What I tell about “me” I tell about you
The walls between us long ago burned down
This voice seizing me is your voice
Burning to speak to us of us.
Mystics have a reputation for being mysterious. In the most basic sense, a mystic is one who seeks union, or unity. But don’t most of us have such a yearning? Whether what we seek is union with ourselves, with others, with creation, with the Creator, or with Reality, maybe we are all mystics at heart. The mystic traditions came into being to help people remember their true origin and destiny. Remembering where we came from and where we are going would certainly change us and transform our relationships into ones of authenticity, respect, and compassion.
The great mystic poets, like Rumi, knew that remembrance links us to the spirit we all possess, which links us to one another as well. The practice of remembrance is common to all sacred traditions. It assists us in reclaiming our own transcendent identity, as well as drawing out our innate altruistic nature.
The vital importance of remembering who we are is vividly illustrated in the Hasidic story of Rabbi Zusya, who near the end of his life felt anxious about being left with a great question unanswered. He came to his followers one day, his eyes red from crying, after having a vision where he learned the question the angels will ask him about his life. His followers were puzzled; knowing that he was scholarly and humble, they asked what question could be so terrifying. He said, “They will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’” His followers persisted, “So what will they ask you?” Finally, after another round of what they won’t ask him, he said, “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power on heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zuzya?’”1
Perhaps it is our soul that knows the “who” we are whom no one else could be. We have a far better chance of becoming who our soul is destined to be than becoming anyone else, but we don’t automatically know what that is. This is the mysterious journey we all set out upon, whether we know it or not: to remember who we are, to get to the heart of our soul’s story, and to embrace our own process of soul-making.
This life is about the soul’s ascent to the spiritual plane, a formidable task involving challenge after challenge as we make our way through the physical world. But, as Joseph Campbell has made clear, we don’t have to risk life’s greatest adventure alone: “The labyrinth is thoroughly known . . . where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”2
The world’s sacred traditions provide the guideposts and markers for this adventure. Living our lives consciously, we encounter universal motifs, archetypes, and timeless patterns that will help us discover not only who we are but also why we are so deeply connected to all others. And we will then be able to answer Zusya’s perplexing question to our satisfaction.
The Soul Is Timeless
The mystic journey is the journey of the soul. Though a mystery among mysteries, the soul is at the heart of all the world’s religious and spiritual traditions; it defines who we are at our essence. All sacred traditions agree that the soul is eternal, that it exists prior to birth and continues after death, and that it comes from and returns to God.3
A similar recognition of the ambiguous yet central nature of the soul is found in psychology, where psyche originally meant soul. C. G. Jung knew well that “psychology least of all can afford to overlook” the soul, since “everything to do with religion, everything it is and asserts, touches the human soul so closely.”4 For Jung, the soul is what links us to the archetypal world; it helps us experience the universals of life, because at our essence we are like all other human beings.
Psychologist James Hillman turned Jung’s individuation process inside out; soul-making for him became a lifelong process of living according to the innate “calling” that is within us. This is his “acorn theory,” which says we are born with an image of the person we are to become, and our soul plays a key role in guiding us through the pattern of the life we live toward our destiny.5
Marion Woodman, an English teacher and a Jungian analyst, sees the soul as “the timeless part of ourselves.” She clarifies both the spiritual and psychological connotations of the soul while recognizing its connective and collective nature: “We’re all little sparks of One Soul. We are ‘ensouled’ on this planet . . . we are one people inhabiting one country . . . we are all part of One Soul . . . When we connect with our souls, we connect with the soul of every human being. We resonate with all living things.”6 The soul is our perpetual connection to the immortal realm.
Drawing Meaning from the Mystery around Us
A mysterious petroglyph carved on a rock wall in southern Utah may hold the key to the journey of the soul. This particular image—a spiral with a horizontal line running through its middle and extending outward on both sides—appears to be one of a kind. Spirals are common in many indigenous cultures, but none seem to have this horizontal line leading into and out of the core spiral.
Could this design depict the journey of the soul from its origin to its life on earth to its eternal destiny? Is this an ancient representation of the multifaith Creator concept that we all come from and will inevitably return to? And could the spiral represent the earthly experience of the soul, the passages we go through as we make our way in this physical bog, repeating transition after transition, each leading us deeper and deeper into who we really are?
There are a number of traditions, from ancient mystical legends to Plato, that tell a story of the soul before it is born gaining knowledge of its life to come, then forgetting this knowledge when born, and spending the rest of its life trying to remember what it had forgotten. Poets and psychologists alike have further explored this life-journey metaphor of knowing, forgetting, and remembering.
For contemporary nineteenth-century English poets William Wordsworth and John Keats, the soul carries a timeless wisdom to which we can gain access. As Wordsworth put it:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting . . .
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
can in a moment travel thither . . .7
Keats focused on how what we encounter here plays a purpose in forming our true and lasting identity:
Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” . . . There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself . . . How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks [which are God] . . . to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? . . . Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!8
The soul, a spark of God, needs the conflict of this world to fulfill its destiny. Soul-making happens when the light merges with the dark, when joy and sorrow intermingle, when the eternal breaks through from the temporal realm, and when polarities are consciously acknowledged and confronted in our everyday lives.
When the lesson of opposites is learned in the classroom of life, the soul remembers what it came here for and evolves as it is designed to. As the woodcarver who sees the carving he wants to fashion before he starts to carve the wood, soul-making is a process of revealing what is already there.
James Hillman sees soul-making as what happens when we have the experiences—of crisis and opportunity, of love and dying—that give life a deeper meaning. At any reflective moment, the unique could turn into the universal, or the temporal into the eternal. But soul-making requires such a moment to differentiate the middle ground between these necessary oppositions.9
Marion Woodman draws these two threads together when she says:
Soul-making is allowing the eternal essence to live and experience the outer world through all the senses—seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching—so that the soul grows during its time on Earth. Soul-making is constantly confronting the paradox that an eternal being is dwelling in a temporal body. That’s why it suffers, and learns by heart . . . True creativity, true soul-making, comes from that deep communication with what Jung would call the archetypal world. That’s where the real nourishment is.10
To this we could add, from the developmental model suggested by Francis Vaughan (see “Consciousness, Transformation, and the Soul’s Journey” in last month’s issue of Noetic Now journal), that deeply experiencing the sequence of magic, mastery, meaning, and mystery in our lives is also soul-making. Our consciousness evolves first from being enamored of the magic all around it, then from gaining meaning in all that’s encountered—especially the struggles—and finally from accepting that there will always be mysteries in life. As we explore this deeper story of our soul and digest these timeless experiences, we return to the eternal Self we forgot we were.
The Collective Depends on the Personal
The journey of the soul is not a solitary quest but rather a superhighway meant for everyone. As Marion Woodman puts it, “We are all part of One Soul . . . When we connect with our souls, we connect with the soul of every human being. We resonate with all living things.” Soul-making connects us to the archetypal realm, which is where we find the same inspiration and guidance from our common spiritual heritage. The lifelong process of soul-making leads us ultimately to personal and collective transformation.
In our time, more than ever, when the well-being of the whole is so tied to the well-being of the parts, when the parts are indistinguishable, even inseparable, from the whole, each influencing the other, the personal is the collective. What benefits one benefits us all. The collective is at the mercy of the personal.
Robert Atkinson, PhD
Atkinson is professor of human development and religious studies and director of the Life Story Center at the University of Southern Maine. An internationally known authority on life storytelling and the author of eight books, this essay was adapted from his most recent book, Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story (Cosimo Books, 2012). His website is http://www.robertatkinson.net.
The mystic journey of the soul and the path of service are one and the same. Each of us has a role to play, however large or small, in the grand scheme. Each of us has something to offer others. The journey of the soul is necessary for the advancement of civilization. We may not even recognize our role in the big picture until we are conscious of being an integral part of the larger whole—and until we incorporate this into our being.
Consciousness is all that matters; it is the source of all that exists. How we see the world we live in determines what it becomes. As our individual consciousness evolves, so does the collective consciousness. Our transformations transform the world. The timeless and the universal are the personally sacred, and the sacred journey of one is the sacred journey of all.
Soul-making is part of our sacred inheritance—and responsibility. Your soul-making contributes to mine, and mine buoys yours. Getting to the heart of our soul’s story is important, especially now, because it helps us answer the really big questions of life that connect us deeply to one another, that extend our conscious evolution, and that ensure a desired collective future. What is most important in my life that affects the lives of others? How has the journey of my soul expressed my own personal truth, as well as some part of the collective truth of us all? What is my vision of the collective future of humanity, and what role do I want to play in this vision? What do I consider to be the greatest collective truth of our time?
Three Steps of Practical Soul-Making
Everything is laid out for us. “The only path there is,” Chief Leon Shenandoah says, is “the path to the Creator.”11 The prophets of God, mystics, and sages have all illumined this path where opposites meet, clash, and ultimately merge. They have highlighted a sacred pattern designed to bring about the transformations in our lives that will lead us to our destiny.
The first step is to remember who we are, what our potential is, and where our destiny lies. This leads to knowledge of our life as an eternal journey. The important questions for this stage are Who am I at my essence? What is my essential nature? What am I doing here? Where am I going? How can I fulfill my inner potential? How can I accomplish my purpose on this earth?
These are complex questions, but we soon discover that the answers are available to us as part of our spiritual heritage from the world’s myths, rituals, religions, and mystic traditions. As we awaken to an eternal reality, we experience a yearning to immerse ourselves in it as fully as possible. Remembering that our own experience mirrors the lives of the prophets moves us along a continuum of familiarity with the universal archetypes that we also share.
The second step is to revision our own life experience in the context of the timeless pattern that makes up the archetype of transformation. This is when we integrate our experience of transformation with our conscious understanding of its meaning and purpose for our lives, see our lives as having been transformed, and transpose the most important motifs and archetypes from our own lives onto this pattern, thus making the personal universal.
In this pattern, we recognize a repetition of the basic dialectic of crisis followed by victory, or muddle followed by resolution. The goal is to become conscious of the entire experience of transformation so that the continual flow of opposites in our lives won’t overwhelm us and so that their tension is seen as natural and necessary aspects of our existence.
The third step in soul-making is to reclaim a personal spiritual life that takes in our common spiritual heritage. This connection to our collective spiritual roots keeps us on track to achieve our potential and helps bring about a collective renewal. As we embrace and cultivate our own innate spiritual nature and what we share as human beings, we will start consciously integrating timeless patterns into our daily lives that take us ever closer to the person we know in our heart of hearts we truly are—a fully unified being, one with all.
These three steps may well be experienced as a remarkable narrative of opposites—sorrow and joy, accomplishments and setbacks, struggles and triumphs, beginnings and endings, seeking and finding, helplessness and aid, retreat and renewal, doubt and certitude, illusion and truth, tyranny and justice, matter and spirit, all eventually and inevitably blending in a continuous ebb and flow of oneness and wholeness, with contrasting elements merging to highlight a powerful and meaningful story.
The Mystic in Us All
The underlying spiritual principle of soul-making is that the soul comes from an eternal realm, is separated at birth from the original union it knew, and spends its life on earth learning timeless lessons and seeking that lost union. In the mystical classic The Seven Valleys, Baha’u’llah captures with eloquent metaphorical imagery the essence and scope of this journey, from making its way through this mortal world with all its distractions, to opening up to divine aid and assistance, to gaining an understanding of the sublime purpose we inherit as creatures with both physical and spiritual aspects.
The book, in fact, provides a magnificent template for the mystical traveler: knowing what is achievable through conscious effort; seeing in the oscillation of opposites the possibility of their union; recognizing that the resolution of such a procession of opposites in our lives is designed to move us closer to our Creator; and understanding that our deepest spiritual transformation comes about not through escape from the world but from work in the world, as service to humanity.12 Spiritual growth, and in particular the journey of the soul, carries with it a distinct service orientation.
What may have seemed like a principle of the mystic life, of interest only to those few who consciously seek the ultimate reunion, becomes a guiding principle for everyone. The living of one’s life according to the principle of union—or, carried to the practical level of the world we live in, the principle of the essential oneness of all life – is not merely a social commitment or even an act of social justice but a core spiritual belief, designed to direct and guide every aspect of our lives toward the fullest achievement of what is humanly possible.
Robert Atkinson, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority in helping people tell their life stories. He is a pioneer in the development of the life story interview methodology and among the first to apply Joseph Campbell’s classic work on the mythological journey of the hero to contemporary personal mythmaking. His two books in these areas have been translated into Japanese, Italian, and Romanian and are widely used in various personal growth and life review settings.
He received his B.A. in philosophy and American Studies from Southampton College of Long Island University, and an M.A. in American Folk Culture from SUNY, Cooperstown. Then his journeys took him to the Hudson River and a series of transformative events, including sailing on the maiden voyage of the Clearwater with Pete Seeger and his singing crew, attending the Woodstock music festival, living a cabin in the woods near the river, visiting Arlo Guthrie at his farm in the Berkshires, a fateful meeting with Joseph Campbell, being given a cell in a Franciscan monastery, and, finally, returning to teach a course at Southampton College, all of which can be read about in his memoir of that period, Remembering 1969: Searching For the Eternal in Changing Times (2008).