Psychology and Soul

By Steven Prasinos, Ph.D.

As psychologists we are students of experience. Sorrow, fear, meaning and love are the sort of stuff with which we work. Invisible, subjective stuff. Patients come to us with invisible problems: I am anxious. I am sad. I am lonely. We write books and theorize about why we subjectively suffer and how to feel better. Even when we study behavior, the behaviors we choose to examine are those we subjectively determine to matter. Invisible subjectivity is our domain.  

Obviously if, as psychologists, we choose to study and treat subjectivity we consider it real. We believe in the unseen.   

What, then, is this unseen realm that interests us so? What can we say about the invisible water in which we swim?

First, we see that we all dwell within an ongoing stream of consciousness. Experience is all we have. To be alive is to experience an endless flow of sense input, thought and emotion. This flow varies in rhythm, tone and intensity from moment to moment. Dynamic and ever-shifting. Like fire. Like music.  

Second, we see that we are ceaselessly operating within meaning structures. We live within a rich gestalt of roles, beliefs and stories. Therapist, patient, parent and friend, for example, are roles that exist only in our minds. Invisible beliefs guide our choices, behavior and emotions. Memories are intangible stories that influence our beliefs and identity. Subjectivity is ripe with meaning that emanates from (and among) us.

Third, it is clear that most of the meaning we inhabit is not consciously created. We do not choose but rather find ourselves in dramatis personae such as jealous son, curious student or lonely spouse. Neither do we choose moods, intuitions, thoughts, inspirations or dreams. Much of the meaning we live within comes to us autonomously, unbidden.  

So we exist within a real, invisible subjective field which autonomously provides us with meaning. The ego (the choosing, organizing, aware locus of identity) exists within this field. Or, as Carl Jung puts it, the ego-self exists within the larger-SELF. Each individual ego, then, co-exists with a mysterious and autonomous, meaning making other.

Wise and thoughtful people throughout history have of course been aware of this invisible, dynamic, autonomous other within each of us. This aspect has been called atman (Hinduism, Buddhism), nafs (Islamic), anima (Latin), psyche (ancient Greek), nephesh (Judaism), and soul (Western, Christian, the term we will use here). These terms are all pointing to a universal observation about the fundamental nature of human experience. Each individual has an invisible, autonomous, meaning-making aspect. Each ego has a soul.   

Now we are here using the term soul as a secular concept. We are not saying, for example, that the soul survives the body. We are using the term to describe a phenomenological fact: The ego/individual exists within a larger field which supplies meaning. This larger field we are calling the soul. The ego is thus contextualized.  

It is important to name this autonomous field within which we reside. Naming is the first step in having a relationship. And having a relationship to ones soul is vital. It is vital because being in harmony with ones soul is the essence of well-being.   

Consider examples of being in disharmony with ones soul: I have thoughts I do not want. I have nightmares I do not want. I have loneliness I do not want. I have anger I do not want. I have relationships I do not want.   

These are all examples of self vs. self. The ego is at odds with the broader consciousness field in which it resides. As psyche-therapists we promote awareness and integration of these ego-dystonic symptoms. Symptoms challenge the ego to broaden its view of itself. Psyche-therapy assists the patient in harmonizing with his or her soul.

One never, of course, achieves complete harmony with the soul. There are always shadow areas that are either unknown or unwanted. But the ongoing process of harmonizing with the soul yields greater and greater wisdom, depth and peace. Thus having a loving, receptive relationship to ones soul is the path towards enlightenment. This is where psychology and spirituality intersect.   

These ideas can be very comforting. We are not alone. We have souls guiding us. There is a path. We can relax. The soul has intentionality. There is a living, active, directing force within. Learning from ones soul gives life a telos or overriding purpose. It matters whether or not we heed it. Follow its feedback and life improves. Fight your soul and there is hell to pay.  

It is an injustice to call psychology simply a behavioral science.  We study behavioral correlates of subjective phenomena. But we believe in much more than what we see or measure. We believe in what we know.  Subjectivity is at the heart of our field. And to understand the structure of subjectivity we require a concept like soul. We are psyche-ologists.  

So, just as we can not see a chair without the idea of chair, we can not see soul without the idea of soul. Once we employ the soul concept we can sense it (via meditation, for instance) as a living, guiding presence within us. We can sense it in others. Each person is a vibrant subjectivity field coupled to a body. Alive. We become more aware of the essential within each person. We become more perceptive and loving. We see that the soul wants to be known. And knowledge comes through love. As  we increase our capacity to love (and know) the world within and the  world without, the soul, the locus of our deepest yearnings, is  fulfilled.

Suggested Reading: James Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology (1975) and Carl Jung’s “The Structure of the Psyche” in The Portable Jung (1971).  

Steven Prasinos, Ph.D.

(203) 266-4003

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