Soul Work

Clients first schedule an appointment with me when they feel lost, confused, frustrated, anxious, or depressed. Perhaps they have the sense that they have lost – or never found – their path, or that the path they have followed has turned into what feels like a dead end. In scheduling time with me they hope to gain or regain their sense of direction and purpose: the source that makes their life meaningful. Some may have been living lives that suit other people and living their life less and less, or, sadly very little, or not at all.

As Jung writes in The Red Book,

Woe betide those who live by way of examples! Life is not with them. If you live according to an example, you thus live the life of that example, but who should live your own life if not you yourself? So live yourselves. (1)

This is potent stuff! Advertising and propaganda promote many examples for us to follow. They boil down to two: consume and compete. Jung does not set himself up here as an example to be followed: “There is only one way and that is your way. You seek the path? I warn you away from my own. It can be the wrong way for you. May each go his own way.” (2) What Jung does propose is this: cultivate and maintain an open channel to what exists beyond the limits of your waking consciousness. Jung calls that “open channel” the soul.

People use the word “soul” in various ways. In the sense, I use the term, “soul” names the ability of our consciousness to remain receptive and responsive to thoughts, images, fantasies, emotions, feelings that appear in our awareness without invitation. It’s not enough only to see with our eyes or hear with our ears. Soul, in the sense I use the term here, means that we feel whatever enters our awareness has an effect on us. It moves us emotionally in some way. And this experience of feeling and being moved tells us what we value.

The aroma of certain foods take us back emotionally to the times when we have smelled and eaten those foods, and especially to the emotional atmosphere of those times. Certain sounds work the same way; so does the quality of being touched physically. In other words, soul is a function of relationship to memories and experiences and possibilities that are not in our momentary or current awareness.

King Midas of ancient myth offers a vivid example of what happens to a person whose soul has withered. He got his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. The story is told that Midas, a king of great fortune, ruled the country of Phrygia in Asia Minor:

He had everything a king could wish for. He lived in luxury in a great castle. He shared his life of abundance with his beautiful daughter. Even though he was very rich, Midas thought that his greatest happiness was provided by gold. His avarice was such that he used to spend his days counting his golden coins! Occasionally he used to cover his body with gold objects, as if he wanted to bath in them. Money was his obsession. One day, Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, passed through the kingdom of Midas. One of his companions, a satyr named Silenus, got delayed along the way. Silenus got tired and decided to take a nap in the famous rose gardens surrounding the palace of king Midas. There, he was found by the king, who recognized him instantly and invited him to spend a few days at his palace. After that, Midas took him to Dionysus. The god of celebration, very grateful to Midas for his kindness, promised Midas to satisfy any wish of him. Midas thought for a while and then he said: I hope that everything I touch becomes gold. Dionysus warned the king to think well about his wish, but Midas was positive. Dionysus could do nothing else and promised the king that from that following day everything he touched would turn into gold.

The next day, Midas, woke up eager to see if his wish would become true. He extended his arm touching a small table that immediately turned into gold. Midas jumped with happiness! He then touched a chair, the carpet, the door, his bathtub, a table and so he kept on running in his madness all over his palace until he got exhausted and happy at the same time! He sat at the table to have breakfast and took a rose between his hands to smell its fragrance. When he touched it, the rose became gold. I will have to absorb the fragrance without touching the roses, I suppose, he thought in disappointment. Without even thinking, he ate a grape but it also turned into gold! The same happened with a slice of bread and a glass of water. Suddenly, he started to sense fear. Tears filled his eyes and that moment, his beloved daughter entered the room. When Midas hugged her, she turned into a golden statue! Despaired and fearful, he raised his arms and prayed to Dionysus to take this curse from him.

The god heard Midas and felt sorry for him. He told Midas to go to river Pactolus and wash his hands. Midas did so: he ran to the river and was astonished to see gold flowing from his hands. The ancient Greeks said they had found gold on the banks of the river Pactolus. When he turned home, everything Midas had touched had become normal again. Midas hugged his daughter in full happiness and decided to share his great fortune with his people. From now on, Midas became a better person, generous and grateful for all goods of his life. His people led a prosperous life and when he died, they all mourned for their beloved king. (3)

The story of Midas teaches many lessons, but one big one is this: the capacity to experience interpersonal connection, pleasure, delight is more precious than gold. More: soul – that openness and receptivity to whatever enters our awareness –  connects us to the source, however, we want to name it.

A recent cartoon vividly depicts what happens when a person does not maintain one’s soul. The cartoonist, Mr. Fish,(4) indicts our soul-less orientation: “After years and years on not performing routine maintenance on his soul, Brad was sickened to discover that Amazon did not offer a replacement.”

Care of the soul is a practice of paying attention: paying attention to whatever enters one’s awareness unbidden. Thomas Moore, the author of the popular Care of the Soul, writes in another of his books: “The soul has an absolute, unforgiving need for regular excursions into enchantment. It requires them like the body needs food and the mind needs thought. . . We have yet to learn that we can’t survive without enchantment and that the loss of it is killing us.”(5)

However, enchantment, and what the soul delivers to our awareness, may not always be straight from a Disney movie. “It would be a mistake to imagine enchantment in sentimental terms . . . (6)” Enchantment, he continues, “takes place easily in the margins—among marginal people and marginal activities,”(7)  and I might add in the “form” of marginal thoughts and images and fantasies and dreams. We need to hold our awareness open.

A lot of the work in therapy and analysis consists in developing openness: openness to whatever appears in our field of awareness. Among other things, this means withholding judgment (but also delaying action) until we have, with the fingers of our mind and feelings, felt the contours, rough edges, and soft spots of the new visitor in our waking mind. This is the nature of soul-work that keeps us in touch with the flow and current of our unique life path. This is how we live our life, not the life of someone else.

  1. Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book – A Readers Edition. Ed. Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 125.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Source
  4. Used with permission
  5. Moore, Thomas (1996). New York: HarperPerennial, p. ix.
  6. Ibid., 351
  7. Ibid ., 355