Care of the Soul

In the modern world we tend to separate psychology from religion. We like to think that emotional problems have to do with the family, childhood, and trauma -- with personal life but not with spirituality. We don't diagnose an emotional seizure as "loss of religious sensibility" or "lack of spiritual awareness." Yet the soul -- the seat of our deepest emotions -- can benefit greatly from the gifts of a vivid spiritual life, and can suffer when it is deprived of them.

The soul, for example, needs an articulated world-view, a carefully worked-out scheme of values and a sense of relatedness to the whole. It needs a myth of immortality and an attitude toward death. It also thrives on spirituality that is not so transcendent-such as the spirit of family, arising from traditions and values that have been part of the family for generations.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Spirituality doesn't arrive fully formed without effort. Religions around the world demonstrate that spiritual fife requires constant attention and a subtle, often beautiful technology by which spiritual principles and understandings are kept alive. For good reason we go to church, temple, or mosque regularly and at appointed times: it's easy for consciousness to become lodged in the material world and to forget the spiritual.

Just as the mind digests ideas and produces intelligence, the soul feeds on life and digests it, creating wisdom and character out of experience. Renaissance Neoplatonists said that the outer world serves as a means of deep spirituality and that the transformation of ordinary experience into the stuff of soul is all-important. If the link between life experience and deep imagination is inadequate, then we are left with a division between life and soul, and such a division will always manifest itself in symptoms.

"Psychological Modernism"

Professional psychology has created a catalog of disorders, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM, which is used by doctors and insurance companies to help diagnose and standardize problems of emotional life and behavior with precision. For example, in the current edition, there is a category called "adjustment disorders." The problem is that adjusting to life, while perhaps sane to all outward appearances, may sometimes be detrimental to the soul.

One day I would like to make up my own DSM, in which I would include the diagnosis "psychological modernism," an uncritical acceptance of the values of the modern world. It includes blind faith in technology, inordinate attachment to material gadgets and conveniences, uncritical acceptance of the march of scientific progress, devotion to the electronic media, and a lifestyle dictated by advertising. This orientation toward life also tends toward a medianistic and rationalistic understanding of matters of the heart.

In this modernist syndrome, technology becomes the root metaphor for dealing with psychological problems. A modern person comes into therapy and says, "Look, I don't want any tong-term analysis. If something is broken, let's fix it. Tell me what I have to do and I'll do it." Such a person is rejecting out of hand the possibility that the source of a problem in a relationship, for example, may be a weak sense of values or failure to come to grips with mortality.

There is no model for this kind of thinking in modern life, where almost no time is given to reflection and where the assumption is that the psyche has spare parts, an owner's manual, and well-trained mechanics called therapists. Philosophy lies at the base of every fife problem, but it takes soul to reflect on one's own life with genuine philosophical seriousness.

The modernist syndrome urges people to buy the latest electronic gear and to be plugged in to news, entertainment, and up-to-the-minute weather reports. It's vitally important not to miss out on anything.

Yet there seems to be an inverse relationship between information and wisdom. We are showered with information about living healthily, but we have largely lost our sense of the body's wisdom. We can tune in to news reports and know what is happening in every corner of the world, but we don't seem to have much wisdom in dealing with these world problems. We have many demanding academic programs in professional psychology, yet there is a severe dearth of wisdom about the mysteries of the soul.

The modernist syndrome also tends to literalize everything it touches. For example, ancient philosophers and theologians taught that the world is a cosmic animal, a unified organism with its own living body and soul. Today we literalize that philosophy in the idea of the global village. The world soul today is created not by a demiurge or semi-divine creator as in ancient times, but by fiber optics. In the rural area where I live there are huge television reception dishes in the backyards of small homes, keeping villagers and country folk tuned into every entertainment and sports event on Earth.

We have a spiritual longing for community and relatedness and for a cosmic vision, but we go after them with literal hardware instead of with sensitivity of the heart. We want to know all about people from far away places, but we don't want to feel emotionally connected to them.

Therefore, our many studies of world cultures are soulless, replacing the common bonding of humanity and its shared wisdom with bytes of information that have no way of getting into us deeply, of nourishing and transforming our sense of ourselves. Soul has been extracted from the beginning, because we conceive education to be about skills and information, not about depth of feeling and imagination.

Everyday Sacredness

Another aspect of modern life is a loss of formal religious practice in many people's lives, which is not only a threat to spirituality as such, but also deprives the soul of valuable symbolic and reflective experience. Care of the soul might include a recovery of formal religion in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. One obvious source of spiritual renewal is the religious tradition in which we were brought up.

Some people are fortunate in that their childhood tradition is still relevant and lively to them, but others feel detached from their religion because it was a painful experience for them, or because it seems just too naive and simple-minded. Yet the fundamental insights of every tradition are ever subjected to fresh imagination in a series of reformations, and what might otherwise be a dead tradition becomes the base of a continually renewing spiritual sensibility.

There are two ways of thinking about church and religion. One is that we go to church in order to be in the presence of the holy, to learn and to have our lives influenced by that presence. The other is that church teaches us directly and symbolically to see the sacred dimension of everyday life. In this latter sense, religion is an "art of memory," a way of sustaining mindfulness about the religion that is inherent in everything we do. For some, religion is a Sunday affair, and they risk dividing life into the holy Sabbath and the secular week. For others, religion is a week-long observance that is inspired and sustained on the Sabbath. For them, it is not insignificant that in our language each day of the week is dedicated to a god or goddess, from Saturn's Saturday to Thursday's Thor to Monday's Moon.

Yet how can we catch the appearance of the sacred in the most ordinary objects and circumstances? For one thing, we can all create sacred books and boxes-a volume of dreams, a heartfelt diary, a notebook of thoughts-and thus in a small but significant way can make the everyday sacred. This kind of spirituality, so ordinary and close to home, is especially nourishing to the soul. Without this lowly incorporation of the sacred into life, religion can become so far removed from the human situation as to be irrelevant. People can be extremely religious in a formal way and yet profess values in everyday life that are thoroughly secular.

An appreciation for vernacular spirituality is important because, without it, our idealization of the holy-making it precious and too removed from life-can actually obstruct a genuine sensitivity to what is sacred. Church-going can become a mere aesthetic experience or, psychologically, even a defense against the power of the holy. Formal religion, so powerful and influential in the establishment of values and principles, always lies on a cusp between the divine and the demonic. Religion is never neutral. It justifies and inflames the emotions of a holy war, and it fosters profound guilt about love and sex. The Latin word sacer, the root of sacred, means both "holy" and "taboo," so dose is the relationship between the holy and the forbidden.

Spirituality is seeded, germinates, sprouts, and blossoms in the mundane. It is to be found and nurtured in the smallest of daily activities. The spirituality that feeds the soul and ultimately heals our psychological wounds may be found in those sacred objects that dress themselves in the accoutrements of the ordinary.

Maintenance of the Holy

While mythology is a way of telling stories about felt experience that are not literal, ritual is an action that speaks to the mind and heart but doesn't necessarily make sense in a literal context. In church, people do not eat bread in order to feed their bodies but to nourish their souls.

If we could grasp this simple idea, that some actions may not have an effect on actual life but speak instead to the soul, and if we could let go of the dominant role of function in so many things we do, then we might give more to the soul every day. A piece of clothing may be useful, but it may also have special meaning in relation to a theme of the soul. It is worth going to a little trouble to make a dinner a ritual by attending to the symbolic suggestiveness of the food and the way it is presented and eaten. Without this added dimension, which requires some thought, it may seem that life goes on smoothly. But slowly the soul is weakened and can make its presence known only in symptoms.

It's worth noting that neurosis, and certainly psychosis, often takes the form of compulsive ritual. Yet when we can't stop ourselves from eating certain foods or pull ourselves away from the television set, isn't this also a compulsive ritual? Could it be that these neurotic rituals appear when imagination has been lost and the soul is no longer cared for? In other words, neurotic rituals could signify a loss of ritual in daily life that, if present, would keep the soul in imagination and away from literalism.

Neurosis could be defined, then, as a loss of imagination. We say we "act out," meaning that what should be kept in the realm of image is lived out in life as if it were not poetry. The cure, in fact, for neurotic ritualism could be the cultivation of a more genuine sense of ritual in our daily life.

Ritual maintains the world's holiness. Knowing that everything we do, no matter how simple, has a halo of imagination around it and can serve the soul enriches life and makes the things around us more precious, more worthy of our protection and care. As in a dream, a small object may assume significant meaning, so in a life that is animated with ritual there are no insignificant things.

When traditional cultures carve elaborate faces and bodies on their chairs and tools, they are acknowledging the soul in ordinary things, as well as the fact that simple work is also ritual. When we stamp out our mass-made products with functionality blazoned on them but no sign of imagination, however, we are denying ritual a role in ordinary affairs. We are chasing away the soul that could animate our lives.

We go to church or temple in order to participate in that strong traditional ritual, but also to learn how to do rituals. Tradition is an important part of ritual because the soul is so much greater in scope than an individual's consciousness. Rituals that are "made up" are not always just right, or, like our own interpretations of our dreams, they may support our pet theories but not the eternal truths. If we are going to give ritual a more important place in life, it is helpful to be guided by formal religion and tradition.

How interesting it would be if we could turn to priests, ministers, and rabbis in order to get help in finding our own ritual materials. These spiritual professionals might be better schooled in ritual rather than in sociology, business, and psychology, which seem to be the modem preferences. The soul might be cared for better through our developing a deep life of ritual rather than through many years of counseling for personal behavior and relationships. We might even have a better time of it in such soul matters as love and emotion if we had more ritual in our lives and less psychological adjustment. We confuse purely temporal, personal, and immediate issues with deeper and enduring concerns of the soul.

The soul needs an intense, full-bodied spiritual life as much as and in the same way that the body needs food. That is the teaching and imagery of spiritual masters over centuries. But these same masters demonstrate that the spiritual fife requires careful attention, because it can be dangerous. It's easy to go crazy in the life of the spirit, warring against those who disagree, proselytizing for our own personal attachments rather than expressing our own soulfulness, or taking narcissistic satisfactions in our beliefs rather than finding meaning and pleasure in spirituality that is available to everyone.

The history of our century has shown the proclivity of neurotic spirituality toward psychosis and violence. Spirituality is powerful, and thus has the potential for evil as well as for good. The soul needs spirit, but our spirituality also needs soul-intelligence, a sensitivity to the symbolic and metaphoric life, community, and attachment to the world.

We have no idea yet of the positive contribution that could be made to us individually and socially by a more soulful religion and theology. Our culture in is need of theological reflection that does not advocate a particular tradition, but tends the soul's need for spiritual direction. In order to accomplish this goal, we must gradually bring soul back to religion.

PHOTOS (3): Religious artwork (JENNIFER JESSEE)

-Excerpted from Care of the Soul (HarperCollins, 1993) by Thomas Moore. Copyright (c) 1993 by Thomas Moore. Reprinted with permission.

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.