The Art of Soul

You’ve undoubtedly heard of soul. There’s soul food, soul surfing, soul searching, soul music, soul brothers, soul sisters, and on and on. But it’s a word that many people shy away from these days because it’s usually taken within a religious context. For me, I consider the soul in another light altogether. It’s the mystical force within each of us that is the unique combination of our heart, our head, and our being. And when we’re acting with soul, our actions are aligned with our inner essence and radiate out into the world.

To infuse our work with soul is the highest calling of a creative being. If we’re creating from the soul, we’re doing the work with reckless disregard of our inhibitions, doing what we know is right without conscious thought or conscious effort. By employing our souls through our art, “we give a new form and a new meaning to nature or our world.” (Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do)

The Greeks believed that the soul was the source of animate experience for human beings, that it was stamped on each of us and as individual as a fingerprint. Attached to that was the calling, this idea of a greater purpose than ourselves. Soul searching is really the process of finding your calling. It can only be discovered through time and effort.

Bookstore shelves are lined with books to help you identify your inner why, your raison d’être, your inner being, your calling, your soul. Like the Greeks, we recognize that even our own individual soul can’t be known without undertaking a quest to discover it. It doesn’t simply wait to be found. You have to be deliberate in the search, but not focused on the outcome and share those treasures with the world.

We are All Wayfinders

When the voyaging canoe Hokule’a left port in 2014 on an around-the-world sailing adventure, it did so without the aid of engine, GPS, or compass. Instead, the crew relied on the wind for power and on non-instrument navigation techniques to find their way the same as their ancestors had done thousands of years before them. Non-instrument navigation relies on the senses, the color of the skies, cloud forms and wind direction, as well as birds, swells, and stars. It was once believed that it was impossible to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean in which Polynesia resides, but later studies proved that the Polynesians had been successfully navigating the waters for thousands of years in simple canoes. Using these techniques, Polynesian navigators sailed over thousands of miles of open ocean and rarely were lost. Each time they managed to find the one speck of green flowing in the middle of a seemingly infinite pool of blue.

This is the same challenge that each of us undertakes as we try to find our calling. We have just a vague notion of where we want to be, so we set out on a great adventure to find it. To be successful, we have to take cues from the natural world. Much of this is drawn from within, through reflection on what worked and what didn’t work. We have to be open to possibility and continue forging our own path. No one can lead us to our calling, to our soul. Only we an get there.

True, others can recognize the residue of the soul in the work that we do. It’s beautiful work of a level of complexity and sophistication that can only be seen as being produced by us. It is in a sense inseparable from the self even though it exists on its own in the minds of those we encounter. There is no doubt left that it’s work that only you can create. It’s a clear reflection of your essence, an alignment of your outer actions with your inner being.

On the outside, it can oftentimes look as if we are lost, wandering through life. To borrow a line from Tolkien, “not all who wander are lost.”

Like Hokule’a, there is no map on this journey. You have to rely on your own inveterate navigational skills to get you there. But the success you invent along the way is beautiful. Rather than following a culturally prescribed path toward your destination, you sail your own direction and decide what success looks like. Once we realize this, there is an immense amount of power.

Stop Searching and Get to Work

In his book, Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel writes of his encounter with a Japanese Zen master as he was learning archery. “‘Do you know why you cannot wait for the shot and why you get out of breath before it has come?’” the master asks him. “’The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure…’”

Confused, Herrigel refutes the Master’s argument, stating that he cannot lose sight of the connection of loosing the arrow to hit the target. He must loose that arrow to hit the target.

“‘The right art,’ cried the Master, ‘is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have too much willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.’”

Like Herrigel, who was having trouble finding the right time to loose the shot because he was so focused on the outcome, we sometimes get so focused on trying to find something that we miss what’s right in front of us.

Instead of engaging in a conscious search for something like our calling, what if we instead got to work doing the things we’re interested in? Like most journeys, in the beginning, we don’t really know where we’re headed or even how it’ll affect us. We have to be open to what lies ahead of us. To find your calling and get in touch with our soul requires a deep understanding of who we are and the forces of life have shaped us. This level of understanding can only be attained once we stop focusing on what we desire to know and see what’s possible.

So, if we feel that we are cast adrift and rudderless on the sea, how do we get started?

Why “Follow Your Passion” is a Useful Starting Place

“Leap, and the net will appear,” is a quote often attributed to an unknown Zen source. It is, however, a quote by the literary naturalist John Burroughs. Regardless of its origination, it’s a great reminder that to be successful is to fraught with risk. You don’t know what lays before you on the path, but you have to have enough faith that it’s the right path.

When I think about the passions, I think about those activities overflow the well inside of me. They trigger strong emotional reactions for some reason, though it’s not always clear. You should spend some time really getting to know what about a particular activity or concept ignites your emotion. Pursuing them, we’re told, is a bit of a fool’s errand, but we can do it in such a way that it isn’t detrimental to our lives.

In certain circumstances, going after your passion could end in disaster, especially if we think about it in the context of jobs and livelihood. Sometimes what we’re passionate about doesn’t necessarily add up to enough to support our families.

That said, you can use your passions as a starting place to find the deeper connection to the root of your being. Passions are good because we’re fired up about something. It inspires us to be better people and do get our there and go after something. Even in small doses, the affect that this can have on a well-lived life is astronomical.

In my life, one of the things that I’m passionate about is aviation. When I was a child, I dreamed at night that I would one day take to wing. When I became an adult and got my first real job after college, I chose to follow my intuition and pursue my passion for aviation. I scheduled what’s called a “discovery flight.” It’s a 30-minute airplane flight with an instructor where you sit in the left seat — the pilot’s seat — and actually control the airplane. It’s the best marketing possible! Combine that with a little bit of passion, and you have the recipe for one powerful drug. I didn’t stop until I obtained my flight instructor certificate (and even then I haven’t stopped).

What I discovered is that aviation combines a lot of the skills that I have with a lot of the subjects I’m interested in. I love studying weather and geography and navigation alongside physics and aeronautics. I also like to teach, enjoy adventure, and love to control a machine in three dimensions. And then there are aspects that touch the poet in my soul, experiences that you can only get by subjecting yourself to a difficult task and overcoming the challenges of doing it. So many nights I’ve sat in a small airplane stars above winking at me while the moon-swept landscape slipped quietly by under wing, air so smooth and radio so quiet that it feels like a dream. But it’s very real.

And that passion has supported me in other endeavors. It’s helped me move across the country, develop a growth mindset, and pursue a career as a writer. All of which I owe to this passion for flying machines. Flying has been a literal vehicle to get closer to what’s in my soul, what really fuels me. And while it hasn’t necessarily filled my pocket book, it has been integral in getting me down the path of self-discovery.

When I look back at the journey I’ve walked through this life with its often unconventional twists and turns, it seems forgone that I should find myself in this moment. What I know was that as I was pursuing each of these things, I never really knew how was going to turn out. Strangely enough, it all worked out.

That’s why it’s always so difficult for me to answer the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I don’t really know, but it depends entirely on where my passions lie and how closely I follow my intuition, and that’s never the picture a recruiter wants you to paint.

We can safely pursue our passions if we are thoughtful about how we approach them. If we’re deliberate in our approach, we can find ourselves in the deep waters of our soul. We should reflect on what exactly we’re passionate about and what skills we can bring to our passion. We may be passionate about a particular subject, but what it is about that subject that really interests us? What in the work?

We also need to remember that we’re complex creatures that are composed of many parts. Just as we shouldn’t anchor our self-worth to something like a job, our passion may not be sustainable in terms of employment, and that’s okay. Because you care about something so deeply, there’s value in engaging in that activity regardless of monetary reward. The greater reward is what you learn about yourself and how you share and influence others. The greatest gift that you can give to someone is self-awareness. You can do it through the stories that you share.

Roll With Your Intuition

Alan Alda said, “At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”

To intuit is to know without knowing the answer. We know because our body is giving us feedback about a situation before the intellect has metabolized it. It’s in our hearts and in our guts. Affective Primacy theory holds that there are two neural pathways to the brain, one for processing feelings and one for process ing cognition. We’re wired this way because our basic survival for millennia has depended on quickly reacting to dangers in our environment. Our body responds to what’s happening before our brain can catch up.

I can recall many instances in my life where brain and body disagreed. When the two aren’t getting along, it can be tough to know the right decision. The common bit of advice I see frequently in our data-laden society is not to follow your intuition. Go only after you have all the data. I’ve seen this leave individuals and teams completely rudderless by a phenomena called “analysis paralysis.” For some reason, people believe that more date will provide them with a foregone conclusion. While data does give us some sense of probability of outcome, it doesn’t guarantee that outcome. Nothing guarantees any outcome except action.

Steve Jobs has been admired for a number of reasons, but one of the things that struck me in his biography was how he honed and used his intuition. Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer, talks about Steve’s use of intuition — “feelings that are based on accumulated experiential wisdom” — in creating innovative products. Jobs describes his work as the task of reading “things that are not yet on the page,” and he uses intuition as a guide. He honed is appreciation for intuition while studying Buddhism in India. “‘The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do; they use their intuition instead. Intuition is a very powerful thing — more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.’”

When it comes to creative solutions, don’t overthink it. Let intuition take the lead. That’s something we’re not very good at doing. When faced with a decision, our brains will often provide us with ready-made rationalizations to protect against embarrassment, minor discomfort, or even the possibility of failure. When confronted with just about any decision, even if we have the comforts of data, we don’t know what the outcome will be. This is scary. So our brains try to protect us by reducing a decision into a yes/ no binary without respect for all the possibility that lies between. Fear, once again, is our master.

Unless it’s truly a life-threatening situation, when we feel this chemical onslaught inside our bodies, we have to pause. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom,” said Victor Frankl.

By pausing, we can double-check with our intuition — our hearts and our guts — to determine the right path of action that will carry us forward. Then turn it into action.

Master Your Craft

The Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it merely changes forms. This is the raw beauty of the passions. They take potential energy that exists inside of each of us, and they convert it into the energy of action. This action spurs thought and reflection, which begets more action. When we’re excited about what we’re doing, the system becomes self-sustaining. We put energy in; we get energy in return. Use your passions to find and master your craft.

When you’re passionate about something, you can toil at for little monetary reward. Instead, you see great value in the fruits of your work and are ready to begin falling in love with the process. When you love the process, the work sustains itself.

When you love what you’re doing and can do it almost automatically, you are on the path of ultimate mastery of your craft. As you gain skills and knowledge and fill your toolbox, begin to share your passion and your enthusiasm with others, and you will grow exponentially. This growth will spur you to take on greater challenges. Accepting greater and greater challenges is the path to ultimate mastery, but each of us must find it on our own.

But we must stay open to what’s possible. There are guides that will help us along at various points on the path. There are signs and signals that we must watch for, for it’s easy to get lost when you’re carving your own path. What makes this whole adventure all the more challenging is that there are no hard and fast rules for your art. There are only the established rules, which you must seek to rewrite.

Mastery, then, is only attained through a rejection of the established rules. When you begin to think that this or that can’t be done, you are closing yourself off to what’s possible and limiting your thinking. The ultimate aim of the artist is to reveal the world in surprising and startling ways. This can only be done with a rejection of what we understand to be the common aesthetic rules.

While you must reject the rules, you must also make up your own rules in order to create convincing work. These rules must be firmly rooted in your medium, whatever that may be. For any art, there is a body of guidance that can show you what has been ineffective in the past. This is only guidance, and you must take it in, reject what is unnecessary, and make your own of what remains.

If you want to be a writer, for example, eschewing all rules of grammar and punctuation is likely to get you into trouble, even though you are, as I’ve suggested, writing your own rules. However, the world won’t understand what you’re trying to say, and as the goal of art is to create meaning in the world, you will have fallen short. Instead, you need to use this as the foundation for your own set of rules about what written work looks like. Done well and from the soul, it’ll feel natural, and everyone will nod their heads and say, “Yes, yes. That does indeed work!” But if the world can’t understand what you’re saying, then your art is self-indulgent at best.

Mastery comes through learning the various techniques of your art. Focusing on technique, you can then deploy it in a way that’s surprising and full of meaning for the audience. For any art, there are hundreds of techniques that you can learn, and many more that you can discover on your own. It’s this work of identifying and cataloguing techniques that becomes the basis of the artist’s practice and leads to ultimate mastery.

What I’ve proposed here is not easy. Nothing of value ever is. And it likely will never end. It will demand your time and energy, and there will be days when it doesn’t keep its end of the bargain, and you feel drained. But that’s okay, because if you’re truly passionate about it, if it’s something that’s intrinsically tied to your soul, then you will find the wherewithal to keep going. Because the next day, the work will produce energy for you, and in the end, the effort you’ve put in will be worth it.

Reflect

I once met a man who had done a significant amount of travel in his brief life. His job had afforded him the ability to travel to parts of the world most people only conceive of visiting in their dreams. But for all his travels, he didn’t understand the world any better than people who have never left their hometown. And he certainly didn’t have a grasp on who he was an individual. It occurred to me that he was this way because he never took a moment to reflect on his adventures.

He never took the time to explore in his own mind what it meant to be able to travel like he did. He never took the time to really get to know the people he met along the way, the cultures to which he was exposed, or absorb the residue that it leaves behind. He was the same narrow minded individual he was before he took his travels. And that saddened me.

In some ways, it was not his fault. It’s a result of the world that we’ve created, one that places running through life as far more important than deep reflective thought. Reflection is taking the time to go in depth with what’s in your head, challenging underlying assumptions and creating connections between disparate ideas and bits of information. This type of thinking has been called “slow thinking.”

Slow thinking stands is the opposite of fast thinking of course, which is the mode that we function in when we’re performing activities such as driving a car or solving a sum. What we’ve discovered about fast versus slow thinking is that when one is on, the other is off. Our minds cannot operate in both modes simultaneously. So if we are spending all our time fast thinking, then we are never doing any slow thinking. We are never taking the time to go deep into understanding ourselves and our place in the world.

Like most things in life, we need to be deliberate and make time for slow thinking. If we don’t, our life will get in the way and we will find a million reasons not to do it, and we will miss out on the depth of understanding that such it provides.

Doing this as part of a healthy creative practice will help you to see what lies beneath. So often, we are only concerned with what we see on the surface. But the reality is that we have to get much deeper into ourselves.

If we’re going to reflect our soul in our work, we have do do the work to understand our inner essence. What gives you energy? What takes it away? Do you truly feel good about your passions? These insights and more can be revealed through our quiet periods of slow thinking. Don’t be afraid to slow it down from time to time.


Ultimately, a life lived in pursuit of that which lies in your soul is a life rich in meaning. We create meaning by making connections between the scraps of knowledge we pick up in our life experiences. A life of meaning is one that others can look at and see that we are living in accord with our essential nature. Our outer actions match our inner essence.

This type of meaning is created by “taking a craft approach to life,” according to Alan Moore. You craft your life when you work on your art and make deliberate movements that align with your inner essence. Like an artisan who pours her being into the creation of unique work, you share your treasures with the world. Continuing to work and attaining ultimate mastery reflects the art of the soul, inspiring others to do the same. When we live according to our inner essence, then we are a beacon of hope and possibility in the world.

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