Soul is one of those words that is difficult to define. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that people use the word in quite different ways, adding to the confusion. I thought I’d do a little investigation to see the breadth of its use and see whether that would help me clarify things for myself.

Care of the soul

For Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, the soul is not a thing but a quality. I’ve often heard it used that way in phrases such as ‘he or she has soul’. It is a quality of depth, genuineness, value, relatedness and heart. Moore suggests that in order to regain our soul we need to be more accepting of our human foibles, to lean more towards acceptance rather than transcendence without striving for perfection or salvation. Cultivating a quality of accepting things as they are, rather than how we would wish them to be. Soul is what makes us human and that includes the parts that we would prefer to disown.

Moore says the soul prefers to imagine and that it is an instrument of neither the mind nor the body, it is imagination itself. He asks us to notice what is being revealed in our suffering rather than trying to fix it or make it go away. Imploring us to stretch our heart wide enough to embrace paradox and contradiction. In caring for the soul, we are giving ongoing attention, without end, rather than searching for a cure.

Eternal and indestructable

I came across definitions along the lines of our eternal indestructible nature. The part of man that connects and communicates with God. The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being that is regarded as immortal, the non-physical aspect. The ethereal substance which makes the body alive. The part that continues to exist in some form when the body has died. The animating principle, driver in the body. Yoga uses the Sanskrit atman to refer to our individual soul, which is a unique expression of the Universal soul.

Soul or spirit?

This raises the question of the difference between soul and spirit. Well, it does for me. I guess I’m translating Universal soul to spirit. Some say that spirit and soul are the same thing. In Jungian terms soul is associated more with feminine energy (imagination, passion, fantasy and reflection), whereas spirit is more aligned with masculine energy (reason, rules, order, conformity). Not that one is better than the other, but in our Western culture, the concept of soul has been cast into the shadows due to the dominant cultural focus on logic, reason and control. Spirit is about transcendence whereas soul is about acceptance. In my search I read somewhere that modern medicine is embarrassed by concepts such as soul. I think that’s true. I read that body and soul need to be brought back from exile and that soul exists within a socially generated system of collective representations.

Where have I landed?

So, where have I landed? Firstly, I love what Thomas Moore has to say, I find his words nourishing and of relief. I love that my soul is beyond the conditioning of the environment I’m immersed in and that I’ve been brought up in and the things that have happened to me, and yet it is all of those things too. It’s my deepest most authentic essence. It’s what I came here to do, or to learn. At the same time it is quite ordinary, just a function of my way of being in the world, that acknowledges the social/cultural environment I’m in and also a greater whole, a greater truth. I think that soul is a sweet embrace of darkness and death, for these are inevitably part of our experience.

The commonality in a venn diagram

I like the idea that soul is the realm where spirt and body reconnect. The commonality in a venn diagram, where I am both in the world and not of the world. That aspect of me that is in relationship with, or an expression of, the divine or a higher power, that ties me to something bigger that connects us all. A source of guidance, an inner compass. In ‘something bigger than me’ I include the memories of my ancestors, the lives of those that have gone before me. The collective memories that contribute to where our culture is today.

Nothing left out

I acknowledge that I need to tend this relationship, to listen to my soul’s longings and yearnings. Sometimes it gets messy when I listen to soul, and it also gets messy if I don’t. But, I need to respond, it can’t be ignored. Listening to my unique yearnings and taking my place in a bigger picture that can’t be fully grasped. Soul asks me to trust, to surrender, to take second place so that the greater plan can unfold. In return I find harmony, assurance and confidence. Remembering, as my teacher Richard Miller cautions, that harmony isn’t always comfortable. When soul is in the driver’s seat I don’t take things so personally and I’m less attached to how I think things should be. Soul is my full expression, not a limitation. Soul is all of me, with nothing left out.