“Any therapy which does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end.”
Although the word “soul” has religious connotations, when I talk about bringing soul into therapy I am talking about taking a deeper view, which embraces the mystery of a person’s life and the problems they may be struggling with.
This means is that, as a soulful therapist, I try and resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the problem in a superficial way. Often attempts to resolve problems quickly do not last as the symptom returns in the same, or a different, manifestation.
Instead of seeing a client’s struggle with, say, addiction, depression or sexual problems as a symptom to cured I am interested in what this particular symptom may be saying about the person’s life and their unconscious longings and fears.
That does not mean ignoring the symptom. We need to, and the client will insist, that we attend to the problem he or she is bringing. But it does mean that we also look beneath the presenting issue to what else may be going on in that person’s life journey.
A major part of working soulfully is engaging with the shadow, which is what Jung called that part of ourselves that we reject because it does not match our self-image. The shadow often contains anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and other ‘negative’ feelings.
Jungian therapist and author James Hollis describes working with soul in his book Swamplands of the Soul. He argues that it is the difficulties in our life – the compulsions, the depressions, the anxieties – that mould us and create meaning. But we need to look beneath these symptoms, he says, and feel the feelings that are being covered.
He says; “Without the suffering, which seems to be the…requisite for psychological and spiritual maturation, one would remain unconscious, infantile and dependent. Yet many of our addictions, ideological attachments and neuroses are flights from suffering.”
If we are able to explore what feelings are being covered over by addiction, depression and anxiety we often discover anger (or even rage), sadness and grief. These feelings can seem so raw and frightening that we are afraid to touch them.
But, as therapist John Bradshaw says, “You can’t heal, what you can’t feel.”
A soulful approach takes us down, down into these feelings, down into the shadow. It asks what what meaning or purpose, if any, there may be in these feelings and related experiences. What it does not try and do is superficially ‘cure’ the symptom.
One way of giving painful experiences, such as abandonment or abuse, some meaning beyond our personal experience is through stories, myths and archetypes (universal symbols or patterns of behaviour).
In his book We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, archetypal psychologist James Hillman gives the example of a man who, as a child. was abused by his father. Hillman opens up the possibility that this experience could be seen as a kind of initiatory experience, a way of understanding archetypal/universal themes concerning rage between fathers and sons, vengeance and submission.
By re-framing the experience in this way, “I’ve moved the memory, somehow, from just being a child victim of a mean father. I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic, world.”
While I agree, up to a point, with Hillman my concern is that this approach is not used to bypass the legitimate rage and sadness that the victim may feel. It may be necessary to first experience the victim feelings before being in a place to explore the mythical or archetypal elements.
But what I think Hillman is pointing at is our tendency to rigidly judge our experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, being treated abusively is clearly ‘bad’. It affects our self-esteem, our ability to form trusting relationships and so on. But there may also something in that experience that forms our character, that perhaps gives us an extra sensitivity to other people’s suffering or that encourages us to seek an outlet in creativity.
As Hillman says: “Wounds and scars are the stuff of character. The word ‘character’ means at root ‘marked or etched with sharp lines,’ like initiation cuts.”