James Ishmael Ford
10 January 2016
Pacific Unitarian Church
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
I know I’ve related this little joke recently. But, it is such an appropriate set up for today’s reflection that I have to repeat it. Just think of me as that annoying uncle who only has three jokes, but keeps repeating them. This joke, number two on that list, is the one where a Unitarian Universalist brings a friend, a rather conservative Protestant, with her to Sunday services. After the service ends the friend, pale from the experience, exclaims, “You call this a worship service? I didn’t believe half of what your minister said.” In awe the UU friend responded, “You believed half?” And with that set up, today I offer a reflection on the nature of souls. After which we can see what the agreement disagreement ratio is going to be for today.
There are those, many of whom are my friends, who are pretty sure that belief in a god, any god is the gateway to pretty much all the ills of the world. I believe they are in fact looking in the wrong direction for that source of why we can be so cruel to each other. I find the mix of reasons are many, and includes near the top of the list a natural propensity to violence we can infer from our forward looking eyes and incisors that to pretty much any biologist lumps us in with other predatory species. This isn’t the only thing that comes with our being naked apes, but it’s a big one, and more than problematic.
However, there’s another big thing that is not so obvious with other animals. As humans, with language and culture, there also come mindsets, attitudes that reinforce our biological inheritances, which can be passed on over the generations. And seeing how closely violence and religion is associated throughout history, I can get why someone might think belief in a god is the problem.
But, here’s another way to look at it. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church once said the project of religion arises with our noticing that we are alive and that we will die. Sadly, after that profound insight of seeing how we are alive, a lot, a lot of religion turns on proving that we don’t actually really die. And most of what I hear when people talk about souls is people figuring out a reason they’re not, not in some essential way, a part of the great mess that is the world. That they, we, you, I don’t actually die. Now, today I don’t want to dig into all the reasons we don’t need to believe in that special thing which isn’t actually part of the natural world. For me that’s just shooting fish in a barrel.
But rather, for this time I invite us for a few minutes to simply assume the natural world that we can observe, which is a wondrous play of causal connections, where each of us as we are born into the universe are without reference to anything else, any extra, indeed something amazing. But also that means we, each of us, as personal individual beings exist no more than a moment in time, the result of causes and conditions that will in a moment shift. To be explicit, with one shift in the mix our birthing, with the next, our dying.
To put it another way, we, you and me, and everything else, are in the words of an ancient Buddhist text “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.” If this is true, meaning, purpose, life, and love, all are different than if the real thing that is you or me, is not fully part of the world.
First, what does it mean about us as individuals? Me, I find how there is something precious and beautiful about us, each and every one of us just as a given of our mere existence. Yes, we can squander that gift. And too often we do, the world is littered with such stories, sometimes tragic, more often banal. But, we start out just by birthing into the universe as something both rare and precious. It is a commonplace of Big Bang theory that this universe is infinite and at the same time every point is its center. It seems to me there’s a rather profound truth here in the way we actually experience our existence. We are each one of us, woven out of the stuff of the cosmos, and for as long as we exist, each of us is the center, or, perhaps a slightly better phrasing would be, for as long as we live each of us is “a” center of all that is happening.
How we think about this strange truth that we’re at the same time unique and precious and completely bound up together, woven out of each other, is what brings me to a consideration of that old word “soul” as something more than just an escape hatch from life. Actually, I suspect the consideration of souls has always been more complicated than that passenger in the bus of life conceit can quite cover. And so it’s a little sad that people go for the simpler, more literal, and I’m pretty certain false version of soul, not to mention the violence associated too often with defending that idea.
In our human languages we’ve come up with a million words for this mystery of our lives that has more to do with our noticing our existence than our trying to escape it. Here’s a partial list of a dozen words compiled by Phil Cousineau in his book “Soul: An Archeology,” for that sense. “Psyche, anima, atman, savira, semangat, nephesh, otachuk, loakal, tunzi, prana, duk, and geist…”
Cousineau adds how these are “sacred words used by primal peoples the world over for the surge of life itself, linguistic cousins of what was called sawol in Old English, sawal by the Anglo-Saxons, sala by the Icelandic folk, and eventually, as if stone-polished by the ages, what we now call soul.” Charles Nodier observed of this storm of words, “The different names for the soul, among nearly all peoples are just so many breath variations, and onomatopoeic expressions for breathing.” Here is a real thing to notice. Soul is breath, and therefore, really, soul is life. When we speak of soul we are using a primary metaphor for that which is most fundamental to our existence.
Therefore, one may ask, “And what’s in it for me to focus on this breath of life? Particularly, if the truth is, that there is no physical immortality in the deal, no my ego survives the disruption of the body?” I believe within a reflection on what soul can be there’s a way through the hurt and confusion of our lives, to something more healthful and beautiful and healing. And that’s my second point.
Way back when, when Jan was a typesetter, a trade that was beginning to die, and I, after working in the used and antiquarian book trade for twenty years, realized I could go to any town in the country and get a seven dollar an hour job, decided we better return to school and re-gear. Me, I was two years shy of a bachelor’s degree. I was working close to full time and I considered the BA nothing more than a ticket to a professional school, and so was pushing through as fast as I could. Some friends stopped me and said, “Do yourself a favor, James. Find a professor you admire and take whatever she or he offers.” They slyly added, “You’ll never regret it.”
One of them who knew the school, Sonoma State, a commuter college some sixty miles north of San Francisco, said “Take a class from Gordon Tappan in the psychology department.” A little reluctantly, but needing some relief from the grind, I signed up. Now, totally by accident I walked into a graduate seminar on archetypal psychology, a variation on Carl Jung’s work. I stood at his desk. Gordon looked at my paperwork, glanced up and said, “Been a mistake. No undergraduates here.” I said, “I’m on a tight schedule and can’t get another class in time to keep my load up, and as someone let me register, I’m not going to leave.”
He gave me the fisheye, then said, “Sit in the back and keep quiet.” I sat in the back but didn’t keep quiet. I ended up taking three classes with him, and found them pretty much the only things I recall from that whirlwind that led to my being able to get into grad school.
Gordon, as I alluded, was an archetypalist. Now, while I sometimes have referred to myself as a pseudo-Jungian, I’ve never actually had much of a taste for Carl Jung’s work. I think while he was some kind of artist of the heart, he also liked to pretend his work was science. And that just annoyed me. But, his disciple James Hillman, well, he’s a horse of another color entirely. As is his subset of Jungian thought, archetypal psychology. A few years ago when I learned Hillman had died, I felt actual grief, as if it were the passing of one of my teachers. While I never met him, since Gordon’s class I’ve read a lot of Hillman.
I’m particularly taken with what Hillman considered the soul to be for someone who doesn’t think there’s a parasite inside us just waiting for the moment it can break free. You may have noticed how spirit and self, and sometimes mind are, in practice, in our times, all taken as synonyms for soul. Actually this is a problem. Hillman suggested this represents a reductionism in our current culture leading to a simple Cartesian divide “between outer tangible reality and inner states of mind, or between body and a fuzzy conglomerate of mind, psyche, and spirit.”
And here’s my third point, the main point. Hillman thought, “We have lost the third, middle position which earlier in our tradition, and in others too, was the place of soul: a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection that is neither physical and material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both.” I can’t say how important I think this is for those of us who want to live authentic lives.
Hillman goes on to suggest our more natural “threefold division has collapsed into two, because soul has become identified with spirit. This happens because we are materialists, so that everything that is not physical and bodily is one undifferentiated cloud…” Okay, after saying I don’t believe in souls, at least in souls as something separate from us and untouched by our human condition, I’m going to offer we should consider embracing not only souls, but also spirit. Our beloved ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson did suggest, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”
For Hillman spirit is “arrow straight, knife sharp, powder dry…” For him it is yang to the yin of the soul, which is found in “natural urges, memories, fantasies, and fears.” Soul is about “the realm of experience and (of) reflections within experience.” I find this is a key to another tradition important to me, and it’s teaching of the “three bodies of the Buddha,” which are the world of form, the world of unity, and a third. Let’s run through them, quickly.
The first body is that of form, of history. We usually get this part. It’s what we live with all our lives, with all its aches and pains. Think of this ordinary sense of the way things are with everything separate and unique, as the part of the iceberg above the water. Another part of what we are, the second body, floating in the depths beneath the surface, is that place where all things collapse into one. In many ways that place is the realm of spirit. Here spirit is the great intuition of our ultimate unity.
But, we can’t leave it there. This binary view of separate bodies and one body isn’t quite right. Traditionally the third body is the place of rule breaking, of magic and related mysteries. I suggest we can encounter this place of imagination run wild, of fantasy, of dream, as the realm of soul. It is dark and rich and fertile, it is the seedbed of possibilities.
Now, I’ve seen the consequences of being too tightly tied to one or another of these bodies, any of them. Lost in the realm of phenomena, we think we end at our skins and become isolated from our true destiny. Caught up too much in the realm of spirit, of the one, we become pure and forget our bodies and our friends and our neighbors. Lost in the realm of soul, of dream, is to tumble into lunacy disconnected from either our uniqueness or our radical interrelatedness, wandering lost in some moonscape.
We need them all. I frequently address our separateness and our unity. Today, I hold up that third place. I’ve found that attending to the matters of soul, or, perhaps slightly better, attending to soulfulness, opens a life for us that is full, pregnant with constantly unfolding possibilities.
So, here’s a suggestion. You want to be of use in the world? Well, start by loving the world and not turning away from it, not hoping to escape it. Second, notice how we are all of us related, every precious one of us part of the same family. And, third, pay attention to your dreams, to that place where the imagination runs amok.
So, what happens when we bring our attention to the interior landscape of our lives, to the mysteries of soulfulness, to what might lie hidden at the heart of it all? My old spiritual director John Tarrant in his lovely, dense and compelling book “The Light Inside the Dark,” a copy of which I notice is in the church’s library, brings us some suggestions. “Much of the journey is about the ways we work with our attention…” John tells us. “It expands the register, bringing us to notice more of the vividness and consolation of our dark lives, so that we can exist in our true range, and not go around missing things, as if we knew countries only from their airports and hotels.”
And then John tells the secret, and with that my fourth and final point. “Attention is the most basic form of love: through it we bless and are blessed… What was matter and merely inanimate becomes family, and we, the children walking, walking, walking home… (I)t is this inner connection that resolves the problem of who we are and makes us at home in the world. For the interior life sweetens the humblest thing. It opens for us the magic in ordinary life.”
It’s as simple as breathing. It is the soulful way.
And we’re all welcome to it.
So be it. Blessed be. And, amen.