Principal of Pleasure: The Liberating Wisdom of Thomas Moore

The Jungian therapist and bestselling author talks about the soul of desire.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

I first fell in love with Thomas Moore after reading his 1992 bestseller, Care of Soul: Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. A psychotherapist influenced mainly by C. G. Jung and James Hillman, Tom was a Catholic monk in his youth and studied music composition. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Syracuse University and was a university professor for a number of years. Tom is known for bringing together spirituality, mythology, depth psychology, and the arts in his work as an author and therapist, and has written 24 other books about bringing soul to personal life and culture.

By deepening our spirituality, humanizing medicine, finding meaningful work, imagining sexuality with soul, and doing religion in a fresh way, we can help create a more soulful society, he believes. Tom also writes fiction, arranges music, and plays golf in New Hampshire, where he has lived with his family for 20 years. One month before the pandemic, we spoke about why pleasure and beauty matter, and how to "ensoul" our lives: themes that resonate with particular strength in these challenging times. 

Mark Matousek: What is the connection between sensory pleasure, carnal experience, and the wisdom journey? 

Thomas Moore: It is possible to be devoted to being sensual in the world, while at the same time being able to transcend the senses, paradoxical as that sounds. Even a normal pleasure like enjoying a cup of tea plays an important role in stopping the dizziness of life. Being able to enjoy something simple draws you into life. Pleasure invites us in. Life is not just about understanding, but how we learn to enter life deeply. 

MM: Many people associate pleasure with shame. How does that figure into your thinking? 

TM: Emotions are extremely important, and shame is one that can do a lot for us. It lets us know where we are disconnected or where there might be a path we can follow and benefit from. Shame, guilt, anger, longing, desire, lust: All these expressions of soul indicate awareness that the soul is present. It's very easy to try to rationalize our emotions and to not fully experience them. Many of us judge our feelings and that is not good for the soul. 

MM: How do you help patients overcome their shame?

TM: It isn't about overcoming it. Despite its bad reputation, shame around sexuality or sensuality is not necessarily a bad thing. It's painful and uncomfortable, but it also lets you know there's a certain direction you need to go. In my work as a therapist, I follow the rule I got from James Hillman: go with the symptom, don't try to be contrary to the symptom. If you're feeling shame, move with it and see where it takes you. Maybe your sexuality needs what the shame can offer. It could be that you're not aware of how deep your sexuality is or what it's asking of you. I was raised a Catholic, and I know what shame is around sexuality. Writing about it from our own experience helps us to embrace that shame—not to reason with it or deny it or wish it weren't there. Because this is who we are. Shame has a negative side to it, obviously, but it can also take you to a very good place.

MM: You've written: "The body changes, it teaches us about fate, time, nature, mortality, and character." Do you consider the body to be the seat of the soul? 

TM: We tend to think of our bodies only physically. If we have a medical problem, we are treated almost as though we were a slab of meat. Generally speaking, physicians are trained to treat the body objectively. But the body is not just some kind of suit we crawl into to live our lives. In addition, a lot of people today are writing about matters of love, emotion, and so on, only from the brain's point of view.

I think it’s terrible to talk about the soul as being only in the brain because the soul is much more subtle and rich and interesting. It has to do with meaning. I think if we looked at it that way, we might see that the body as being more soulful. William Blake wrote, “Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

I always keep that wisdom in mind. It's the soul you're looking at when you see the body. That makes a big difference. Without that we're divided. The splitting of soul and body is not a good thing.

MM: It follows that passion is "the essential energy of the soul?" 

TM: The body's passions bring our focus to the world we're in, to our relationships, to our sensory desires, longings and needs, our physical history, and so on. From a certain point of view, it may seem as though our sexual passions take us away from our spiritual goals and hopes and intentions, but I don't think that's true. When you think that way, you're purchasing your spirituality at the cost of your sexuality and your body. That's a bad thing to do because spirituality attained by repressing your sexual passion is not real. The only way to get along successfully in spiritual life is to lead a satisfying physical life in the world as well. Attempts to escape the life in front of you happens more that you think.

In the past few years, I've translated the Gospels and what became clear to me is how Jesus spent a lot of time cooking and eating. He makes bread and wine the great sacraments of his religion. Unfortunately, the followers who came along later turned out to be moralists and were not comfortable with that earthiness. When we catch ourselves being either judgmental or afraid about our sexuality, we need to ask who is doing the judging. You may discover that it is a self from your past—one that’s not living your life now but still influences you with messages that eat away your pleasure and peace.

MM: When you write that "every fall into ignorance and confusion is an opportunity to discover the beast residing at the center of the labyrinth, and that it's also an angel," what do you mean, exactly?

TM: You're familiar with the image of a bull at the center of the labyrinth? Well, the beast was named Asterion, which means star, and also suggests the image of an angel. People refer to animal sexuality but connecting to the meaning and delight of being a human being — being able to express yourself intimately not only to a sexual partner but to every person you encounter — is in the realm of the angels. We have a lot of trouble today with the Venusian approach to life.

MM: Seeing the angel through a dark scrim appears to turn it into a beast? 

TM: Darkness can contain violence, but there's another kind that gives us depth. The alchemists called it prima materia, raw material, the stuff of becoming somebody. Our raw material is our darkness. Some people try too hard to be virtuous. They think being full of virtue is what they're supposed to be doing, but that sense of self that's all virtuous creates a hidden shadow. It's hard to trust someone who is solely interested in being virtuous because they haven't integrated that shadow. I often think of it as putting pepper in a recipe. It's not like a cookie that's half chocolate and half vanilla, but like a casserole that has pepper in it. Darkness gives the thing some spice. The shadow is not an opposite; it's a seasoning of life that makes us real people.

MM: One last question. You teach that one of love's primary functions is to cure us of an anemic imagination. What are the symptoms of such anemia? 

TM: An anemic imagination is one that hasn't been developed. Some people in their 50s and 60s continue to follow parental rules and expectations. Without an attempt to break out of it, the possibilities of your life become limited. People go to spiritual teachers to learn how to meditate better, to reach a different level, but the people who really impress me are able to look at the way they live and become more interesting and more complicated. When you do this, your soul then comes forward to truly color who you are, rather than projecting an image you have for yourself that is limited to the past. It's about expanding and entering an unknown world, an unknown self, where you become somebody you didn't know you could be. That comes from stretching your imagination and becoming richer as a person. It’s never too late to do that.