…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…do anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.
– Richard Rohr
Each day, as I sit in meditation, I listen first to my worldly self speak of its many emotions. How are things going? What am I feeling? What is my current complaint? I allow an opening for whatever needs to be expressed, and deeply buried emotions occasionally rise up to the surface of my awareness, like bubbles in a carbonated drink.
Once that is aired, I sink deeper and ask for my soul’s perspective. What does it see? What is it longing for? What is its “take” on all that stuff my worldly self finds so irritating and confounding? (Most of the time, these two aspects of myself weigh in with polar opposite viewpoints.)
Lastly, I approach the Divine Within. Or maybe I glimpse it. Or graze it. Sometimes, I feel it wrap itself around the physical part of me. Sometimes I feel it glimmering like a live ember or a quiet jewel in the core of my physical form. The Divine is nothing but Being—unconditional and endless being. All the reactions and feelings and thoughts and opinions and needs and anxieties become a no-thing in its Presence, in its Envelopment.
The world we live in is a harsh place. And life in that harsh place has never been easy. But, then again, it isn’t really intended to be.
We commonly live under the illusion that if we get everything just right—whom to marry, and whom to befriend, where to live and where to work, how to dress, how to speak and present ourselves, that everything will turn out well; life will work out and become easy, and we will be happy.
What is oftentimes more true is that, the more we try and successfully achieve this delicate balance—this juggling act—the harder life in the external world becomes. Add in increasingly heavier doses of world strife and hardship, violence and daily acts of insanity, and you have an existence riddled with stress and adversity, confusion, grief and fear.
We are sometimes surprised by how difficult life can actually be. We expect the world, our government, our laws, our career, our loved ones, our healthcare, and our bureaucratic systems to work: to help and protect us, to support us, to pave the way, to provide shelter, comfort, sustenance, and we are puzzled and dismayed when these things are not as smoothly forthcoming as we supposed they would be. The flimsy reliability of these things and their failure to hold up under pressure deeply upset and dismay us. Their undependability doesn’t seem fair or right or even natural.
If we stop and think about it, though, we will remember what we have oftentimes been told: the world doesn’t owe us a living; the world doesn’t really owe us anything. As spirit beings, the world has little to offer us, beyond being a place to cut our teeth, test our mettle and learn who we are. The outer world is a means, not an end. It is not a paradise, but the strange and unlikely portal to one.
The aim of life is not to engineer our physical reality to meet the needs and requirements of our ego (our little self). Though we try—lord knows we try. The aim of life is to be in the world but not of the world, to widen and deepen the lens, to invoke the unseen, the unknowable, the world beyond the senses. And to surrender to that—to what we can’t know, can’t taste, touch, hear or see.
We are spiritual beings as well as physical ones. To live well in the world, these two aspects of self, the physical and the spiritual, need to acknowledge one another, to know one another, to work and communicate with one another.
The soul has always understood this arrangement—the physical part of us—the ego—not so much. The ego fights this idea and constantly tries to command the inner power and resources that it senses are within, to do its bidding. The part of us that lives in the outer world is very much the child, begging its parent for the new toy it simply must have. The Divine Self, like any parent, will sometimes relent, thinking perhaps if given this toy or this reward or this opportunity, the child will learn something. The child will learn to value something deeper and less tangible, more lasting, less material. The hope is that the child will mature and begin to seek meaning rather than objects, strength and virtue rather than entertainment, peace rather than escape, depth rather than frivolity.
But how do we navigate a world that is so different from the one we live in? How do we communicate with a part of ourselves that has no dimension and no language? How do we surrender and trust what we cannot see or know or define?
Enter the human soul: the go-between, the connective tissue, the master communicator, and inroad to the Divine Self. Typically, we don’t converse with the soul, we don’t avail ourselves of its perspective or wisdom. Most of us don’t even know what the soul is. We might think of it as a deeper expression of ourselves, a mysterious unknown, something we mark with the impact of our mistakes and the black stains of our sins, something that is fragmented and diminished by the traumatic circumstances of our daily lives. We may even think of our physical selves as stronger than the fragile soul within us: I have recovered from this tragedy and moved on, but my soul has not.
It is true the soul is a record of all we have done and felt, said, thought, and experienced. It is true that the soul will hold fast to a challenge we have not yet had the courage or insight to fully investigate and metabolize. But, we are not here to the master the soul. We are here to serve it.
Shamanic practice has taught me much about the human soul, and I have often been awed, humbled and staggered by its power, imagination, versatility and mastery. The Celtic vision of the soul is not something our physical self contains, but something that contains our physical body; the soul surrounds us, stretching itself out of the world of physical matter into liminal space and beyond, blurring the lines of the hard and fast into the reaches of the unknown and the unknowable.
The soul is the place where all ambiguity lives—that which is not yet defined and known—because the soul itself is ambiguous. It is not an organ like the heart, but it is a container of deep and complex feeling. It can fragment and and have pieces wander off like cattle from a herd, and though that might seem alarming, the soul is inviolate–the consummate shapeshifter. It is an insatiable seeker of experience and knowledge, but is, at the same time, the master of many things and the keeper of vast stores of wisdom. It is fully aware of every nuance of the experience of this life, but simultaneously engaged in other experiences. What happened to us in 48 BC is as relevant and timely and “present” to the soul as what is happening now in 2016.
The soul is worth getting to know. It is the only train available for boarding, if we seek to locate the Divine. If we wish to know God. If we try to live full time in the outer world, it will break and unhinge us. We were never intended to live like that, and it is tragic that we have become so adhered to the allure of the physical world that we cannot disengage ourselves from its addictive chatter, a chatter that our minds have consumed and endlessly mimic.
As a teacher of shamanism, I am devoted to the practice of inviting my students to engage with their souls. To open up a dialogue. To ask what the soul intends, what it longs for, what it knows, where it has been. To journey into it, to sit in the seat of the soul and look out onto the earthly world with compassion and detachment. To swivel the seat around to gaze with wonder at the endless shining sea and sky of the Divine. To question how to live differently. To begin to walk, speak and do things not for the sake of comfort or social acceptance, but for the sake of God. Otherwise, how will we ever know who we are?
I love to use the Celtic stories as a platform for this kind of inner investigation, because of the insight they provide into the human soul, showing us both its glamor and its struggle. We cannot understand duality if we don’t appreciate the duality of the soul. In those stories, the soul leans forward to introduce itself: I have been the shape of many things, it might say. I have been the narrow blade of the sword. I have been a drop in the air. I have been a shining star. I have been a word in a book. I have been an eagle. I have been a boat on the sea, and a string on a harp. I have been a full, enchanted year in the foam of the water. There is nothing in which I have not been. (Book of Taliesin)
In those stories, the soul explains the universal laws that govern it, and in hearing this, we acknowledge the human being’s ignorance of those laws. We see more clearly our fall from grace, and the point of crisis to which we have come in this world. We understand better what is required of us in moving forward.
It so happens, that I am in a field where people come and frequently talk about the state of their souls. There is perhaps no one else to whom they can speak about their souls in this way: I don’t know who I am, they say; I can’t find myself; this doesn’t feel like my body; this doesn’t feel like my life. The point is, we know when our souls are troubled.
If your soul feels troubled, turn to it. Quiet the chatter of your own mind, and wait for the soul to speak. Listen with your heart and not your head. And, before taking action, stop and ask: what does my soul want me to do?
Seek the wisdom of the masters and the old tales that caution against arrogance and foolishness, greed and selfishness. That suggest we put fear aside in favor of something greater. Follow their promise that with dedication and humility and no expectation of reward, you too can find peace and live “happily ever after.”
For as Jesus himself once said: What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?