A Phenomenology of Self, Psyche, and Soul: What Can We Learn from a Name?

A Phenomenology of Self, Psyche, and Soul: What Can We Learn from a Name?

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Describing the inner lifeZurbaran's St. Dorothy

In this paper I offer a descriptive analysis of ways in which we experience our own inner lives and those of others. I use the term “phenomenology” in the broad sense of receiving thoughts and sense impressions as they present themselves, the “da sein” of things. 1 An ability to describe fictive parts of what is in reality a seamless whole is a useful exercise because the act of naming allows us to better appreciate the dynamic functioning of our intrapsychic and interpersonal experience. Moreover, understanding our internal and relational “parts” suggests creative ways for dialogue to occur across boundaries of difference.

What is the practical value of “dialogue across boundaries of difference”? Difference is all around us—we each have unique fingerprints, unique DNA. We are obviously different from other men and women, and different as humans from other living and non-living entities that compose the web of life on earth some have named Gaia (Lovelock, 1979/1995). If we examine our subjective experience we find difference even within our own consciousness, different affective states, different patterns of thought and imagination in waking states, in REM sleep, in the natural (as opposed to drug induced) altered states of consciousness that figure in religious experience.2 In this paper I begin with the thoroughly postmodern assumption that no individual’s perception and no specific state of consciousness has an a priori claim to truth, legitimacy or certainty, but that we can find practical value in bringing a wide variety of perceptions into dialogue with one another, K moving towards O as psychoanalytic theorist Bion would say, where K is what we claim to know and O is the as yet unknown (Bion, 1970). On the continuum between positivism, constructivism, postpositivism and social constructionism, my starting point is closest to the latter (cf. Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Cooper-White, 2004, pp.35-56).

Naming my own context will give you some idea of where I’m coming from. For the past twelve years I have been teaching counseling and ministry in a seminary setting. My clinical work includes supervision for counselors in training and a part-time practice as a pastoral psychotherapist working with individuals, couples, families, and groups, and ranging from ego-supportive counseling to psychoanalysis. For seven years before that I pursued clinical training in various modalities and worked as a psychotherapist while engaged in a doctoral program and training analysis. And for eleven years before that I trained and served in ministry in the United States, England and Jamaica, West Indies. During this thirty year journey I have come to understand myself and others in an evolving variety of ways. Sometimes the emphasis has been on a spiritual understanding of self and persons, at other times the emphasis has been on psychological knowing that includes both intrapsychic (inner, subjective), interpersonal and intercultural components. I strive to bring these varied perspectives into closer dialogue because I recognize, both in my own experience and that of others, that their intentional interaction affords us greater access to healing and wholeness.

The parts of us I’d like to consider are named here as self, psyche, and soul. I will present self and psyche primarily from a psychological/ clinical viewpoint and soul from a predominantly spiritual/theological point of view. Their interaction as “parts” of our existence contributes to a dynamic experience of wholeness when all parts are in dialogue. I’ll begin with “self” as the part that is most “experience-near,” then consider psyche and soul. Since the latter words share a common etymology, the case for distinguishing between them will need to be made.3

What I will not address here is the question of whether the soul is something that has an existence before this life and after death. That raises the problem of “substance dualism” which in turn leads to questions of hierarchical dualism—soul over body, mind over body, male over female, human over creation, etc. In making distinctions between parts of our experience, I do not intend to imply rigid separations between parts, much less a hierarchy of parts. Distinctions are made here for the purposes of discernment (Kelcourse, 1998).

Attempts to make distinctions between various aspects of human experience can readily be criticized as arbitrary. For example, we routinely speak of mind and body as if they were two distinct entities. Yet as neurologist Damasio makes clear in Descartes’ Error, there can be no such thing as a mind without a body (1994). A mind wholly bereft of the body’s senses has no means of interacting with the world to form what Daniel Stern calls RIGS (representations of actions that have been generalized) or structures of experience (1985). Yet we still find it useful to distinguish between afflictions that appear to have a primarily organic origin, as in congenital dispositions to depression or schizophrenia, and those that are apparently of psychological origin, as in physical symptoms that can be traced to specific traumas – insomnia following a car accident or chest pains following the loss of a loved one, for example. There is no specific boundary between body and mind in these cases, yet distinctions that allow us to consider the etiology of an illness are diagnostically useful.

If the routinely accepted division of mind and body is suspect, distinctions between self, psyche, and soul are even less verifiable in any objective sense. What I propose is that these distinctions, although ultimately arbitrary, are nonetheless useful ways of sorting out subjective phenomena that have a different ‘feel’ to the person experiencing them. The definitions we use do matter since they serve epistemic purposes. In other words, naming the subtle differences between ways of knowing can itself advance the project of internal and interpersonal dialogue, promoting broader awareness of self and other.

Before I proceed to offer my working definitions of self, psyche, and soul, it is worth noting that the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is ultimately arbitrary too. When pediatrician turned psychoanalyst Winnicott wrote that there’s “no such thing as a baby” (1960, p. 39), he was naming an experience that we have all housed in some wordless region of our being, the amodal memories of our own infancy (Stern, 1985). We enter the “primary maternal preoccupation” as parents when we find ourselves mesmerized by the hourly care of a newborn (Winnicott, 1960a/ 1965/1987, p.147). This kind of boundary blurring between self and other is also a feature of ‘being in love’, especially in its more intense, quasi-hallucinatory forms. And we find the self/other boundary crossed in religious experience as shared by individuals in small groups or worshipping communities who recognize, however fleetingly, the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Freud describes this felt sense of spiritual unity in psychological terms: “each individual is bound by libidinal ties to the leader (Christ…) and on the other hand to the other members of the group” (1921/1989, p.35). Despite Freud’s overt rejection of religion, he displays in this passage a clear understanding of what the experience of spiritual unity in a group context affectively entails.

So what is it that makes us simultaneously separate in our skins yet mysteriously interconnected in other ways? Virginia Woolf captures this sense of interconnected lives, outward and inner dialogues in Mrs. Dalloway; one hears the cacophony of memories, the collisions of past history in present experience (1925). Woolf offers a phenomenology of consciousness that is closer to our daily lived experience than the illusions of separateness Westerners typically cultivate. The terms self, psyche, and soul have light to shed on both our individuality and our collectivity.

The development of self experience: Functional integrity and fragmentation

The word “self” I propose as a synonym of Freud’s “ego” (das Ich), our partially conscious sense of who we are. “Self” is the most familiar of the three terms in question; most adults will answer the question ‘Who am I?” in relation to their roles, relationships and a subjective sense of continuity in space and time. If one loses an awareness of this continuity does one still have a self? The film Memento graphically illustrates this question (2000).4 This film depicts the loss of self-coherence in time through the experience of a man who has lost access to all but the most fleeting aspects of his short-term memory. In an effort to make sense of his dangerously disjointed existence, he writes notes on his body. In the end it is clear that his attempts to make meaning of events in this way have been futile. He can’t be certain who to trust or what to do. In a very real sense he has a body and a mind but not a self.

Family systems theory usefully identifies the multivalent ways in which family of origin, community and society interact with and impinge upon the self as a supposedly separate entity (Carter & McGoldrick, 1989/1999). Each individual exists as a composite of group experiences. Trauma can be transmitted intergenerationally, as the children of Holocaust survivors can attest. We may consciously reject the actions and prejudices of our parents and our peers, yet none of us can be totally free of their influence on the ways we make meaning of our experience. Each of us is held in being by the social contexts to which we’ve become accustomed. Our familiar sense of self can be disrupted by immersion in a different cultural context—the experience of “culture shock.” Culture shock, and the sense of deracination persons raised in bi-cultural contexts may experience, point to our dependence on familiar cultural referents.

In philosophical terms self can be defined in terms of will and agency (Taylor, 1989). I know I am a person because I decide to do something and I do it. Such a definition certainly explains the loss of self experienced by persons in the grips of a depression, dissociation, or a brief reactive psychosis. In depression, the clear connection between sense of self and agency is attenuated or lost. I don’t do what I want to do because I can’t find the energy or will to do it. In dissociation it becomes unclear who the experiencing “I” is. Conscious communication between various aspects of self experience may falter, at least for a time. In psychosis, alternate realities present themselves as plausible, and the normal sense of temporal continuity we generally expect between various aspects of our self-experience may all but disappear. We might experience the ordinary and the extraordinary simultaneously, or encounter the extraordinary so vividly that awareness of the ordinary is temporarily lost.

For example: A young woman arrives for a group therapy session while the group is gathering. The therapist makes a flattering comment about her appearance. Due to her past history of abuse from male authority figures, the woman registers some discomfort at this remark. The feeling passes and the group session begins. In the course of the session she becomes aware of a non-ordinary experience. The therapist’s hands on the arms of his chair become thin and claw-like. His face becomes pale and drawn until it resembles a death’s head. This perception dominates her awareness for a few seconds and then is gone. Only later does she come to understand that this hallucination was a response to the restimulating sense of intrusion occasioned by his earlier remark. The hallucination was not something she consciously willed, rather it was a spontaneous manifestation of an aspect of her experience of which she was consciously unaware. Because we have an unconscious mind that is able to powerfully direct our thoughts and feelings, at times our self experience of will and agency is conditional at best.

Of the three parts we are considering, the self has the most to do with our individual, embodied history as shaped by our family of origin experience and our cultural milieu. Self experience is frequently disrupted by shifts in interpersonal contexts, as in the loss of a family member through death or divorce, loss of a job, moving to a new city, etc. We tend to think of our sense of self as a possession, “me, mine,” yet exposure to trauma and loss can compromise our usual sense of continuity and integrity in time and space, the consistency of will and agency, that characterize a healthy sense of self. As a matter of temperament and personal history, some persons are more vulnerable to such disruptions than others.

The developmental emergence of the sense of self is generally understood to lay the groundwork for psychological health. Mahler’s initial stages of “autism” and “symbiosis” have been challenged by Stern who finds a rudimentary sense of self present from birth (Mahler, 1975; Stern, 1985). I’m inclined to believe that both are right. Since children are born with a distinct personality, one that sometimes becomes apparent to mothers even in utero (the difference between an active infant and one that is relatively quiet, both before and after birth), it makes sense that a rudimentary thread of self-experience would be present even before a conscious sense of self can be claimed. But in interpersonal terms, infants are so dependent on appropriate physical and emotional responsiveness on the part of caregivers during the early phases of life that the terms autistic and symbiotic remain descriptive of the oral stage (typically 0-12 months). Toddlers, even before object-constancy is fully established, characteristically assert a bold and definite sense of self with their emphatic assertions of “No! Mine! Me do it!” Parents who fail to recognize this as developmentally appropriate behavior feel their authority threatened by these tiny tyrants who have yet to comprehend how small and truly powerless they really are, as they soon discover in the Oedipal phase (Kelcourse, Ed., 2004). In the interpersonal shift of emphasis from anal to Oedipal phase we can observe one of several cycles between independence and inclusion that Robert Kegan identifies in The Evolving Self (1982).

In all aspects of self experience, self and other are inextricably linked. Just as there is “no such thing as a baby,” so there is no such thing as an individual in isolation from other selves. Even solitary individuals on a deserted island are surrounded by remembered others and must hallucinate companions to maintain a coherent sense of self. In the film Cast Away, the sole survivor of a plane crash, spending months alone before finally making his way back to civilization, only finds courage to venture off his island into the open sea by naming a soccer ball, “Wilson,” as his imaginary companion. The need for “transitional objects,” as identified by Winnicott, first emerges in childhood in the form of favorite teddy bears, but remains essential throughout life in the form of cultural creations conjured in the transitional space between self and other (1953/1971).

As if this necessary dependence of self on others weren’t humbling en ugh, there is also the fact that for all our efforts at self-analysis we remain in some respects mysteries to ourselves, just as those we know most intimately will forever remain mysterious to us in some dimension of their self-hood. Freud’s theories of the mind recognize this with the inclusion of unconscious elements in ego experience (1916).

We find ourselves thinking and committing acts that are ego-dystonic in keeping with St. Paul’s lament: “I do not understand my own actions…For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 19, cf. Cooper-White, 2003). We are pleased with ourselves and experience a sense of well-being when thought, feeling, will, and agency work harmoniously together, allowing us to get our work done, maintain good relationships with others and generally enjoy the sense of being captains of our own ship. Yet such buoyant self-experience is difficult to maintain as the ship of self is inevitably becalmed or blown off course by the changeable winds of life. What makes the difference between a sense of self that stays afloat through the heaviest weather and the self that sinks in the first storm? Do conscious attempts to be in dialogue with the parts of us named psyche and soul enhance or threaten the buoyancy of the self?Fig 1 Psyche and self: Islands in the sea

This oceanic metaphor brings us to the psyche, which Jung understood as both a means of perception attempting to see and understand itself, and as the inescapable source of our interconnection as human beings. In a diagram that illustrates this (figure 1), individuals appear as islands in an archipelago of volcanic origin (Jacobi, 1973, p. 34). The land we see above water appears to be disconnected from the other islands, but if we look underwater to find the base of these islands, all are anchored to the sea floor like mountains rising out of a plain. As we go down the levels from land to the ocean depths we find individuals growing out of families, families growing out of tribes, tribes from nations, nations from ethnic groups, and ethnic groups from earlier human ancestors that are in turn related to animal groups. But at the core of each island is a “central energy”—it is this energy that cuts through all the earlier groupings to find expression in the individual psyche. Jung identified this energy as arising from the “collective unconscious” which “contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution born anew in the brain structure of every individual” (Jung, cited by Jacobi, 1973, p. 158).

In the example of the woman who hallucinated a death’s head in group, we see the effects of unconscious contents erupting into consciousness. The language of “primary process,” or “non-directed thinking”, unlike the normal waking consciousness of “secondary process,” is not bound by logic or causal necessity. Dreams speak in images and metaphors; logic no longer prevails. A dream figure can be two people at once and the dream ego finds itself shifting between the roles of participants and observer.

There are probably examples you could cite from your own experience of a connection between persons that appears to exist as at an unconscious level. A recent vivid example that I’ve heard about from other therapists are the dreams of persons across the United States that preceded the attacks of 9/11. I became interested in this because one of my own clients dreamt of terrorists crashing a plane the night before the attack. This is a person who also became unusually agitated one day for no apparent reason and subsequently learned that a relative had suffered a heart attack at the approximate time of her distress.

Does the experience of trauma make us more open to religious experience? I believe it can. Jungian analyst and theological educator Ann Ulanov has stated that “Our wounds are like a window through which God can come at any time” (personal communication, 1989). Since the human psyche is the only means by which we can experience either ourselves, other persons, or the presence of God, it should not be surprising that the state of the psyche affects our receptivity to both positive and negative contents from the unconscious sea that surrounds our islands of consciousness. In my experience, persons who have suffered abuse, particularly at an early age, often have the capacity to be more sensitive and open both to others through the medium of the unconscious and potentially to a felt sense of the presence of God. This openness can be manifest in both negative (typically paranoid) or positive, interpersonally receptive ways.

Psyche is broader than self because it emphasizes the unconscious rather than conscious awareness. We enter into dialogue with this ocean breaking on the more solid shores of our self-hood through dreams, fantasies, and cross-cultural studies of religious symbols, rituals and myths. In the dialogue between psyche and self (self being an unwitting subset of the psyche), we discover aspects of ourselves that are at first ego alien, but on closer scrutiny announce themselves to the self like a long-lost relative—“I am a part of you whether you recognize me or not.” I define psyche as embodied mind: thought/affect, conscious and unconscious/body-carried awareness.

Whether or not an individual’s psyche can be said to be separate from other psyches depends on which theories you prefer. Jung would say that we are all connected through the symbols, complexes, and archetypes that erupt into consciousness from the “objective” or collective psyche (Jacobi, 1973). Freud tends to focus more on the individual unconscious as embodied in our own life experience, but in his letters to Jung (Freud & Jung, 1974) and at intervals throughout his career was at times more open to considering the interconnectedness of psychic life (1912x/1953).

The etymological origins of psyche and soul are identical, but distinctionsmade between them in light of our 20th century understanding of the unconscious can be descriptively useful. The psyche has the capacity to step back and reflect on itself to some degree, though there will always be mysterious depths to the unconscious that cannot be fathomed. But when we talk about soul we are considering another kind of vision.

In describing the interaction of ego and id (das Es), conscious and unconscious mind, Freud used the metaphor of horse and rider (1900). The ego-alien energy of the id contributes its power to the rider if the rider is skillful enough to direct it. But Freud also spoke of the ego as the clown at the circus, presenting itself as being the one in charge while numerous mishaps make it clear that the ego is not master in its own house (1927).

Jung described the journey of individuation as beginning in earnest in mid-life, once the conscious ego sense of self is firmly established in its various roles. As we confront the ultimately unknowable mystery of ourselves we first recognize that we are more than our personas, or the masks of life roles that we wear. A woman who has invested considerable life energy in raising her children may need to rediscover herself once her children are launched in adulthood. A man invested in his career may have relegated to his “shadow” those tender, empathic aspects of himself that were seen as “not-me” because they failed to serve him well in competitive work-place settings. Beyond persona and shadow is what Jung calls the “syzygy,” contra sexual characteristics difficult to claim in the face of cultural norms, which we tend to project on persons of the opposite sex. A man’s own inner feminine, or “anima,” draws him to women who personify his ideal. A woman’s “animus” projection allows her to idealize a man who possesses qualities she could potentially embody for herself but which remain unconscious. As the ego makes its way past persona, shadow, anima/animus, all partial aspects of the person we consciously know ourselves to be, it enters into dialogue with a larger sense of self that is in many ways comparable to the soul. Figure 2 offers a schematic representation of self and cultural context across boundaries of conscious and unconscious awareness, with soul as central to deeper levels of self experience (Kelcourse, Ed. 2004, p.63).

Fig 2

Attempts to establish dialogue between conscious and unconscious aspects of our awareness are fruitful in that they can be both energizing and instructive. The self that comes to understand itself in broader terms is more buoyant because it has less to fear from unconscious seas. Like a good sailor, such a self reads the signs of wind and weather and sets its course accordingly.

Soul as center and imago dei: That of God in us

In Christian mystical traditions, the soul is the imago dei, that of God in us. What the soul sees is not just us or the other persons who make up our inner world but something more than us that connects us to an Other who is also alpha and omega, origin and end, the source of nephesh, ruah, anima, spiritus, the very breath of life.

I define soul as embodied spirit. To use the kind of paradox typical in religious experience, the soul, like God, is both the center and circumference of the psyche. All dream material is psychic material in the sense that it comes to us through our particular history, our embodied experience. But the soul’s voice announces itself in dreams with feelings of numinous awe, exaltation, or dread, according to Rudolph Otto (1923). I would argue that dread is only a factor when there is significant resistance to the soul’s point of view. This can be the case when the soul’s perspective conflicts with the ego’s preference for comfort and self-preservation. In Quaker traditions of discernment, it is often found that a genuine “leading” from the Holy Spirit is met with an initial “no” of dismay from the ego’s perspective. It is not unusual for the soul’s voice to be ego-dystonic while simultaneously conveying a sense of conviction and authority that is not easily dismissed. Take for example James Nayler’s 17th century call to ministry as described in London Faith and Practice (Religious Society of Friends):  

I was at the plow, meditating on the things of God, and suddenly I heard a voice saying to me, “Get thee out from they kindred, and from thy father’s house.” And I had a promise given with it, whereupon I did exceedingly rejoice that I had heard the voice of that God which I had professed from a child, but had never known him… From the examination of James Nayler at Appleby, 1652 (#22, London Faith and Practice, 1960) 

Nayler goes on to say that he hesitated to act on this call. As a result “the wrath of God was upon me.” But one day he felt “commanded to go into the west” and left that very moment, without taking any money, provisions, or stopping to say goodbye to his wife and children. Though out his travels he did not know what he was to say or do until he arrived at his next destination. This account was written at a time before the reality of the unconscious was understood. Yet despite the apparent abandonment of his family to follow this call and Nayler’s tragic end as a Quaker martyr persecuted by the Puritans, rejected even by Quaker founder George Fox, his account clearly has a different quality from the eruption of negative material from the unconscious that we saw in the example of the death’s head hallucination. He resisted the call at first based on the ego’s mundane concerns but eventually embraced his leading and found peace in doing so despite his subsequent suffering and persecution. That he found peace despite his suffering is evident in his dying words:  

There is a Spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things in hope to enjoy its own in the end… It sees to the end of all temptations; as it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other; if it be betrayed it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.(London Faith and Practice, 1960, #75). 

The soul’s voice tends to present itself differently from other psychic material. One often finds the soul’s point of view at the literal center of the dream. For example: A young female seminarian dreamt that she had lost a shoe she needed to wear on Sunday morning. She went to a Target store to look for them (recall the Target symbol). At the very center of the store she found a Good Will box. As she began to rummage through the old used clothes, she caught a glimpse of a light at the center of the box. This reassured her, and she found her missing shoe.

As we explored her associations to this dream, she talked about the disruptions to her sense of self occasioned by her parents’ recent divorce. She felt she had lost a part of herself in losing the family she knew. She felt disheveled like the old clothes in the Good Will box. But at the center of her chaotic sense of self was the Good Will she needed to go on—the light of God’s presence to sustain her.

Through the soul’s life in us we participate in the life of God, whether or not we choose to be aware of and nurture that connection. Just as anger, resentment, rage, and hatred can serve to disconnect us, damaging us and others, 5 so in spiritual direction it is possible to cultivate a broader awareness of grace, just as in psychotherapy one cultivates a broader awareness of self and other. Jesuit spirituality talks about “consolation without prior cause” when, without consciously trying at all, we are suddenly met by grace in ways that feed our souls and affirm a sense of the goodness and wholeness of creation, including ourselves (Fogarty, 1978).

This is a believer’s understanding of soul as something that comes to us from beyond ourselves and often serves to keep our little boats of selfhood afloat in stormy seas. But the soul can also convey requests for the ultimate sacrifice of self to the greater good. James Fowler has identified this perspective as the Universalizing stage of faith development (Fowler, 1981), the self-sacrificial faith of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. Note that putting one’s own existence at risk in service to one’s sense of the greater good is not the same as taking the lives of others through an act of terrorism. In killing innocent non-combatants the interconnectedness of souls is denied rather than being affirmed, as it is in any form of murder or warfare.

When it comes to describing the soul’s connection to God in psychodynamic terms I am drawn to the work of Moshe Halevi Spero (Religious Objects as Psychological Structures, 1992) who speaks of God both as a psychic structure and a living reality. Examples of the redemptive elements of religious experience can be found in pastoral theologian Kathleen Armistead’s book, God images in the healing process (1995). On the other hand, psychiatrist Volney Gay, in Understanding the occult (1989) sees all forms of non-ordinary experience as caused by the fragmentation of the sense of self under stress. I consider this reductive because I distinguish between non-ordinary experience that is life-affirming, contributing to a greater sense of integration and aliveness (c.f. Ulanov, 2007) and non-ordinary experience characterized by fear and distrust which takes us out of connection with self and others.

I find the four terms that William James uses to describe mystical experience helpfully descriptive of the ways the soul’s perspective is communicated to the self through the psyche: ineffability, a noetic quality, transience, and passivity (1902). In other words, dialogues with the soul tend to be difficult to communicate discursively, have, in James’ words, “a curious sense of authority for after-time,” are relatively brief and do not depend on our conscious agency or will. While these terms accurately describe aspects of religious experience in which the soul is filled with a sense of Presence, I prefer the term receptivity to passivity. Spiritual direction actively cultivates receptivity to the Holy Spirit whereas passivity can be understood as aimless inactivity. On the other hand, the Jesuit understanding of consolation without prior cause does not presuppose effort—it simply is.

The language best suited to the soul’s perspective is imaginative rather than discursive, the language of poetry, story and myth. Peter Birkhauser’s images in Light from the darkness (1991) captures aspects of the soul’s vision—a moth that appears with one leg raised, tapping on the window to claim our attention; a face divided between the right side looking out and the left side gazing in; a hunchback emerging from a manhole bearing a lantern; a green stranger at the door; a divided face beginning to heal; the artist’s tiny figure reaching out to touch divine fire (six images in Light from the darkness, pp. 7, 30, 36, 58, 78, 76).

Case histories told as stories can also illustrate the interaction of physical, emotional and spiritual healing:

A female college student craved the attention of male authority figures because she missed her father’s active attention as a child. This lack made her vulnerable to a professor who mistook her idealization of him for seduction (an alternate ending to the male fantasies in the film American Beauty). Following a rape repressed from conscious awareness, the young woman married but found herself unable to give birth. Depression following pregnancy loss led to her first experience of counseling. Counseling brought healing through self-awareness, reclaiming embodied memories into consciousness and finding the words to give them meaning. Emotional resolution of loss came through grief work, parenthood through adoption, and persistent medical efforts to overcome infertility which eventually resulted in a successful birth. Spiritual direction provided the means of grace that ultimately enabled this woman to forgive, setting her free from the original trauma. In this story the various psychological, physical and spiritual treatments explored over many years were inseparable components of healing (Kelcourse, 2003, pp. 60-71).

The sense of interconnection between psyches that also directs us to our shared life in God is expressed by contemporary poet Franz Wright who describes, in “Thanks Prayer at the Cove” (2001, 17-20), an experience of seeing subway passenger’s faces move back and forth through time so that he realizes at length that there is:  

…only one person on earth beneath a certain depth the terror and the love are one, like hunger, same in everyone (p.19) 

I don’t take the poet literally to mean that all persons are indistinguishable. I do take him to mean that the soul, as our umbilical chord to the life of God, also connects us to one another. To see this essential unity and understand its implications—that I harm myself when I harm another—is to embrace the soul’s eye view (Kelcourse, 2001).

Celebrating the essential unity of this life

What good does it do us to be in dialogue with the soul’s perspective if it can be so threatening to the ego? Having a strong ego is important for our daily functioning but being overly identified with the ego’s perspective ultimately serves to disconnect us from others, from the radiant core of our own being, from God. Being master of one’s own ship is not enough. Being able to set our sails to receive the winds of the Holy Spirit and set our course accordingly can bring us into harmony with all we were created to be.

Freud identified the need for a protective father figure God as a regressive return to childhood dependency, religion as the “universal neurosis” of humankind (1927). Perhaps Freud was correct in his observation but wrong in his conclusions. It is a universal human wish to be loved and cared for by someone all-loving and all-powerful. But if this wish for a loving parent is indeed a universal wish, surely that makes the wish normal, not neurotic. And what if our desire for a loving parent in heaven is not a projection of our human parents writ large, but the reverse? What if our search for someone, a parent, lover, life partner, or friend, who will love us and seek to protect us from harm is instead a projection of our prior connection to God onto our human relationships? This seems to be what Jesus is suggesting when he says “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mathew 7:11; Luke 11:13).

From a theological perspective, we believe in the power of love because God first loved us. Cultivating the soul’s perspective, through prayer, spiritual direction, and other religious practices, can connect us powerfully to the abundant love, grace and light to which the lives of the saints attest. It also serves to overcome the separateness of our self experience, causing us to be more receptive to others and to creation itself. 6

It is my experience that healing is more likely to occur when we use all the means at our disposal. In the case history just given there was physical healing—through eventually successful infertility treatments—psychological healing through years of therapy—and spiritual healing through an ultimate acceptance of the grace of God available to all of us, especially as we actively, receptively, seek it. My work as a pastoral psychotherapist aims at encouraging receptivity to healing on all these levels. The self, psyche and soul that we speak of as discrete parts can work in concert to make us whole as we find the courage to consciously engage them in dialogue.

Healing is needed, and can occur, in many ways. Parents can begin to heal from the abuse and neglect of their own childhoods by raising their children with loving kindness. Individuals and communities can overcome sectarian prejudices based on differences of culture, ethnicity and religion. Nations can unite in peace-keeping missions to allay the trauma of genocide. Persons all over the world are becoming more aware of the need to moderate environmentally patterns of destruction that rend the fabric of life on earth, acting locally to achieve global results (cf. Hawken, 2007). I’m convinced that the outward healing needed to overcome war and environmental destruction begins with the inner healing of knowing that, despite our many differences, we all share one life in God, a Higher Power that unites us beyond divisions of race, culture and religion. This is the soul’s eye view, honoring the paradox of unity in diversity, recognizing that a wound to the life of one is a wound to the life of all.



1 For similar appropriations of a phenomenological perspective in psychological contexts see Medard Boss (1963/1982) and the writings of intersubjective theorists such as Atwood and Stolorow (1984).

2 I’m referring particularly to those experiences William James (1900) identifies as “mystical” – noetic, ineffable, transient and occurring in “passive” or receptive states of mind.

3 Despite the current popularity of the word soul, many authors are reluctant to define this term with any precision. See for example Moore, Care of the Soul (1992) and Rollins, Soul and Psyche (1999).

4 This film is based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan, Memento mori.

5 See Kathleen Greider, Reckoning with Aggression (1997) for beneficent functions of aggression.

6 Elements of this paragraph appeared in “Not Bread but a Stone” (Kelcourse, 2003, p.40-41).


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