There is a thread in this world that too few seem to notice, much less take up and weave with, yet it is the heart and substance of the very experience of being truly alive. It is variously called soul-work, soul-craft or soul-making by those who know it. It is the hidden path of alchemy, ripening, maturing, becoming initiated, becoming an elder and, as Stephen Jenkinson might say in his so-named book, it is the path upon which we undertake to “Die Wise.”
To understand it is to know how mysterious it is. As the soul-teacher Francis Weller might say, this is murky ground. When we enter into the realm of soul, we enter into a realm where things become (or are revealed to be) irrational, contrary and otherwise deeply enigmatic. The aim of the soul is not to wreck us, but to reclaim us and make us into something real. The soul-teacher James Hillman likens the path of soul to the plan of the acorn to become the oak. Soul is that process of unfolding and it will use anything at its disposal to make it happen.
Soul is not something we can objectify. In this context, we are not thought of as souls who incarnate into bodies as is commonly discussed. Spiritual traditions like to say we are souls born into this world in this way. But this is not the view of soul. This is the view of spirit, which thrives on structure, order, certainty and definition. Soul moves in the opposite directions of spirit, de-structuring, disordering, opening to uncertainty and breaking the continuum. To this end it can be helpful, to a point, to contrast the views of spirit and soul in order to better tease out just what we mean by soul and to help see how each moves in the world, inside and out.
Spirit is ascending, perfecting, idealizing and focused. Soul is descending, humbling, disorienting and uncertain. Soul is not the wrecker of lives by design yet often does so when our lives become so contrived that they get off course from our soul’s purpose. Soul does not play nice, it plays for keeps. It takes the notion of becoming who we truly are with total sincerity and a ruthless love of life that means it will never abandon us, no matter how we might be trained, or entrained, to try and avoid it.
Our world has gotten away from soul and has addicted itself to spirit, turning spirit into shadow-spirit. Neither of this great pair, soul and spirit, can thrive without the other to balance it in equal measure. I believe Jung (though I am likely wrong) said something akin to: go to spirit for structure and go to soul for energy, for the fuel. Our spiritual ascent, which our social orders, technologies and hero-worshiping self-development ideologies shadow-map themselves to, will always unravel if it they are not deeply met, deeply rooted in the depths of soul.
Soul will get in how it can, coming in through the seams and working them to create openings, even cracks. In the light of a shadow-spirit-dominated mentality, soul is mistaken as the enemy, and from this simple, adolescent misunderstanding, we have arrived at our modern notions of heaven and hell, a sky god and demonic evil. These overly simplified caricatures of the depth and breadth of human experience leave us living in a perpetual immaturity field, where no one reaches elder-hood from which they might lead the way. We live locked in what Robert Bly calls the “Sibling Society” or hypnotized in the horizontal self-importance that arises from what Gabor Maté calls peer orientation, rather than the depths and heights, the vertical threads of elders, mentors and aspirants that truly creates humans.
Our cultures have us wound so tightly to the ideals of spirit, of being ordered and controlled, that soul must sometimes shock in order to awaken. Because of this, we often only come to an awareness of soul through crisis and loss. Because of the thickness of our spiritual sleep, soul must come as a blade. This blade at first appears as tragedy to our spirit-addled senses, as it takes the shapes of death, illness, violence, and other forms of loss. But to the soul-skilled who learn to attune to such initiations, it becomes the blade of awakening. We learn to cut away the false from our lives to walk the path of the initiated, the liberated and knowing.
In our modern era, soul-making comes to us through the guise of psychology (“soul-knowledge”). While most in this field allow their views of it to be tainted with the spiritual ideals that do not serve here, some few manage to stay true to the heart of the matter, and from them, we hear clear voices on these shadowy matters. Yet soul work must not be left to reside only in the oft over-intellectualized and educationally-privileged realms of psychology. We must jail-break psychology, the true psyche-knowledge, and return it to the folk, which is not only where it belongs but where it comes from.
We treat our lost and our old like garbage, locking them up in literal or pharmaceutical cages, hiding them from the eyes who need to see them in order to know for themselves the wholeness of life. We hide and imprison our dead as well, locking them in toxic boxes or burning them into poisoned ash so the earth can’t quite welcome them back. We hide the process of death away in back rooms, in painkillers and in our own minds by donning a stoic bypassing positivity in the face of demise. Spirit seeks the jewel in the lotus and, to the shadow-spirit, the mud from which that lotus grew can go to hell.
Literally, shadow-spirit has created our modern notions of hell purely to have somewhere to hide all that it doesn’t know how to deal with. But soul not only knows how to deal with this garbage. It knows how to welcome it, heal it, yield from it the earthy, alchemical gold, and turn it into the fertile soil only from which the truly succulent fruit can ripen. Shadow-spirit only wants to dwell in the end result of alchemy. Soul wants to know how to get there.
We need to give it time, for soul works on us through the long tale. We need to reclaim our understanding of depth and reclaim our patience, perseverance, and humility from our modern discord of instant gratification. If we can but marry these elements together within ourselves, we might again learn to learn and find restored our savoring of the journey beyond. Ever beyond.