The soul – what is it?


Defining the soul is something that both theologians and psychoanalysts have separately grappled with, to the extent of sometimes displaying reluctance in using the word. Undoubtedly there is a deeply personal essence within each one of us, and in animals too. It’s the vital spark – the imperishable personal spirit – the soul.

Donald Winnicott the paediatrician, and child and adult psychoanalyst, (often referred to in my posts), referred to a ‘sacred incommunicado centre’ of the personality. He also called this the true self, which he says, cannot be defined, except to say that it ‘collects together the details of the experience of aliveness.’  Harry Guntrip used a metaphor – the ‘lost heart of the self’ and another analyst Neville Symington called the soul ‘the lifegiver’.

Amongst the Jungians, Carl Jung framed the soul as the sacred dimension essential to human life: ‘In the darkness of the unconscious a treasure lies hidden, the same treasure “hard to attain” … the shining pearl’. Donald Kalsched is a contemporary Jungian who writes that this part of ourselves – the soul – sometimes encapsulated in the image of a divine child, does not belong entirely to this world. And neither do we.  He sees the human soul as always, a creature of both worlds – divine and human, time-bound and eternal, mortal and immortal. ‘Straddling these two worlds, the soul is the seat of our dual destiny and home to what Shakespeare called our “immortal longings”. It is also home to what Jung called “our religious instinct”’.

The poet John Keats saw the world as ‘The Vale of Soul-Making’ – where each soul is personally itself. In his view the soul begins as innocence, but then through suffering and the person’s confrontation with pain and troubles of life, their intelligence becomes ‘schooled’ and then a soul. We begin as human/divine oneness, but then, as we develop, we fall into a state of twoness. Each of us leaves the garden of our innocence, and so becoming conscious and knowing good and evil we live in exile – alienated, but conscious. Kalsched writes:

‘Such alienation from our essential nature seems to be the necessary and inevitable price paid for becoming conscious, and yet there remains within us a part of the original oneness that longs to return to that great spiritual reality from which we came and about which we have forgotten.’

This sweet story from Marcus Borg captures this forgetting, when he recounts how a 3- year- old girl – the firstborn – asked to be alone with her new baby brother with the door shut as she wanted to talk with him. The parents, concerned in case she might have ‘mixed’ feelings about the new arrival, anxiously listened on the intercom in case anything untoward happened:

‘The moment finally arrived and the little girl was shown into the baby’s room and the door closed, with both parents rushing nearby to the intercom to hear what this “conversation” might be. They heard their little girl’s feet walking across the room; then there was a pause. And then they heard her say to her three-day old brother; “tell me about God; I’ve almost forgotten.’