When I reflect on the idea of having a “soul,” my mind first goes back to cartoons I watched as a kid. Some character would get bonked on the head and fall over, and then a wispy image of that character would start floating up from the body with little wings and ascend into the sky.
In college, I began to get the idea that a modern, scientific person should be skeptical of believing in anything that could not be measured, observed, and analyzed; the idea of human beings having souls was a superstition best left behind.
Then I had my spiritually transforming experience when I was 22. I suddenly sensed that there is something in us connected to a living reality beyond what we can see. In the years that followed, I began to explore the many ways we can conceive of having this spiritual essence that we sometimes call “soul.”
In 2009 I read A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by the academic-turned-spiritual-mentor Parker Palmer. Early on, he says he will be using the word “soul.” He knows his academic friends will be dismissive about both the word and the concept. But, he believes there is something within us that is best described with this word — a point of connection and wholeness that all spiritual traditions understand. And, he says, he found a useful metaphor for it:
“The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”[i] He goes on to say that much of our culture keeps us distracted and so our soul withdraws. But in moments of quiet and inner attentiveness, our souls cautiously appear. In those moments, we realize who we really are and how miraculous the world is; in those moments, we often find guidance, assurance, and hope.
I loved this idea. If we are thrashing through the woods, wildlife flees from us and hides. But if we come to a cabin in the woods, sit on the porch and become still, the wildlife emerges, and we can observe it with reverence and wonder.
Palmer says there is another quality of soul that is like a wild animal:
Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.[ii]
The soul is like a wild animal. It is shy. But it also can endure great hardship.
This certainly described what I have witnessed many times in my life.
When I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara, many people came to deal with a personal loss – maybe it had occurred just a few weeks before, maybe years ago. The loss had fractured their sense of meaning and trust. Their soul had gone into hiding. But they hoped they could somehow make sense of life. They would be given an appointment with one of our counselors. The philosophy of our staff was based on a simple assumption: “We can’t fix you, but we can come alongside and journey with you as you find your way.” The client would begin to experience this caring, skilled, and non-invasive companionship. It could take weeks or months, but, in time, it was as if the person’s soul could finally come out of hiding and begin to find a way to accept what had happened while forming a new understanding of life. As they found their way, you could see it in their eyes: there was light where there had been shadows. The soul had reemerged and brought with it a quiet wisdom about hard truths and an awareness of simple blessings.
In my time at the La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, I would often use this metaphor when giving tours. There were no televisions or newspapers, and, fortunately, very limited Wi-Fi. As we’d walk the 26 acres of oak groves and gardens, I would point out various places for contemplation they might want to visit during their stay. As a guest, they would be free to wander the property, enjoy the delicious food, and rest as much as they needed. “Our souls are like wild animals,” I would say. “They are shy, like deer in the forest. But when we are quiet, the deer come out. Your soul will begin to sense this is a safe place to be. Give it time, and your soul will come to you.”
When people arrived, they would often be stressed, tired, and distracted. At first, many would keep reaching for their cell phones, trying to find a spot with adequate reception, like a dowser looking for water. They were desperate to stay in touch with the busy world that had ensnared them. But in time, that compulsion would fade. They’d rest, and wander, and explore, and discover whatever it was they needed. As they were leaving a few days later, you could see the change in their eyes. They’d found their inner light, and with it came peace, clarity, and a renewed sense of purpose.
Your soul is like a wild animal – shy, but capable of enduring times of great stress. It is always choosing life instead of darkness. Honor it, care for it, listen to it.
[i] A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, pg 58
[ii] Ibid, pg. 58
Photo Credit: Department of the Interior