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?

File:Soffito dei semidei 46 angelo che pesa le anime.JPGFor 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.

Souls CodeIn 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?

The Tree of Life

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.

There Are Places…

The modern prejudice of looking inward, creating ourselves, as if we were a project to work on and to fix, risks losing what is beyond self: the world and our place in it. Ever felt lost? Me too. Maybe it is just that we are misplaced or that we don’t live in place because our attention is turned toward ourselves, and who we are and who we think we should be separates us from being in the world and from giving ourselves fully to life.

The living of life with a heightened awareness of “me,” permeates our culture, coming at us from many directions, filling us with aspirations for personal development, growth, becoming, by which we’re tempted to ask ourselves questions like, why and how did we get this way? Then we search the past and particularly our family to explain all that is wrong with us and them. Everything is broken and the story has become “my story.” We’re powerful but…

No wonder when it’s dark and no one else is around we feel restless, alone and filled with worry about things we have little or no power over. In our daily lives we’re needy and swing back and forth from congratulating ourselves to berating ourselves. Too much me which we think is at least better than judging those around us. Meanwhile the world goes on neglected, ignored, too big for us, someone else’s problem. And we lose the joy of being that comes from immersion in the tasks at hand. Yes, I am guilty of this!

During therapy years ago, I found that by looking at everything in terms of what it meant to me, trying to understand myself; how I got this way, then focusing on fixing myself, became a trap of subjectivity which kept me from being able to be in the world, a relational being. I knew I must find other metaphors to live by and more satisfying ways to be in the world.

So, trying to get at myself with myself is as Alan Watts said, “trying to see the eye with which you see with.”

Realizations are one thing though, and while not always changing us in an instant, can move us, even if slowly, as this one continues to move me. Where once the metaphors were predominantly framed by ideas of myself, I do try to live more within the content of experience. But I’m not better, I repeat, not better, because it’s not about fixing me, but living by engaging life – others, ideas, and the tasks at hand, whether it’s washing dishes or playing music.

Asking where or what instead of who, shifts the focus away from self outward into place(s) and things. Place includes more than me, especially that “inner me,” which doesn’t vanish with the change in focus, but returns to living in the world; seeing, hearing, reflecting and living life through relationships with people, places, ideas and things. Moving the focus out into the world has increased my curiosity about the world and frees me to engage in what I feel called to do. Life becomes rich from immersion in the tasks I love, not to fix me, or for any end, but for the sake of the thing at hand; immersion.

That’s not to say that our growth, development, healing or transformation are not necessary or good things to experience, but they are ends and we don’t live in the ends. We may acquire or receive these things over time, but not through our efforts of self-creation. Making a project out of ourselves is more likely to turn us inward and away from the world in which we live – a world that needs our curiosity, attention and love.

“There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain.” Lennon/McCartney

I Thought I Was a Child

One of the insights I’ve received from reading James Hillman is the ability to hold the opposites in one hand and see how they are related. In an anthology of his writings and lectures called Mythic Figures he suggests that the archetype of childhood has permeated our culture and that childhood has become both something we worship and admonish ourselves for.

On the one hand we place everything related to fun, enjoyment and creativity in the lap of the child, but in the next breath we berate ourselves and each other for our childishness. Oh, what’s a human to do? Should we grow up into responsible, yet boring adults or remain carefree, answering to no one, never a worry for the future, living to play? Can the child be both creative and responsible? Must we leave behind creativity in order to be responsible? What happens when creativity is opposed to responsibility and does it have to be this way?

“The pattern we have been exposing shows a vicious circle. Abandoning of the child in order to become mature and then abandonment to the child when it returns. Either we repress or we coddle this face of our subjectivity. In both cases the child is unbearable: first we cannot support it at all, then we give way to it altogether. We seem to follow a pattern contained in the word “abandon” itself, as it is contained in the alternate and opposite meanings of “losing” and of “releasing.” On the one hand we free ourselves of a condition by letting it go from us, and on the other hand, we free ourselves by letting go to it.

The child archetype, because of its ahistorical and prehistorical tendencies, by moulding consciousness after itself would have us lose history, producing a generation of abandoned children who see all things in their beginnings and ends, an existence of omnipotent hope and catastrophic dread.” James Hillman

He goes on to remind us, archetypally speaking, how deeply entangled the child is with the mother.

“For the mothering attitude, it is always a matter of life and death; we are obsessed with how things will turn out; we ask what happened and what will happen. The mother makes things “great,” exaggerates, enthuses, infuses the power of life and death into each detail, because the mother’s relation to the child is personal, not personal as related and particular, but archetypally personal in the sense that the child’s fate is delivered through the personal matrix of her fate, becoming fate in general which she then is called.

The mother archetype gives the personalistic illusion to fate. Whatever she has to do with takes on overwhelming personal importance which actually is general and altogether impersonal: the desires and loathing of the mother-son relation so intimately personal become suprapersonal enormities, just as the experiences of despair, renewal, continuity, and mystery of the mother-daughter relation that seem so fatefully personal become impersonal eternal events. The growth she furthers is all-out and passionate, the death overwhelming, mater dolorosa, for the mother is always too much: goodness and support, concern for weakness, or interest in ambition. Her too-muchness makes the child into hero and rebel, into princess and prostitute, for her passion converts our hurt derelict conditions into archetypal importance.”

So the child archetype keeps us bound in the sense  that everything becomes too personal which keeps us from the freedom to truly be related, moving beyond our neediness and demands of each other. Instead of seeing the other through the lens of curiosity and the skill of listening, we look for approval and love that in spite of our efforts we fail to ever feel. This in turn keeps us dependent, always hoping that we are lovable, good, or just the opposite, keeping a safe distance, rejecting the claims that the archetypal mother makes, because we know her power is too great and her demands impossible.

Archetypal psychology does not offer us hope, but rather encourages us to see where we are, to experience the pain and suffering of the ideas and fantasies that have us in their sway. Perhaps all that it offers is a flashlight when the only thing we can see is that we are in a very dark place.

“It’s such a clever innocence with which you show myself to me 
As if you know how it feels to never be who you wanted to be 
I thought I was a child until you turned and smiled 
I thought that I was free but I’m just one more prisoner of time 
Alone within the boundaries of my mind” Jackson Browne