weaving the longings of the soul, the guidance of the higher self, the patterns of the natural world, and the necessities of everyday life……into a workable kind of spirituality
As a writer I work with language, and I am fascinated by how we use language in the context of spirituality. Language is tricky: our mutually agreed upon use of words can reflect society’s limits to perception (which is why we sometimes borrow spiritual terminology from other cultures).
By trying to nail down the ineffable we can over-simplify, reduce and weaken. We can fail to convey nuance and subtlety. And language can cause confusion if not used accurately.
So I’m interested in where our contemporary language of spirituality comes from and why we use it like we do, and what that tells us about ourselves and our attitudes to the spiritual life, consciously held or otherwise. I want to be as clear as I can about why I use the words I do, and what I mean by them.
I’m going to begin with my description of this blog (see above) and parse it for relevant terminology and explain why I use it the way I do. Beginning with the SOUL.
Soul = Psyche = Anima
The English word soul is our best effort translation for the ancient Greek word psyche, which in turn was translated into Latin as anima.
Socrates appears to have been the first person to use the word psyche not merely as an ethereal imaginary indeterminate, but as a grounded principle, part of everyday human experience. He gave us the concept of the soul as the means of our intellectual and moral consciousness.
Socrates rejected the pursuit of material wealth as a meaningful path and considered self-development and the pursuit of self-knowledge to be primary in gaining maturity and mastery. But for “self” here, read “psyche”, which was the word he used, not self in the modern sense with its connotations of ambition, narcissism, and need for acknowledgement.
The advice of the Delphic oracle to “Know thyself” meant “Know your psyche” or “Know your soul”, not follow conventional notions or a guru or a book that tells you who you are. Find out for yourself, and dig deep.
The Socratic notion of the soul persisted as a core concept in philosophy and religion for millennia. But in the last century the term soul/psyche has been increasingly watered down and infected with the urges of advertising — the seduction end of free market capitalism. So people talk about “living the dream” purely in terms of wealth and fame, two elements that Socrates would have considered the antithesis of a true, soul-driven dream of living.
Perhaps as a consequence, we don’t seem very confident or clear about how we use the word soul today: it’s a form of music; it’s used randomly in advertising and the media to loosely convey a sense of meaning, often with no clarity or root; it’s a vague term for people who have died; and it is used to describe deficiency – we talk of a weak soul or a lost soul. We do speak of a good soul, it’s true, but usually as a compensation for someone who in crucial other respects is a bit of a loser.
We are most familiar with psyche today in the context of the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. The word ”psychology”, meaning the study (the ology suffix comes from the Greek logos, meaning knowledge) of the soul (psyche), is usually attributed to the German philosopher Rudolf Göckel who first used it in 1590. The word psychiatry means the medical treatment (the iatry suffix comes from the Greek iatros meaning doctor) of the soul (psyche) and was coined in 1808 by a German doctor, Johann Christian Reil.
By the early twentieth century the angst of modern humanity demanded more sophisticated analysis and treatment for the soul than the succor offered by the traditional sources of religion, pleasure, and art. Freud developed his theory of the unconscious and considered it to be chiefly the repository of suppressed memory and the creator of compensatory imaginings. Jung had a more soul-based approach, incorporating the numinous (from the Latin numen, meaning potential) promptings of synchronicities and dreams into his theory of a personal unconscious, which he distinguished from what he termed the collective unconscious, the latter influenced by the ancient concept of the anima mundi, (Latin for “soul of the world”).
Various theories of the structure of the psyche emerged, none of which have ever been proven, the soul/psyche being particularly unsuitable to modern means of scientific analysis. The soul had since the days of Socrates been considered amenable to dialog with a wise person, traditionally a priest or philosopher, and this became the basic structure of the practice of psychotherapeutic psychology. (The Socratic method uses inquiring dialog as a means to knowledge, leading the interlocutor to explore and question the basis of their beliefs, and to gradually work towards an answer. This is the original precursor of the psychotherapeutic encounter.)
During the twentieth century, the psyche came to be synonymous with the mind — or rather, the troublesome, emotional, non-rational aspects of the mind — and the notion of the teleological and spiritually wise aspect of the soul got rather left out over time. The availability of pharmaceutical drugs (which apart from any other consideration comprise a much more lucrative business than one-to-one conversation) reduced the soul aspect of psychiatry to so much dust. In psychology, behavioral methods grew in popularity and the more soul-based Jungian school dwindled in influence. Even the initially vibrant neo-Jungian schools founded in the 1960’s and 1970’s (e.g. transpersonal; process-oriented) have failed to penetrate the mainstream.
These days, a good deal of psychiatry and psychology has little to do with the soul. In the past decade Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has become the most widely practiced and conventionally supported form of psychology in many countries, due to its success in clinical trials (nigh impossible to perform with analytical or person-centered psychotherapy) and thus governments have found justification to fund it in an attempt to ameliorate the epidemic of depression and stress-related mental illness in the post-industrial world. This is a branch of psychology that on the face of it has very little to do with the soul and much more to do with the apparent mechanics of the mind. (Although its offspring, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, marries CBT with Buddhist mindfulness in a way that attempts to put the soul back into psychotherapy, albeit still in a rather mechanistic format.)
So, we live in a world in which the materialism that Socrates thought so lowly compared to the quest for knowledge has become paramount, and investigations of the psyche have become ways to cope with that very same materialism.
But the soul still makes itself known, and it does so through those very symptoms of unease and dissatisfaction. The longings of the soul point us in the direction of our salvation. Rather than cauterizing these longings, as traditional religion has often had us do, my belief and experience is that these longings are part of the information we need to move forward. Understanding these longings and taking them seriously is a crucial part of spiritual life.
Next time: More on the Longings of the Soul and how to read them…….