Poetry, Soul and Meditation

Transcribed from a talk at West London Buddhist Centre.

I want to talk about the idea of soul, or rather soul making in relationship to poetry and meditation. So the first thing to tackle is what I mean by the idea of soul. Here I am largely taking my cue from James Hillman and my own experience of working with this idea as a meditation teacher over the last twenty years or so.

This way of employing the term soul has very little to do with the Christian idea of soul. Hillman uses it as a way of trying to free the idea of the psyche from the way it has been treated in psychology; the tendency to pathologize the psyche, to make it something that needs to be cured. By using the term soul to replace the term psyche he is trying to free it from a medical and scientific approach; in particular, he wants to suggest that the modern way of understanding the human situation is inadequate to the richness of the psyche. He has come from a Jungian background but feels that Jung’s emphasis on the process of individualisation places too much stress on the idea of integration. It makes the psyche teleological, which Hillman would reject. In addition, there is, perhaps, in most strands of therapy too great a weight put on the psyche as something which is just interior. This is an important point: soul is not just a human thing, it exists as a quality of things and, more generally, as the world soul.

Now, the idea of soul is in contrast to the idea of spirit and can only really be understood in relation to spirit; roughly speaking, we can see soul as related to the feminine and spirit to the masculine. It needs to be stressed that neither is the property of gender. You might say that women tend towards soul and men towards spirit but this is not very helpful. Perhaps more helpful is to say that soul is related to the body - the guts of us, while spirit has more of an affinity with the mental - it likes the idea of pure mind.

So what do we mean by soul? Well, as I have said, it is a quality of things, people, the world, rather than a thing. In this sense, it is related to the use of soul to describe food or music; soul food is food that nourishes on a deep level; it is healing food, in the Jewish tradition it is chicken soup, which invokes the mother and the family, the traditional ties. In music, any type of music might be soulful. If we take jazz we can perhaps contrast Ella Fitzgerald with Billy Holiday; one is mostly spirit the other is soul. Of course all really great singers have a bit of both. A sunny day with a clear blue sky is spirit while a thunder storm might be more soulful. Now we have a real problem here, at least it is a problem from the perspective of spirit, soul can never be tightly defined and from the eye of spirit this is not very satisfactory.

The other day I was listening to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist talking about his research into left and right brain activity. He had a far more nuance idea about it than we normally get. It is not that one side of the brain does one thing and another side does something else. Both sides of our brain are involved in all activities but the way they are involved is very different. He gave the example of a bird picking seeds from between pebbles: the bird has to be very focused on its task, but it also has to keep an eye out for predators, so the left side is very concentrated on the task while the right has a much wider perspective. One of the very interesting things he said was that the logical part of the mind is not interested in the less rational aspects. That is, while the irrational side knows what it does not know, the logical part is not aware and not open to the less rational aspects. He was arguing that we are becoming increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere and that this is dangerous because this side of the brain is not really interested in the wider situation; it has no sense that there is anything else outside of its own perspective. We might say that it lacks imagination. I was struck that this is quite like the situation we have when we contrast spirit and soul. Spirit is not very interested in soul - it tends to be dismissive of everything that is not under its own control. We might see it as having the upper hand in a monotheistic culture, and also in a scientific culture. One is reminded of Blake’s image of Isaac Newton measuring the universe with a divider, a compass. Here, Blake is objecting to the reductionist tendency of science. Here is our first poem as for me this poem is very soulful. Heaney is a very soulful poet.

The Guttural Muse

Late summer, and at midnight
I smelt the heat of the day:
At my window over the hotel car park
I breathed the muddied night airs of the lake
And watched a young crowd leave the discotheque.

Their voices rose up thick and comforting
As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up
that evening at dusk - the slimy tench
Once called the ‘doctor fish’ because his slime
Was said to heal the wounds of fish that touched it.

A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughter
I felt like some old pike, all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft mouthed life.

Seamus Heaney. 

What might strike you about this poem is that it is very moist; it has all these images of wetness. We can say that fish are a symbol of the soul. We also have the image of slime and also the wound.

Remembering that soul is a quality rather than a thing, we get a sense of it perhaps in this poem, where we also find a sense of longing, with the image of the old pike, the most predatory of fresh water fish, “all badged with sores wanting to swim in touch with soft mouth life”.

So in contrast with soul, spirit is dry; elementally, it is fire as opposed to water, it is ascending rather than descending, it feels comfortable with clarity and likes to move from a to b without deviation. Hillman writes, ‘the spiritual point of view always posits itself as superior and operates best within a fantasy of transcendence among absolutes and ultimates'. From the perspective of spirit, soul seems vague and irritating. We can broadly identify soul with the ego and the heroic archetype. It is interesting that hardly any heroes grow old, they die young. It is as if the hero archetype cannot really sustain us as we age. I guess Don Quixote is an example of the hero in old age; of course he is a very soulful figure but he does not realise it, he is very deluded.

Soul offers a multitude of possibilities and spirit offers only one. Having one aim can, of course, be very effective and useful; however, it can also be the road to fanaticism and mania. Soul also has its dangers: most commonly in our culture it becomes pathology, when it is not honoured in becomes depression.

Another distinction I want to make is between event and experience. This too, is following Hillman: by event he means just what happens to us, by experience he means something that we can do with the things that happen to us. This ‘doing with’ is what he calls soul-making. Here is a poem that I think is a very good example of soul-making. All good poetry has an element of soul making in that it comes out of turning towards the events of our lives and making experience of them.


Late home one night, I found
she was not yet home herself.
So I got into bed and waited
under my blanket mound,
until I heard her come in
and hurry upstairs.
My back was to the door.
Without turning round,
I greeted her, but my voice
made only a hollow, parched-throated
k-, k-, k- sound,
which I could not convert into words
and which, anyway, lacked
the force to carry.

Nonplussed, but not distraught,
I listened to her undress,
then sidle along the far side
of our bed and lift the covers.
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress,
I felt mattress and bedboards
welcome her weight
as she rolled and settled towards me,
but, before I caught her,
it was already too late
and she’d wisped clean away.

Christopher Reid.

This is part of a very moving collection by Reid, which is an extended meditation on loss and the loss of his wife in particular. It is not just a way of coping with grief; it is an example of making soul, or character, from the event of loss. I think this is basically what we are concerned with as meditators, turning events into experience. Suzuki talks about this in terms of pulling up the weeds and burying them around the roots of the plant, or at other times as composting. I have talked about this as turning towards. When we meditate, we try and turn towards the mental and emotional and sensational events, and in doing this we are soul making. Now this is a delicate and difficult process because the tendency of the ego is not to turn towards but rather to turn away -- according to Buddhism this is through craving or aversion.

It is very easy to misunderstand this idea of turning towards or soul making. It is very easy to think that it is about understanding the events that happen in our lives, but this is not the case. If we look at the poem Late, it is not about understanding grief; rather, it is about experiencing it more deeply. The ego, the spiritual side of us, wants to understand so it can put it behind itself and get on with life. When we experience loss of a loved one, they do not just disappear from our soul, they remain an important element. In his poem Anatomy, Gilbert Sorrentino expresses this:


Certain portions of the heart die, and are dead.
They are dead.
Cannot be exorcised or brought to life.

Do not disturb yourself to become whole.
They are dead, go down in the dark,
and sit with them once in a while.

Gilbert Sorrentino.

I respond to this poem very strongly. There is nothing we can do; we can’t bring things back and we can’t get rid of them; we just have to let them be, and not be, and now and then visit them, honour them. I think we are more and more losing this sense of what it really means to be fully human. In many traditions the ‘ancestors’ play a vital part in the imagination, they are always present to some degree. In Madagascar, one day a year, they take out the dead from the tombs which are above ground and dance with them. Quite literally, they dance around with the decaying body if it is a recent death, or the bones. It is like a treat for the dead, which they still understand is, in some sense, being in the world. Soul has a strong connection to death, while spirit tries to find ways of defying death. In a way, even although we have noted that heroes tend to have short lives, part of the motivation behind the heroic is to defy death, in the sense becoming immortalised. In extreme cases, like that of Alexander the Great and various Roman emperors, they become elevated to the status of gods. And the idea of saints is similar. In contrast, if we believe what we find in the Pali Canon, the Buddha didn’t want any of that; he didn’t want any statues made of him, he didn’t want shrines dedicated to him. It was only many years later, when the Buddhist tradition came into contact with that of the classical Greek, that we start to see statues of the Buddha. But there is a subtle difference with the ancestors and the gods: the ancestors remain on the earth, in the earth, they are not elevated to gods; they are dead, they are portions of the heart that have died and to visit them we have to descend rather than ascend.

So we might see at least one aspect of meditation as having a close relationship to the poetic, it is a form of remembering. But remembering is not a static thing, it is not like our memory and recorded on some kind of mental hard drive and just played back. This is a very simplistic and misleading model of memory. Our memory is an active and interactive process. One of the very interesting things about being a father is the way it has changed my understanding and feelings towards my own father who died over thirty years ago now. When we understand and feel differently about someone it also changes the tone of our memories. I remember years ago watching a programme about film making. It showed the same piece of film with two contrasting sound tracks; one romantic, the other sinister. The film was of a girl running through some woods. The interpretation of the film was radically changed, as you might be able to imagine. In a sense music in film sets the tone and drastically alters our sense of what is going on, even although it might hardly be consciously noticed, we are mainly concentrating on the image. I think that in a way our memories have a tone to them but this is not set; it can change as we change.

Soul-making has something to do with the way we look at things; in particular, it involves a broadening of perspective from that of one dominated by the ego consciousness to one that is more strongly connected to the unconscious or the soul. I sometimes listen at night to the BBC world service, they have all sort of programmes on there which never get on day time radio. The other night they had a feature on the vast number of children that are killed every year on the roads around the world. It focused on Africa where in some places this is really terrible. They were talking to a crossing guard, a lollipop man, whose job was to get these small children over this highway, there was no crossing and the traffic was appalling. He had to just go out into the road and hope that the trucks slowed down a little. It was a very moving interview the way this man talked about his job, his love for the children and his sense of responsibility towards them. It was really a dangerous job and he clearly had a real sense of pride and love for his job. It was, in a way, an example of what Hillman might term a calling. It was more than a job, it was a vocation. In this sense this man’s relationship to his job was soulful. I mention this because it made a deep impression on me and made me think that this man had a sense of the archetypal nature of his job, even although he would not use this term. I thought, there is this guy in Africa, probably being paid next to nothing, doing a job most of us wouldn’t consider, and yet, he had a real passion for his job, a real sense of pride and a real love for the children under his care. And if one starts to think about it, a job like that has all sorts of resonances in myth and in the imagination. We might think of the angel, Vergil for example, because this highway sounded like hell with its huge trucks thundering past and this guy had the job of leading these small children across this portion of hell.

So I am suggesting that both poetry and meditation are ways of soul-making and that soul-making is the way that we restore a sense of meaning to our lives. One last poem and this is another Heaney and one of my favourites so I am sure a few of you have heard this one before.

St. Kevin and the Blackbird
And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting fore-arms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
“To labour and not to seek reward”, he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Seamus Heaney. 

We might say that there are two basic ways of approaching our practice. We can do it with a sense of spirit; if we do that we are going to be concerned with getting somewhere, we will be in the thrall of ideas like insight and enlightenment. The problem with this sort of heroic approach is that we will at some point crash and burn like Icaurus. The other problem is that this approach tends to exclude the other side, the soul. It is not that we do not need a certain amount of spirit in our practice, it is a vital element, it is just that this element has a strong tendency to push out everything else, it’s a bit like the cuckoo, we are left with just spirit and it’s pushed out all the soul. Now, spirit will want an answer to this problem, it will think, ‘how can I make sure I don’t lose the soul element in my practice’, but there isn’t really a solution to this problem. Soul does not really seek solutions. Once we think about it in that way we are in spirit, so while there is not a solution, there is an approach we can take perhaps. We can open ourselves to soul in all sorts of ways and in this way soul will have more of a chance to play a part in our meditation. There isn’t a formulaic way of doing this, for me it has been mainly through poetry and myth, but you are going to have to find your own way. And it’s more about just listening to ourselves, having a sense of meditation as a kind of deep listening. Soul is in there and wants to be heard, but you have to listen. It is also about listening with a particular ear, soul is always manifesting and mainly it does so in ways that are irritating to spirit. So the door to soul in meditation is what we might normally regard as the hindrances, those things that get in the way of the pure elevated experience that spirit wants to ascend to. Perhaps most importantly, the soul is associated with the body, so this gives us a very strong clue to how we might approach our meditation. When we attend to the body with an open and sympathetic attitude we will encounter soul. Our bodies will in the end let us down from the perspective of spirit, it is no coincidence that so many ‘spiritual’ practices are in one way or another antagonistic to the body. We find this in the life story, or myth, of the Buddha, when during his period of questing he is engaged in very extreme ascetic practices, practices which are aimed at trying to separate the spirit form the body, free the spirit. The body ages and slowly falls to bits; it is unreliable and lets us down. However, from the perspective of soul, the body is also the gateway into soul. From our concern as Buddhists, the body can be understood as our most intimate contact with reality. In a sense, reality is usually at arm’s length, we look at the falling autumn leaves and we are reminded of the impermanence of things but it’s all out there; it’s kind of safe and a little romantic but when we feel our hips aching or our senses deteriorating this really brings impermanence home. Coming into a loving relationship with the true natures of our own bodies is the most effective way we have of cultivating insight and of soul-making.

So we can say that spirit wants to get somewhere; if there is a difficulty it wants to overcome it. It tends to see things in a very black and white way; it is for action and has not really got a lot of time for the less direct meandering approach of soul. Soul is not really that interested in resolving things, it is more drawn to complexity and contradiction.
I am going to suggest that as meditators we need both the fire and air of spirit and the earth and water of soul. And perhaps, a little paradoxically, we try and find spirit in posture and soul in our mental attitude towards our practice. Spirit can be found in a sense of dignity in the posture a sense of strength in the way we sit, while our mental attitude should be characterised by kindness and openness. In this way we can bring together these two basic polarities.

I know I said we had already had our last poem but here is just one more and I will end on this, this is Ryokan a Japanese Zen poet, and you have to have a bit of a sense of him: He is an old man, having spent many years living in the most simple way in a tiny hermitage, writing poetry, playing with the local children, playing 'go' with anyone who would, doing a bit of meditation and drinking a little sake. When Ryokan was 70 and nearing the end of his life, he met a young nun and poet named Teishin. Though Teishin was only 28, they fell in love. They exchanged several beautiful love poems. After his death, in 1831, she dedicated her life to popularising his poetry and till this day he is one of Japan’s most loved poets and represents an important aspect of the Japanese ‘soul’, here is one of my favourites, translated by John Stevens:

The night is fresh and cool,
Staff in hand I walk through the gate.
Wisteria and ivy grow together along the winding mountain path;
Birds sing quietly in their nests and a monkey howls nearby.
As I reach a high peak a village appears in the distance.
The old pines are full of poems;
I bend down for a drink of pure spring water.
There is a gentle breeze, and the round moon hangs overhead.
Standing by a deserted building,
I pretend to be a crane softly floating among the clouds.

Ryokan - translated by John Stevens.