practice that crosses numerous religious boundaries. Soul speaks through those quiet moments when the blaring and rushing of the world are set aside. The act of meditation, then, forces a person to quiet their mind and, focus on the soul and listen.
Another way to feed the soul is for people to slow down and look for messages from the soul everywhere, not just in the quiet moments of meditation. This requires one to view the world through symbols, fantasies, and dreams. Every event or detail is mined for the images beyond the literal meaning. This can be encouraged by surrounding oneself with things that are reminiscent of soul, such as artwork, music, or scents. The creation of rituals also aids in experiencing soul. Rituals use symbolic gestures and patterns to separate the current moment from the bustle of everyday life, allowing soul to be present. Simple acts, such as saying a blessing at mealtime or celebrating rites of passage, make room for soul.
While the richness and meaning provided to life by soul are often positive things, the search for soul is not always peaceful or easy. Often, seeking the soul leads to a Dark Night of the Soul. At some point, a person realizes that life can no longer be lived as it has been. By enduring times of painful and destructive change, he or she seeks to rediscover inner fire through transformation of body and mind. Many people find direction and comfort in images and rituals taken from religious traditions, such as the death and resurrection of Christ. Others move through the Dark Night with the aid of modern psychotherapy. However, the person is guided, he or she must be willing to move into the dark parts of the soul, where pain, violence, and destruction live. Only then, can he or she learn how to reemerge and live life in a more soulful way.
Soul is slippery and amorphous. It is felt only in those brief moments when we feel its power or note its absence. Spirituality, however, would lack passion and depth without the touch of soul. It provides the ground from which spirit soars and transcends. The search for soul can be enjoyable or painful, but it is always profoundly moving.