Twenty-five years ago, American psychotherapist and ex-monk Thomas Moore published his book, Care of The Soul…and it immediately struck such a chord for so many readers that the book spent forty-six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and has been reprinted many times since.
Gathering some books from my shelves to accompany me on a soul-needed retreat recently, the title caught my eye, and I took it with me. Gratefully re-reading it over the course of my week of reflection, it was as though I was reading it for the first time, reminding me of how timely and timeless Moore’s words remain.
So what was the chord it struck then, and now? Maybe it is in the way the book speaks to the longings of so many among us to find a way to reintegrate spirituality (a sense of connection to mystery and meaning) into our lives—lives that have become weary and guilt-ridden as a result of all that problem-solving and striving for “self-improvement” that our “can-do” culture tends to pursue (and to encourage), and that many (even most) standard therapy approaches reinforce.
“In the modern world we separate religion and psychology, spiritual practice and therapy,” writes Moore, in the introduction to the book. It is a separation, he says, that was unknown in earlier centuries of healing practices in the western world. But in our nation’s founding zeal to separate church and state in order to ensure for all the freedom to choose and to practice religion (or other spiritual practice) without persecution, we ended up pretty much throwing the “baby” (the conversation about the life of the soul) out with the “bathwater” (the power of any given religion to dictate the lives of its citizens), at least in secular life. As a result, modern psychology has become essentially secular and ego-centered. About the “self” (the ego) that is, but not about the “soul.”
With the soul having become off-limits to the field of psychology, psychology ended up aligning itself at the beginning of the 20th century with medicine: a safely “scientific” field which itself had become interested in understanding and treating mental and emotional disorders.
A result, however, was a severe impoverishment of the earlier scope of modern psychology, and a growing emphasis on “cure” (of symptoms) versus “care” (of soul).
And here’s the big irony: the word “psyche” itself in Greek means “the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body,” with “psychology” supposedly the field of knowledge of exactly that, and “psychotherapy” its tending practice.
In effect, then, we ended up with a “psychology” and “psychotherapy” without “psyche,” and treatment reduced to what could be called (I’m making this up:) “egotherapy.”
And it is that ancient understanding of the psyche/soul (the existence of which was assumed by both secular and religious peoples until very recent centuries) that Moore means when he talks about “soul” in the book: less a “thing” (in the object sense of a “thing”) than it is “the font of who we are […] holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.” A dimension of our lives with a life of its own, distinct from the ego, connected with all other lives and with the source of life itself. “We can cultivate, tend, enjoy and participate in the things of the soul,” Moore says, “but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.”
From the point of view of an ego-focused-but-soulless psychology, suffering and its symptoms are assumed to represent some kind of individual or relationship failure or imperfection. Add to that the medical point of view, and we have a way of looking at symptoms as indicative of a “disorder” or a “disease.” From both points of view, suffering and its symptoms represent “problems to solve,” which view encourages ever more striving for the perfection of some idealized self and trouble-free existence— a striving which, being futile, only leads to more suffering.
In contrast, Moore says, to attend to the soul is to understand that the soul’s life is, by nature, “complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failure.” It is a life “not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness.” But instead of labeling these experiences as “bad” or “good,” or representing “problems to solve,” care of the soul focuses on the opportunities and possibilities that are inherent in all experiences for growing in “self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundations of the soul.” It is an approach that also focuses on listening for, and giving the soul what it needs to cultivate its well-being, many of which things might be quite ordinary: “more time in the garden,” say, or “a change of scenery,” or “taking the time to savor your food without checking Facebook at the same time.”
In essence, says Moore, The aim of soul work…is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistically-healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart […] to all the many communities that claim our hearts.”
For more (including specific ways to put this into soul-tending practice, get a copy: Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Sacredness in Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore. New York: Random House, 1992.