A Soulful Life

Frank, Mill Valley, 2013

Frank, Mill Valley, 2013

The word used for soul in Ancient Greek is psyche, the word found in our words psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy. Imagine if we restored the original sense of soul to those fields, how we might deepen them and make the necessary connections between psychology and spirituality. If we neglect our souls, we lose both our humanity and our individuality and risk becoming more like our machines and more absorbed into a crowd mentality. 

I invite you to follow the example of the great teacher of soul, Socrates, and do something concrete to introduce soul into your life. Socrates writes about the Greek therapeia, which means either "care" or "service." He says that it's like the care you'd give a horse on a farm: you feed it, brush it down, exercise it, give it water, and clean its stall. That's the model for therapy of the soul. It's an everyday attention to specific needs, not a cure or repair after things have fallen apart. Its goal is not to make life problem-free, but to give ordinary life the depth and value that come with soulfulness. 

Distinguishing Soul from Spirit
Spirit directions your attention to the cosmos and the planet, to huge ideas and vast adventures, to prayer and meditation and other spiritual practices, to a worldview and philosophy of life. Spirit expands your heart and mind, gives you vision and courage, and eventually leaves you with a strong sense of meaning and purpose. 

Soul is more intimate, deep, and concrete. You care for your soul by keeping up your house, learning how to cook, playing sports or games, being around children, getting to know and love the region where you live. Soul allows you to become attached to the world, which is a kind of love. When the soul stirs, you feel things, both love and anger, and you have strong desires and even fears. You live life fully, instead of skirting it with intellectualism or excessive worries. 

There are certain things that the soul needs: a sense of home, deep friendship and casual friendliness, a poetic and metaphorical appreciation for words and images, attention to night dreams, the fine arts, an intimate relationship with the natural world, acquaintance with animals, memory in the form of storytelling or keeping old buildings and objects that have meaning. We can do many things to care for the soul such as reconciling our sexuality and spirituality, caring for children, finding work that we love, incorporating play and fun in everything we do, dealing effectively with loss and failure and inadequacies. The shadow, or the unconscious part of our personality that we remain ignorant to, is an important aspect of the soul. 

How do you make a soulful life for yourself? 
1. Serve the soul rather than the surface needs of life. If your soul is suffering neglect, you will have symptoms. You may feel depressed and your relationships may be hurting. You may notice you've been buying a lot of stuff lately. You may have neck or stomach pain. Know the difference between deeply caring for your soul and temporarily solving problems. Instead of immediately looking for routes to happiness, give time to exploring the needs of the soul to be sad. 

2. Your symptoms are the raw material for your soul-making. Look closely at your emotional struggles, diet, body pains, mindless habits to see what your soul is missing. Symptoms are painful and in need of tending and refining, but they contain the essence of what you are looking for. For example, if you drink too much, what is your soul looking for in the alcohol? If you eat too much, what part of your soul is in need of nourishing? Think poetically and resist responding on a surface level. 

3. Take time for reflection. Don't be quick to make decisions and go into action. In my opinion, the most important element of a soulful life is time alone in silence. It can be in the shower, in your car, washing the dishes, on a walk, in meditation. What is going on inside of you? Without the din of constant stimulation, what do you hear? What is your body trying to communicate to you? Often, you will intuitively know the answers to these questions, but find that you have been avoiding them. 

In Practice
Every day you have choices. You can do things that wound your soul, like being dominated by the work ethic or compulsively seeking more money, recognition, and possessions, or you can be around people who give you pleasure and do things that satisfy a desire deep inside you. Find those activities and resources that will nourish your soul: make/build/design/create, experience nature, bring art into your life, write down your dreams, journal, be physical, listen to music, play, tend your home, tune into animals, find community, pursue curiosity/learning, garden, cultivate generosity, get out of your routine, do new things, explore, spend time on your own... 

The essence of spiritual experience is our recognition of the infinite mysteries that abound in life like those surrounding love, death, illness, meaning, work, and home. Respect for the mysterious is, to me, the heart of spirituality. Have fun knowing that you don't know what's going to happen to you, that you can't possibly know what's going to happen to you. It's not your job to know! Rather, what's important is to keep investing in a soulful life and have faith that whatever does happen, that YOU WILL BE OK. 

Make this soul care a way of life, and you may discover what the Greeks called eudaimonia -- a good sprit, or, in the deepest sense, happiness. 

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore