If there is a soul, what is that really? The term “soul” is usually monopolized by religions and implies an existence after death. In psychology, we use the word “Self”, that what we identify with as a whole. But are they different from each other, or do they mean one and the same?
The psychotherapeutic school of thought Internal Family Systems therapy is shining a new light on this question. The theory surmises that we all consist of a number of parts, as in “a part of me wants this” and “a part of me wants that”. Some of these parts carry a lot of feeling, and others are very detached and intellectual. Some see the world for what is is, and others want it to be different.
Very often, several of these parts are in conflict. That is what gets us into trouble. One part knows that it’s dangerous to eat that extra slice of pizza, but the other needs some comfort food and will try to overpower the first one. Then there’s another part that judges you for even being weak, and off we go into a merry-go-round of internal struggle.
And we go on and carry that internal tension into the world and cause more conflict with others who we then blame for whatever we can in order to get rid of the pain.
So it is important to sort out all the conflict we carry around inside to avoid misplacing it onto other people.
Many times, there are lots of parts involved in an epic internal battle for control and in an attempt to avoid pain. IFS theory, which was created by the psychologist Richard Schwartz, states as one of its goal to get all the parts to coexist in harmony with each other. If they all rally behind you, they play like an orchestra in tune with its conductor.
So there is the big question, who then conducts the cacophony of parts? It is the Self who is behind it all. The Self as it is is already calm and peaceful, deliberate and serene. It’s not the Self that gets us into trouble, but the parts that are constantly at war with each other.
Our task lies in getting in touch with that inner being that already knows what is right and good. It is the intuitive part of our selves which knows more than we give it credit for. Too often it is obscured by anxiety, sadness and doubt. The more of our parts are fighting to be in control, the harder it is to get through to that innate wisdom that we all carry within us.
Some people see this Self, which is healthy and led by equanimity, as the Soul. A presence that is timeless, reliably calm and detached from the daily drama that pulls us in many directions.
A person who can be in touch with the Self throughout most days is what we call a soulful person: a personality of inherent beauty and serenity. Everybody has it. The only a task is to find it.
Ambivalence can be paralyzing. Swaying back and forth between two or more points of view is natural, but when it goes on for too long, it inhibits our ability to make decisions. The worst case is to get stuck with no way out, and others end up calling the shots.
But ambivalence doesn’t have to be painful. So often we beat ourselves up for being unable to reach a conclusion. And once our inner critic is firmly in charge, all of our energy goes into trying to resolve the inner conflict, and things get even harder.
Slow down. There is something to be said about that in-between state, right before we hone in on a final course of action. It’s the place of free flowing exploration, when the pressure to act is suspended, and we can simply enjoy the possibilities that are available to us. It’s important to acknowledge that we have choices. We are in control of deciding which path to take.
Ambivalence can help us mature. It presents an opportunity for growth and change because it involves coming to terms with the rich complexity of experience that we are privy to. As soon as you are able to imagine the possibilities you have at your fingertips, the process becomes expansive and limitless. Rather than avoiding certain scenarios, your fantasies can carry you to a place of peace and tranquility. And it is just this tranquility that will work to your advantage when the time to make a decision comes. That’s when ambivalence feels expansive, and can be a powerful part of our emotional and intellectual process.
Ambivalence is human. President Obama reflected on this while campaigning for office. “There is a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself,” he was quoted in Newsweek. “It’s part of what makes me a good writer. It’s not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign.”
If you can embrace your ambivalence it will work with you. If you chastise yourself for it, everything contracts, and the perception that your choices are limited will prevail. The more we learn to tolerate ambivalence and just leave ourselves alone, the more naturally we will come to decide on a course of action, because it will also make it easier to accept if we end up making a decision that seems wrong. But there are no wrong decisions, because even these help us learn and grow. Especially these.
If you get stuck in your ambivalence, try to befriend it. Give it a shape and a persona. Maybe it feels like a formless blab, or a menacing ghoul. Try to look at your ambivalence as if it were a friend who has your best interest in mind. Imagine it telling you to take your time to be sure you have considered all options. Be understanding with the part of yourself that hesitates.
Of course it is hard to exclude so many seemingly good (or bad) options. Life often moves fast, faster than we want it to. Tip your hat to your ambivalence, because it is trying to spare you from disappointment. When you feel more positive about its role, express your gratitude to the imaginary persona you have created and do some self exploration.
What’s behind the hesitation?
If you find yourself ambivalent, because you don’t want to disappoint another person, you are not alone. We depend on our social connections and have to navigate their needs versus our own carefully. But if you find yourself chronically in the situation that your own needs go unanswered, you may be out of touch with your own wants and desires. If you’re paralyzed by always thinking of other people first, pause, and refocus on yourself. You have every right to prioritize your own happiness.
Fear of failure
Examine the part of you that is afraid to fail. Ambivalence is good for a while, but at some point we have to jump in and take the risk. It’s important to face the possibility that you might make the "wrong" decision. You may change your mind. You may regret it. Nobody can save you from making mistakes. But mistakes teach us the best lessons we have to learn about life. And you will always move past your mistakes. Life flows. Nothing ever stays the same. Including when we mess up.
Fear of missing out
This fear often goes back to losses earlier in life. If you at one time felt chronically excluded by others, you will try to avoid feeling left out ever again. It’s important to mourn these losses so you can move past feeling bereft in situations that may have nothing to do with your past, but end up holding you back.
The important thing is that you feel put upon – regardless of whether they bring up politics or attack you in some way. And even though it feels extremely triggering to have to listen to them – this is also what puts you in the driver’s seat: It’s not about them – it’s about you staying in control of your own reactions.
So before you start rolling your eyes or think about fighting back, take a moment and look inside.
1. Take a sip of water, take a breath and ask yourself: Why am I so bothered by their BS?
Does their opinion really matter to you? Do you see their comments as the ultimate truth rather than a projection of their anxieties?
Most of the time, criticism is nothing but a hidden form of blaming someone else for one’s own insecurities. The definition of blame is the need to discharge pain or discomfort onto someone else. If uncle Tom asks about why you don’t have a girlfriend, it probably means that he is unhappy with his own relationships. If aunt Cathy criticizes your dress, she most likely isn’t crazy about her own appearance.
Holiday conversations are filled with projections. And projections are nothing but pointing the finger at someone else, so they don’t have to look at their own insecurities. Don’t get roped into their drama, and remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with you.
2. Remember your allies and take control
If you anticipate uncomfortable conversations think about a couple of topics you want to discuss. Ponder who at the table might feel the same way you do. Group dynamics are all about alliances. Maybe your dad is just as tired of his brother’s rants as you are.
Intervene and distract at the first sign of annoyance. Don’t let it get out of hand. Get up from your seat to draw attention to you. Walk over to you father and show him a picture of your toddler’s Halloween dress, or a funny YouTube video. Involve your allies in a conversation about what they used to do as kids at Halloween. Group conversations flow with what people really want to talk about. And that’s usually not some crazy relative, but events and people who are close to their heart.
If you have the nerve (and you might not) to take aunt Cathy on, try to validate her experience. Notorious critics tend to soften as soon as they are shown compassion, especially if what they are used to is opposition.
If you’re involved in an ongoing toxic battle about politics, try a general statement like “it really is a shame what’s going on there” and don’t engage further. If you can’t hear the constant complaints about (fill in the blank) anymore, say “this really seems to get to you” and quickly change the topic.
When you change your perspective, from seeing an annoying person to looking at a human being who has gone through pain and disappointment everything opens. Your uncle may be bitter at times, but he has also been through a lot and he did the best he could. Your aunt may resort to criticism, but she has probably had her fair share of just that in her own life, and tried to rise above her own family legacy.
Nobody is perfect, but we can acknowledge that people want to grow and evolve. Even a Thanksgiving grinch.
Rituals have a powerful effect on our everyday lives. Some of them – for example having a peculiar way to prepare your coffee in the morning – give us a means to start the day, without having to think too much about a certain structure that provides a sense of security and stability. Others, like locking the front door, make us feel safe and give us a sense of control.
Integrating small rituals into our daily food consumption can even help us eat our vegetables. For example, if we wrap the bottom of a carrot in a piece of aluminium foil and eat it this way, it makes us feel that we paid special attention to eat this carrot and that we did something good for our body.
Something similar happens when we bury a loved one during a funeral: The physical act of spreading soil on the coffin or putting flowers on the grave adds an additional component to the prayers or expressions of grief that are purely mental.
A small physical gesture helps us integrate feelings and thoughts that might otherwise go unnoticed of even be repressed.
There is a psychological meaning to rituals, in that they can draw our attention to dynamics we may not be fully aware of. Robert A. Johnson, psychologist and Jungian analyst, sees rituals as “small, symbolic acts to set up a connection between the conscious mind and the unconscious.”
In his book “Inner Work” he uses dreams as a portal into the unconscious, and after talking about what meaning a dream might have had, he encourages us to perform a small ritual to add another layer of consciousness to the dream.
He describes the dream of a young man, who felt that his way of socializing with his friends by going out to bars, eating fast food and drinking was shallow and empty. His whole way of relating to people was represented by the metaphor of “junk food” in his dream: a way of taking in food without nourishment.
After understanding that the symbol of junk food related to the way he lived out his relationships, he created a meaningful ritual in order to end his way of having only superficial contact to others: he bought a large meal of cheeseburgers and fries and buried it in his backyard.
It was a way of honoring the language of his unconscious mind by way of dreaming. “We need to express our awe and elation and gratitude – and sometimes our terror” writes Johnson. Rituals, according to him, are a gesture of awe, of acknowledging phenomena that are beyond our control.
“If a person has no sense of reverence, no feeling that there is anyone or anything that inspires awe, it generally indicates an ego inflation that cuts the conscious personality off completely from the nourishing springs of the unconscious… This is why modern people who are deprived of meaningful ritual feel a chronic sense of emptiness.”
Rituals as a way to give our life more meaning sound like an easy way to fill the void many of us experience. Paying attention to even small but important routines is a good start.
One of the most pervasive beliefs in our relationship lives is that we need to find or be with someone who can fill our emptiness.
The craving comes in many forms: many women look for their Prince Charming, many men look for a beautiful woman that will complete them. We walk around like “hungry ghosts”, as the Buddhists say, hoping to fulfill our needs by teaming up with someone who seems to have what we don’t have.
Most couples end up together because the other seems to possess something that’s missing.
Maybe you have trouble being social with others, and your wife or husband can make up for that. Maybe you feel incapable of taking care of yourself financially, so a partner who is good with money can provide. Maybe you have a hard time motivating yourself, so it seems easier to find someone who does it for both of you.
Whatever it is that seems to be lacking, our partners sure should be able to give it to us.
But it doesn’t work that way.
A wonderful way of reminding us how we all are looking for our “missing piece” is Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.” Many of you may have known it for a long time, but I just came across it when reading Robert Moss’ “Active Dreaming.”
Moss sees Silverstein’s story as an example of “soul making”: finding our essence, getting to the core of who we are without getting caught up in who we are supposed to be and what our ego tells us is wrong with us (or everybody else).
The story of the Big O is a parable about how to come into our own. It’s about a “missing piece” that’s looking to fit into someone else’s hole. On its way, it meets plenty of companions who are looking for a missing piece, but none of them really see it for what it is. They just want to be completed for themselves, just like the missing piece.
Everyone is wandering about, trying to find completion, without really looking at themselves, or at who the other truly is. They all just want to get what they need, whatever the cost.
One day, the missing piece runs into the “Big O” – a round and smooth creature that isn’t looking for a missing piece. But it has some good advice: “You cannot roll with me”, it says. “But perhaps you can roll by yourself.”
The missing piece is puzzled. It has sharp edges and cannot roll. But after some time it takes the Big O’s advice. It starts to pull itself up and flops over. And it does it again and again, until the sharp edges smooth out and it starts to roll. Awkwardly and uneven at first, but it rolls. And the more it practices, the rounder is gets.
Until one day it is an O itself. The Big O comes by. And then they roll together.
It’s a wonderful story with a happy ending.
Of course, the story that isn’t told is the pain and frustration that goes into learning how to roll. It’s hard to try and learn it by yourself. That’s what relationships are – they show us what our missing pieces are, and hopefully they will support and help us on our way to become whole.
Compassion is a word that can feel a bit overused these days. Everyone seems to remind us to be compassionate with ourselves and others. But there is immense worth to the concept and the deeper meaning behind it.
I’ve been reading a classic in the great variety of Buddhist books, Chogyam Trungpa’s “Spiritual Materialism”. Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan lamas to bring the dharma to the West, and his insights are of a timeless validity.
“Compassion is not feeling sorry for someone”, he writes. “It is basic warmth.” This warmth is to be extended to oneself first with the help of meditation practice. “Meditation is a delightful and spontaneous thing to do. It is the continual act of making friends with yourself.”
When the first task is achieved, then it is possible to extend this friendship to the world. “Trust and compassion for oneself bring inspiration to dance with life, to communicate with the energies of the world.”
Trungpa reminds us that compassion is generous, altruistic, joyful and authentic. He calls it “the ultimate attitude of wealth – the attitude that one has been born rich rather than one must become rich.”
Internalizing this message means that we can finally be confident: be free of the nagging voices that we aren’t good enough, that we must become someone else – someone more successful, attractive, intelligent and so on.
But his most inspiring message I feel speaks to how we are in the world:
“Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people, because you do no longer regard people as a drain on your energy. They recharge your energy, because in the process of relating with them you acknowledge your wealth, your richness. So, if you have a difficult task to perform, such as people or life situations, you do not feel you are running out of resources. Each time you are faced with a difficult task, it presents itself as a delightful opportunity to demonstrate your richness, your wealth. There is no feeling of poverty at all in this approach to life.”
This is quite the radical thought. We have been programmed to pursue monetary wealth and accumulating possessions so thoroughly that we tend to forget about what we already have. “You do not need to secure your ground”, Trungpa said. We don’t have to hold on so tightly to what we think we need from life. We can stop making unreasonable demands and just be open whatever comes at us.
Not an easy task to achieve – but certainly a worthwhile one.
My husband has been training for the marathon, and I gladly sent him off into the woods. I'll do the same thing I thought, and found myself sitting down in front of my computer instead. After three months of watching him, my body started to tell me, “you’ve got to move”.
I never liked running. It seemed monotonous, and devoid of excitement. I rather played volleyball or badminton instead. Running, I used to think, is boring.
That was twenty years ago. Now my body isn’t so fast anymore. I prefer yoga to bouncing around on a tennis court. And while Yoga can be pretty exhausting, it usually takes place indoors. More and more, I crave to move outdoors, in nature.
So I am trying to motivate myself to run. The good news is, you can start very slowly. You’re not supposed to go and wear yourself out. You’re supposed to begin very gently. Walking is one way to tackle it.
One writer who mastered not just the art of running, but also that of meditating, is Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham. In his book Running with the Mind of Meditation, one of the things he says is to be gentle with yourself, especially when you first start.
Gentleness keeps the mind from being too critical with yourself. When your inner critic wants to scold you for not being fast enough, not running far enough, then the gentle voice will make it easier to persist by letting you do what feels right. “Gentleness allows us to keep our eyes on the prize without getting infatuated and without losing heart”, writes Mipham.
He discusses our usual habit of pushing ourselves aggressively rather than gently. But Mipham contradicts: “In order to be determined you need not to be aggressive. Those aggressive mental states are taxing. We are more emotional, so were are less able to observe reality accurately. … Aggression is a short term solution for a long term problem. Gentleness is persistent. Gentleness is therefore a sign of strength, while aggression is often a sign of weakness. Aggression is often a last resort. Where do you go from there? If you become more aggressive, you seem insane, whereas if you have gentleness, you are like a great ocean holding a lot of power.”
What a wonderful way to look at gentleness.
Most of us resist loss at all cost. We hold on to relationships that may have run its course. We hold on to our ego drives and get rigid about our little neuroses, even when there is no real purpose other than defending ourselves. We resist accepting that certain behaviors are maladaptive just because we don’t want to admit that we are wrong.
Many addictions are nothing but a cover up to face losses that are too painful to bear.
But there is an upside to loss that we don’t take into account when we so desperately try to fend it off: As soon as we can truly let go, there is freedom to be gained. And isn’t freedom one of the most prized rewards we are seeking?
The trouble with craving freedom is that we usually don’t want it to involve pain. We’d like to be able to be free of our bad habits and our defensiveness just like that. But it’s hard to let go of that. It always involves pain or even humiliation. Nobody chooses to be humiliated.
But after we mourn those ego losses, and if we can shrug them off and see them as a necessary part of maturation, we can truly be free. We can shed the shackles of our fears and anxieties and just be.
The less involved your ego is in a situation, the more freedom we have to do what we want. By experiencing a loss, we are shown that our attachment to material objects or to certain personal relationships have prevented us from being free. Our confusion and fear is usually nothing but our ego’s relentless drive to maintain the game it is playing, and to resist loss.
Only when we learn to let go can we truly be free.
There are many theories about what makes a good and lasting relationship. In our present age, where romance seems to dominate the way we look at a long term partnership, many criteria have been called absolutely necessary for the survival of romance.
Some people believe that our partners have to continue to inspire us when things get boring and we crave novelty and excitement.
Others talk about the absence of negativity, and how important the containment of aggression is for a lasting bond.
I have been reading articles by the counseling pioneer Sue Johnson. Her main criteria for a functioning relationship is quite simple: safety and stability. “Adult love is a bond, an emotional tie with an irreplaceable other who provides a secure base from which to confront the world and a safe haven – a source of comfort, care and protection”, she writes.
According to her, a husband or wife is not responsible to provide ongoing excitement and exhilaration. This is why we have friends and an independent mind that makes us curious about the world.
Our closest relationship is more about attachment bonds. If we grew up in a house where the bond between parent and child was constantly threatened – by rejection, abandonment or addictions for example – then we will even more search for a secure person to connect with who can provide stability and safety.
This safety is being threatened when a couple engages in a pattern of critical attack by one partner and non-responsive withdrawal by the other. This kind of distance and rupture of the attachment bond are detrimental to a relationship, just as much and maybe even more than explosive fights that remain unresolved.
That means that the most important element in a longterm relationship is to stay connected to the other, even when one person or even both people are angry. What makes it hard is the implication that the bond is broken because it implies that one person, or both are turning away from the relationship.
“Sustaining emotional engagement, rather than other factors, such as the ability to resolve arguments, predicts long-term marital satisfaction”, concludes Johnson.
If you can make it clear that the relationship is not in danger, even when there are arguments and disagreements, then your partnership will most likely survive for a long time.
Everybody has days when we feel low. But when the self doubt and fears take over, we need to find a way to get in touch with our core value which sustains and nurtures us on an ongoing basis. Core value is our innate goodness and worth as a human being. It cannot be taken away from us.
We can lose touch with it, when we are in the grip of anger and anxiety, but it is always there, working in the background. Some people call this inner core value the real self, other people call it the soul.
Everybody is at their core a fundamentally good human being. All of us would help a child or an animal in a vulnerable position, as long as we are safe. Each of us has values that are indisputable: for example our work ethic, our loyalty and protectiveness of those we love, our loving and compassionate side, our desire to learn and improve, or to connect to other people and beings. That doesn't just go for other humans, but for our pets and the natural world as well.
Deep inside we all care about someone or something, and that in itself makes us lovable. The love we extend comes back to us, in verbal and non-verbal ways, whether we are aware of it or not.
Seasoned psychologist Steven Stosny explains in his book "Soar Above", just how important it is for us to regularly get in touch with our core value.
The human brain is by nature designed to react negatively to sudden or unforeseen stimuli. We evolved as a species to go on alert when facing potential danger or uncertainty. As hunters and gatherers we had to be constantly on the lookout for dangerous animals that might kill in a heart beat.
Today, even though our physical safety is relatively stable, the stressors of our every day fast paced environment sets off the alarm bells in our brains, and we get anxious, distrustful or doubtful. The old defense mechanisms of fight, flight or freeze set in without prior warning, and often without us being able to take control of them.
So we need to retrain our brains. We need to signal it that there are good things in our lives, and more importantly, that we are good people. We need to refocus some of our attention toward the positive. That can be done by starting a gratitude journal, where at the end of the day you note three things you are grateful for.
Or, it can happen by drawing attention to your core value. Ask yourself, what is the most important thing about me? And ponder how this informs your actions, feelings and the course of your whole life. Examine how this trait shows up every day and helps you to improve your life.
The more you are in touch with your core value, the happier you will be .