Soul as a Dimension of Experience

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The following is excerpted from Toward a Spiritual Psychotherapy: Soul as a Dimension of Experience, published by North Atlantic Books.


Some people's minds seem programmed to notice differences. My mind gravitates to similarities. It isn't that I don't notice differences, but connections often seem more interesting. A mother talking about how much she loves her baby and a psychologist talking about the neurophysiology of attachment are — in my mind — different ways of talking about the same thing.

I'm also one of those people who loves to take neglected and run-down things and fix them up — an abandoned house, a rotting wooden boat, Granddad's old cedar chest. We have a word here — soul — that has been carelessly treated and that is difficult to use in its present shape. It's a beautiful old word, and I believe there's a way to make it usable again, to let its original beauty shine through. I've also discovered that rehabilitated words can constructively change both how we see things and how we go about our work and play, if we allow them to.

When I first studied psychology in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the word soul was taboo. Only a few brave Jungians like James Hillman dared use it. Even so, the word had dignity when black people spoke of soul music and soul food, and the word rang true when spoken from the pulpits of black churches. For us psychology students, however, mainly white and Jewish or Christian, phrases we recognized from popular media preachers like the "eternal damnation of your soul" sounded hollow and duplicitous.

Recently, soul has made a comeback as a new-age marketing gimmick, and even thinking about publishing a book with "soul" in the title feels a bit like joining the crowd pressing into a bargain basement sale. Still, I am convinced that there is a way of talking about soul that is helpful to many people. For some people, this way of talking about and working with soul has led to major life changes when other approaches had failed. It is important to take such experiences and the perspective that has facilitated such change seriously. Soul can be a useful word if well defined and carefully used.

As I am using this word, soul is not primarily a theological or a metaphysical term; it describes a dimension of everyday experience. It refers to a kind of actual, sensory experience that almost everyone can find without difficulty. Used in this way, it is not a subject for abstract speculation. It is a domain of experience to be observed, described, and worked with. This soul is not eternally unchanging, but rather, learning, growing, and maturing. Soul knows hurt and pain as well as joy and serenity. And as we will see, soul can remember long after conscious mind has forgotten. If we respect her, soul can guide us and teach us, and she thrives with our respect.

To facilitate understanding this particular meaning of soul, I need to say a word about this kind of psychotherapeutic work. The general approach relies on what could be called psychotherapeutic phenomenology. This demands that we stay as close as possible to our actual, sensory experience. We try to use words that name what we directly feel and sense — words that minimize interpretation. In psychotherapeutic phenomenology, inquiry into actual experience has priority over rigid adherence to theories and ideologies.

With each new observation, we resist the temptation to mold the observation to fit our beliefs. Obviously, it is not always possible to clearly discern actual sensory experience, and I do not claim that we arrive at some objective and final reality. What is crucial is to recognize the way that mind and language cooperate with physical sensation to create our subjective reality. What makes a difference for the actual work with clients is moving closer to authentic sensory experience and fine-tuning our awareness as honestly and precisely as we can.

As we begin to explore subjective experience more carefully, we notice that we can distinguish experiences that are clearly rational from those that are clearly physical. We recognize that thoughts are different from proprioception. We can distinguish the experience of pain of a cut or sunburn from thinking about a shopping list. Having a mental conversation with someone who is not present is a different experience from feeling the coolness of water or the warmth of the sun on our skin. Generally, people have spoken of mind and body or thinking versus sensation to distinguish these different domains of experience.

We can also distinguish experiences that lie in between the mental and the physical: yearning, hope, loneliness, grief, hate, anger, joy, or love, for example. These are not merely ideas that exist in our head — we also feel them. We can distinguish the pain we feel in grief from the pain of a cut finger, and it is also different from the thought of the cut finger. Traditionally, this realm of experience has been called "soul" in the triad of body-mind-soul.

In the English-speaking world, psychology shied away from the soul for some time, preferring to describe this realm of experience as emotion or feelings, or "merely" the effect of hormones, as if avoiding the word soul offered some protection against superstitious subjectivity. Framing the thought as "it's nothing but hormones" can give us distance from our direct experience; that is helpful when our experience is overwhelmingly painful, but it may also invite us to become distanced observers of our own lives. Distancing ourselves from our felt experience also can bring a degree of objectivity and clarity of understanding, a self-transcendence that can be lifesaving in times of extreme turmoil, but that impairs our capacity for intimacy. Consider the following true story:

A brilliant legal scholar recently sought help for severe depression and acute suicidal impulses when his wife of thirty-two years unexpectedly left him for a younger man. His shock was profound, and it was only his keenly rational self-control that prevented him from killing himself. He managed to stave off his suicidal impulses only by rationally distancing himself from soul. The anguish he felt in his soul overwhelmed him with powerful feelings of abandonment, betrayal, loss of meaning, hate, and revenge that he was ill-equipped to deal with. He understood full well that "it's just my hormones acting up," but that understanding brought him little comfort. In contrast, the metaphor of a wounded soul opened a pathway to therapeutic poetry that did help.

This story also makes clear the disadvantage of habitual self-distancing from soul. This man clearly understood the irony of his situation: his lifelong skill of distancing himself from the domain of soul was saving his life in this crisis situation, but it was also the very reason that his wife left him — she had found a different man who could touch her body and soul, a touch that was so important to her that she risked everything for it.

Soul powerfully affects our behavior and choices and is, therefore, real — as the profound turmoil of this man and his wife attests. Soul motivates us to act, sometimes even against our better judgment or despite risks to our physical well-being. How many of us have done foolish things for love or out of loneliness? In this sense, soul is real. She has real effects. Soul has often been a mover of history.

Defining soul in this very ordinary way has both advantages and disadvantages. Many scientists are uncomfortable with this concept because it cannot be measured, even when its effects can clearly be observed. This erodes the hegemony of the material world. Some theologians, on the other hand, would prefer to leave soul in the realm of mystery and claim the authority for themselves to discuss and define it. The approach in this book suggests that a careful study of soul is everyone's right and privilege.

There are good reasons to adopt this definition of soul. The most persuasive argument is that it helps many people. The examples in later chapters will make the process and the results clear. Thinking about soul in this way also supports an integration of different fields of knowledge. Knowing soul as actual sensory experience lets us revisit many philosophical and psychological abstractions and to bring them into the realm of everyday experience. In this way, it is a powerful tool for integrating knowledge. Finally, although we cannot know exactly what the mystics of the great religions meant in their writings, understanding soul in this way allows us to make some sense of what they said. It offers us one possible avenue to access their documentation of their experiences and insights. Approached through this idea of soul, they appear not as abstract theoreticians talking about obscure things but as careful observers of the potential of human experience attempting to document the results of their inquiry as accurately as they could. This simple definition of soul could be one small step toward resolving the sometimes painful tension between science and religion.

When we attend closely to soul as actual sensory experience, we may begin to notice her subtle movements, perhaps at first a sense of opening and closing in the chest, like a flower. We meet a stranger at a party, and we may feel an instant opening, a sense of familiarity, as if we had known that person for years; or the opposite may happen, and for seemingly no reason, we feel distance, caution, or even repulsion. During a conversation, soul may open or close. When soul closes, we recognize that we are not fully present. Insult or injury, for example, can cause soul to close, or some disappointment, hint of abandonment, or a wrong word or gesture from a friend or partner. In such situations we may continue to talk and keep the conversation going if need be, but the contact is hollow and brings little joy. When soul is habitually closed, our lives become thin and dull. Some people describe this as a feeling of inner emptiness, a feeling of not belonging, or a feeling of meaninglessness. In the poetic language that I am using, we suffer when soul is "closed." The realm of soul is the home of intimacy, just as we register abandonment and loneliness there.

Those who become fascinated with the movements of soul do so because they love the depth and richness of meaning this dimension of experience gives to life, and because they feel a great loss when this dimension is neglected. Most people who become interested in exploring the realm of soul discover that she makes other movements besides opening and closing. They report an almost physical sensation of reaching out to a loved one in pain or grief. In the privacy of inner experience, soul seems capable of touching and being touched, of holding and being held, of giving and receiving comfort. Soul may expand to a horizon hundreds of miles distant when one is standing on a mountaintop after a long climb. She may shrink into the darkest density during a depression. She may become frozen or paralyzed by shame or shock. She may contract into a tight little ball when hurt, like a child squeezing a cut finger tightly to chase the pain away. She may become light and lacy, overflowing with happiness and radiating exuberant joy. Such is the poetry of experience.

People have also reported that soul seems to have longings and desires that may not always correspond to the desires of the conscious mind. We may feel the longing to be seen or understood as an almost physical pulling or pain. Soul may long for quiet and rest. Soul may suffer when those we love suffer, and she may know joy when they know joy. Soul may know the inner experience of another. Usually we speak of empathy or, more recently, the activity of mirror neurons and limbic resonance, but as actual sense experience, it is as if soul could intimately enter into the inner experience of those she loves. We will return to this later.

Such movements of the soul are often taken for granted, perhaps not even noticed. In our culture, we habitually attend more to our thoughts or the content of our feelings, and not to the movements of soul. Yet something very interesting happens when we begin to respect the soul and to attend with interest to her movements and rhythms.

We may notice that soul has a different relationship to time than our rational mind does, often remembering things connected by categories other than linear time. We may notice that soul has a mind of her own, occasionally coming to conclusions at variance with the decisions of mind. People who ask themselves, "What do I want?" and compare the answer to the question, "What does my soul want?" may be surprised that the answers are different. I may want a successful career; soul may want intimacy. I may want to avoid repeating a hurtful rejection; soul may want to love and be loved. Respecting soul does not mean doing everything that she wants, but trouble often comes when her interests are too frequently ignored.

Learning to respect soul, to accurately sense her movements and desires, offers orientation for working through issues on our own or with professional support. Our legal scholar and his wife may serve as a useful example.

Once the intensity of this man's immediate crisis had passed, he became interested in understanding his long-standing inability to provide his former wife with the intimacy she so longed for. Because he loved her, he had truly wanted to make her happy, but had failed. He remembered her many attempts over the years to communicate her unmet soul-desire for intimacy. He had not recognized the urgency of her need, and had discounted her as being overly emotional. He came to be able to sense his soul's closure to her need, and he could feel how he had abandoned her many years before her affair with the other man. Finding this soul-level experience changed his feeling of being an innocent victim.

He described how he had grown up in an intensely chaotic and dysfunctional family. Anger quickly and unpredictably could turn to rage and violence. His first experience of emotional safety during childhood became possible only after his rational mind had developed to the point that he could think clearly and independently. He equated emotionality with danger and reason with safety. He had no role models and no chance to practice dealing with feelings constructively. He felt deeply remorseful that he had reacted to his wife's need for more intimacy as if it were a danger to him, and he felt shame at the inadequacy and awkwardness of his undeveloped ability for intimate touch.

Growing up in a family in which emotionality brought violence, it was only natural that he associated emotions with danger. Having developed no skills for moving gracefully with emotion, how could he have possibly responded to his wife's need? Like many people in the early stages of therapy, he entered a phase of hating his mother and his family for what they had done to him and for what they had failed to teach him. In effect, he held them responsible for his inability to meet his wife's soul-longing and for her leaving him. It is true, I suppose, that if this man's wife or his family had been different, he could have had different experiences and mastered different skills. With those different skills in place, he might have had a different relationship with his wife, and she might not have felt the desperate need to leave. When asked what his soul really wanted, he replied, "It's crazy. My wife said so many hurtful things, really horrible things, and all I want is to get her back."

Therapists schooled in different approaches may take different paths at this point. The approach we are calling attending to soul invited him to learn to respect his own soul. If we consider the effects of his conviction that "if my family had been different, my wife would not have left," we can sense that this feeling of justified resentment against his family also leaves him dependent and incompetent. To the extent that he is convinced that they are the cause of his suffering, he needs his family to have been different in order for him to be different. Our resentments and disappointments in our family — even though they may be justified — do not have a good effect on soul. They tie us to our past as if we were eternally little children. If this man wants to win back his wife, as he says he does, then he still has the huge task of learning a new skill set, of genuinely offering her the intimate soul-touch she craves. He must face the fact that she is right; he could not give her what she craved. This is, however, something he may be able to learn.

Following our approach of learning to attend to soul, he gradually allowed himself to become interested in the actual soul-experience of being incompetent in soul-touch. As his skill increased, he began to notice an experience of "something is missing in me, like a hole." In the beginning, this experience was terrifying to him, and he was not capable of exploring more deeply. With time and practice, he learned to stay with the actual sensory experience of incompetence, the "something missing" in his chest. He remembered lying awake at night as a child with a similar feeling. He discovered a deep desire lying hidden beneath his anger and hate. Allowing himself to sense deeply the "something missing" in his chest, he discovered his yearning for what we poetically call soul-touch. Like many adults, his child-soul holds a hope that some "good mother" could give him what he needs to thrive. His answer, "All I want is to get her back," also reveals the soul's lack of differentiation. Whom does the soul want back? For all its beauty, soul draws fuzzy contours and smears the lines of time. We may put the question bluntly: Does he want his wife as she is, with all her needs and demands, or does his soul want her to provide the good mothering his family did not provide? Soul needs the assistance of clarity of mind to make such discriminations. As his accuracy in sensing his soul's desire improved, the sentence "all I want is to get her back" evolved into the more precise sentence, "I want peace; I want to love and be loved."

Eventually he and his wife will have to talk. Perhaps her affair will run its course; perhaps they will discover the break to be more permanent. He is preparing for their meeting, practicing to listen open-souled and to sense more quickly when soul closes and the heart can no longer see and hear and touch. He is hoping for an opportunity to come to know his wife.

The deepening exploration of soul leads into challenging areas. As I mentioned, we use words like empathy, sympathy, compassion, and, more recently, mirror neurons and limbic resonance to describe soul's capacity to participate intimately in other people's inner experience. Mothers suffer when their children suffer. Lovers may know one another's thoughts. Musicians and orators sense an audience's response and pulse. This capacity of soul presents thorny problems for philosophers and metaphysicians. How can we be individual persons, separate and distinct from one another, and at the same time participate in one another's subjective experience?

We need not prematurely theorize and speculate here. We can start by observing actual sensory experience. A mother whose son died of a drug overdose felt something inside her die as well. A father watching his son make a fielding error at a Little League baseball game that cost the team a victory feels aching pain and humiliation in his chest. A son had cared for his invalid mother since childhood. The day after she died, his stomach exploded as a result of advanced, undiagnosed cancer, and he lay for weeks close to death. A military chaplain brought a mother notice of her son's death, but she knew that he was still alive. Eight months later, he returned home, having lain unidentified in a coma for some months following a combat injury.

These are all true stories. We can think up rational explanations for them, but if you put yourself inside the mother whose son died of an overdose and try to feel what you would feel in her place, you may be able to feel that "something" in you dying as well. To make matters more complicated, we all know other stories as well, stories in which a mother was sure her son was alive, when in reality he was dead, or stories in which one person was sure that he or she felt what another person was feeling but was completely off base.
We must admit that this kind of experience is extremely vulnerable to distortion and suggestion. Psychotherapists have learned a great deal about the tricky demarcation between intuition and projection, between empathy and transference. Anyone who has worked with people in psychotic episodes knows how agonizing it can be when it is no longer possible for them to distinguish between accurate intuition and invented fantasy. People experienced in working with psychotic states also know how often there is a grain of truth within the most bizarre fantasy.

Let's concentrate for the moment on those cases in which the "knowing" of another person's experience is not merely invented fantasy. We sometimes use the technique of family constellations to investigate soul's capacity to share information. In a family constellation, members of a group are chosen to represent members of a family system and are then placed standing in spatial relationships to one another. Although it does not always happen, constellations can have very powerful effects on the representatives. In one constellation, a representative of a suicide-endangered child suddenly lost consciousness and fell, hitting his head on the floor in a rather frightening manner. Fortunately he was not hurt, but he was shocked by the intensity of his experience, as was the group. In one moment, he was a perfectly normal group participant; in the next moment he was overcome with waves of dizziness, simply by virtue of being asked to stand in a family system as a representative of a child he did not know. Consider this story:

In a constellation, a representative who was a doctor broke out in a sweat and felt extreme pain in her left arm. She announced that we had to stop the constellation because she was having a heart attack. The woman who was doing the constellation broke into tears, because her mother (whom the doctor was representing) had almost died of a heart attack eight weeks earlier. The representative had been unaware of this information prior to the constellation, and as soon as the constellation was dissolved, her pain disappeared.

When someone breaks out in a sweat or loses consciousness simply by representing someone else in a constellation, then we have to take these phenomena seriously, even though it is difficult to verify them scientifically. I am, of course, very aware that people who have not had the experience of being a representative find anecdotes like this difficult to believe. We are a long way from understanding what actually happens in such constellations, but our experience with thousands of constellations supports the hypothesis that the social fields in which we live and move have a powerful effect on soul, whether we choose it or not.

Such anecdotes from family constellations may not be convincing for someone who has not had an opportunity to be a representative in a strong constellation and experience his or her own soul changing its shape. There is much justified criticism of the excesses of the constellation method, and just for the record, I am not claiming that the representatives feel the feelings of the people they represent. I maintain only that when a doctor suddenly has sweats and pain and a healthy man suddenly passes out, something pretty interesting is happening. I mention these anecdotes here simply as examples of the interconnectedness of soul.

In a completely different context, there is a mountain of hard research data on attachment between parents and their children, and there are neurophysiological measurements of the interaction between mothers and infants, documenting how profoundly they are synchronized — brain waves, heart rate, breath, and even food preferences. Expressed poetically, a baby's soul is in intimate communication with the adults around him or her. Children's souls take in and respond to their parents' sadness or joy, and children also feel the effects that other persons have on their parents, those who offer them support, those they miss, the people they long for, and those they mourn. We can assume that a young child's soul feels it all — her parents' hopes, despair, joy, or feelings of being overwhelmed — and the small child has to deal with it all in some way. Understanding in an adult way is not one of the options for dealing with the impressions on soul open to a child.

Psychoanalysis has documented an array of ways in which souls interact: projection, transference, projective identification, object-relations, and secure and insecure attachment, for starters. These are difficult concepts to grasp intellectually. At the level of soul as we define it here, they are all descriptions of immediate experience, things we can all feel. This is the common element of all those concepts, expressed in our poetry of experience: souls dance, leading and following one another, assuming the shapes and textures offered and required. If you distrust me, I am likely to act differently than if you trust me. If you like me, I may feel a bit differently about both you and myself than I do if you dislike me. If you believe that what I am trying to describe is utter nonsense, I am likely to begin to talk to you differently than if you are genuinely curious to know more. Soul continually participates in mutual cocreation of other souls, and absolute independence of one soul from all others is either very rare or impossible.

The most important point here is not the philosophy implied, but the orientation in actual sensory experience. I am quite sure that, if you want, you will be able to find and test for yourself everything that I am attempting to describe here. Furthermore, I am not claiming that this is a new or absolute truth. Quite the contrary. It is a very modest invitation to try the orientation for yourself and see if it has value for you.

Here is a summary:

  • Soul need not be thought of as being ethereal and far away. It works really well to find soul in immediate sensory experience.
  • Defined this way, soul can be observed to move and change shape and texture in interaction.
  • Soul is affected by life experience. She can mature or atrophy depending on the respect we pay her.
  • Soul is real because she affects our actions. (Soul is neither feminine nor masculine — or is both masculine and feminine. I just like the word she.)

Here are some parting observations that may not be as easy to find in your own experience as most of what I have described. Some people have found experiences that suggest that we may not have individual souls at all, but rather that there is only soul, one unified soul, undivided. Traditional metaphors to describe this complex relationship between the individual and the whole have been waves on the ocean or fingers on a hand. We can distinguish individual waves on the surface of the ocean, but no wave is separate from the ocean or from the other waves. Similarly, the skin of the hand is one single membrane, undivided, yet because it's folded, we can distinguish individual fingers. Still, the skin of one finger is not divided or discontinuous from the skin of the others.

It's a nice thing to think about, this relationship between individuals and the whole of life. Is there one single organism that is separate and independent of all others? I can't see it if there is.

The definition of soul we are talking about here is not a final truth. Rather, it's like a small boat that we can use to travel downriver for a while, but when the river gets too deep and wide, the currents running stronger, we will need to transfer to a larger boat.

That doesn't mean, though, that this is not a great little boat.

Copyright © 2012 by Hunter Beaumont, Ph.D. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Teaser image by Jenny Downing, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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