Souls can be, among other things, lost, saved, non-existent, or hearty, but do we make soul? If so, what does that mean? What then, is soul?
Perhaps as it should be, I have puzzled for years at James Hillman’s use of the term “soul-making.” Now days, ideas about soul are sometimes dismissed as archaic. So if we are to understand a term like soul-making, shall we not first consider what the word soul itself might mean?
Wiki describes soul as the incorporeal or immortal essence of one’s being. In animism, soul not only belongs to biological forms of life, but to inanimate (according to some western minds anyway) things of nature; rocks, rivers, mountains, trees, etc.
In English, the word soul may have roots meaning to bind, referring back to a time when the binding of the dead was done in order that their ghost would not return to haunt the living. It is also related to words like anima and psyche, both which refer to the life force, breath, or consciousness that enliven and nourish, much as the umbilical cord nourishes the unborn in the womb of its mother.
So, if soul is already a given, as an essence or a part of us, what are we making? Can soul have qualities of growth, depth or expansion? Does soul change, and if so, in what ways?
For Hillman, through the study of world myths, esoteric traditions and the ideas of different cultures, he sees soul distinct from spirit with both being related to vertical movement. Here verticality refers to the motion between up and down; rising and falling, ascending and descending. We tend to associate ascension with all that is positive and desirable. We hear it in statements like: “at the top,” “climbing that mountain,” “rise above it,” “moving up,” “growing up,” or “upward mobility.” But is up the only direction that corresponds to the nature of our existence? Is it our only source of nourishment and how does ascension relate to soul? Do phrases like “going down,” “falling,” “hitting bottom,” “nose-diving,” reveal a preference for ascending over descending movement ? Hillman refers to this preference as the ascensionist fantasy.
In his book, The Souls Code, Hillman uses the image of an acorn growing into an oak tree to return us to a verticality that values both the motion of descending and ascending. Forever ascending, where we are only going up and growing up, keeps us above it all, as if our embodied life on earth, with all the dirt, decay and stuff of life is no more than an obstacle on the path to spirit and the heavens above. Do not the roots and ground also provide necessary nourishment for body, soul and spirit? Does not gravity serve a purpose too?
Hillman uses the expression “growing down” to return us to the need for depth, both physically through the ground that provides food for us, and psychologically for the soul’s need of depth. In growing down, we land on our feet, where our eyes and bodies attach themselves to the things of this world, where finding our purpose can be found through physical embodiment, both our own and that of all creatures. Attachment, an idea that has come to mean, “an inability to let go, possessiveness” here means “feeling attracted to, caring for, loving, or in relation to.”
Hillman sees soul itself as a perspective, the means by which we become aware of not only that which is above but that which lies beneath us, unseen, the invisible roots that provide stability as well as nourishment.
I like to imagine the ground and all that it holds – our past – for all that has gone before lies beneath us, and becomes food for the future. Remembering too, that we will someday join the long line of ancestors by becoming part of the soil for feeding future generations. Soul-making then is that which binds us to all things; the past, present and future, giving equal footing to both the physical nature of living beings and the faculties we have for thinking, feeling, loving and creating. In this sense, every thought, emotion, deed, birth and death matters through our participation in soul-making and the physical ground of our being; the earth and sky around us.
Trees and plants in particular are great images for rootedness. As they move deeper down into the ground, they provide stability and nourishment as well as contribute to the creation of the ground of being. If this is true for trees, how much more so for us?
Tending towards a love of flight, freedom of motion and lofty ideas myself, I can begin to see why it is challenging for me, not only to get a sense of what soul-making is, but to incorporate it into a day-to-day embodiment. Our awareness can abstract itself away from the physical, and often seem disembodied, an amazing thing about being human, I think. But, I have found for myself anyway that living in a way that disregards any relationship, whether an interior or exterior one, usually leads me towards neglect and a loss of potential for love, beauty and the profound mystery that life is.