Leading a spiritual life is something many people strive for. But what does it really mean to be spiritual? For myself, I think of being aligned with something bigger than I am; something upright, direct, stalwart, and uplifting; something which carries me along with it or toward which I can direct my actions and intentions. To me there is a clear upward and outward movement associated with spirit. This movement involves action, potentiality, trust, and hope. However, it can be easy to be carried away by the powerful upward momentum if one is not strongly grounded in the earth and the body and not connected to others through compassion and service. Thus, authentic spirituality requires a balance that is achieved through intention and engaged action while keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground, enlaced in the pattern that holds us.
Psychologist and author, Stanley Keleman (Myth and the Body: A Colloquy with Joseph Campbell) points out that D.H. Lawrence referred to how fearful an experience it is not to be held in the hands of a bigger force, reminding us we are part of a process of life that is larger than our individual ego self with its perceived boundaries and delimited power and connection. Many of us go about our busy lives without being aware or conscious of our everyday relationship to the larger whole in which we live, move, and work.
Spirituality can be contrasted with the concept of evil. Twentieth-century psychologist Carl Jung (Modern Man in Search of Soul, 1933) suggests that most of the evil that is done in the world is a result of the fact that humans in general are “hopelessly unconsciousness” (p. 210). We can combat evil, he contends, by going directly to the source: ourselves. “It is from the depths of our own psychic life that new spiritual forms will arise” (p. 221). Intention and engaged action begin with me observing and coming to consciousness about my own psyche, and learning to embrace the dark, shadowed parts of me that block my engagement with spirit, dislodging me from the fabric of being in which we all naturally reside and are held. Mythologist Joseph Campbell (1991) reinforces that thought, believing that the highest spiritual realization is compassion; the capacity to “suffer with others”, the elimination of boundaries between the self and the “other” and the felt experience of being one being, one life.
Indeed, findings from a recent study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that:
people who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships--both measures of spirituality, the researchers claim--are happier. Personal aspects of spirituality (meaning and value in one's own life) and communal aspects (quality and depth of inter-personal relationships) were both strong predictors of…happiness. ("Spirituality, Not Religion, Makes Kids Happy," 2009, para 2-3)
Researchers in this study defined spirituality as “one's sense of meaning or purpose in life or one's sense of connectedness to the sacred or divine” (para. 16) and suggested increasing a sense of personal meaning through serving others is linked to happiness. Thus, one must be engaged, serving spirit through participatory action in order to achieve an authentic spiritual life.
The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus meaning "soul, courage, vigor, breath," (EtymologyOnline.com). Thus spirit imbues one with vitality and inspires one with energy and bravado to act in the world. It is an animating or vital principle in man and animals. As such it is inextricably intertwined with movement and action, an outward seeking motion to form bonds and to serve them.
Jung commonly employed two words in his native German: “spirit” (Geist) and “soul” (Seele) to refer to this animating force, claiming they are reside on the same end of a continuum that is opposed to matter and earth, inseparable but distinct. Spirit rises upward and it belongs to nature, Jung insisted, saying, “Spirit is the inside of things and matter is their visible outer aspect” (The Earth Has a Soul: Nature Writings of C.G. Jung, Sabini, 2005). Soul, though at the same pole as spirit, by contrast, is a quality of matter that can’t be measured and moves downward into darkness, nature, the underworld, the body, and earth. If we disregard nature and the physical, embodied world around us, we also disregard the spiritual realm. We cannot be spiritual and be caught up in our thoughts, our judgments or our daily lives while disregarding the living world around us.
Perhaps the concept of spirit is well illustrated with what Buddhists call “right action,” one concept of the Noble Eightfold Path, a guideline to ethical conduct and moral discipline. Right actioninvolves the body as natural means of expression, and correlates actions of the body with sound states of mind. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. In its positive aspect, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the property of others, and to keep physical and sexual relationships harmless to others (The Noble Eightfold Path website). Right action, and therefore spirit, requires the correlation of spirit and body, mind and matter.
To be “soulful” means "full of feeling" as well as the"spiritual and emotional part of a person” (Etymology Online).According to best-selling author of Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore, “soul” is not a thing but rather a dimension of experience. It is related to depth, to substance, and to relationship to the world. Moore insists, “When people observe the ways in which the soul is manifesting itself, they are enriched rather than impoverished,” (p. 6), noting that it is essential to observe the soul with an open mind. To “observe” includes the word “serve,” connecting back to the concept of finding meaning through compassion.
Moore reminds us that “it is the soul that makes us human. . . . it is when we are the most human that we have greatest access to soul” (p. 9). If we truly wish to regard and honor soul, it is crucial to find respect for what is. The process begins with deep curiosity rather than judgment.
James Hillman (1975), pioneer of Archetypal Psychology, outlines five functions of soul: (1) it makes all meaning possible, (2) it turns events into experiences, (3) it involves a deepening of experience, (4) is communicated in love, and (5) has a special relation with death (Hillman, 1975) (p. xvi). For Hillman, as a result of these five characteristics, the soul represents the imaginative possibility of our nature, a possibility that is realized in reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy.
While it may seem a bit like splitting hairs to you to define the difference between spirit and soul, I maintain that there is a critical difference that behooves us to pay attention to. While there are many important and good things that have emerged from the so-called "New Age" movement, I believe there is something lacking in that arena that is still grounded and real in depth psychology. The capacity to keep our feet on the ground, to regard and hold what is already here in the depth of our moment to moment experience rather than allowing (or seeking to) escape the challenges of life through magical thinking, desire for transcendence, or using rose-colored glasses (not to mention addictive distractions like media, consumerism, entertainment, diversion, and the usual substances including food, alcohol, and drugs), we begin to see that entering into the soulful world of depth, encountering and (hopefully) embracing the shadow parts of ourselves and society which we have and continue to enable, perhaps we can begin to see some value in not sweeping the tough stuff under the rug but rather confronting it and sinking into soul.
If you're ready to change your life and begin to embrace ALL the aspects of yourself, find a depth oriented therapist, coach or other practitioner and start the process. They can usually create the exact container that's right for you to begin to come alive and put the fragmented parts of psyche together again. We all have them--and we all deserve to be whole.
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depth psychology and hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.