In Search of Soulful Living

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Courtesy: Ankhesenamun

The Spanish novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, once said, “Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

The word “soul” has many different meanings, depending on the context. When Carlos Ruiz Zafón said that every book has a soul, we know that he did not mean the “soul” that Christians believe we have. It is important to distinguish the religious notion of “soul” from the secular notion of it. For a Christian, the mere mention of the term “soul” brings up images of heaven, hell, salvation, and the afterlife. But “soul” also has a secular meaning. In Jungian psychology, the “soul” is understood in contrast to “spirit.” While the spirit strives for transcendence, the soul clings to the Earth. I did not have a good understanding of the secular meaning of “soul” until I read Thomas Moore’s book, The Care of the Soul in the late 80s. The subtitle of the book helps — A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. The secular use of the word “soul” has everything to do with what is earthly and ordinary. It has to do with the cultivation of depth in the mundane. Yet, there is something extraordinary in that ordinariness. Modern life has become too busy. In our rush to accomplish more and more, we have somehow forgotten to live and lost the ability to cherish what is right in front of us. While the mind has to do with our ability to think, the soul has to do with our ability to imagine and feel. This is what Moore said about what he means by the soul in his book:

“It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars — good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.”.

(Care of the Soul, xi-xii)

Thus, while the conventional spiritual quest is an upward movement, the care of the soul is not. It has nothing to do with self-improvement or self-transcendence. It has to do with tending to what IS. Two years ago, I created a group on Facebook which celebrates the secular dimension of the human soul. I saw a need to integrate Buddhist spirituality with Jungian earthliness. Indian Buddhist spirituality is too ethereal and otherworldly. It seems to totally dismiss and reject the human need for attachment, social bonds, nature, touch, and sex. But realistically, humans need something which recognizes their full spectrum of human needs, something more grounded and mundane. This spirit versus soul contrast has a parallel in the comparison of the Indian mind versus the Chinese mind. Many Buddhists seek Nirvana as they attempt to escape Samsara. But Zen (or Cha’n), which is the synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism, is not interested in going anywhere or doing anything special. A famous Zen saying teaches that “the ordinary mind is the Tao.”

It would be fair to say that soulfulness has more to do with our ability to savor what is rather than our struggle to reach certain spiritual ideals. Another aspect of soulfulness has to do with being open and vulnerable towards life, tolerating its uncertainties, and not grasping for quick fixes. The world’s organized religions have often been criticized by atheists for offering imaginary crutches to those who have a need for protection and deliverance. Popular Christianity, in particular, claims to offer “salvation” in an uncertain and troubled world. Lin Yutang, author of the book, My Country and My People, remarked that the pagan approach is quite the opposite. Overall, traditional Chinese culture is secular and not religious. Lin’s notion that poetry takes the place of organized religion in the Chinese psyche is eye-opening. He said:

“Though religion gives peace by having a ready-made answer to all these problems, it decidedly detracts from the sense of unfathomable mystery and the poignant sadness of this life, which we call poetry. Christian optimism kills all poetry. A pagan, who has not these ready-made answers to his problems and whose sense of mystery is forever unanswered and unanswerable, is given inevitably to a kind of pantheistic poetry. Actually, poetry has taken over the function of religion as an inspiration and a living emotion in the Chinese scheme of life.”

— Lin Yutang, My Country and My People

In not accepting ready-made answers and quick fixes, the Chinese pagan soul remains open to life’s mysteries. While both Buddhism and Christianity claim to have ways to end suffering, the Chinese pagan soul chooses to remain vulnerable and accepts heartily both the ups and downs of life. It is this total acceptance of the vicissitudes of life and the embracing of what is that makes life’s poetry possible. Paradoxically, when the potential for suffering is fully accepted and embraced as a necessary part of life, it is also transmuted into joy.

Lin Yutang further elaborates on his pagan philosophy in his other book, The Importance of Living:

On the positive side, a Chinese pagan, … is one who starts out with this earthly life as all we can or need to bother about, wishes to live intently and happily as long as his life lasts, often has a sense of the poignant sadness of this life and faces it cheerily, has a keen appreciation of the beautiful and the good in human life wherever he finds them, and regards doing good as its own satisfactory reward.

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

We may conclude, therefore, that the soulful way of life is the ordinary and natural way. Nothing in the human condition is rejected or considered undesirable. Lin Yutang noted that the great pagans have always had a deeply reverent attitude toward nature. It does not matter whether we are talking about the Chinese Taoists or the Native Americans. Nature is prominently featured in Zen art and poetry, but it is remarkably absent in Indian and Christian religious literature. Pagan cultures tend to see the Divine in every part of nature — they are pantheists. Instead of seeing God as apart from nature, they see God as immanent. The soulful way of life is perhaps an antidote to the conventional religious impulse, which seeks answers from a supernatural and transcendent God. Rather, the pagan finds beauty and wonder in the ordinary now. It is in this sense that Zen and Philosophical Taoism are not religions. They teach the art of being.

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