The Meaning of Soul in ‘Psychology’

Soul is a delicate issue within psychology.  It is difficult to define yet it is a term that is intuitively easy to access.  It can be placed on the shelf as an artifact from the past, but it has a magical quality of presence by opening up when least expected and dropping us into an archetypal world that transcends time and space.  The word ‘psychology’ after all is a combination between two Greek words, ‘psyche’, meaning ‘soul’, and ‘logos’, meaning ‘essence’.  ‘Psychology’ in its literal translation means ‘the essence of soul’, but the trajectory of the discipline of psychology in its journey through the materialistic and overtly clinical perspectives, reaches a point where the essence of the soul of psychology has been deliberately washed away.  As a result, we are left with the predominance of a soulless psychology that relies upon classifications and techniques to perform its duties. Making money through providing treatment is, of course, a main driver of force, which in itself is not problematic, however,  intakes, evaluations, diagnostics, treatment planning, are all shaped in a way to increase efficiency and accountability as counseling and therapy interfaces with insurance companies and managed care.  It is not out of the realm of possibility for soul to emerge in these worlds as an active operant provided there is a conscious dedication to the primacy of soul.  

 

 

So then, what is soul?  My working definition is that soul is the principle of wholeness and integration meaning that the world is an endless, fractal expansion of opposites seeking conscious unification.  To present ‘spirit’ or ‘matter’, or ‘mind’ or ‘body’ as an either/or choice is beside the point.  The challenge, in the terms of soul, is binding opposites together in a coherent whole that still preserves the autonomy and identity of its parts.  A soulful marriage, for instance, would be one in which male and female, man and woman, are joined in a temporal but eternal union as a single body and single spirit but completely free and autonomous from each other.  It is the height (and depth) of paradox.  Soul is able to blur the boundaries between distinct essences, calling into question empiricism and belief, in order to effectuate a grander union.  For instance, if I say “I believe in God”, a soulful response may be, “what does it mean for a being such as yourself to imagine having a belief in God”? The soul purposively confuses boundaries, reframing, recontextualizing, repositioning, loosening attachments to concepts, to beliefs, to standards, to identity.  The soul draws endlessly upon the wellspring of imagination.  The clinical model places you in a diagnostic box, the soul discards the box in order to look directly at you.

The word ‘therapy’ when taken back into its Greek origins literally means ‘to tend, to service, to care’.  A ‘therapist’ is a ‘care – er’, a ‘carrier of caring’ whereas a psychotherapist is a ‘care-er’ for the soul, in service of the soul. A psychotherapist is not in a position of power over you, there is no knowledge ‘out there’ that can be studied in textbooks or journals that imparts information regarding your soul.  Instead, a psychotherapist creates a space wherein soul can break down the hardness of calcified scars to open new possibilities of new marriages and new unions.  There is no pre-knowledge of how this process is to specifically unfold.  There are no pre-read instructions as to what the soul is going to bring into the world.   Whatever it is that endures because of this process endures because it belongs to the soul, that is, it is outside and inside time and space, and is constantly being given over to the fires of destruction and remaining steadfast in its essential form.  Soul cannot be given over to definition, it defies being defined, but the soul of who we are, the essence of ourselves, requires the space and effort to be properly cared and tended, to be listened to and affirmed, guided and encouraged.  As the quality of soul is palpable in a general sense, i.e., everyone has the potential of generating soul, the individual soul emerges in highly unique manifestation – not as anything identifiable, but as a presence.

 

The ancient Greeks understood the soul to be the carrier of life, fleeting and light, like the wings of a butterfly.  She (for she was seen as feminine just as Logos was seen as masculine) a life force within nature, she animates the world of forms and if she departs, the physical form will be given over to the forces of decay.  She cannot be found inside any particular organ of the body, you cannot cut the body into smaller and smaller parts until you find her, you cannot place her on a table and examine her, for she is not of the same substance as the physical world.  But, and this comprises the enduring mystery, she somehow dwells inside the body, interacts with the body through some unknown mechanism, providing the body with autonomy and movement.  Even the Greeks had problems with this arrangement.  The materialists questioned how any substance that was not material could possibly interact with the physical world.  If so, this would suggest that there is a hidden, metaphysical domain from which the soul derives its substance and piecing together what this domain could possibly be is simply too speculative to take seriously.  This is the same basic argument that we have in today’s world.  It does not entirely make sense, however, because we do know of natural, immaterial forces that interact materially – radiation and wave functions come immediately to mind.  When taking into account the quantum level of interaction, it is no longer counter intuitive to presuppose the possibility of different levels and scales of substances exerting mutual influence.  The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is that the soul is not centered within the body, but is infused within the body.  Her boundaries do not stop at the gates of the physical world but extend into areas that are beyond empirical knowledge.  She serves as a mediator between worlds and is able to issue insights and communication through the means of imagery.  Imagery is not just limited to internal visual cues but incorporates any psychologically accessible information connected to any sensory apparatus; music, movement, language. Soul occupies and governs the imaginal realm. She is the mouthpiece of myth and the galvanizing motive for rituals and theology, all of which are sophisticated efforts for her to understand herself through our mind.  She builds it all up and lets it go in order to find new ways of comprehending.  Like the wings of a butterfly, her presence and effects are too subtle to pin down in a world of determinism and facts. She is unpredictable.

I do not see this question of soul as abstract or speculative.  I believe that how you relate to it as a possibility or not has direct impact on how you experience life and influences, in a deep and practical way, the choices we make.  We are talking about ‘world-views’ after all and within a historical context of leaving the hellish trauma of the 20th century into a technological and information age of Golem-like attributes.  We are watching as something far larger and grander than the humans who had created it envelopes the globe.  It’s a type of creature we have never seen before in scope and scale.  There is even the possibility that it will turn ‘alive’ and decide that it no longer needs us.  Metaphors used to talk about psychology are now embedded in computer imagery – downloading, code, hardware, programming.  There are self help movements aggressively looking for substances to improve the functioning of the brain, increase efficiency, improve memory and intelligence.  It is a deep question as to how the soul of the world is receiving all of this new influx – is it in alignment or is it a sacrilege – or both?   We are inundated with strange theories of conspiracy that pop out of the noise of information in eerie ways.  Are UFOs real? Are we living in a simulation? Speculations, queries, uncertainties, disinformation abound in absurd quantity.  And then … the answer, the pandemic brings it to us … shelter in place.  Go home and be quiet. Calm down, if you can.  The affirmation of the soul, the assertion of enduring meaning that is inseparable from the life force, is the ground of being.  The soul is the shelter in the storm.  And this upcoming age of unparalleled technology is trying to position itself as devil’s advocate – it is suggesting that we are automatons of an unknown, machine -like entity and that consciousness is an illusion, and there is no need to grow the soul, because the soul, in a phrase that would mortify Nietzsche, is dead. It is acceptable that God die, but the soul, she is a far different matter.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Todd B. Peyton, LPC

licensed professional counselor