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Master of Soul: An Interview With Thomas Moore

The renowned Jungian talks about the art of soul making in everyday.

Thomas Moore is one of my favorite authors and thinkers. The author of Care of the Soul as well as fifteen other books on deepening spirituality and cultivating soul in every aspect of life, including, most recently, A Religion of One’s Own, Moore has been a monk, a musician, a university professor, and a psychotherapist, and today lectures widely on holistic medicine, spirituality, psychotherapy, and the arts. I spoke to the renegade Jungian recently about creativity and awakening in everyday life.

Here is a link to free interview podcast:

Mark Matousek: Rumi said that wound is the place where the light enters you. What do you make of that connection?

TM: It’s subtle and complicated. I’ve been doing a very deep kind of therapy now for almost 40 years. I base the work mostly on dreams. We go very deep, and what I’ve seen over and over again is that a person doesn’t wake up until he or she is forced to deal with something—a major problem, issue, trauma, or life change that causes them to reflect. If everything’s going well the tendency is to just go along unconsciously. But once something happens that is disturbing, then you have to take a look. That’s why I always say that people don’t come to me when they’re feeling great, they come when they’re feeling bad and that’s the point, that’s the window. I don’t like to make rules, laws, or generalizations, but I do think that when adversity comes, we can use it as an opportunity to finally see things that would have been invisible before. The wound opens us up and shows us things that are only visible through the wound. This is an idea that I got from James Hillman among many others: that our illness allows us to see and think in a way that we cannot think otherwise. He said that depression, for example, allows us to have thoughts that we couldn’t have if we weren’t depressed.

MM: You seem to have a particular fascination with the dark and the imaginative potential of the shadow. Why does the shadow get such a bad rap in our culture?

TM: A number of reasons. One is that we tend to think in opposites. Good and bad. Black and white. When we think that way, we’re likely to identify solely with the good and reject what we see as totally bad. We don’t look into things enough to see that there may be something more going on. That brings me to the second point. We live in a society where we don’t look beneath the surfaces. To appreciate the shadow, you have to look deep into it. You have to go beyond the easy separation of good from evil, and you can’t just think of dark things as being outside of you. You have to understand that you are a human being, part of this earth, and you have a lot of shadow, too. Until those things are in place, shadow remains something out there.

MM: There is also a tendency to want to leapfrog the darkness. Especially in so called spiritual life.

TM: Spiritual life is beautiful and inviting, and it gives you a great deal, but it’s not complete. Spirituality is richer in the context of normal, ordinary lives. The examples I give in this new book include Henry David Thoreau, who was a very grounded person. People said he always had mud on his shoes. He was a rough character and he was a very, very spiritual person. When you read him, you realize that this guy educated himself in Asian religions and deeply in Christianity and yet had his own religion. He didn’t really subscribe to anything other than his own practice. He used to say that taking a bath is a sacrament for him. And apparently, he didn’t take a bath too often. But he must have really enjoyed it when he did! Thoreau was pointing to something really important, that the spiritual life is always embedded in the world we live in. I don’t find myself talking about shadow very much anymore. I’m more interested in making the link between the spiritual life and ordinary life. How we can live our ordinary days and yet at the same time have a very active and meaningful spiritual experience?

MM: One way to do this, it seems to me, is to use the darker experiences of life – such as grief, loss, and suffering – as catalysts for awakening.

TM: Grief is one of those painful experiences that moves us—stops us, in fact. We have to be stopped sometimes. Most people describe their lives as just bouncing along, the years go by, things happen. But they may not be having experiences that stop them prompt them to ask, “Well, is that all there is?” Grief is one of those experiences that stops us. You can’t just keep bouncing along. Grief is painful and you have to respond to it. You can’t just let it go. Once you start paying attention, you discover that emotions like grief have images and memories connected to them, so you begin to have thoughts and memories about things. Often, the next step is wanting to talk over the stories related to your grief, with a friend, relative, or therapist. All of this is what I call the awakening of the soul. It wakes you up to these deep feelings that you are a person that you’re related to the world around you. That way, you can learn a lot from grief but you have to allow it to happen. You have to be affected by it.

MM: Some people are afraid of getting stuck in grief. They just want it to pass.

TM: When people say that to me, I tell them, “Who knows how long this grief has to last. Maybe it has to last 20 years. Maybe it’ll last a lifetime.

I spent three weeks with a man, a psychiatrist, who had just turned 100 years old. His family was killed in the Holocaust in Lithuania. And he is still in grief over this, from when he was 17. He is still deep in it and wanted talk it through. He is still dreaming, still having nightmares. From 17 to 100—and he hasn’t worked through his grief. Does this mean that he’s missed the boat? That he’s not done something he should have done? Not at all. He’s lived an absolutely beautiful creative life, more so than most people. But the grief is there with him and you might even say that his capacity for that grief has allowed him to be a psychiatrist and help many people.

MM: Do we have a simplistic idea about healing and closure?

TM: Let’s get rid of the word closure today. We don’t need it. I’ve never been interested in that idea at all. I’ve never have any closure and I don’t want any closure. I don’t like to use thatword because therapy means that you care for the deepest elements in your life from the day you’re born to the day you die and maybe beyond. You don’t want closure for these things. Healing is a tough word, too, because it seems quite active. You heal something and then it’s over with. You’ve fixed it. I did my own translation of the gospels not too long ago and I found that the word usually translated as healing (“Jesus healed the sick”) really should be translated as care. Jesus cared for the sick. That’s how I see this idea. I don’t use the word healing much. I’d rather care for the sick and alleviate suffering in that process.

I’m interested in these aspects of the soul, things that happen in our hearts that just go on and on. I’ve seen it in myself over years. I see little changes in some issue, but it remains there and it doesn’t go away. I think that’s a little intimation of eternity. There’s a timelessness. The alchemists used to talk about a rotazione, a rotation of themes. That’s how I see it sometimes. A slow wheel turning around and around and we think that we have solved it but then it comes back again. I think it’s very interesting to look at it that way. That’s why I like Jung’s use of alchemy in talking about dealing with sadness and illness.

MM: Our relationship to pain does change, however.

TM: Yes, I think it does. Hopefully we grow up and we mature and we have a different way of understanding it. Yes, I do think we change with it and boy, that’s a good thing! If you’re stuck with the same attitude toward the same issue, life would not be very exciting. But having a different attitude doesn’t mean that the thing itself changes. This is the slow, slow process of your soul and there’s an eternal side to you that’s timeless. That doesn’t go through quick changes. There may be some movement but it’s very slow and it’s repetitious. So let’s just deal with what’s there, what’s coming now and not worry about the timetable or whether it should be there or not or whether we should get these things out of the way in the name of being a healthier person because you’ve got all this garbage behind you. Maybe that’s not the best way to look at it.

Dealing with these things only makes us better, deeper, more sensitive people. That’s really what we should be looking for instead of a removal of symptoms.

MM: That’s how we take care of the soul?

TM: Exactly.

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