Suzanne Arms’ U.U. Durango Talk #2: Musings on the Human Soul ~ August 02, 2015

by faithgibson on August 4, 2015


Note: While this is a copyrighted talk, I welcome you sharing it with anyone, as long as you give me credit for it.

Opening Blessing:

From the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“Every man is a doorway through which the Infinite passes into the finite…through which the Universal becomes individual…There is something within me beyond all doubt and fear, something which has never been limited.”

Reading and Meditation:

MARY OLIVER’S poem “Wild Geese” was mentioned in a previous talk on poetry and the soul.

I’d like to read it to you. How many of you are feel a tug deep inside when you see geese flying overhead?

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever your are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Musings on the Human Soul

In my last talk here at UU Durango (March 2nd, 2015) I spoke about the roots of loneliness and spiritual longing and alienation. Today, I will explore the human soul, as part of our UU series on The Soul. I don’t have an intellectual attachment to the idea of the soul. Rather, I have a sense in my body, and whenever I lose my connection with my soul I experience a physical sense of melancholy. And I feel some fear. And I feel lost. Those are the signs that I need to slow down, even stop, be physically still, quiet my mind, and turn my attention within.

What’s the difference between soul, spirit, and heart? They’re often used interchangeably. But they are not the same.

Let’s look at some of the suffixes we attach to these 3 words in the English languages, as that may give us a sense of their difference:   Soulful  ~  spirited  ~  heartfelt

Would you, right now, sitting as you are, close your eyes and let your arms and hands and finger point to the place or area in or around you where you feel spirit exists? Keeping your eyes closes or cast downward, now point to the place or area where you feel your soul exists – that is, if you feel it exists at all.

Now let your eyes open. Raise your hands if, for you, spirit implies out and up. For how many of you did you find yourself looking or feeling yourself go down and inward.

Even more interesting than where it is located, assuming it exists, is whether soul (like the concept of God) exists full-blown and always the same…or whether it is something that grows, and whether it pre-exists our being conceived into a body and continues beyond our physical death.

I equate the soul with our innermost depths, a descent or journey downward, into water, into dark deep and dark waters, full of mystery.

And I, like many who have written eloquently about the soul, associate it with the deep feminine dimension of both men and women.

Some of us were dragged down into these deep dark waters of the soul early in life, through personal pain and loss. A parent dies, slowly or suddenly, or we witness or directly experience a horror. For others it comes later, when we go to war we have a brush with or come face-to-face with our own death. For some, these experiences are where we discover our soul. For others, it feels as if we’ve been cut off from our essence.

Poet, translator Stephen Mitchell, in his foreword to book by Jungian psychotherapist JOHN TARRANT, called The Light Inside the Dark, wrote that:

“the soul craves depth, darkness, embodiment, the poetry and turmoil of the world. And that the cravings of the spirit are a hunger for light, purity, birth-and-deathlessness, and the dazzle of true insight.”

Tarrant’s spiritual life was shaped by English literature, the Catholic Mass and Australian Aboriginal culture and he now teaches meditation to physicians.

“Beneath or inside the life we lead every day is another life that runs like a river beneath the city, beneath work, family, ambition, beneath our pleasures and griefs…This interior life of ours is often subjugated or paved over…slumbers until it is called forth.

But this life beneath or within our ordinary life is irrepressible, unstoppable; it comes up in loveliness like jonquils out of the fallen snow, it rises in supplication like hands out of gratings in a pavement in India, and it burst upward through our chests as the fountain of shock that is our reaction to evil news.

It appears in dreams, reverie, memories of childhood, in what we find beautiful, and in what we find ugly…and appears when we fall in love, when we fall ill, and when we are lost on dark paths. It touches our pleasures with melancholy and intermittently pierces our desperation with joy.”

Soul is not the same as spirit. John Tarrant writes:

“Through attentiveness to spirit, we enter a place of reverence…and see that woman, river, wind and star are all equal, and that death and life are both dreamlike processes, themselves part of a greater unchangingness…The experience of spirit is natural and most people have had a taste of it. This dimension of spirit is the most wonderful thing there is; and yet, alone, it is strangely helpless

…spirit gives us the foundation for understanding reality, but is of little help with the day-to-day arts of relishing life…spirit wants only to ascend, to be pure…For it lacks melancholy, and everything voluptuous.”

But there is a second impulse, he writes:

“simultaneous with and contradictory to the first, and it takes us toward the little and the disregarded: the valley world that is lovely, seductive, transient, destructive of our illusions and also of our wisdom – not the life eternal, but the life that we die of…

It loves the sound of rain and the smell of basil. It stands at the foot of the bed feeling the heart enlarge before the face of the sleeping child … that part of us which touches and is touched by the world.

Through soul we connect with each other and are made less lonely…in a tangible, human way…Soul falls headlong into matter…It likes to merge… It obsesses and broods…It is with our souls that we truly inhabit our lives, tasting the fresh black coffee, so delicious. and the kiss, so brief and full of consequences…

Soul brings meaning to experience… Soul does not abolish the difficulty of our lives, but brings a music to our pains – its gift is to make us less perfect and more whole.”

So, we might say that our soul is our truest part, our essential nature as an individual. Now, many tribal peoples, by the way, have no term in their language for “individual”; because everything is collective and inter-related and inter-dependent. Isn’t that what precisely what modern physics and biology are teaching us?

I think of the BIONEERS movement – that’s biological pioneers – which started in 1990 near Santa Fe: putting on annual international conferences – now 6,000 people in one auditorium and tens of thousands of others around the world seeing it through space bridges and holding their own workshops… people from sorts of disciplines and all over the world involved in exploring the nature of the problems that beset us and leading-edge solutions, based in biological principles and bio-mimicry. An early tag line of the Bioneers conferences stated:

“It’s all alive; it’s all related; and it all matters.”

Now, with the new evidence coming in every year, from the various sciences: physics, astronomy, neuroscience, that’s more true now than we ever imagined.

But whether we feel ourselves to be a separate individual or a part of a whole, we experience our soul most deeply, I suggest, through our physical senses, not through abstract thoughts.

Societies too have a soul – or sole – purpose and unique nature and temperament. Ireland and Russia, in the mind of some, are “old soul” nations. As Big Sur poet Robinson Jeffers described Ireland to be the old, wet worn out womb of the world. Compare that to the U.S. I believe we are a young soul nature, brash, aggressive and arrogant.

For some of us, nothing quite expresses a concept like music. Let me play for you an excerpt from a piece of music, which, for me, is a call to the soul. You might close your eyes, or cast them downward as you listen, allow this piece to bathe you, or flow through you. It’s from “Song For Ireland”, sung by MARY BLACK…

In the early 1970s, a young city-born and bred naturalist, ANNIE DILLARD, wrote a book of her observations about a creek near where she lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia called Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. It was a universe she found paradoxically exquisite and fresh, morbid and grotesque, full of the spiritual energy of nature. And she expresses awe and reverence for it all.

She wrote:

“I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn…I walk out; I see something; some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a struck bell.”

“You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled.”

And Annie also wrote about stalking nature.

“It is astonishing how many people cannot, or will not, hold still. I could not hold still for 30 minutes inside, but at the creek I slow down, center down, empty. I am not excited; my breathing is slow and regular… I retreat – not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone.”

“And I cannot, in all honesty, call the world old, when I’ve seen it new. I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world. I am not washed and beautiful, but wandering awed on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

And, when called to, Annie takes action.

“I saw a monarch butterfly walking across a gas station lot, walking south. I placed my index finger in its path, and it clambered aboard and let me lift it to my face. Its wings were faded but unmarked by hazard. It was a male; his legs clutching my finger were short and atrophied. And I knew that those feet were actually tasting me, sipping with sensitive organs the vapor of my finger’s skin: butterflies taste with their feet…I leaned closer. I could barely scent a sweetness. He smelled like honeysuckle. I had read a list of the improbably scents of butterflies: sandalwood, chocolate, sweet pea…an odor only half-remembered, a breath of the summer past. I walked him across the gas station lot and lowered him into a field. And he took to the air, and I lost him.”

For me, the comfort and soul-filled emotion I find in these examples, comes from the sense that I am not alone in my feelings about life, myself, and the world.

My husband Bob offered me this thought: that the soul wants to know itself.

And to do that, it tests both our external and internal reality. That, he observes, is a part of the inherent nature of our soul, He reminded me that, while others can and sometimes do, reflect our soul back to us, there does come a time in most people’s lives when our soul needs to know itself directly. And, at that time, we naturally turn our attention inward.

This natural inward turning is often accompanied by losing interest in things we used to be interested in, such as social activities or forms of entertainment. As he says, it may help to understand soul by looking for a moment at where soul doesn’t exist: in the men who created the plans for the ovens in the concentration camps…in the collective insanity of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, ISIS, and in the board rooms of big corporations looking at how they can sell more a product, like as Roundup to every homeowner and farmer, or expand their market for cigarettes to young kids in Southeast Asia. There’s no soul where we are poisoning our mother earth and the brains and lungs of our children.

In modern society, turning toward, paying attention to, and “growing” our soul may not be a matter of conversation. But it is a natural process that comes with serious illness, depression or aging, often around our 50s or early in our 60s.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who did his groundbreaking work in the new field of psychology – and much of it on the unconscious, on dreams, and on the soul – in the 1st half of the 20th century, stated that, for most people, they didn’t start their soul’s true work until around age 53.

Why then? That is the time when in many societies, adults are finished with the engrossing work of childrearing and homemaking and have time for themselves. A kind of 2nd life. That doesn’t mean we did nothing of importance in our 20s, 30s or 40s. But that work may not have been the reason we chose to incarnate – come into a body – if you are believe in the idea that we come into this body from another dimension, with a soul purpose.

So, how then do we know when we’re consciously connected with our soul? There are many ways, mostly small, modest ways. One hint: when we are connected to our soul or the soul of the world, we don’t feel lonely.

James Hillman, a psychologist, scholar and author of The Soul Code, wrote that:

“Each person bears a uniqueness that asked to be lived…Each person enters the world called.” The Greek philosopher Plato was perhaps the first Western philosopher to state this. But indigenous people have long believed this to be true, and shaped their tribal villages accordingly. Part of Plato’s philosophy is the belief that the circumstances of this life, including our particular body and the parents we may curse, are actually our soul’s own choice, but that we do not understand this because we have forgotten.”

To connect with our soul, Hillman urges us to go beyond our the facts of our lives, beyond our personal “story”:

He writes:

“The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim

The current American identity as victim is the tail side of the American coin whose head brightly displays the opposite identity: the heroic self-man man, carving out destiny alone and with unflagging will.”

An interesting observation, isn’t it? A young soul nation we are, that thought nothing of conquering and attempting to obliterate the indigenous peoples of this land.

In a healthy, well-functioning tribe, as in a healthy, well-functioning family, neighborhood and community the entire group feels personally responsible for the soul of each child and adult. Collectively, we need to form a matrix, or mother, so that each child is raised to feel they are essential and important to the whole, that they bring a unique gift necessary for the very survival and wellbeing of us all. That they belong to this earth, and have a sense of place.

TARA BRACH, a teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Washington DC, is one of my revered teachers, whose talks on podcast bring me back to the innate wholeness and sanity of my body and the “felt sense” of being fully alive and connected to my soul. As she said in one of her podcasts, about the value of the unpleasant symptoms that we may feel:

“ I am the pain in your head, the knot in your stomach, the unspoken grief in your smile, the high blood pressure, your lack of trust…your agitation and fatigue. You tend to disown me, suppress me, ignore me. You really want me to go away…Many times you are shocked by my arrival.

But I implore you. I am a messenger with good news. As disturbing as I can be at times, I am wanting to guide you back to those tender places in yourself, where you can hold yourself with compassion and honesty. If you look beyond my appearance, you may find that I’m a voice from your soul, calling to you from places deep within that seek your conscious alignment. I may ask you to alter your diet, get more exercise or sleep. I might encourage you to see a vaster reality, or attend to the wounds of your relationships. I might have you laugh more, spend more time in nature, eat when you are hungry and less when in pain or bored, spend time every day for a few minutes being still…

I am your friend, not your enemy. I am simply tugging at your sleeve. You are a being so complex, so vast, with amazing capacities…Let me lead you back to the mysterious core of your being, where insight and wisdom are naturally available, when called upon with a sincere heart.”

Tara Brach goes on to say:

“Our thoughts carry us away. Our longing will take us back home.”

And being connected to our soul does not imply that we disconnect from being engaged in making this world a better place.

Known to many as Thay, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, THICH NHAT HANH, who came to the U.S. to study comparative religions during the Vietnam War, was a delegate for the Buddhist peace delegation at the Paris Peace Talk talks. He is the one who coined the term “engaged Buddhism”; and it was several of his monks and nuns in Vietnam who set themselves on fire as a horrific protest against the war. Many in the US decried their acts as examples of how Asians don’t take life seriously. To the contrary, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, it was precisely because Buddhists value life so highly that they chose to sacrifice their bodies for peace.

“The sound of the bell or the bowl is a reminder. He asks us to follow our breathing, to go back to ourselves and to listen to ourselves. It brings me back to my true home. There is a voice calling us, wanting us to listen. The capacity to listen to ourselves is the foundation for the capacity to listen to others…It may be our body that’s calling us, it may be our feelings.

It’s very important for us to pay attention to that voice, the capacity for listening to ourselves. The capacity to love others depends on the capacity to love ourselves.”

As the late THOMAS MOORE, a Catholic monk, psychotherapist and writer on archetypes and Jungian psychology, mythology and the arts, writes:

“We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth…AND 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…

The care of the soul is a sacred art, not tied to any particular religious tradition, but a recognition of our absolute need for a spiritual life.”

So, you can see how spirit and soul are like the front and back of the gold coin of the realm.

Moore writes:

“The emotional complaints of our time… we therapists hear every day, include: emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression, disillusionment about marriage, family and relationship, a loss of values, yearning for personal fulfillment and a hunger for spirituality… all reflect a loss of soul and let us know what the soul craves

Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness…

Self-knowledge and self-acceptance are the very foundation of soul…But soul is nothing like ego… It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance…with modest care and not miraculous cure…We can cultivate, tend, enjoy and participate in the things of the soul, but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.

Care of the soul is inspiring…It’s goal is not to make life problem-free, but to give ordinary life the depth and value that come with soulfulness…In the care of the soul, we have both the task and the pleasure of organizing and shaping our lives.”

I’ll close with a little piece of wisdom from the Bantu people in Africa. It is said to be a tradition that fathers whisper in the ear of each of their sleeping children the words:

“Be who you are.”

It is my hope that, from some of what I have shared today, you each may find a deeper connection to your soul, your true nature.


And now a poem from the Irish poet John O’Donohue from his book Eternal Echoes called A Blessing. I read it in my talk on loneliness and I feel it bears repeating for our topic of today, the soul.

I will read it slowly, so you can take in each word:

May you awaken to the mystery of being here and enter
the quiet immensity of your own presence.

May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.

…May you respond to the call of your gift and find the
courage to follow its path.

May the flame of anger free you from falsity.

May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and may
anxiety never linger about you.

May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.

May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that
seek no attention.

May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven
around the heart of wonder.

For more information about Suzanne Arms and the Colorado-based 501c3 nonprofit (charity) she founded and directs, please go to: email:

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