I wrote this paper in 2015 as preparation for the Soulmakers Gathering that took place at Selgars Mill in Devon at the end of the summer. It was background for a session I ran over the weekend, and the intention was to provide a framework for a developmental path that wasn’t hierarchal, elitist or tinged with the kind of ‘evolutionary enlightenment’ thinking that takes us away from the Earth, and puts humans at the centre of things. I’ve revived it here as part of the current conversation on this blog about healing, development, ecology and unpsychology against the urgent backdrop of climate crisis.
Steve Thorp, April 2017.
Part 1 — Soul as Craft, as Growth, as Imagination
Making Soul is a necessary antidote to the contemporary cultural obsession with ‘onwards and upwards’ progress. In the economic and political arena, this translates into an historical refusal (or inability) to consider any other model other than the present one of unfettered capitalism and economic growth — regardless of consequences.
Ecologically, this has devastating effects — yet here too it seems impossible for mainstream culture to envisage anything but an upward path of progress — exemplified by the belief that somehow human technological ingenuity will get us out of the climate rabbit-hole that human technological ingenuity has got us into!*
*(Judge for yourself : www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto/ versus www.resilience.org/stories/2015-05-06/a-degrowth-response-to-an-ecomodernist-manifesto).
This translates psychologically too. The spiritual, self-help movements take the myth of progress and apply it into ideas of evolutionary consciousness and upwards paths and spirals of spiritual development. These also draw directly on the capitalist virtues of ‘monetization’ and turns personal development and enlightenment into product streams.
Of course, we all have to make a living. And some of us do so by sharing our expertise, wisdom and ability to help others to deal with the challenges of life. Sometimes we are paid for this; and sometimes, perhaps, we shouldn’t be. Or perhaps we owe it to those we help and stand for that we can demonstrate a sustainable, soulful way of living with a degree of success?
Nevertheless, a human community is not defined by the economic exchanges within it. If we are to have a soulful future, we have to acknowledge that art, conversation, ingenuity, love and generosity are words in a different, deeper language than the stilted tongue that speaks of austerity, growth, markets, consumption, customers and clients.
Whether we are paid for our soul work or not (and soul work can be activism, art, music, therapy, entrepeneurship etc.), we are developing practices in order to make change in the world. In doing this, the imperative is not trying to grow, develop or reach enlightenment. In contrast, we are digging deep into our souls — and into the earth — in order to feel rooted. Developing soulful practice is a task that will deepen us, broaden us before the necessary development might take place.
Out on the ocean we need soul as an anchor that stops us drifting. In the air, spirit — unfettered, turning from ego, flying high on wings made of wax — falls to earth, or at best loses touch with its grounded realities. Soul, anchored, accepts ALL of what is. It grounds itself and grows, like a healthy tree, upwards, outwards and down — staying healthy, giving healing, sharing life.
The best Soul Makers are trees in the forest that have spread wide; that give life and shelter. They are the human animals who, through instinct and practice over many patient hours, have found the hidden ways of the woodlands. They have practiced the forest arts and can share them, not least because they have been lost there many times themselves. And when you are climbing, you’d want a Soul Maker with you who is skilful and careful in her craft, well equipped, with passion for the mountains, yet grounded in soul and knowing the consequences of a reckless move.
Soul Making, therefore, is Wood Craft and Ocean Craft and Mountain Craft.
In human terms it is a practice in growth — never perfect, always in the process of being perfected. At heart, though, it is not only about Growth, but Imagination. As James Hillman and Gaston Bachelard told us, it is the ‘poetic image’ that we need to pay attention to.
And yet, if we reject the paradigm of progress entirely, we lose the reality of growth that is part of our nature. The truth is that some people are undoubtedly more ‘expert’ in their practice than others. We know this because we admire the wise and the far-sighted. We follow their hope and shelter beneath their branches, hoping to be given new life. Such power — if practiced and exercised with breadth, humility, vulnerability — and soul — is experienced as deep, healing and joyful by those who follow. These Soul Makers are benevolent souls themselves, who have surrendered to their own experiences of the dark night in life and image. There are few enough of them around in these troubled times.
However, in time and with wakefulness, practice and application, we can also be and become Soul Makers. The myth of spirit is that we can get there by the will of the ego, or by some kind of conscious alignment to the universe, or by buying it — by magic, that is to say. Soul Making is magic, of course, but it is the deep magic of faerie (aka. imagination) rather than a clever conjurer’s trick. It is dark and deep, always essential, only sometimes entertaining. Soul Magic is the kind that grows underground for years in the dark; the kind we try to fend off because it is taking us towards the light and we fear being blinded.
It requires only imagination, lifelong application and surrender — only these!
This piece, therefore, is about reclaiming ‘development’ and ‘growth’ from the current mythology of our civilisation, in which there is no limit to the height we can reach, to the economic power we can grow, to the power we can muster. This warped technological paradigm refuses death, and it is time to reclaim it — for only through our dying can our legacy ripple out into the world. The true wisdoms are often not the ones that are in progress, but those we can look back and reflect upon — seeing the road we have travelled and learning the lessons on the way.
Civilisations also die. We had forgotten this.
Part 2 — Soul Making as Developmental Path
In Rob MacNamara’s book, ‘The Elegant Self’, he sets out a developmental journey for adults that culminates in what he calls ‘Elegance’. It is a destination that only a relatively few of us reach. ‘Elegance’, he says, is a state in which we can hold polarities, see what we have not previously seen and in which we make connections. This kind of development does not leave behind the shadows of our life — it isn’t just an onward and upward journey — rather it ‘transcends and includes’ our previous self.
Many of us choose not to seek ‘elegance’. We rest on what he calls ‘the adult plateau’: satisfied that our social self is reasonably stable; satisfied that we are developing our autonomy and reputation in our job, family, community and culture. Satisfied, perhaps, but strangely unsettled by the forces that play within and around us.
However settled we might believe ourself to be, life does not stop being challenging; there is still pain to be endured. Sometimes, in response, we fall back — regress — into previous states. Elegance, in my reading of it, simply gives us another perspective — a higher viewpoint — from which to observe our life and world; a broader platform from which to live it.
Soul Making, therefore, is a process of deepening, broadening and developing our life and practice. It has three realms of the ‘self’ (‘social/relational’, ‘ecological’ and ‘original soul’), and five phases which I have set out elsewhere. As with ‘elegance’, the higher reaches of Soul Making (teaching, guiding and wisdom sharing) also include the previous stages. We are all seekers, we are all finding and growing our practice, we are all developing and educating ourselves and others.
The first phase is that of Seeking or Searching. In this phase, we recognise that each of us who are interested in our own development and the ways of our world is a ‘Seeker’. We are searching for a practice or practices that will help us live in and make sense of the world, and heal the wounds of ‘self’.
Sometimes, in this phase, we find a practice that speaks to us, but it feels incomplete in some way — and so we go on searching. As this implies, this can lead to a circular path; one that loops back to a search for the one true insight or practice that will make us authentic or whole.
On the other hand, the great thing about searching is that it is a fundamentally necessary stage in our development as Soul Makers. It gives us the tools to live our life, and if we search systematically, we find that these tools and practices can be fitted together in some integral sense, allowing us to settle, moving us on to a practice or a cluster of practices that meet our imagination and passion, and which we can then spend time perfecting. In this stage we are open to receive wisdom and inspiration, and begin to find our “most faithful self-generated enthusiasm (enthusiasm: to be filled with god)” (as Alice Walker wrote in ‘We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For’).
The downside is that seeking can become a habit. All Soul Makers are curious and, throughout our lives, we will always be learning. However, there is a real danger that we get stuck, or mistake searching for development and growth for happiness. We then fall for the very paradigm of endless growth that our culture has set up for us: enrolling on course after course, trying out this practice then another, and never quite meeting the soul’s need, nor acknowledging the shadows that necessarily counterbalance human fulfilment and joy. In his beautiful essay, ‘Small Gods’ (in ‘Dark Mountain issue 7’), Martin Shaw, writes about the eternal searchers: “The weight of the West on their shoulders. Beautiful folks usually. Almost always white, hair often dreaded…” who tell their stories of seeking and discovery from their travels, meditations and practices drawn from other cultures.
“Now to be clear”: he continues, “these folks are signposts to being real human beings. In a numbed out, glow screen world, this is a vivid attempt to wake up, to feel something real for once, to take up a little more space in hard, neurotic times…but I think its just a first step, to maintain it year after year is the posture of a child and the last thing our children need is to be raised by kids with the faces of adults”… What we need, he writes, is “to orientate to a life to nourish our children’s, children’s, children. To understand the labour of raising something”. Instead, of which “we’re too busy getting our chakras balanced to tell them stories, take them for walks”.
Soul Making is about the deepest possible connection with soul, with other human and non-human beings (and this means the humans and non-humans of the future) and with the world. We cannot do this if we are perpetually searching. At some stage in our life, we must find ourselves Settling. This second phase emerges when we find and recognise a practice (or set of practices) that fits us, and in which we must move beyond what Shaw refers to as our attempts to ‘self initiate’. This might seem like a choice, but in true James Hillman style, we might be aware that the best practices choose us. They carry a sureness, a rightness, a quickness even, that makes us think we know that this will be the path for the rest of our life. Sometimes, the emergence is less certain, even tentative; yet when settling begins, it is a step towards the development of practices that will lead somewhere — it is the soul that leads us, after all!
Settling can be a long phase — it is when we are learning our practices and begin to apply and combine them. It is a phase where instruction is important; in which we accumulate all those hours of application that turn a skill or aptitude into a craft, art or expertise. Sometimes we settle into something that doesn’t meet us fully — or doesn’t quite carry the full potential of what we might be here to do in the world. This, of course, is unsettling, but it might help us to move on (borrowing Rob MacNamara’s phrase) to a new ‘adult plateau’. However, there comes a time when instruction isn’t enough; when technique and knowledge — and therefore practice — reach a glass ceiling. Yes, we can always learn more, and yes, settling is the phase when we start to ‘get it’ (whatever ‘it’ is!). However, this is also when it can start to get messy.
In the first phase, when life circumstances or historical pain hit us, we go searching for something else that might heal us. By the time we have started to settle, this healing is partially done — after all, a good practice is one that heals as well as develops the self — but circumstances and pain do not stop, and in the seeking/searching stage we are blissfully unaware of the shadow. If life hits us hard as we are settling, however, the shadow — our flaws, wounds and existential despair — is all too apparent, and cannot be wished away.
Up till now, the project has been one of the ego. Somewhere in this new settled practice is an intuitive awareness that our vulnerability will hit, and the shadow will have its day. So as we settle in, we can be hit with the existential, circumstantial pain of life. The ego (with its new awareness) begins to develop cracks or stress fractures. When this happens, we can go one of two ways: EITHER the ego can go on a new conquering spree OR surrender happens.
If the ego starts to try to conquer, we can be thrown right back into the confusion of the previous phase and the frenzied searching begins again — but this time with the desperation of disillusionment muddying the waters. Or worse still, we can give up entirely, and rest fearfully on the plateau; too scared of falling to climb any further.
However, if Surrender, with all its pain and vulnerability, is allowed to happen, something magical can occur. Amidst the crumbling, we begin to notice that our practices start to be in the service of the soul. Of course, the capacity for surrender is circumscribed by the amount of pain and uncertainty we can bear! True surrender takes us up and throws us down; demands that we accept the wounds we carry; forces us to spend time living in the shadows. On the other side of the veil of surrender, however, lies the possibility of ‘grace’ or ‘elegance’ — as long as we can avoid this becoming yet another chosen project of the ego.
So, all we can do is to accept surrender as it comes. This is a third phase in Soul Making, though its timing is usually uncertain! It will bring benefits, as we start to be aware of the polarities that we are holding, as well as pain.
So, if it makes us frantic, the task is to stay frantic and keep asking questions. If we feel empty, to stay with emptiness and resist the temptation to fill the hole. In short, the tool to help us through surrender is phenomenology: noticing what emerges — as image, as pain, as clarity, as soul — in the channels of emotion, mind and body; in relationship and in the here and now.
We cannot truly settle with this. We can only stay as we are and expand the phenomenological awareness of what is happening. Entering it. This response is already a surrender.
At some stage in the fluctuations between the dual polarities of Settling and Surrender, we begin to experience our practice and life as Soul Making in the world. We start to become the expert, wounded healer. We start to be grown up enough to nourish our children’s, children, children. We understand that there is no way of ever getting it right. We begin to share our knowledge with the world; to become the instructor and guide who can take others into the mountains, or help them find their path through the woods. We can also tend to the world, for we understand that it is part of ‘me’. And we understand the ongoing confrontation between the ego and the soul — in ourselves and in others — and can be a mentor available to others at precisely the moment when their particular form of conflict is happening.
Soul Making is the fourth phase, through which the individual moves from a phase of improving reflective practice to becoming a soul making practitioner. This is still not to be fully settled into, however, as it carries all the strengths and vulnerabilities of the previous phases. We all need to keep searching. We all settle and re-settle throughout our life. We will all be faced, again and again, with the psyche’s demand for surrender. And our capacity to care and nurture (others and the world) will be repeatedly called upon.
This phase also includes the tasks of Sharing and Supporting. Soul practitioners, at any stage, need supervision and support, and the philosophy of Soul Making is that different practices and disciplines are integrated and shared, and through this integration, new paths of healing, development and creativity will be discovered and followed.
In sharing, we open ourselves up to each others scrutiny and trust that we will be held — even as we are throwing up our weaknesses and failings for the world to see. Each of us holds within us a cycle of vulnerability and strength (another pair of polarities), in which we grow ourselves and each other, in the service of the anima mundi (soul of the world). In Sharing, soul making practitioners are held by their soul making community, and are able and willing to hold and walk alongside others on their pathways. And recognising our own need for support and guidance , at any stage, is part of the soul making journey.
I have a final thought about all this. What we often desire when we start the journey is to soar. To transcend the material realities of our worldly experience — to fly.
I have some doubts about this, and in ‘Soul Manifestos and Pieces of Joy’ , I wrote of the ‘Icarus Illusion’ that: “reminds us of the evolutionary boundaries of human influence, perception and significance. ALL spiritual (and technological) projects, however sophisticated they claim to be, however much wax and feathers they meld together, are bids for freedom. They offer a promise that we can throw off evolutionary restrictions and do what the birds (or the gods) can do”. In short: “The big mistake that Icarus made was to confuse his desire for the higher experience for the material possibility of achieving it!”.
However, what if we can fly? What if we can soar? If Soaring is to be the culmination of Soul Making, then it would be a joyful thing indeed!
However, it won’t happen if we simply want to fly, I don’t think; nor can we build ourselves the psychological version of a spaceship or aeroplane. What might be true, is that, in allowing ourselves to move through the stages of Soul Making, we might find ourselves flying — together — immersed in the air and sky.
I have an image from last evening to draw on — of swallows swooping and swirling around the building and trees of our hamlet. Their aerial dance is breathtaking; their lines of travel along the funnels of air are unerring and beautiful. Perhaps we could do this? But, we should also remember that the swallows are feeding as they fly, and they will return to their roosts and nests as the dusk turns to night. The world is still a material place. However we might wish it to be, we always need to return to depth and ground.
Illustrations by Emily Wilkinson, 2015
My thanks to Michael Soth for his support in clarifying these stages, and in emphasising the importance of surrender!