Last time we looked at practices for the mind and how to train yourself to think and deconstruct your maps of reality. This training helps the mind to become transparent to itself so you can see into the deeper realities of consciousness. The most profound experiences of the mind are encounters with the soul and spirit. In this post we’ll dive into the depths of the soul…
There are many different views of the soul and it varies from culture to culture, and through history. It’s connected to a sense of depth and authenticity and the belief that your life has purpose and meaning. The soul guides you on this path of becoming using the language of images and symbols. Practices for the Soul include things like:
- Depth psychology – archetypes, synchronicity, active imagination, etc.
- Western esotericism – gnosticism, alchemy, hermeticism, astrology, etc.
- Dream work and lucid dreaming
- Shamanism and vision quests
- Devotional practices – Bhakti yoga, Sufism, mysticism, etc.
- Goddess practices
- Dark Night of Senses
- Guidance – tarot, I Ching, runes, etc.
- Gratitude and Blessing
First, some definitions. The words soul and spirit tend to be used interchangeably but they actually refer to different types of experience or being. This isn’t helped by the ancient Greeks who used the word psyche to mean soul, but also breath and life, and spirit.
Greek ideas about the soul changed over time but can be traced back to earlier shamanic cultures via ancient Egypt. The soul, or psyche, was associated with death and a belief in the Otherworld, which was filled with spirits, gods, and ancestors who mediated between three worlds:
- The ideal world of Forms, nous – or spirit
- The psyche, or Soul of the World
- The physical world of matter
There are different ways to envision how this all fits together (more on that later), but your soul is a microcosm of the World Soul, and your body an emanation of your soul. Many view this the other way around and think the body is created and the soul enters at incarnation – a bit like stuffing a chicken! But this is backwards, as Alan Watts explains:
“the soul is not in the body, but the body is in the soul, and the soul is the entire network of relationships and processes which make up your environment, and apart from which you are nothing. … We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. … Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
The soul is how Spirit manifests in the physical world, how it becomes embodied. But in reality, it’s all Spirit at all levels/frequencies/dimensions of Being, including the body and psyche. Soul and Spirit are really two sides of the same coin looked at from different perspectives.
Soul is immanent and changeable, while Spirit is transcendent and eternal, and you are both. You are Spirit and you have a Soul.
Buddhism appears to deny the existence of the soul, but it’s not that simple. The doctrine of anatta says there’s no self in anything that exists, including you. If there’s no individual self that moves from moment to moment through your life, then there’s no individual soul that moves from life to life either. But this doesn’t mean the soul, or self, doesn’t exist at all – the Buddha denies this.
The concept of non-self is difficult to understand, but in essence it means that nothing inherently exists. Things only exist in relationship to other things; they don’t exist in and of themselves. So your soul exists in relationship to various causes and conditions, and it’s these that give rise to rebirth. The point of Buddhist practice is to free yourself from these conditions and recognise your true Self as Buddha nature.
To get to grips with these ideas you need to use four value logic, as we explored in the Mind post last week. So the soul exists, and doesn’t exist, and both exists and doesn’t exist, and neither exists nor doesn’t exist – get it?!
The idea is to not get attached to these words or turn them into something solid and unchanging. They’re pointing beyond the world of duality and symbols towards a deeper experience of reality. In other words, the soul isn’t meant to be taken literally – it’s a vehicle for experience.
To enter the world of the soul is to plunge into the imagination, the realm of spirits, gods, ancestors and daimons. This is the Imaginal realm of the psyche that mediates between the worlds above and below – between spirit and matter. To explore this world you need to use the language of symbols, metaphor and mythology.
Your soul helps you to navigate the psychic realm in the same way that the personal self navigates the physical world. It’s a world of subjective experience in which you participate and co-create. It’s also a living dimension of reality that’s both personal and collective, and the means through which you’re dreamed into existence through the language of archetypes.
The subjective and mutable nature of the psyche makes it tricky to interpret and it’s easy to be led astray, either by your imagination or a spirit. Some of what you see is real and some of it’s your imagination, and some are mixtures of the two. So it’s important to question what you see and not jump to conclusions.
For example, if you see an angel, you might be imagining things and there’s nothing there except your fevered hope. Or there might be an actual angel in your living room but the image you see is drawn from your imagination and what you expect an angel to look like. Or perhaps the angel is projecting a particular image into your head. Or it might be a spirit pretending to be an angel.
But one thing is certain: you’ll never know what an angel looks like to another angel. (I played with these ideas in my novel The Shining Ones.)
Your Spirit is indestructible – being one with God – but your soul is vulnerable to damage and loss. So many of the practices in this section are about healing and recovering lost parts of your soul, as well as reconnecting to the world and your own spirit. You need to nurture and create your soul so you can become who you’re meant to be – your true Self, or Spirit.
The process of soul-making is what Jung called Individuation, so depth psychology may be a good place to start. This involves exploring the psyche at all levels using dreams and active imagination, and learning to recognise how your soul speaks to you. It does this through images, feelings, dreams and moods, and occasionally through words.
Good examples of how to work with the imagination, the collective unconscious and the archetypes can be found in the poetry and art of William Blake, as well as The Red Book by Jung. You can explore the Red Book in this excellent series on the Symbol Reader blog here.
If you’re paying attention, the soul will guide you towards your purpose in life – your calling or vocation, which isn’t necessarily a career. Some believe you have a soul contract that’s created before birth and your soul nudges you along that path. As a Buddhist, I’m not convinced. I believe that process is driven by unconscious compulsions and patterns, unless you’ve attained a certain level of mastery over your mind – and most of us haven’t.
However, your horoscope could also be seen as a soul contract because it’s a map of the collective psyche at the moment of your birth. An accurate birth chart reveals what the universe expects of you – the archetypes you’re bound to and the material you have to work with in order to individuate. Whether you act on that information, is up to you.
Following your daimon or soul’s calling doesn’t guarantee happiness or success in an obvious worldly way because the soul doesn’t follow the rules of the world. In fact, your soul may lead you down some dark and painful paths for reasons best know to itself (and God). You may also suffer if you fall off the path, becoming sick, physically, emotionally, psychologically, or all of the above.
As always with the psyche, it can be hard to discern what’s really going on – whether your troubles are the result of following the soul’s guidance or failing to follow it. Either way, it can be tough, but suffering always has a deeper purpose.
The ultimate goal of the soul is to bring you back to your true Self. It’s a call to integrity and authenticity – to live in the world as a fully human and divine soul. This is also the goal of the Great Work of alchemy and many of the other Western esoteric traditions, such as gnosticism and Kabbalah, as well as the major religions.
To communicate with your soul and access your intuition, you may like to use some form of guidance system. Not Soul GPS (!), but things like astrology, dreams, meditation, tarot, runes, the I Ching, and so on. Whatever system you choose, it needs to resonate with your soul, so you’ll need to experiment to find the right one.
The same caveats apply as above: be careful of your interpretations when you do a reading or consultation. It’s easy to lead yourself astray and make assumptions about what the cards, or whatever, are saying. Often the meaning won’t become clear until later. Keep a journal so you can track your readings and results, and that will help to hone your interpretative skills.
Read about the process of awakening and individuation through the symbolism of the tarot here: Tarot and the Hero’s Journey
Working with your dreams is another great way to learn the language of your soul. Dreams are a direct communication from the depths of your being and they can be used for healing, shadow work, and spiritual practice. Lucid dreaming is particularly helpful because it trains your mind to recognise the dreamlike nature of reality and makes it easier for you to awaken.
Devotional practices are a form of spiritual worship that focus on relating to God, or the Beloved, on a personal level – i.e. through the soul. These practices include Bhakti yoga, Sufism, and certain types of Buddhism and mysticism, such as deity mysticism where you seek union with a particular god or goddess through selfless love and devotion.
Goddess practices represent immanence rather than the transcendent practices of many God-based religions that focus heavily on the Intellect. Connecting to the spiritual realm through Her is a way to ground your practice in the wisdom of the body and soul, the cycles of life, and being present in the world of constant change.
In Buddhism, for example, Tara is a female bodhisattva known as the mother of liberation, who takes multiple forms to reflect the multiplicity of the soul. She brings enlightenment via the darkness of luminous emptiness. Other goddess figures to explore include the Black Madonna and Mary Magdalene in Christianity, Sophia in gnosticism, the shekhinah in Kabbalah, and the dakinis of Vajrayana Buddhism.
For more read this excellent post on Symbol Reader: A Redeeming Darkness of the Black Madonna
Devotional practices can trigger a mystical experience of unity consciousness at various levels, depending on how deep you go, but they also arise spontaneously. In these experiences, the soul overshadows the thinking mind and you lose your sense of separation from the world. Mystical states feel more real than ordinary reality and this can be hard to express in words because it goes beyond duality and language.
Nature mysticism is an experience of oneness with life where everything is seen as alive and full of presence and meaning. It’s often experienced when you’re a child, but some people hang on to the ability to become absorbed into the natural world as an adult. The intensity varies from a subtle sense of connection where you’re still aware of yourself having the experience, to a full-on vision of God within the creation that totally wipes out your sense of separation.
It usually happens in relation to the natural world (hence the name!), watching a sunset or walking in a forest, for instance. You may see nature spirits or sense their presence, and see all beings as interconnected and part of one whole. However, this can also happen in man-made environments – it surprised me once in Tesco of all places, and the experience made its way into my novel, Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic.
Serious spiritual practitioners may also have a dark night of the soul in which these visionary experiences stop. This is a natural stage on the path where you’re purged of attachment to anything that comes between you and God. There are various stages and it usually begins with what St. John of the Cross called the Night of Sense – or the Dark Night of Senses.
The Night of Sense is a process of purgation on the level of the soul, including the imagination, body and senses, that strips your attachment to worldly pleasures. During this time you may have trouble meditating or contemplating spiritual realities on the level of the psyche. No matter how much you ask for guidance, nothing gets through, or the images you receive don’t make sense. Escaping into worldly pleasure to compensate doesn’t work either.
The point of this dark night is to turn the soul towards the spirit instead of being focused on the world. It’s also when you learn that spiritual practice isn’t about feeling good about yourself. More here: Love’s Ordeal: The Dark Night of the Soul
A great way to get through a rough patch in your spiritual life, or at any time, is to practice Gratitude. This may involve keeping a gratitude diary or just taking a moment each day to be thankful for the good things in your life. It encourages you to focus on the positive, but you can also practice gratitude for your struggles and darkness too. More on that here: Active Hope and the Benefits of Gratitude
I also recommend the practice of Blessing others, as described by Pierre Pradervand in The Gentle Art of Blessing. For the full blessing text go here.
Next we’ll look at practices for the Spirit. But first a diversion to explore the Difference between Soul and Spirit…