It’s all about soul

…or at least, its more about soul than I once thought. There have been a few events in the past couple of years, the pandemic years, that have brought “soul” to my attention. So much so that it has been an unexpected addition to the book I am writing. As a Humanistic psychotherapist, my training gave me the language of ‘self’ or more accurately ‘selfing’. As a Buddhist, my practice and study on the path points to ‘non-self’ – which actually has more in common with the Humanistic view than one might think. In different ways, both traditions point to a phenomenological “lived experience” of a self as process, a verb, rather than a ‘thing’.

But “soul” was something else. It was my introduction to Jungian psychology that first ignited my curiosity about “soul”; the masculine and feminine aspects of self that Jung described in his writings on animus and anima. Yet initiation to the experience of soul came through the state of exhaustion I reached last Spring, soul exhaustion in fact. It took a client expressing her concern for me one morning when we met on Zoom, to realise how low I had dipped. I say initiation, but now I have new terminology, I can also see how my Ngondro practice as a Vajrayana Buddhist has been working through the tandem of soul and spirit for the past 3 years. I go into a lot more detail in my book (so please buy a copy when its published!!), but in brief spirit might be thought of as the peaks, soul as the valleys in the terrain of self.

When I started meditating there was an awareness I was entering a ‘spiritual’ path: and ordinarily that word conjures something transcendent, transpersonal, beyond, lofty. And perhaps it does link to something of the divine. In Buddhism, the path leads a practitioner toward ‘waking up’ to their inherent buddhanature or primordial purity. What I didn’t recognise until I started the Vajrayana practices was that these heights can only be reached by attending to the depths – or soul. Primordial purity, or basic sanity to which it is sometimes referred, manifests as individual consciousness – and that includes both a spiritual (formlessness) and soul aspect (form). As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, it is why the Buddhist path might actually be better described as a process of ‘waking down’. Connecting to the messy and mundane aspects of our humanness and integrating these rather than thinking they need to be transcended, got rid of. Ngondro practice these past few years has brought up much of the mess of my shadow; and now I have come to appreciate the power of this soul work.

This is a lengthy introduction to what I have been thinking about in the last few weeks. Last year I wrote a post sharing some ideas on self-care – specifically the teaching session a colleague and I run on the PGDip counselling courses at the University of Brighton. A few weeks back we ran the same session and self-care ‘audit’ with our current cohort. A facet of my teaching work that I really appreciate is how the material I teach returns afresh – not only do I need to walk the talk, but I also get to mull over where I am on that journey ‘now’, this time around. The session on self-care is one such opportunity…and as I sat looking at the ‘self-care wheel’, my experiences of “soul” came to the forefront of my mind.

Re-visiting the wheel, I realised that whilst I did attend to my exhaustion last summer by taking an extended break – the post I wrote about this process last year being the last until January 2022 – gaps still remain in my ongoing attempt to sustain well-being. 

Spiritual, check. Time on the cushion, on the yoga mat, among nature and trees.

Personal, check. Friendships, family time, questioning my wants, my dreams, my goals.

Professional, check. CPD junkie, time with mentors and colleagues, always seeking mastery of my trade.

Physical, check. My week has regular exercise, a pretty good diet. My sleep can still be a little hit and miss, but the practice of “sabbath” means I get rest (even if that is challenging to my psyche).

Psychological, check. Daily journalling, the decision to remain in personal therapy as a long term commitment.

Emotional, mmm…..the gap. For all the time, endeavour and earnestness in the above, at times life can feel dry. 

And this is what has taken me to consider how emotional life reflects soul. The pandemic and its consequences on my lifestyle have dried me out. Even though I have done pretty well in maintaining the quality of my friendships these past 25 months, much of that has been through online meetings – and inevitably, the time in conversation takes on a different style and character in the virtual world, magnified by life not feeling as carefree as it was before coronavirus. This is not to say that there has been a lack of emotion, far from it. But perhaps the range of the emotional palette has been reduced – and now as I am more confident in life opening up, my attention is turning to how I reclaim aspects of my-self that if not lost have been tuned down.

I believe this is a trap for any spiritual aspirant, pandemic or not. The spiritual path can be experienced as a serious, and even sombre, pursuit. And I am serious practitioner. Yet another lesson that the Vajrayana path is teaching me is that ‘waking up’ includes ‘cheering up’.

I have a mug that reads “Do more of what makes you happy”. I bought this mug during my time in New York back in 2012. I remember how it jumped out on me from the shelves in Barnes and Noble, Union Square. Even back then, I knew I needed to heed this message. Writing is one thing that makes me happy, and this mug is the one I drink from as I write my blog. It will also be accompanying me this summer as I put (what I hope to be) the final touches to my book. Sharing my passion for ‘mind’ makes me happy too…and yet it also has tones of a serious kind of happy. I also know that I need a more ‘get my hands dirty’ kinda happy – play, fun, laughter. Dancing in the kitchen on a Friday night, playing hide and seek with my crazy cat, making my wife belly laugh with my stupid humour. 

This is part of the balance in human being, this is an aspect of feeding soul. 

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