What is Soul?

We may be put off this word by our Christian heritage which sees soul as something divorced from real here and now embodied life, something to be saved and enjoyed only in the afterlife. For me soul is an embodied presence which we may have to re-find through the arena of psychotherapy.

It is instructive to look at how we use the word soul in everyday parlance. We speak of a country as having a soul – the soul of Spain, for example – or of a musical instrument having a soul – ‘the soul of the guitar’, or any other instrument you care to mention. Or we can speak of music itself of having a soul, or being soulful. Let’s take Flamenco music as an example, something that is generally considered to have a lot of soul. What elements come together to produce this feeling of soul? We have instrumentation: guitar, castanets, voice and the percussive effects of the dancer’s shoes. We also have elements of rhythm, harmony, register, tone, texture, etc. There is also the visual element, the costume, the ensemble, the dance. If we isolated any one of these elements and considered it we would still recognise “the soul of flamenco” in it, we would just have less of it, less soul, and we might have to use our imaginations to fill in the other parts of the missing soul, but we would still recognise it’s essence.

Let’s take another analogy – the soul of the cello. When we hear this instrument played what elements do we hear? We might love those low vibrations of the bottom register of the instrument or might enjoy those soaring ecstatic high notes, or when the strings are plucked, or when more than one not is played simultaneously. There are many ways it can be played and all those ways constitute what we mean when we say it has soul.

What then if we think of ourselves as an instrument? In what ways might we be playing ourselves and what elements make up our own soul? How are we to differentiate between “soul” and other aspects of ourselves? Here’s Jung on the subject:

I have been compelled, in my investigations into the structure of the unconscious, to make a conceptual distinction between soul and psyche. By psyche I understand the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious. By soul, on the other hand, I understand a clearly demarcated functional complex that can best be described as a “personality.”(Jung, Collected Works Vol. 6, para. 797)

Through therapy we can come into contact with this “personality”. It is perhaps something we never lost, but we only held onto one part of it, one element, perhaps like the high register of the cello and we forget the deeper tones the instrument is capable of. Through the arena of therapy – a soul arena – we can uncover our true instrument in all its various aspects. We can embody it in life, in the now. It is something that accrues to us through working in the soul’s arena.