Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Conversation Between Soul and Spirit

In the course of this blog, I have often used the words soul and spirit without providing any kind of framework by which to understand my meaning. This has resulted in some readers assuming I use these words within a Christo-centric context, which couldn't be further from my intent.

After a recent misunderstanding with a friend over my use of the word soul, I thought it might be a good idea to offer some context for what I mean when I use these terms.

Strangely enough, the same night of the misunderstanding, I came across the following passages in The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life by John Tarrant, a book I blogged about yesterday.Tarrant is a Jungian psychotherapist and a Buddhist, with a strong background in the arts, so I am finding quite a bit of resonance with his ideas.

The Conversation Between Soul and Spirit

Every journey toward wholeness involves the interplay of spirit and soul. Neither is sufficient alone, for we are hybrid beings and cannot confine life to a single purpose. I imagine the conversation between spirit and soul might begin like that of so many couples, with a description of each from the other's point of view. This is more than a summary of the misunderstandings between them. Through showing the weaknesses of each view, we sidle up to a refreshed sense of their necessary virtues.

Soul knows that where spirit is too dominant, we are greedy for pure things: clarity, certainty, and serenity. This may seem harmless at first, or even desirable, but since nothing is wholly pure it leads us to grow heartless with the unkemptness of existence, and to think we can make order by imposing rigid rules. Then, inevitably, a shadow grows, until all too often there is a fall into appetites swollen because so long suppressed -- this is why we find scandals in the lives of so many religious figures. Spirit forgets the necessity of imperfection, and that within our very incompletion is the opening where love appears. It does not understand the essentially domestic and mortal nature of human life. Identification with the spirit, then, is not the goal of the inner work; such identification can have disastrous consequences because it leads us to think of ourselves as right, as immune from ordinary failings. We have to care for the whole of life, so that spirit does not overwhelm our modest and preserving virtues but finds its proper place, which is central and limited.

On the other hand, spirit knows that soul, in itself, does not have enough of a center. When soul is too dominant, we lose connection with the infinite source and fall under the thrall of the world. Our attention is dispersed into objects and we struggle with the problem of our desire, which renews itself before it is completely satisfied. Soul wanders ever deeper into the marsh of emotion; looking for catharsis, the authentic story, the reason for its pain, it forgets that it can rise.

If soul gives taste, touch, and habitation to the spirit, spirit's contribution is to make soul lighter, able to escape its swampy authenticity, to enjoy the world without being gravely wounded by it. Spirit knows that soul longs to be released from its addictions, its obsession with childhood, its night terrors, and to be able to say good-bye as well as hello, and with something like grace. In the light of the spirit, the tasks of life, profound and small, the labors in which soul is so engaged -- from birth to dying, from sex to art, from walking in the city to eating pancakes with maple syrup -- are transient and not to be relied upon; scared, but not to be taken too seriously.
[pg. 19-20]

When we treat ourselves too much as machines, our actions come to bad ends. The worst consequence of the soul's neglect is a lack of love -- of our own lives, of each other, of the future, and of the suffering planet. Soul wants time and patience to confer loveliness; it wants to be wooed and longs to find the face of the beloved in the gardens and apartments of the city.
[pg. 21]

Spirit offers us the possibility of equanimity because it sees suffering as transformation. It knows that shopping doesn't stave off the terror of mortality: only the experience of participating in eternity will set our hearts at rest. Spirit's blessing is its unpredictability and predilection to descend on the heads of the despised and poor. For spirit, even the rocks and rivers are self, alive and as full of magic as our first love.
[pg. 21]

After thinking about these passages for a couple of days, it occurred to me that Buddhism -- and to some extent, the integral movement -- places a much higher premium on spirit than on soul. Perhaps that is why I have been drawn to these two fields -- I identify more with the intent of spirit than I do with that of soul.

My own inner sense of the conversation between these two elements of psyche might look like this:

Soul seeks communion, interconnectedness, experience, inclusion, and darkness. This is what Jung called the anima, which is the original Greek word for soul.

Spirit seeks agency, autonomy, knowledge, distinctions, and light. This is what Jung called the animus, the original Greek word for spirit.

I tend to balk at the gendered usage of these words that Jung employed, but that usage is still widely accepted in many circles. My first interest in a broader psychology (broader than the behavioral and cognitive approaches) came through Jung, but once I discovered Ken Wilber's work, I stopped spending so much time with Jung.

But in reading Wilber over the years, I have noticed that I tend to devalue the life of the soul in favor of the life of the spirit. I think this is inherent in Wilber's writings (I won't speculate about his life). At the same time, I have become more active with my Buddhist practice, which also devalues the experience of soul in favor of the quest of spirit for nondual awareness.

I think that the reason both Buddhism and integral theory value spirit so highly is that it can transform, while soul can "only" translate. Both fields are most concerned with transforming human beings, so soul would necessarily take a backseat.

What is becoming more clear to me of late, and I'm not sure why so now, is that I need -- and most of us need -- a more balanced relationship between soul and spirit. They are not a polarity -- they are a team. We need both to be balanced and whole.

Tarrant says this:

Tempered by the suffering of the soul's descent, leavened by the exuberance of spirit's rising, character is the matrix where spirit and soul meet. When we have character, we do not entirely surrender to either spirit or soul, and it is only when neither of these great forces occupies the whole field that they may begin a true conversation in our lives.
[p. 22]

Tarrant sees these forces as opposites, with which I disagree, but that's OK. I see them both as elements in the psyche's ground of being -- kind of like the psyche's co-pilots.

One of the oldest images describing the relationship between spirit and soul is the cross. The horizontal line represents soul's reach in this world, while the vertical line represents spirit's quest for transcendence of this world. In most western crosses, the horizontal line is shorter than the vertical, suggesting the higher value of spirit. Another reason for the difference in lengths may be that the cross is also the nearly universal symbol of the human form. In the center, where the two lines meet, we find the heart.

This is the crucial point -- it is in the human heart that soul and spirit must come together to inform our lives. We meditate (among other things) to become more aware of spirit; we relate with others to become more aware of soul. Both of these are "heart" practices -- and we must find a good balance for both in our lives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to talk to you more about this distinction between soul & spirit. I used to use them interchangeably, then I looked up the difference (from a Christian perspective), then I noticed that Wilber used them in what seemed the opposite of the Christian perspective. It is something I have been thinking about for a while.

I hope this comment gets linked to the correct post this time ;)