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Caring for the soul means approaching life and its challenges differently.
Rather than considering the things that cause you to distress as symptoms of a problem, caring for the soul asks you to find a new way to relate to them. It asks you to see things as they are, not as you wish they would be. It asks you to observe without judgment or prescription and to accept what is.
In Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, we’ll first look at how to reframe your mindset by reframing your story about family. Then we’ll talk about the problem of psychological modernism and how everyday sacredness, myth, and ritual can help you care for your soul. Finally, we’ll describe how to live in imagination and listen to your dreams.
The sacred mother, father, and child
David just couldn’t get along with his mother. His father was out of the picture; he’d left years ago. When David went home to visit his mom every weekend, they’d argue – and she’d accuse him of being just like his dad.
In their sessions, David’s therapist asked whether he thought he was like his dad. David insisted he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps – which likely explained why he religiously stayed close to his mom and didn’t have any girlfriends.
Instead of using the behaviour of David’s father as a way to explain David’s struggles and find a cure, the therapist helped David tell his dad’s story. It was a story of a man whose own father had set a precedent for a neurotic need to wander and create distance between himself and others. Through the storytelling, David understood and accepted who his dad was – for all the good and bad. And through that process, David could then see himself more clearly.
In so many therapy sessions, family is treated as a dysfunctional source of various symptoms that need to be treated. In reality, though, family is inherently dysfunctional. Caring for the soul means openly looking at family – in all its mess and devastating abuse and wonderful closeness – and seeing it not as something to be overcome, but as the raw material upon which to build a life.
To see family as a sacred source for your life, let’s look at its three primary components: the father, mother, and child. With each of these aspects, we aren’t talking about identity – for instance, we’re not discussing your role as a mother. Instead, we’re talking about how we honour these three energies in ourselves.
The father is most aptly embodied in the tale of The Odyssey. Odysseus is a father at sea who’s trying to get back to his son and wife. In the story, we also see Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, who longs for his missing father. The most universally meaningful exploration here is the idea of the absent father. Whether it’s a dad who goes to work every day or a dad who was never there, to begin with, their absence is something every child must endure.
And sometimes, it’s hard to get a resolution. In David’s story, he reached out to his father and learned more about him – but he wasn’t able to restore him to his rightful place in life. Instead, David had to become his own father. Ultimately, this is something we all have to do. It’s a process that requires honouring everything in us that can provide, protect, and take a stand.
Next up? The mother. She’s embodied in Greek mythology’s story of Demeter and Persephone. In this myth, Persephone is reaching for a beautiful flower when the earth suddenly cracks open. Hades, the god of the dead, captures her and takes her to the depths of the underworld. Demeter, who is the goddess of the harvest, refuses to allow anything to grow until her daughter is returned. In the end, Hades agrees to return Persephone – but he places a pomegranate seed under her tongue and says that she will always partly belong to him.
As the mother, Demeter loses her daughter to darkness and danger – and even when she gets her back, she’s altered. As a daughter, Persephone is taken by darkness and danger. This is a metaphor for the natural process of separating from parents. Understanding this myth means recognizing the mother-daughter energy in ourselves and the eternal conflict of wanting to hold on while needing to let go.
Last, let’s look at the child, who has appeared in religious stories throughout history. Often, there’s the myth of the special or divine child – such as the Christian story of Jesus, a child born unto us. But in our modern world, we’re required to conform to prescribed systems that say we should be mature at all times. Because of this, we’ve essentially abandoned the child in us.
The power of the child lies in its vulnerability – something we typically flee from. To regain access to our child’s energy, we need to embrace vulnerability, fault, fear, passion, excitement, and many other feelings that often make us uncomfortable.
These ideas of fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood are ancient and woven into the tapestry of human history. Treating family as a broken thing that needs fixing is naive and potentially harmful. Instead, it’s important to recognize the family as something sacred – that means acknowledging both the pain and the pleasure, the mistakes, and the wisdom.
The process of moving your mind into this new paradigm is gradual and ongoing. But in making the shift, you’ll find any anger, anxiety, and depression slowly slipping away. You might eventually be willing to sit across from the ones who hurt you. And most importantly, you’ll be able to see yourself for who you truly are – and to love that whole being with all your heart.
Everyday sacredness, myth, and ritual
In 1923, after the death of his mother, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung built a large stone tower on his property to live in. Then, every four years until 1935, he built an addition so that the building now has four connected parts.
Building these towers was Carl Jung’s way of caring for his soul. Both the actual work of creating them and the time he spent in retreat inside of them were strategies to literally separate himself from the modern world.
Putting distance between oneself and the world has been a human need for much of history. Now more than ever, caring for the soul requires some retreat.
Why does our society exhibit so many terrible neuroses and psychoses? One idea is that we embrace the values of our modern world without critically understanding them. We tend to blindly adopt new technologies and quickly attach ourselves to devices and conveniences. We’re also very much influenced by advertising because of social media.
What our lives are lacking is a spirituality that embraces the ordinary and mundane. The author points out that many diseases have a compulsive ritual component to them. Anorexia, for example, is an extreme deprivation of food. On a societal level, could the existence of illnesses like anorexia be a symptom of not having ways to meaningfully care for our bodies?
Fast food is another possible symptom of losing touch with the soul. The existence of fast food and the way we embrace it and take it for granted suggests that we only see food as food. That is, we’re not elevating its value as a source of life or cherishing the lengthy ritual of dining together.
The soul can only thrive when we pause – when we sit at the moment and take our time. It requires a connection to details and intimacy. There are three things you can focus on to nurture and grow your soulfulness: sacredness, ritual, and myth.
To practice everyday sacredness, you need to separate yourself from the world. This doesn’t have to be done to the extent that Jung did, with towers and months spent in isolation. Yes, you can go on a vacation to unwind and centre yourself – but you can also simply take a moment to breathe deeply, go for a long walk in the woods, write in your journal, paint, listen to music, or sit in silence with some tea and your thoughts.
These activities might sound a lot like the “self-care” you’ve heard about or dabbled in already. The only difference is your outlook: now you know that practising self-care means making space for your soul.
Myth is also important. We mythologize our lives all the time, telling stories of our past – and the pasts of our ancestors. But often, our stories are reduced to cause and effect. For instance, I don’t let others get close because my father abandoned me.
Instead of seeking causes and solutions to neurosis, caring for the soul is about sinking into the constant unravelling of meaning. A tangled web of threads begins to loosen when you tell your stories without judgment and look at them from different angles. In doing so, you can begin to see yourself more clearly – like our friend David from the previous section.
Last, you need a ritual. This used to be the purview of religion. But the problem with many religions is that they enact rituals for the sake of ritual, without any direct meaning to everyday life. It’s no wonder many people have abandoned the religions of their parents – they’re just not relevant.
You can, of course, create new rituals. But resurrecting the rituals of your childhood may be a deeper, more soulful experience. Whether or not they’re related to religion, you can reshape them into something that makes sense in your life and allows your soul to flourish.
Imagination and dreams
Julia had been a model for many years, but at 29, she was looking for the next phase in life. She wanted to have a child – but she couldn’t express that longing because she was afraid of losing her job.
One night, she had a dream. It was a simple dream: In a restaurant, she was served a plate of white crepes. She used her fork to lift the crepes and discovered two green peas.
That was it. But in her exploration of the dream, she learned many things. She considered everything in her life that might be covering up the real substance she was looking for. As a symbol of new beginnings and growth, she questioned what green peas translated to.
Not long after, Julia found out she was pregnant. Maybe her dream had been trying to tell her something!
This brings us to our final task: to care for the soul, we need to live in a state of imagination and listen to our dreams.
Imagination ties into taking pauses for rituals. Scarfing down a drive-through burger means experiencing just the sustenance aspect of a meal. Preparing food, plating it, setting the table, adorning it with flowers or candles, and gathering with loved ones is an act of creativity and imagination.
The more you practice, the more you’ll find you can apply creativity and imagination to even the most mundane rituals. You might take up creative pursuits as you pause to reflect. Knitting, for instance, is a wonderful way to complement your thoughts about the day.
It’s also important to approach your interpretations with imagination. Like so many of us, you might be preoccupied with fixing things so you can keep up, keep earning, keep moving. But life isn’t a thing to be fixed. Of course, that can be hard to accept when pain or shame or grief is involved. It’s natural to not want to linger in that state – to instead find a cure. Living a soulful life, though, requires bringing imagination to those moments.
One way you can listen to your soul is to pay attention to your dreams, like Julia did. Dreams are the soul’s mythology. They’re a gift whenever you have them and can remember them. And if you start paying attention to them and writing them down, you’ll find that your dreams become more and more frequent.
When thinking about your dreams, resist the urge to jump to an immediate interpretation. For example, Sylvia dreamed that her friend came to her house and covered her typewriter with crayon scribbles.
Sylvia’s immediate interpretation was that she was letting her inner child destroy all of her important work. But as she explored the dream more, she found that there were many other possibilities – like maybe her soul was inviting her to free her sensual side and live life more colourfully. So bring imagination to your dreams, and leave judgment at the door.
The fundamental tenet of caring for the soul involves acceptance. Instead of trying to figure everything out, it’s about enjoying the exploration for the sake of it. Great, you might be thinking. This all sounds very beautiful and spiritual. But there are bills to be paid and promotions to attain, so why should I prioritize caring for my soul?
The short answer is that there can be consequences when you don’t. Neglecting your soul can mean missing out on important wisdom that could lead you away from danger or toward great gifts. When you ignore your imagination, the world becomes flat, flavourless, and malnourished. Your approach to the mysteries and challenges in life, to grief and pain, might become destructive – and you may seek cures or escapes. Even your best intentions can lead you astray without a proper balance of soulfulness.
Caring for the soul isn’t something you can check off your list every day. It isn’t self-improvement. It’s the purpose of life.
Caring for the soul means looking for the sacredness in ordinary life. Through myth, we can better understand ourselves and our families. We can also make our family’s stories our own to widen the scope of our understanding and acceptance of ourselves and others.
To infuse sacredness, myth, and ritual into our everyday lives, we can create pauses that separate us from the noise of the modern world. And by nurturing our dreams and imagination, we can bring new meaning and appreciation to everyday life.