“Spiritual practices help us move from identifying with the ego to identifying with the soul. Old age does that for you too. It spiritualizes people naturally.” ~ Ram Dass
I recently listened to an excellent podcast from the show “On Being” where the poet Christian Wiman discussed the idea that in our modern age, for most people, their primary concern has shifted from soul to self.
Some people may object to the use of the term ‘soul,’ but in this context, I think we should understand soul as a metaphor for the deepest, truest part of ourselves. When we speak of cultivating or caring for the soul, we might mention virtues like humility, compassion, and wisdom.
In this sense, it does indeed seem that western society has sidelined the soul in favor of the self. Worldly and financial success are the true marks of success. As Wiman put it, “we think of our lives as being successful to the extent that [our] selves are ratified by other people.”
His choice of verb really struck me. Ratification is something we normally associate with citizens voting on some sort of provision or constitution. It seemed unusual to use in the context of a self being ‘ratified’ by others, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how accurate it really is.
As the Buddha and all other spiritual masters taught, however, the self (ego) will never be content even in its most glorious achievements.
No matter how many ‘likes’ we garner on facebook or in the workplace or in our family, it will never be enough. Adulation is fleeting. Once others have approved of our achievements in one respect, we tend to either obsess with how to protect our newfound triumph, or occupy ourselves with new and grander projects. There will always be a larger audience to impress, more money to make, or more territory to conquer.
By contrast, the insight the soul needs to understand is that it is already complete in every way and that every experience, even the confusing and disagreeable ones, are there to help it grow into this knowledge. Its worthiness is established just by existing. The bucket has always been full; the need to fill it was an illusion.
I’ve seen the tension that arises between self and soul in my work as a teacher. Even though I receive positive feedback from many students, there are always some who do not appreciate my approach or subject. The fact that my students do not unanimously ‘ratify’ me has caused me worry and frustration in the past.
Self work becomes soul work when we accept and embrace any situation as a response to our longing for growth.
By observing this pattern, I’ve recognized how much of my self is bound up in soliciting approval through achievements. I’ve investigated this further and realized that beneath my desire to be the universally loved ‘good boy’ is the simple fear of being rejected.
Even though it’s difficult and quite disagreeable to admit this about myself, I understand this tension has manifested in order to teach me some lesson that will help me grow into a more conscious and loving human being– the soul’s true longing.
This is an ongoing process that is not subject to deadlines and expectations. Nor is it the sort of ‘work’ that will culminate in a triumphant facebook post like “I’ve conquered my fears and now am living fully in love!” (I wonder how many ‘likes’ would that would garner).
It’s easy to fall into this trap of taking up our soul work and using it to distinguish ourselves from others.
This is what the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa called ‘spiritual materialism,’ reflected in thoughts like “I’ve been meditating for so long, so I should be beyond this emotion,” or “That person isn’t doing the right yoga; they should really be doing my type.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; it’s just a structure that we have to be aware of, especially in our current cultural climate.
That’s perhaps why it’s useful to distinguish between self and soul in the first place, and why Wiman’s remark struck me. Thinking about the difference between self and soul opened a whole new line of questions that can help spot spiritual materialism when it manifests: to what extent is my soul work done for the sake of the self? Am I investigating my habits and reactions because walking the path of truth is its own reward, or because I want to impress other people with my wisdom?
For me, my deepest soul work consists in cultivating the knowledge that I am equal to everything and everybody, not in trying to be better than everyone so I can feel good.
Unlike the self, which always needs arbitrary, external standards to situate itself, the soul doesn’t need results and ratification, for there is no success and no failure with soul work. There is simply the limitless process of uncovering and investigating the mystery that it is.