Your Soul Is Like A Wild Animal

         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

Honey and Other Things: Exploring Our Inner Selves

            Years ago, I heard a presentation by Tom Boyd, a philosophy professor from the University of Oklahoma. As a boy he spent summers with his grandfather on a ranch in Texas. One chore was to help harvest honey.   After collecting, they would filter it and pour it into jars, then apply a label, “Pure Honey.” 

            One time a particle had gotten past the filter.  Young Tom didn’t want to put it through the filter again. He told his grandfather they shouldn’t worry about it and sell it as is.

            “We can’t do that, Tom,” he said.  “Because then we’d have to make a new label: “Honey and Other Things.” 

            Tom said he never forgot that.

            Years ago, I was driving downtown on my way to volunteer at the local soup kitchen.  As I was driving, I remember a voice saying, “You know, going to serve the poor means you are a really good person. Other people will think that when they see you. It will add to your reputation.” 

            Another voice was shocked. “How self-centered can you get? That’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not at all about showing off.”

            It was only me in the car, so I had to own both voices.

            The genuine voice within me I’m going to think of as the honey. And the self-centered voice will be “other things.”  

            There are endless ideas about how many “selves” or personas we have within us.  Philosophy, theology, and psychology have all explored this question.  I’m going to work with just these two.

            Honey can be the divine presence in us that goes by many names: soul, higher self, inner light, Self, divine spark, etc.  And “other things” can represent our less-than-lofty aspect: the ego, self-centeredness, etc.

            Until my early 20s, I don’t think I was aware of two voices within.  I went day by day reacting to the world as I encountered it.

            After a mystical, transformative experience, I realized how incredibly self-centered I’d been. It had been all about me, and I’d made a mess of my life. But my soul had woken up.  There was now a small drop of honey within, not of my creation. It was a divine gift, it was grace and it became a guiding light.

            As I began to explore Christian spirituality, I often heard the assumption that we must be relentlessly focused on our “sinful nature.”  “You are selfish through and through. You don’t deserve grace. You’ve got to beg for it every day,” was the idea.

            I tried to extinguish that selfishness; I wanted to be pure honey. But in time I realized it was futile.  I concluded my ego wasn’t bad…it was simply trying to protect me. 

            Sometime after that, I was on a long drive on the freeway (apparently a good place for epiphanies).  I visualized standing apart from my ego self.  It was alone and cringing, frightened at being exposed. I walked over, put my arm around it, and said, “Hey, I know you are trying to do the best for me.  I appreciate how hard you work.  But I don’t want you to be in control all the time; you’re a better servant than master. Let’s collaborate instead of compete.” My ego passively accepted my embrace.

            I believe selfishness is a product of our evolutionary past. We do many things to survive, protect ourselves, get what we need, etc.  The “other things” are our biological inheritance. But if we are on a spiritual journey, we’ve decided we don’t want to be stuck there. We want to find something more, a higher good for ourselves and others.

            When I was at Hospice, a group of us attended a 5-day training at the Metta Institute in Marin County on “Cultivating Presence.”  We practiced Zen meditation several times a day, discussed how to care for the dying and heard a variety of speakers.  One of them was Ram Dass, a popular figure from the 60s who had turned from drugs to an Eastern spiritual practice. I’d read some of his work and seen him in person once, but never felt a connection.  One afternoon at the retreat, we had a video linkup with Ram Dass from his home in Maui.  He was talking in general terms and responding to questions in a relaxed and light-hearted way. But at one point, he paused, looked very serious — almost like he was in a trance — and said to us, “You are not a collection of your thoughts. You are loving awareness.”  Then his face relaxed and he continued his talk.

            I’m not sure what was going on, but I honestly felt a pulse of energy at that moment. I have not forgotten that feeling or those words.  Maybe deep within, beyond all the “other things,” we are pure honey … pure loving awareness.

            I don’t know what young Tom and his grandfather saw in that jar…was it a twig? A piece of grass?  Whatever it was, it came from the same blessed earth as the honey. It wasn’t inherently bad. It was just out of place.

            I have been blessed to know some people who seem like they are “Pure Honey.”  But I think most of us are “Honey and Other Things.” And that’s ok. We can accept the “other things” as part of who we are.  We can keep a filter handy. And we can be grateful for any “honey” we find as we go on our way.