An introduction to soul-making in the 21st century
‘Soul’ is an interesting word. The moment we utter it — this rounded, soft, little evocation— we are flooded with meaning. And in speaking it, we might, if we are not careful, place ourselves firmly in one camp or another.
Of course, the materialists are right when they say that there is no ‘seat of the soul’ in the physical body — and the spiritual/religious are also right when they say that we have an experience of a self beyond our self that needs some understanding — and carries mystery.
There are mysteries. For the scientist these are phenomena to be inquired into as our future knowledge develops. For spiritual folk, mysteries are indicators of something greater than/beyond the human — proof of different ‘realms’, whether these be energetic, or ‘real’ entities or understandings that go beyond anything we could understand through the scientific ‘method’.
Yet the word ’soul’ is the closest we have in our language for a particular experience of ’self’ — one that is authentic, connected and has integrity. When something is ‘soulful’, we don’t mistake this feeling for anything else — something ’sings’ inside us. And when we are captured by or trapped within the opposite experience — when soul is said to be lost or missing — then our life is as bad as it gets, regardless of the outer circumstances.
The circumstances we face, in these troubled times, are difficult ones, yet we can still be ‘soul-ful’ as we face them, and seek ways of living with each other and the Earth. This task is what soul-making is about — the way in which we can live authentic and joyful lives in times that are troubled and messed up.
What, then is a ‘soul’ to be made? A thing — something tangible or mythical? This is the question that James Hillman sets out to ask and to answer. It is a difficult question, in these days where science and religion seem embattled, and world-views are fundamentally divided. And yet Hillman writes this, in the first line of his masterpiece, The Soul’s Code:
“There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow”.
What more is there? Well, there is fate and calling and character and story. And there is, according to Hillman, “a reason I am alive” that speaks:
“…to the feeling that there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason, feeling that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image, which I am filling out in my biography”.
Soul, then is the innate image of each one of us. And the nurturance and growth of the original ‘acorn’ of our self — this mythical seed of potential and motivation — is the first strand of soul-making.
And there is more; for soul is also about connection and being human and being animal and living in the ecology that we evolved to exist within — the Earth, the Universe and all that this giant existential mystery implies. However, we have lost this connection — or are in grave danger of it being lost. Over a couple of centuries of relentless fossil-fuelled growth and exploitation, the thread of life on earth is fraying.
So, soul, if it is innate image, must also be about being connected within the mythical web of life that holds us all.
This ecological soul of the world (anima mundi) holds the second strand of soul-making as a practice. Re-connecting with the Earth, and with the ‘other-than-human’ is soul-ful in itself, regardless of what humankind gets up to.
What our theories have allowed, over recent years, are stories of life that are, on the one hand, reductively biochemical and, on the other, caught up with Gods and gods whose (humanly interpreted) authority justifies anything — including the soul-less exploitation of Earth and its peoples, and the denial of mystery in the painfully literal adherence to religious tenets.
Soul-making is a theory (or a story) that allows for much more than this. It allows for the human self to be regarded and experienced with breadth:
- through the inherently social make-up of the human species — and the love, altruism and cooperation that represent the evolved best in all of us;
- through the inherently ecological embedding of the human species in the world we live in and share with the other-than-human;
- …and through the original acorn of individuality in each of us that carries our potential and truth.
By working with these aspects of self and soul, we can craft a life for ourselves — and for the communities and ecosystems we are part of. This careful crafting makes each human life an unique piece of ‘art’ — that is, nevertheless, part of an enormous collection of art/life-forms that all add meaning and texture to our cultures and to our changing world.
In order to do this, soul-making must pay attention to those strands life and inheritence that provide the ingredients and materials for the moulding of the human soul:
Character and calling — the inherent, inherited originality of each of us, and how these form the basis of the acorn that Hillman writes of…
Existence — the peculiar and awesome reality of our existence, with its stark beginnings, endings, isolation and meaninglessness, and the ways we must face them…
Experience — the stuff from which the constellation of our ’self’ is constructed over our lifetime, and the ways these can be interpreted, misinterpreted, used and transcended…
Connection — the human relationships that are natural to us, and the social and ecological web in which we are embedded — and how this is also about the way love is moulded and realised…
…and Creativity– the imaginal force that provided the energy, motivation and shape of our self and soul; the ever-emerging image that tells us, constantly, who we are in the world…
The ways the alchemy of soul-making take place depends on the crucible of context and cultural assumption. In cultures where the ‘ecological’ is still an integral part of the understanding of the self, soul-making has more ease, perhaps, than in places where we have lost our connection with the Earth.
However, there are few places these days where humans are free of the enticements and demands of market-capitalism and neoliberal tenets; and so soul can be lost — with tragic results — in indigenous communities and post-modern societies alike. Soul-making is an attempt to find soul — even in the places where it might seem to be hopelessly absent.
It is a developmental task — not one of ‘growth’ in the economic or even spiritual sense — but of lifelong curiosity, learning and engagement. Soul-making recognises that humans change as we grow, and that there are transitions between different stages in our lives that we have to negotiate — from childhood, through adolescence, into early adulthood and parenthood, into a period where we experience a mastery of our craft or vocation and then into elder-hood, wisdom and the sharing of what we have learned — and we can do this with or without soul, with all the consequences for our wellbeing and happiness.
We carry with us, throughout all this, the shadows, wounds and vulnerabilities of our humanity, but learn — if we are lucky and spend time paying attention to these things — how to face them and incorporate them more fully and authentically into our ’self’ and ‘soul’.
This — soul-making — is therefore the lifelong task of being more ourselves as humans, as human animals, as inhabitants of the Earth, as lifeforms who have evolved to live on a small blue planet somewhere in some — possibly random, possibly meaningful — place in a vast universe:
“We are significant — insignificant; a centre that is no centre. We are jewel, starlight and spinning dust”. *
The context for 21st century soul-making is the world we have made for ourselves — not just the one we were evolved to live upon.
This ‘world’ of humans is dominated by a particular kind of political and economic system that has emerged in the past couple of hundred years and has brought great benefits (for some humans at least) and greater challenges. It is not a natural condition for humans, any more than any other cultural system or civilisation, and it would eventually give way to another. However, we are now faced with greatest of these challenges that has emerged from this system, that has now become an emergency — the scourge of human-made climate change or global warming.
This dwarves all the other crises have faced and have created. And psychologically, we seem to be unable to face it and the consequences it has already brought, and those that will emerge to dominate our lives in one or two or three generations to come.
Whatever the future brings, we will need the psychological and spiritual resources to face it and to develop the understanding, capacity and resilience to live our lives in this Brave New World. And we will need imagination, creativity, connection and a deep trust in our own inherent soulfulness — to create a bridge to whatever we can make and mould for our lives to come.
This cannot be a solely individual task — but individuals will have to take it on. Those of us who have faith in the future, and in the capacity of humans to ‘make soul’, will have to start and sustain this work (with no promise or guarantee that we will be successful!), and lead others gently towards the personal acorn in each of us, and the collective, connected soul in the world; to re-discover, as James Hillman might say: “the reason we are alive”.
This is, of course, a profoundly spiritual task. Not the spirit of light, transcendence, or the by-passing of the troubles of our collective and personal psyches with quick fixes and easily appropriated cultural beliefs, but one that carries a grounded and spirited, Earth-centred graft undertaken with internal honesty and external service.
Soul-making is for people who want to live with depth, grit, grace and spirit in their work, art and life. If you’d like to work with me on a soul-making journey, begin a conversation about your acorn or the alchemy of connection and imagination, or explore how you can sustain soul-ful activism or grounded spirit (whatever these means to you) in a troubled world, please get in touch through my website www.21soul.co.uk or respond to this piece below.
*the lines above are from Blue Marble: an eco-poem about the Earth, how we humans see it, and what we are doing to it, available from Raw Mixture Publishing.