Is the way of the soul riskier than the way of the spirit?

We have now looked into two of the three marks that distinguish soul-work (psychology) from spirit-work: pathologizing and anima confusions are regarded as inherent activities of the soul, and therefore in soul-work we must attend to them and engage them on their own terms, rather than trying to get rid of them (“treating” or systematically preventing them, in the case of pathologies, “clearing them up” or resolving them in the case of confusions).

Spirit-work is not concerned with these, at least not primarily. A typical meditation technique, for instance, will have components which help us deal with the distractions of the “monkey mind” (the tendency of the conscious personality to seize control and drift into chains of thought). It will also reference teachings that explain how certain behaviors (including thought habits) lead to suffering, and recommend alternatives. Thus, spiritual techniques alert practitioners to pathologies; but their aim is to overcome or outgrow them — to leave them behind us as we progress on the spiritual path. Likewise, the teachings may list typical confusions which make it harder to see the “true way” and lead into spiritual traps. (For instance, Buddhist teachings that lead practitioners to abandon “attachments” will have to explain, at some point, that the ideology of the “true” spiritual path is itself a form of attachment that must be recognized and abandoned.) But these spiritual teachings which deal with confusions, once again, are only intended to avoid or eliminate them.

In contrast, soul-work starts from the premise that psychopathologies and anima-confusions are perpetually part of the workings of the soul. True, they need to be recognized first; insofar as just awareness of them is concerned, the practices of soul-work and spirit-work overlap (or may be substituted for each other, or perhaps be employed together). But once particular instances of pathologizing or anima confusions are recognized, the perspectives of soul-work and spirit-work differ sharply. While spirit-work aims at getting them out of the way (in order to refocus on the spiritual goals), soul-work accepts them, and then follows their lead towards the depths of the soul.

Spirituality has no tolerance, let alone acceptance, for pathologies and anima confusions. The spirit knows where it aims, knows where the path is supposed to lead (upwards, to the peak which is already clearly visible from whereever we currently stand). Soul-work, in contrast, must follow roads that lead through the fog, downwards into the darkness of the soul. Handing the lead over to pathologies and anima confusions (to “dream on” the dream or fantasy, as Jung put it, and Hillman frequently quotes with approval) is generally symbolized by following psychopompos (soul-leader) figures, and the attitude of soul-work is to recognize those and then trust the directions they give. But this is riskier business than spirit-work, for there is obviously no “tried and tested” path already laid out; in fact, rather than converging onto a single spiritual peak, the roads that lead downwards into the soul multiply, overlap and spread out, and might even form circular routes that go round in eternity and get us nowhere else at all.

Soul-work, then, requires a higher tolerance for risk and uncertainty and more trust into guiding figures. And the latter is particularly difficult since these figures have evidently sprung from the imagination, and may well be malicious (themselves intent on deepening the pathologies), thus compounding the risk we take in accepting and following them. Moreover, in many cases they don’t appear as eminently articulate dream or vision characters (such as Dante’s Beatrice, Jung’s Philemon, or even Pauli’s “stranger” who lectures him in his dreams about the archetypal background of contemporary microphysic; cf. PJC 53-55); instead, they may be projected onto other people in our daily lives, and thus recognizing them as soul-leaders requires “imagining things” about real-life people. With hurdles like these, it seems unsurprising that practitioners frequently prefer to embark on spiritual paths, rather than engaging in soul-work (cf. RVP 70).

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

alchemy allegorical style archetypes causality dark side death depth dreams ego eros erotetic arch film frame analysis ghost-story style ghosts individuals Jung philology liminality literature magic methodology mirrors mystery mysticism Narcissus narrative analysis nekyia pathologizing persona personal note personification persons projection psychoid romantic love self-knowledge shadow soul space spirit subjectivity symbols synchronicities technology time