As I mentioned in the Soul post, we tend to see soul and spirit as the same thing, but this isn’t the case. It might not seem important, but if you get them mixed up, it can cause confusion and problems in your spiritual practice. So in this post, we’ll explore these differences and why soul and spirit need to be kept in right relationship to each other.
The ancient metaphysical view of reality sees mankind as having three aspects: Spirit, Psyche, and Body. In Greece this was pneuma, psyche, and soma, where pneuma means breath or spirit, and psyche means soul or life. And in Christianity it was Spiritus (or Animus), Anima, and Corpus.
Some of the blame for our conflation of spirit and soul can be laid at the feet of Jung. He took the word animus and applied it to the idea of the soul-image in women, as opposed to the anima as the soul-image in men. However, the original meaning of animus connects it to spirit – the foundation of our being – while anima is the soul in both men and women.
Jung aside, the main cause can be found in the development of Western ideas about the soul, which can be traced back to the Greeks, via Egypt, and beyond to the ancient shamanic cultures that grew out of the Palaeolithic.
The Greeks had various theories about what the psyche, or soul, was and where it lived and what happened to it after death. Originally, it was identified with the body, distributed in various organs. But under Egyptian influence, it became more ephemeral and was eventually seen as a separate entity that could leave the body and travel to the Otherworld.
Christianity was heavily influenced by Greek thought, but the idea of the soul was gradually demoted – some would say suppressed. This made it easier for the soul to be killed off during the Enlightenment and replaced with the idea of Reason and rational thought. Ironically, this move led to the downfall of Church.
The idea of the soul survived in other traditions in Western culture, such as Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. In the Renaissance there was a huge flowering of soul-based traditions, like alchemy, Hermeticism, and the Kabbalah. However, these were then squished by the scientific revolution and the soul went underground again to re-emerge in depth psychology and Romanticism.
To understand how the soul and spirit relate to each other and the body, we need to delve deeper into the metaphysics. It’s a vast subject, so what follows is a very simple overview…
The Western tradition has its roots in Plato’s theory of an ideal world made of eternal Forms, called the nous, which means mind or intellect. Forms are the blueprint for everything that exists, including abstract concepts, like goodness and truth. Plato believed the world of matter was made by a creator god called the Demiurge who copied the Forms to create everything that exists. So the world was seen as a shadow or copy of the true reality, or nous.
The Demiurge then brought the world to life by adding a soul, called the psyche tou kosmou – the psyche of the cosmos – also known as the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. This is a dualistic view of reality with two worlds: one ideal or perfect (spirit, nous), and the other an imperfect copy (matter). The two worlds are linked by the soul which organises matter using the Forms and mediates between the worlds.
Plato’s ideas were adapted by various Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus, who tweaked the metaphysics so that each level of reality emanates from the one above. In this version, the Forms, or nous, create the soul, and then soul creates matter. Plotinus also believed that the nous emanates from what he called the One – i.e. God.
This series of emanations is called the Great Chain of Being and it gives a hierarchical structure to reality. But whether it works like that is an open question. It may appear this way to us, but our perception is limited by our position at the ‘bottom’ of the chain. Reality is actually more fluid and dynamic because it’s happening in consciousness – or nous – so it depends on your perspective.
Perhaps each aspect of reality (spirit, soul, matter) are different frequencies or dimensions or perspectives of One Reality. Look at it from our perspective and you see the world of matter, while from the faerie perspective you see soul, and from God’s perspective, it’s all spirit.
Soul then is how spirit experiences itself at different levels of being. As Patrick Harpur suggests in A Complete Guide to the Soul:
“…it is as if the whole cosmos is a single oceanic flow composed of soul-stuff. It is no longer seen as having four levels, each transcending the next, but as different images enfolded or immanent in each other, like a set of Russian dolls.”
Except that Russian dolls can be taken apart and separated, and that’s not possible with reality, so it’s not a great metaphor, but it gives you an idea of how it might work.
I’d also suggest that the cosmos isn’t made of ‘soul-stuff,’ but of spirit. The Forms aren’t off somewhere else in a transcendent world. The nous is right here and we interact with it via the soul, and sometimes directly in a mystical illumination of the Intellect. For how this works, see Wayne Teasdale’s vision of the structure of Being here.
As we saw in the Soul post, you are Spirit and you have a Soul. You have access to all levels of being via the soul and the spirit, but in different ways. From one perspective, you’re an individual manifestation of the collective Soul of the World in which all life has its existence and all are interconnected. Your soul is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm – as above, so below.
This is also reflected at the level of spirit, but here, all is one because the spirit can’t be divided – it’s a unity. So my spirit is essentially the same as yours. Namaste! 🙏
At the level of the body, the soul is experienced through feelings, imagination and intuition, while the spirit is reflected in the intellect. But the Intellect of spirit isn’t the same as the puny intellect of your normal thinking mind for obvious reasons. Your thinking mind is based in duality, but the Intellect transcends duality.
Here are some basic keywords for the soul and spirit:
- Soul – Immanent, Multiplicity, Many, Changeable, Yin, Feminine, Luna, Darkness, Descent, Depth, Dionysus, Imagination
- Spirit – Transcendent, Unity, One, Eternal, Yang, Masculine, Sol, Light, Ascent, Height, Apollo, Intellect
Remember: none of this is meant to be taken literally. In reality, soul and spirit are two aspects of one being and the edges are always blurred. They’re not really opposed to each other. It’s our clunky language that makes it seem that way, and our tendency to polarise everything – an artefact of Christianity and the quickly unravelling Age of Pisces.
Soul and spirit can only be understood in relationship to each other. They complement and need each other, like Shiva and Shakti embracing, or the sacred marriage of alchemy.
In The Unknown She, Andrew Harvey speaks of how Ramakrishna described Brahman (the masculine) and Shakti (the feminine) as two aspects of one reality beyond name. He used the metaphor of the masculine as a diamond and the feminine as the radiance of the light shining from it. And – brilliantly – Brahman as the serpent and Shakti as its wriggle.
In other words, the feminine (soul) is how the masculine (spirit) takes form and experiences physical existence.
And before your politically correct spleen explodes (!), this has nothing to do with the sexes. This is obvious, but in today’s climate it’s become necessary to make these things explicit. Men and women have both a masculine and feminine side. So forget Jung, because your soul is feminine and your spirit is masculine, whether you’re a man or a woman.
The problem we have with gender has deep roots, but the male and female sides of life weren’t always so polarised.
Ancient cultures described their cosmologies using pairs of gods and goddesses, like Isis and Osiris, or Gaia and Ouranos. Even monotheism started this way and Yahweh had a wife called Asherah. But over time she was written out of the story and the goddess was suppressed. This happened in Christianity too, leaving the feminine, and the soul, homeless.
The world of the psyche and the feminine became conflated with the physical world of the body. In this way, it was linked to the Platonic idea of the world as an imperfect copy of the real world of spirit. The feminine was then rebranded as fallen – and women by association.
However, the problem with women predates Christianity and Judaism so it’s not entirely their fault. The teachings were used to justify prejudice that had been around for thousands of years.
Western Christianity in particular has a problem with the body and female sexuality, and the metaphysics was used to reinforce the neurotic obsessions of the early Church Fathers, aided by the fact that many of them couldn’t read Greek. Mistranslations of words crept in and the teachings became distorted and literalised. For example, in Corinthians 11, Paul is talking about the importance of head coverings for women, and in verse 3 says:
“…the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
This verse, along with many others, has been used to claim women should submit to their husbands, but that’s a misinterpretation. It’s actually a metaphysical statement, as explained by the 9th century Irish scholar, John Scotus Eriugena in The Voice of the Eagle, translated by Christopher Bamford:
“The woman is the rational soul (anima), whose husband…is understood to be the animus, which is variously named now intellect, now mind,…and often even spirit. This is the husband of whom the Apostle says, “the head of the woman is the man, the head of the man is Christ, the head of Christ is God.” In other words, the head of the anima is the intellectus, and the head of the intellectus is Christ. Such is the natural order of the human creature.”
This passage is part of a meditation on verse 4 of the Gospel of St John about the meeting of Jesus with the woman from Samaria at a well. The woman asks for water and Jesus tells her to get her husband because without him she can’t drink. Eriugena comments:
“Since…reason can receive nothing of the gifts from on high unless through her husband, the spirit, which holds the chief place of all nature, the woman or anima is rightly ordered to call her husband or intellectus with whom and by whom she may drink spiritual gifts and without whom she may in no way participate in gifts from on high. For this reason Jesus says to her, ‘Call your husband, come hither.’ Do not have the presumption to come to me without your husband. For, if the intellect is absent, one may not ascend to the heights of theology, nor participate in spiritual gifts.”
You can see how easy it would be to misinterpret these verses and claim that women are incapable of understanding spiritual truths or of becoming priests, and so on. But Eriugena makes it clear that this is an inner process of alignment. The soul and spirit must be joined together in sacred marriage before you can receive eternal life.
The history of Western Christianity reveals why this inner marriage between the soul and the spirit is so important. When you reduce the human being to just spirit and body, it creates a polarisation of opposites. Without the soul, you lose access to the imaginal realm which allows you to interpret reality by imagining alternative perspectives. You’re then stuck with only the senses and matter on the one hand, and an abstract spiritual realm on the other.
Without imagination, the body and matter are reified and become too solid, and you’re reduced to literalism. And the intellect disappears off into abstraction. The psyche polarises and splits in two and your thinking becomes distorted. Without the soul, you have no way to discern when your mind has become clouded by shadow material and unconscious fears.
This is why fundamentalists and literalists are obsessed with the devil and his hordes of demons. For them, it’s all too real and they’re effectively possessed by their own shadow. But perhaps the soul is just trying to get their attention.
When the soul was cast out, the beings who appear in the psyche – nature spirits, faeries, and so on – were re-classified as demons. These beings, or daimons, are shape-shifters and tricky to pin down, and they may not be entirely trustworthy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil, as Patrick Harpur explains:
“Christianity, unhappy as it is with ambiguity, divided and polarised the daimons into angels and devils. The act of polarising made them literal beings, which daimons are not. They are real, and even, at times, physical – but, like soul itself, cannot be taken literally.”
Celtic Christianity took a different approach to the soul and maintained good relations with the denizens of the natural world and the psyche. They also built ‘double monasteries’ which were home to both monks and nuns who lived and worked together as ‘soul friends’, or anam ċara.
“The Celtic mind was not burdened by dualism. It did not separate what belongs together. The Celtic imagination articulated the inner friendship which embraces nature, divinity, underworld and human world as one. The dualism which separates the visible from the invisible, time from eternity, the human from the divine, was totally alien to them.” – John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara
This egalitarian approach underpins Eriugena’s work and proves that Christianity doesn’t need to be so divisive and literal-minded. It’s a pity the wider Church couldn’t learn from his example, but in 1225 his work was condemned by the Pope – a sign that he must’ve been doing something right!
The deepest depths of the psyche or soul are impersonal, with physical instincts at one end of the spectrum, and spirit and God at the other. But it’s all held within the Clear Light of consciousness, or Intellect, nous, spirit. God is immanent in all things, but when experienced through the soul, it feels like the Goddess, or Goddesses.
This multiplicity of experience is what characterises the soul. She expresses herself through persons, human and non-human, physical and non-physical, and these are experienced as stories. Myths are the stories of the daimons and gods, and these are personifications of archetypes – or Forms – which give structure to the psyche.
We only see the gods through the appearances they take on and we experience their stories as narrative patterns in our lives. One god can have multiple images or personifications, like different faces of a crystal. This is a big clue to how astrology works. To explore each sign and the gods associated with them read the Zodiac Myths series here.
In spiritual practice, we often talk about letting go of our stories. Superficially, that sounds like a call to reject the soul and embrace spirit, but that’s an example of literal thinking. You don’t have to get rid of your stories or forget them – just don’t take them literally. Let them go but hold them lightly in open hands.
You need the soul and its imagination to interpret the subjective world in which you live. But you can also become lost in its hall of mirrors. That’s why the changeable world of soul needs to be balanced by the eternal world of spirit. This doesn’t mean floating off into transcendent bliss, away from the body and soul. It means recognising the presence of spirit right where you are.
The point of spiritual practice is to bring your whole being into alignment – spirit, soul and body – so that your ego, or personal self is aligned, via the soul, with the spirit, or higher Self. This is the process of atonement – at-one-ment – and it depends on you having the right relationship between the various levels.
To do this you need to centre yourself in spirit, rather than either the body or the soul, because spirit is the ground of your being. Everything is embedded in spirit and emanates from it.
It’s spirit that infuses the stories of your soul with the light of awareness. You wouldn’t know your stories without spirit. But without soul, spirit would have nothing to experience.
This is the meaning of the sacred marriage of soul and spirit.