As a psychologist, I used to keep a clean line between psychological and spiritual matters. I stayed on my side and let religion handle the rest. I used psychological terms like true self instead of soul to refer to the deepest part of a person. But sometimes soul is the only word to use.
When referencing a person’s deepest needs and motives, soul is often the term that fits. It’s a beautiful, poetic concept that can capture a person’s internal experience like none other. Soul is shorthand for the you of you. It is the radiant center of your inner world and, as such, connotes the deepest possible source of your being. Calling this center the self can sound too cerebral or rationalistic, as if it can be known and controlled. But the word soul has a deeper, grander quality, like something more mysterious and ancient, something with a powerful agenda of its own. Listening to the self seems lightweight next to what my soul might say to me.
Although psychology literally means the study of the soul, somewhere along the line psychologists decided that idea wasn’t scientific enough. In order to make psychology a real science, the soul had to go. Psychologists renounced their fascination with the soul and let religion become its brand holder. Psychology instead focused on behavior, research, testing, defense mechanisms, and matters of the the mind. Anything beyond that—like the purpose of life or spiritual issues—was more or less off limits.
The young science of psychology was just trying to make a name for itself, but it drove an unnecessary wedge between the spiritual and the psychological. It would be more realistic to say that understanding the soul is something that both religion and science can contribute to. Psychology wouldn’t be hurt by a little spiritual mystery, and religion could stand a bit of science. Neither branch of this human experience needs to reject the other.
When you talk about your soul, you are accepting that you have a crucial, mysterious part of yourself that is completely interior, often consciously unknown, and somehow sacred, or deserving of respect and reverence. This internal energy also knows what is deeply right or wrong for you. It seems to know what we are here for and whether or not we are fulfilling our purpose. What an asset!
If we talk ourselves out of our dreams or into settling for less, the soul is unhappy and lets us know it with anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression mean that we have become separated from our innermost being, and we are no longer whole. We are trying to be something that we are not, usually in order to fit in or survive. But when we are attuned with our soul, the meaning of life feels self-evident and we are right with the world.
We must take the soul seriously for our own psychological health. If we believe our thinking minds alone can guide us on the deepest questions of existence, we soon end up in a confusion of competing motives. Only the inner wisdom of the soul urges us toward meaningful wholeness and proper self-actualization. People who pay attention to their soul’s promptings find meaning and connection easily. They seek out fulfilling experiences and trust the soul to guide their choices.
If we seek to have a harmonious relationship with our inner world, we are not being selfish, by the way. We give back to others just by being calm yet vibrant people who are pursuing meaningful interests. It’s the people who do not know how to listen to their soul and lack meaningful connection with other people who end up causing the most suffering for others.
I have decided that I don’t have to know where the soul comes from, whether it’s physical or spiritual. I just have to accept that there is something inside us that energizes and guides us and therefore provides a sacred function. Perhaps we have done our soul a disservice to quibble over whose ideological house it should live in. Maybe it’s not necessary for the soul to occupy a divided status, like a child in a disputed custody case. Perhaps the idea of soul could exist apart from either religion or psychology, in its own category of undeniable inner human experience. Maybe that’s all we need to know in order to use it for our good and the good of the world. When we get whole with our soul, life goes well.
Openness, purpose, fulfillment, and a sense of connection with something larger are just some of the energy-enhancing benefits of respecting the soul. We don’t have to believe in God to believe in our soul. Believing in God is just one of the ways we take the soul seriously.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com