Soulmaking — a dialogue on emergence
JULIA MACINTOSH AND STEVE THORP
One of the features of Unpsychology Magazine — both online and in the published editions — has been a series of continuing dialogues between ourselves, Julia and Steve, as editors of Unpsychology, and as explorers of meaning and mind. Our first series, on Healing was published in 2017 in four parts starting HERE. Our second series, on Climate Minds in 2018, starts HERE, and we did a one-off dialogue that spanned the UK General Election in 2019 and the start of the COVID crisis early in 2020 which you can find HERE.
In this new dialogue — which we hope will become a new series — we return to a preoccupation and grounding process of the Unpsychology community: that of soulmaking and what this might mean in the shifting sands of our troubled and disintigrating world. ‘What is soul anyway?’, we might ask ourselves, and we might also ask whether the ideas and practices of soulmaking can be relevant in a contemporary theory of mind in which the polarity between ‘clinical’ and ‘spiritual growth’ approaches seems to be increasingly wide.
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I’ve been reading one of my favourite thinkers: James Hollis. In his latest book, ‘Living Between Worlds’, he begins “It is no secret that we live in troubled times…. these in-between times when our old maps have eroded — or disappeared altogether.” (p.xi) No secret, maybe — but certainly not easily embraced.
You know that I’ve recently qualified as a life coach. Actually, my training was as a ‘transformational’ life coach. I am still feeling my way into that particular way of describing it, because I hesitate to make such a sweeping promise as transformation. Surely only the coached individual can ascertain what impact there has been upon them? And surely, transformation isn’t always a swift or simple process to recognise? Tranformation takes time and care. The ancient art of alchemy will tell you as much: it was dirty, smelly work — sometimes with slimy or nasty substances — and took days, weeks and even months and years to pursue the process. For all that, gold was elusive. Yet the alchemists carried on.
So here I am: a life coach. I’ve invested a great deal of time and personal expense into gaining this qualification, because I see immense value in working with people in a one-to-one setting. I believe that we are in troubled times indeed, and that individuals increasingly bear the burden of our collective follies. Depression, despair, fear and anxiety are all on the rise. I believe that these are natural and inevitable responses to living in the insane world of materialism, which is reaching its inevitable limits. Erich Fromm wrote ‘The Sane Society’ to say as much: “Whether or not the individual is healthy, is primarily not an individual matter, but depends on the structure of his society.” (p.70) I see it as two sides of the same coin: we work on ourselves, and that work reaches beyond us into the society in which we live. We bring ourselves into the world.
I’ve been trying to work out how to describe my work without dragging people down. The life coach industry is much more positive and upbeat: live your best life ever, gain clarity and control, thrive and soar and be fulfilled. Well these are all fine aspirations, to be sure. But in my experience, life isn’t so simple. And the clients I’ve worked with would agree: they’ve been wading through crisis and fear and even panic at times, when their world has been shaken up by difficult circumstances.
So I turn to the word you introduced to me, Steve: the word soulmaking. I’ve been reading up on soulmaking, and interrogating it as closely as I can. Robert Sardello writes, “Soul making, it seems to me, must be world-oriented rather than self-oriented; otherwise cultivation of soul is at the expense of the world. The tremendous force that comes about through the cultivation of the inner life can produce radical changes in the outer world….” (Facing the World with Soul, p.57.) As I understand it, soulmaking isn’t about the quick fix, or the ready-made solution — it is about living creatively with the hand we’re dealt.
Tell me Steve, what does soulmaking mean to you, and how do you use it in your work as a therapist?
What a strange but opportune time to be having a dialogue about soul! Autumn rolls in, as it always does, and I’m aware of the familiar rhythms in which the world turn — irrespective of humans — and so soul, for me, has to emerge within the context of the unfolding depth of these realities. At the same time, another context in which we are talking about soul is in the fragmenting human world that has been revealed by coronavirus. I chuckle (darkly) sometimes as influencers, movers and shakers, coaches and, yes, therapists, try to make meaning from the virus — but it is undoubtedly true that COVID has blown our world apart.
One of my ‘favourite new people’ I came across during this COVID period is Siv Watkins, microbiologist, animist and self-described ‘weird middle-aged Goth’. She is rigorous in demanding that we see the granular reality of the interdependence between humans and non-humans; that we don’t mix up science, wishful thinking and imagination; that we get to know — intimately — where we sit in the wider scheme of things. In one of her recent essays, she writes:
“The universe does not owe you an epiphany, and the love-and-light brigade doesn’t get to choose which flavor of science is OK to adopt, and the flavor of science that is to be innately mistrusted. Science IS, the virus IS, and our responsibility to our greater community is to recognize these facts and engage with them responsibly.”
This might seem a roundabout way of answering (or not answering!) your question about what soulmaking might mean, Julia — but stay with me! Our mutual friend, Sarah Jewell, part of the original ‘Soulmakers’ community we were working in a few years ago, used to ask me a similar question: what is it, and why is it called ‘soulmaking’? Her implication was that the term carried connotations of ‘love and light’ which, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, did lean the work towards a particular set of spiritual — even religious — assumptions, which can be confusing and misleading for those who might find themselves engaging with it.
Until recently, I might have countered this concern by saying that we need to reclaim and redefine the idea and language of ‘soul’ as a secular conception of originality and uniqueness in the self, and soulmaking as its practice. Hillman’s ‘acorn’, which lies at the root of this idea of soulmaking, is embedded in the world (both real and mythical), of course, but it is still a metaphor of individual growth and development — at least in the way it plays out in the contextual, societal assumptions of therapy, coaching, self-help and much of popular culture.
In my therapy work, this individualised version of soulmaking has often been welcomed by clients, who like the way it opens up the work of healing, and are relieved to be going beyond the one-dimensional task of dealing with pathologies and symptoms, into the deep and into the authentic work of growing the oak tree of the self from the acorn of our potential. Following this therapeutic vocation of soul-making has enabled me to find ways of helping individuals (and couples) to connect with some deep core of calling, wellbeing and, as you put it, a sense of ‘transformation’.
But something has changed — is changing — in my work and perspective. Soulmaking feels less a task of ‘making’, and ‘transforming’ more a way of ‘seeing’ and ‘revealing’ — a bit like the way Siv Watkins and her band of microbiologists and microanimists have to adjust their gaze and practice their scientific disciplines in order to see the ever-emerging detail of what is already in existence — what is already embedded. Less alchemy, perhaps, and more microscopy…and then panning right out to see how all the small things connect. Soul might be found, to use Gregory Bateson’s phrase, in the ‘pattern that connects’, or in the flows, eddies and spaces between the stuff of life.
Does, any of this make sense? There’s a broader question in there as well about what ‘making soul’ might be for in the long run, but I’ll leave that lying for the moment, as I wonder where this takes you, Julia, in this, our ongoing spiral of a conversation?
…soulmaking as opening oneself up — seeing and revealing what is there — that resonates strongly with me. We can start with the idea — the mystery — that we are whole and perfect in all our imperfections. In that sense, healing is about realignment to this mystery, rather than fixing something or making it different than what it is. Is soulmaking similar to healing?
In ‘Care of the Soul’, Thomas Moore writes that “soul power may emerge from failure, depression and loss. The general rule is that soul appears in the gaps and holes of experience.” (p120) Yet he also suggests that “soul is made: it is the product of work and inventive effort.” (p144) I’m not sure how I feel about that — is soul a product? Is it a thing?
I turn to John Cottingham’s ‘In Search of the Soul’, in which he writes:
“But what at any rate seems clear for present purposes is that any conception of the soul that is to make sense as a way of understanding the human condition must be capable of being integrated into the rest of our world view: it must fit in with, or at least be compatible with, our scientific picture of ourselves, and our origins and our personal experiences of the human condition and the moral problems of our existence.” (p19)
This chimes in with what you have said yourself, about the acorn of our selves being embedded in the world. We grow into ourselves like the acorn grows into the oak tree, and this happens through a life lived day in and day out. Soul and soulmaking are not some ethereal, spiritual pie-in-the-sky theories — they are grounded in daily practice and everyday experiences. Soulmaking is not about creating or reaching some ideal state, it is about living creatively within our human limitations, within the here and now of the world around us.
In another of his books, ‘Ageless Soul’, Thomas Moore teases out the difference between getting older, and aging. In his view:
“Ageing is not just adding years to our total on earth. It is a process of humanization, of becoming more spiritually and culturally complex…. Over the years, it is also a blending of valuable experience with youthful hope and ambition. It is the process by which a person’s natural gifts and potential get worked into something real and subtle. Jung called it ‘individuation.’ Keats called it ‘soul-making.’ I think of it as the creative working through of the raw material of a personality.” (p26)
In this respect, coaching and therapy are two ways of supporting someone who is doing that ‘creative working through.’ And while therapy may work specifically with the psychological wounds that we all carry, coaching works more with the stuff of choices and paths. There is some overlap, in that both professions use listening and reflection as ways to open up new perspectives.
As to what soulmaking may be for in the long run — well. That’s a very good question! In moments of existential pondering, I ask myself the question: but what am I here for?! What are any of us here for? Perhaps what soulmaking is for, is something like the thread in William Stafford’s poem ‘The Way It Is’:
“There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.”
I love the wide-ranging reference points that you’re working with. However, there’s something elusive and mysterious about the idea of soulmaking that has been puzzling me. I am not even sure I know how to frame the questions; but it’s somewhere in the region of what it might be like to be an individual ‘person’ emerging in the context of time and space and circumstance and originality (and this, of course, has relevance to the background contexts of ‘healing’ and/or ‘emerging’ through coaching and psychotherapy).
I suppose the question might also be asking how on Earth we can expect to find a particular, unique experience of ‘soul’, when the very idea of the self is entirely constructed within the wider contexts and connections of the person embedded in the world? And, in another layer of inquiry, how can we even think about ‘soul’ as something that belongs to or is associated with an individual? Isn’t this ‘category error’ right at the heart of the problems that have emerged from the culture of individualism that has dominated our ecologically, economically and politically crumbling civilisation?
When I’m feeling clearer and more optimistic about this, I think I can see something in a personal journey that is part of a wider whole. I can see both of these positions as essential to soulmaking — and regard them as necessary and complementary to one another. However, there are times when this doesn’t feel right at all — it’s as if the whole idea of personal development (which soulmaking is associated with, in our society at least) is in danger of being a pseudo-psychological construction, disconnected from real life — or maybe it has already become one.
I don’t think I’m being cynical — rather I want to be clear about how soulmaking might be intimately embedded in everyday life — in ecological, biological smallness and richness; in human culture and its collapse and yes, perhaps, the mythical, mysterious and spiritual — but this only when there’s been a rigorous grounding of all this soul stuff.
You know I love Ursula leGuin, and, while I was thinking about this dialogue, I was coincidentally reading her strange short story, ‘Ether, Or’, about a town in Oregon, that shifts its geography, and its inhabitants. At the heart of this story is Edna — a women who might be seen, it seems to me, as the ‘soul’ of the community. She’s an ordinary woman — with husbands she has loved and children she has raised; jobs held down and on with the ordinary work of caring for people, “so that people can live decently and in health and in some degree of peace of mind”. But, as she reaches sixty years old, she stops short and says this:
“All right now, I want an answer. All my life since I was fourteen I have been making my soul. I don’t know what else to call it, that’s what I called it then, when I was fourteen and came into the possession of my life and the knowledge of my responsibility”.
It’s a statement that brought me up short when I read it. Edna has been living her life and never asked about it, but she has been making her soul, taking responsibility, trusting maybe, that something would come together — to make sense — but now, perhaps, she “should have time for a question”. She goes on:
“…all the time I was working keeping house and raising the kids and making love and earning our keep I thought there was going to come a time or there would be some place where all of it came together. Like it was words I was saying, all my life, all the kinds of work, just a word here and a word there. but finally all the words would make a sentence, and I could read the sentence, I would have made my soul and know what it was for.
But I have made my soul and don’t know what to do with it. Who wants it? All I’ll do from now in is the same as what I have done only less of it, while I get weaker and sicker and smaller all the time, shrinking and shrinking around myself, and die. No matter what I did, or made, or know”.
This loops back to my earlier wondering about what soul-making might be for. All this might sound bleak, Julia, but it’s not meant to (although I do have a sympathy with Edna’s predicament of shrinking, being 62 myself!). What I think is that this passage — LeGuin imagining Edna’s soul — seems to hold a deep truth in inviting her (all of us!) to have more trust in dying — which is perhaps at the heart of soulmaking anyway.
Yet there is more to this intensely complex and interconnected short tale. Edna comes to the realisation — through her memories and reflections on the necessary responsibilities of her life — that: “if I kept walking ahead there was this glory waiting for me. In time I would come to glory. I knew that. So that’s what I made my soul for. I made it for glory”.
This is a glory that is wound round the growing and shrinking; the years gone by and fewer years to come; the memory of health and vitality and the realisation of physical decline; the love and the loss — so it seems to be me that this is not a religious awakening, but a kind of hopeful, curious, secular wondering and acceptance that is in Edna’s glory — and in the story of her making her soul.
With love, Steve x
Glory holds different meanings — and I wonder if Le Guin is playing with these. Glory can refer to ‘magnificence and beauty’ or to ‘fame and honour.’ The first meaning suggests self-containment, a state of fulfillment that exists for its own purpose, while the second meaning suggests a reliance on the acknowledgment of others. Do we live for ourselves, or for others? For what purpose do we seek personal development, and enrichment of our selves? Is soulmaking really about the self, or about relationship?
I love that Edna reflects so deeply on her soul and realises the dilemma: “I have made my soul and don’t know what to do with it”. She makes a valid and poignant point: self-actualisation may be the ultimate aim of personal development, but what then? For that matter, is it even possible to reach an end point where one can say, ‘I’m finished, this is me?’. Thomas Moore suggests that this kind of thinking is a living death:
“You can follow the life principle, by which you move forward and accept the invitations life brings to you for more vitality. Or you can opt for the death principle, which means remaining in place, avoiding new ideas and new experiments in living. The way of death — I mean soul death, not literal dying — is safer and in some ways more comfortable. It’s predictable and you don’t have to be bothered with change. But death is death. You don’t feel alive and your life has no basis for meaning or purpose.”
Yet even death isn’t the end of relationship, as those left with legacy can attest. My father may no longer be alive, but my relationship with him has grown and changed in the years since his death, working with the emotional material he left behind him. And likewise, a mature person will understand that their life is their legacy to others, and will make their life choices accordingly.
In cultures which honour ancestors, there is a recognition that the past lives on in the present, that all those living previously have contributed to the here and now. In this way, death is accepted and cherished as part of the circle of life, and its power diminished. But what about our western, materialist culture, which ignores the ancestors and denigrates the elders? We see the impact of this upon the world around us: the degradation of our natural inheritance and the serious global problems we have conjured up for ourselves. How would our world change if we stopped fearing and denying death, and instead — as you say — trusted in dying?
And what indeed does it feel like, to trust in dying? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that, but I do have a little bit of experience which I hope takes me a step closer to it than I had been previously. When I was in a state of psychosis, I believed that I had died — it was a strange, nebulous state of mind in which I felt that anything could happen and it would be ok, ultimately. All the evil and suffering of the world was muted by this release. It existed, but the pain of it couldn’t reach me. Since that happened, I have — I think — felt more at ease with the idea of death, and I don’t feel that clinching snag of dread when I contemplate a world without me in it. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I’ve really experienced death or have some sort of secret knowledge about it. It remains as much a mystery to me as to anyone. The relevance of that experience has more to do with surrender — of which psychosis was an extreme version, the letting go of control of my own mind.
Within the context of our mechanistic worldview, we say that we construct a reality with these minds of ours, and envision ourselves at the control panel, putting it all together and running it like a machine. We control our reality through the dashboard of our mind. Death in this worldview means the machine has broken down and no longer functions, and can no longer navigate through an independent reality.
What if instead we were to adopt an organic worldview, in which the dead feed the living, and the autumn and winter lead to the spring? What if we perceive reality as the interconnection between all beings, past and present and future, living and no longer living and not yet living? This interconnection denies that you can ever be absent from life. In such a worldview, reality doesn’t run independently to our minds, but rather it is involved intimately with our minds; it is subjective rather than objective. What if we were to make our choices within such a mindset? Would we be willing to pollute and damage our world as carelessly as we do now?
So I wonder, Steve, if soulmaking concerns this organic and subjective worldview? I go back to what you wrote, about the idea of soulmaking being embedded in the world. Perhaps soulmaking is just living an ordinary life, yet through this organic and subjective lens, in which connection and interdependence are woven through every moment. Perhaps soulmaking means to live within one’s dying.
Lots of love
I love your questions that emerge from Edna’s meditation on glory:
“Do we live for ourselves, or for others? For what purpose do we seek personal development, and enrichment of our selves? Is soulmaking really about the self, or about relationship?”
And here’s an answer to all these you may recognise — I think it is ‘both/and’!
It is as if everytime we want to take a ‘side’ in this conversation, the opposite polarity returns to assert itself:
- Soulmaking is life? Well death and dying is soul too…
- Soulmaking is something through which we control our reality until life breaks down — no longer controlled from your dashboard? Yes, but something of us lives on in the ripples of memory at the very least…
- Soulmaking just is: an objective truth we carry through our life (and possibly beyond)? Or it is subjective, entirely contexual and organic…
- Soulmaking is growing the acorn? And soulmaking is finding the flows and ecologies in which we grow and learn… Both/And, always…
And I love your piece for its eloquence and honesty — and soulfulness. As you imply (and I agree) dying — and being left — is deep soulmaking. As Stephen Jenkinson writes in ‘Die Wise’: “you begin to die when you see our own death”; and he goes on:
”Your own death: It isn’t something that is prompted by bad health, not necessarily. It is something you can see in another person’s death, or in the death of a star, or the last stubborn falling leaves of November, or in the grayed exoskeleton of a crayfish on the beach of your spring break vacation, or in the proper final withering of every idea you hatched at age fourteen and defended ever since against any evidence to the contrary about what love should mean or do or feel like, or how long it should last, or why.”
This statement seems to me to be full of soul and ecological remembering and love — and these are more than likely the same things anyway! It reminds me of your description of how your Dad’s memory and meaning still grows and changes in you, and how your mind was sort of released into death by your psychosis. It’s a kind of fierce and loving alchemy that tells us something of how the subjective self meets the world in such a particular, individual — yet interdependent and embedded— way.
When I am talking about soul and soulmaking, I sometimes say it is a bit like following smoke in the breeze. We cannot touch it or pin it down, we just need to go in the direction it takes us. Sometimes though — when death is known, or we approach fragmentation or grief or deep, deep love — soul can seem clearer. It takes a shape and there is a realisation of sorts.
I said in my first response to you in this dialogue that I suspected that soulmaking was as much about noticing and revealing as alchemy and magic, and Stephen Jenkinson notices this in his poetic question near the start of ‘Die Wise’ (a manual for soulmaking if every I read one!). He writes:
“…what if each of us could stay put long enough to see the rippling trail of everything we did rolling out behind us? What if we stopped long enough to see the long train of unintended consequence fan out from every innocently intended thing we did?
A taste for the consequence, for what endures: Maybe then there’d be a chance for things to be different.”
Is that soulmaking, Julia? The difference that comes from stopping to notice and becoming aware of the consequences and ripples that flow out into our ordinary life and beyond — carried by tenderness and love and grief — and simply being…?
….to be continued…
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