Care of the Soul: Care of the Soul, 25 Years Later
In the late 1980s, after about seven years of developing my own approach to psychotherapy, I was looking for a different way to re-imagine psychology, one that would have depth and include spiritual matters. I always look to the ancients for inspiration, and so I pored over the works of Plato especially, where I found a constant focus on the soul and reference to therapy as service and care. Having studied for the Catholic priesthood, I knew that this form of service was often called cura animarum, the cure of souls or care of the soul. After all, the priest was often called a curate.
So I began referring to my work as care of the soul. It didn’t hurt to know that the word psycho (psyche)-therapy (therapeia) means to serve or care for the soul. I got the idea of writing a book on these thoughts, based both on my doctoral studies in religion and depth psychology and my experience practicing care of the soul. I discussed these ideas with my learned friend Christopher Bamford and even suggested that we write the book together. But Chris was interested in other projects, and so I went into hibernation and wrote out my idea of what it takes to care for your soul.
I had written my dissertation for a PhD in religion on the work of a 15th-century philosopher, priest, and magus, Marsilio Ficino, who said that soul has to be in the center of life. He spelled out some basic ways to give soul its due, such as finding the right place to live and always being in tune with the movements of the planets and the seasons. Timing and place were important elements in caring for the soul. Ficino was an Epicurean, which meant loving life, enjoying deep and solid pleasures, and doing everything in a spirit of friendship and kindness. I added Epicureanism to my way of caring for the soul.
The “psyche-therapy” I practiced involved befriending my clients, when possible. I don’t mean mistaking therapy with friendship, a development therapy teachers warn against, but seeing friendship as a way of working and of being in the world. I learned to love my clients’ souls, if not always their personalities. I offered myself to them as a person, not just as a practitioner or someone who had mere skills and techniques. This was one way of inviting soul into the equation.
I focused most of my attention on dreams, so as to go deep enough to observe movements of the soul and not be focused only on making life work out better. Of course, in general I wanted to help, but most of all I wanted to assist a person in a process of deepening and the manifesting of their inborn destiny and potentiality.
Fifteen years before Care of the Soul, I had learned from my friends Robert Sardello and James Hillman to take seriously the needs of the world’s soul, anima mundi. So I wrote about care of the soul not just in personal terms but as a way to bring depth and vitality to the culture we are creating. As Hillman often said, it does no good to help a person adjust to a soulless society.
Then, when I had published the book and was touring the many bookshops that existed in those days, I found myself talking about food and home and work, ordinary things and activities where soul is nurtured. I advocated slow food before it became a movement. I suggested that we make our computers look more like animals as a way to animate or ensoul them. I imagined feet or wings on them, the way people a hundred years ago gave biological life to furniture and machines.
Most of all I recommended that people become more nonconformist and even eccentric, because when you live from the soul you are less “normal” than if you adjust to society and have a strong ego. I reminded them of Plato’s idea that there are ways to be slightly mad (his word is mania) that can be creative: love, contemplation, making art, and being seriously intuitive.
I emphasized certain gifts of soul: being a real individual, having a capacity for connection and love, living intimately, having a vision, being a real person and enjoying depth, and creating from a deep place within you. Soul is also at home amid variety and diversity. It doesn’t aspire to things like wholeness, unity, and integration. It speaks in dreams and a generally poetic style of speech. It appears best in stories and meandering conversations and communing with nature.
Care of the Soul came out almost 25 years ago, and the world continues to move in the opposite direction. It loves quantifying and classifying and defining and objectifying. It shows signs of soul less and less. Certainly, you meet soulful people everywhere, but their institutions treat them as things and numbers and herds.
There is much work to do. If nothing else, we need to turn in a different direction. I think this turn toward soul is possible and even probable, as we see and feel the effects of a cool, objectifying world. It generates conflict and violence and accounts for children and young people living without direction and a purpose. Now is the time to reconsider the ideas in Care of the Soul and put them into practice in our personal lives and as much as possible in the life of society.