The four-letter word that defies definition (and yet we’re going to try)

April 28, 2013

Source 2 250It’s a word that we encounter in poetry and certain lifestyle magazines, yoga studios and hymnbooks.  We hear it spoken in both the weightiest tones and the most joyful inflections.

For many of us, our diaspora from the four walls of religious institutions has meant that we hear of it seldom, and perhaps this silence is needed for time to erase old definitions, making room for the new.

When we do think of this word, it is often with the realization that its meaning has retracted from our driven day-to-day.  Yet if we look closely, we find that it still speaks to us in dreams that evaporate with the morning light.


There it is.  What memories and impressions fly up when you read the word?  Does it resonate or read like the line of a history book?  Who controls the definition for you?

From a Depth Psychological perspective, soul (or psyche) is the landscape of the unconscious… the dreaming self.

A bit about my own inner dynamics

As I write, my own conscious self (my personality, or ego) really wants to dig in and define soul further (my conscious self loves a good brain puzzle!). But fortunately, wisdom from my psyche (soul) reminds me that attempts to define actually, paradoxically, reduce the felt experience of soul.

Soul shows up most fully through poetry, metaphor, imagination, and the body, and it is best approximated through description, not definition.  With that in mind, I now turn from the intellectual exercise of definition (cue groan from my conscious self) to a more delightfully soul-cultivating activity…

Soul by description

Today it is my pleasure to introduce James Hillman’s seven characteristics of soul.  If Hillman, Depth Psychology pioneer of mythic proportions, had received a nickel every time he was asked What is soul?, my guess is that he could have personally commissioned the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan in his own backyard.

I am told that in answer to this question, Hillman wrote the following.  I offer it to you now as a succulent set of exotic bonbons, each to be savored as a total experience of mind, body and soul.  We may not be able to isolate and identify the hint of each flavor, but then again…bonbons are to be experienced, not dissected.  Agreed?

James Hillman’s Seven Characteristics of Soul

  • Soul turns events into experiences.
  • Soul makes meaning possible.
  • Soul is communicated in love.
  • Soul has a religious concern.
  • Soul has a special relation with death.
  • Soul involves a deepening of experience.
  • Soul favors symbolic and metaphorical modes of thought.

The plan

Over the next several months (or years!), I will post on each of these characteristics individually.  I can make a few guarantees about this process, in keeping with the dreamily circuitous nature of soul:

  • The posts will not appear in order.
  • There will be (possibly long) hiatuses from the project, while my psyche gathers to it experiences to become the foundation for knowing.
  • For every sentence I write, infinite sentences more could be written.

How would each characteristic be written in the pages on your life?  What images, memories, imaginations do they evoke?

Some tea for the inner critic

Let’s end with permission.  You know that little guy in your brain whose job it is to immediately cancel out the fanciful and daring?  Well, bless his heart, he serves us well by interrupting trains of thought such as “If I were to jump off this second story building, I wonder if I would land on my feet?” or “What would happen if I tried to turn my living room into a giant swimming pool?”

Yes, we are very grateful for the little guy in our brain, though most of us stopped seriously entertaining thoughts like that around age 8.  However, this little guy can be a serious dead weight on pursuits of the soul.

So, I’d like to recommend that before pulling out your journal or watercolors to contemplate the seven characteristics of soul, you first station the little guy in your brain at your kitchen table with a nice cup of tea to occupy him while you give yourself permission, again and again, to follow the heights and depths of the dreaming self, the soul.

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