Published in "The National Psychologist", Sept/Oct 2018, v. 27, No. 5
We psychologists 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 theorize about why we subjectively suffer and how to feel better. Invisible subjectivity is our domain. 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. 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. It is 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 intangible roles, beliefs and stories. The roles of therapist and patient, for example, exist only in our minds. Invisible beliefs guide our choices. Invisible memories influence our affect and identity. Subjectivity is ripe with meaning that emanates from a vast collective meaning structure (culture).
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, inspirations or dreams. Much of the meaning we live within comes to us autonomously, unbidden.
So the ego (the choosing, organizing, aware locus of identity) exists within an invisible, flowing subjective field which provides us with meaning. This vast, subjective field may be called “soul.”
We are here using the term soul (psyche in Greek) as a secular concept. We are not saying, for example, that the soul survives the body. But we require a concept like soul to describe the structure of experience: The ego/individual exists within a larger, dynamic meaning field (soul). Thus the ego is contextualized.
It is important to name this meaning field because naming is the first step in having a relationship. And ones relationship to the soul matters 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. Nightmares I do not want. Loneliness I do not want. Anger I do not want. Relationships I do not want.
These are all examples of the ego being at odds with the broader consciousness field in which it resides: Ego-self vs. larger-SELF (a Jungian distinction). Psyche-therapy assists patients in harmonizing with their souls.
The ego’s challenge to harmonize with its soul requires courage and wisdom. It involves accepting what has been rejected, opening to more satisfying meaning structures and heeding the body’s feedback (emotion). In other words, harmonizing requires love.
So symptoms (disharmonies) are meaningful in that they reveal what is in need of love. They point the way towards personal evolution. Other soul messages (dreams, yearnings, images, intuitions, attractions, emotions, memories, etc.) also reveal what is in need of integration.
So personal evolution is expanding ones scope of love. This expansion engenders peace and connection. Connection to oneself, others and the flow of experience (life). Furthermore, learning to love more broadly and deeply gives life purpose (telos) and benefits culture.
As the ego becomes more inclusive a sense of belonging to an infinite, invisible field of soul (God?) awakens and existential alienation is reduced. Thus all psychotherapy is ultimately a spiritual quest for enlightenment.
There is comfort in this paradigm: We are not alone. There is an active, directing force within. The soul is wholeness seeking and communicating with purpose (see Carl Jung). Follow its feedback and life improves. Fight your soul and there is hell to pay.
In sum, to understand the structure of subjectivity we require a concept like soul. Just as we cannot see a chair without the idea of chair, we cannot see soul without the idea of soul.
Once we employ the soul concept we can sense it within ourselves and others. We awaken to the essential. Each person is a vibrant subjectivity field coupled to a body. Alive. We become more sensitive 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).