21st century soul
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21st century soul

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash


soul making, joy and grief

For me the last few months have been characterised by a peculiar mix of joy and grief — all kinds of everything, in fact — that made it difficult to find a way of writing about soul-making— the alchemical transformation that comes from writing, activism, therapy and ecology.

Yet all of this has felt interrupted by that other big reality of life: Endings.

My Mum died early in June, after being ill with Alzheimers for a number of years, and her dying held a sense of relief and deep sorrow. She was a wonderful woman, but her lingering death was hard on her, on her family and particularly on my Dad — so it was time for her to go. And I’ve been preoccupied with other kinds of endings too — the emergency of climate change threatens us with a different kind of dying — one in which the world and human civilisation we take for granted could change beyond our recognition.

Mum’s dying, and this contemplation of a much more extensive loss, led me back to soul-making — the practice I’ve been developing in the past few years, and, I realise, provided me with the final piece of the soul making puzzle. How can we make ‘soul’ in life — practising to live with deep engagement and joy — without facing our dying with understanding and courage? Dying — ending — I realised, is the final chapter of soul making — one that brings everything else together, at the scale of the individual human or lifeform, and at the wider, universal level.

So the final act of every life — every story — is the relinquishment of life. So, how does the soul die in its making? And more specifically how does a soul that has been crafted and made over a lifetime make sense of its own ending?

It’s a difficult dilemma. While we are alive, we all feel a little bit immortal. It’s hard to imagine another ‘state’ of being, or non-being, that isn’t somehow like this one. We all know we WILL die; the evidence is pretty incontrovertible, yet getting our minds around it is one of the most difficult things we can do in life.

And there’s another dimension to consider: the temporality of life — all life — is one thing, but we (thinking self-aware, reflective creatures that we are) also have the fantasy of the immortality and centrality of our species, our civilisation, even our culture — to contend with. If ‘I’ accept ‘my’ personal death, at least I can live on with the rest of humanity in some kind of spiritual and/or historical afterlife. Can’t I?

Even this legacy may not be available to us. The vast span of time, in which we humans have lived for such an eye blink of a moment, is pretty relentless. Eventually all species will die; humans, as a species, will die. The planet, as a life form, will die. One day.

It is not a spiritual or evolutionary heresy to say this. I do not think that those who argue that human consciousness represents ‘the universe becoming aware of itself’, can really believe that this is true — or at least they misunderstand, or deliberately ignore, the utter vastness of the universe, and the utter insignificance of human lifeforms in the wider scheme of things.

And so perhaps the most important aspect of soulmaking is facing death (Staring at the Sun, as Irvin Yalom calls it — or learning to Die Wise, as Stephen Jenkinson would have it) in a way that somehow ‘completes’ the soul. This is the only thing that makes sense of soulmaking as an essentially secular act (although I’m not claiming it as such — soulmaking is and can be regarded in both secular and spiritual frames). If a soul is to be made, and to be ever changing and incomplete, then death is the act that completes it — that ensures that the soul is ‘made’, in the round.

And there is certainly a spiritual tug in the question: Where in the Universe might a soul reside? And the answer that comes may have nothing to do with our life on earth, and may have no reference points that we can recognise from even our most ancient wisdoms and spiritual traditions. However, I think if I were to hazard an answer of sorts to this question, I may say that a soul resides only in the present — in the eternal now — and that this is as far as I can get without some kind of anthropocentric speculation.

What then does a good dying really mean, if soulmaking — and soul dying — are to mean anything in the psychological and spiritual frame that we have set for this most urgent of human tasks? And what are the contexts in which we need to consider this essential question— here in this precarious and possibly transitional time in human (and other-than-human) history here on this Earth.

Death has always concerned the writers, the poets, theologians and psychologists — and this personal end of the individual human self is certainly a major dimension of this inquiry and of this soulmaking task. Regardless of what else happens around us, the self — social, ecological and original soul — will cease to exist in time, sooner or later, and we individuals whose experience of existence is held so personally have to face this, come to terms with it and go through it. There are no exceptions — death reduces us all to dust; the only question is how we do it.

However, I am also concerned with the connected, collective ‘soul’. Whether we regard this as something real and tangible, or otherwise deeply metaphorical, there is something essential to be faced in the death of this more global, shared experience of life. We might call this ‘culture’, or ‘civilisation’ or something else, but we are faced with the inevitability of this ending, in the same way that previous civilisations (just as convinced of their immortality!) have crumbled and died; and much as we as individuals will one day be gone.

In this connected experience of self and soul, there is a wider ecological implication, that is unique to our epoch of human history. Never before have we been faced — as a globally self conscious species — with the possibility — even the probability — that we have caused the collapse of the ecosystems that sustains us, and even our own extinction — near-term or over the next couple of centuries. And, though we are faced with this reality, we do not — as a collective ‘soulful’ species — face it.

Perhaps there is some psychological anomaly here, that prevents the majority of humans on the planet to “make the climate crisis personal”, and accept that we are in a state of grieving, as Zhiwa Woodbury puts it. Or maybe simply it’s thecruel coincidence of the emergence and domination of neo-liberal extractionist economic and politics at the very time when we needed to turn towards the earth and away from growth as a ‘shock doctrine’ (as Naomi Klein’s analysis might say). And there are other analyses that take us towards eco-psychological approaches and more earth connected mythologies of death, endings are of cycles, rhythms and seasons.

In these times, we need ‘all kinds of everything’, and that’s why soul making is such an essential task, and one that has so many dimensions. This final dimension — the one that brings together the challenge of the personal death, with the potential end of the civilisation we have come to experience as ’normal’ — even eternal — is the crucial piece that completes the picture, and acknowledges the Earth’s eternal truth, that life and growth depend upon death and decay; and the ancient but buried human truth that civilisations fall ands decay just like every spark of life that has ever emerged.

This piece is part of a work in progress intended to become a book entitled Soul Making — a practicum of secular soulwork for our troubled times. It may evolve into many things — as the soul does — and so I’d love to hear your perspectives and responses. You can find out more about soul-making in other medium pieces such as HERE, HERE and HERE. And if you’d like to work with me, get in touch…

Steve Thorp, November 2018



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