On Finding the Soul

(And the Courage to Write About It)

When I was approached to write about spirituality and the soul for Quiet Revolution, I sent a “Hell, yes!” reply and performed a victory hustle around my bedroom to some Janelle Monae music because this is the topic I love to write about most.

At the same time, a little voice whispered something in my ear, and as soon as I turned off the music, I could hear it.

It said, “Uh-oh.”

I knew what the voice meant.

The voice was reminding me that I’m not a priest, I’m not a scholar, and I’m not a spiritual teacher, a monk, or a nun. Who am I to be weighing in on what, for some of us, is the most important question going?

The answer is “nobody.” But I do have one qualification, and that’s my enthusiasm. I’ve been reading and thinking about and eventually practicing spirituality for most of my life. It’s my jam.

I grew up in a family where spirituality was considered to be the highest and best pursuit on earth and the province of heavyweights. My grandparents, Fritz and Dora, were Theosophists, who traveled the world teaching and lecturing about spiritual matters. Theosophy is a little tricky to describe. It’s not a religion so much as a field of study about what we’re doing here. Religion addresses that question one way; philosophy addresses it slightly differently; and science addresses it another way altogether. Theosophy is curious about all these modes of inquiry and whether all of that amassed wisdom can be synthesized into a workable, universal worldview.

Here’s a quote from the home page of the American wing of the Theosophical Society:

The Theosophical Society in America encourages open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation. 

I was never a Theosophist myself, but all of that sounded—and still sounds—like a fine game plan to me.

Ideas about spirituality were taken so seriously in my house that I didn’t feel qualified to get in on the game. Because of my grandparents and their connections around the world, we had a perpetual stream of venerable guests pouring in and out of our house: religious scholars, scientists, historians, you name it. Their host, my dad, was no slouch either; he was a Harvard grad and Fulbright Scholar himself, so conversation around the dining room table was a highbrow affair.

Since we didn’t go to church, and since Theosophy wasn’t geared towards children, my spiritual education came almost entirely from those dining room conversations. The grownups talked about Buddhism, Hinduism, and quantum physics. Everything sounded like Sanskrit, and some of it was. All I could do was listen. I didn’t ask any questions or offer any ideas. Nobody asked me not to, but I knew that not only would I slow down the conversation, but I would also likely get patronized. If spirituality was an intellectual pursuit above all, as the youngest and least educated person at the table, I felt I would always be far behind.

When I reached adolescence, I decided, “If you can’t beat ‘em, don’t join ‘em,” and I rejected the whole paradigm, flipping the bird to Theosophy and spiritual discussion as a whole. Instead, I went off to drink beer, get high with my friends behind the school portables, and forget about the soul for a while.

In college, I found myself drawn back to the question of spirituality. Now that I was away from my family, I felt free to investigate these things on my own without worrying whether I was smart enough to do it. Over the next few years, I read spiritual books by the dozens—books like Autobiography of a Yogi, Think on These Things, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and books by Thich Nhat HanhPema ChödrönJack KornfieldLama Surya Das, and Don Miguel Ruiz. I started to understand that spirituality wasn’t meant to be just an intellectual pursuit. It was meant to be put into practice, and that practice could look like a lot of things—meditation, mantra work, cleaning up relationships, journaling, reading spiritual texts, paying attention, or being kind to the people around you—but if it didn’t show up in the way you lived your actual, day-to-day life, it was nothing but talk.

Eventually, I developed the patience to take up meditation and found some real-life spiritual teachers of my own. From them, I learned how to stay on my meditation cushion when my mind was running wild and my legs were falling asleep. I learned how to distinguish feelings from thoughts and why that’s helpful. I got a mantra and learned how to use it. I learned how to breathe through anything scary or upsetting that came up when I sat quietly. What started as dining-room-table eavesdropping and evolved into a reading list finally turned into a practice of my own—one that I’ve kept up. Meditation is one of the best, most replenishing things I do with my time, and I have a spiritual teacher I work with every two weeks over Skype, someone who challenges my assumptions and supports me through the rough patches. I’m in the game now.

By the time I was a full-fledged practitioner of spirituality in my own right, both my grandparents had died, so we never had the chance to bat the ball around on these topics. My grandfather passed away when I was two, and though my grandmother hung around until I was 30, she and I weren’t particularly close. Papa and Granny functioned more like figureheads or emblems than cozy, one-on-one guides for me, but they passed down spiritual concepts that engraved themselves deeply on my consciousness. They got me started down this road, however impersonally, and for that I thank them.

That said, they’re also the source of the uh-oh feeling I talked about earlier. Compared to my grandparents, who do I think I am?

To that voice I repeat: I’m no one. And that’s not a problem.

Sure, there are some of us who are more qualified to touch on this subject than others; I’m probably going to give more weight to the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on spirituality than, say, Hulk Hogan’s. (Apologies to Hulk Hogan if he’s a secret spiritual adept. If you are, Hulk, forgive me. I never knew.) But the fact is, there’s no professional consensus about what goes on beyond our everyday, see-it-touch-it-hear-it, this-birth-to-this-death life. Some people claim that the soul exists, and they can even tell you exactly what it’s like and where to find it. Other people think the idea that we have some kind of eternal soul is corny and naive.

Whatever I say on the subject, somebody is going to think it’s hooey. And they might be right.

Here’s what I think. There’s a dark space where the soul is or isn’t. Those who think it doesn’t exist tend to turn away from that space, and those who think it does exist turn toward it. I’d lay money down that the act of turning toward that dark space is good for a person, whether the space itself is empty or not.

That’s certainly been my experience. When I sit down and make space for quiet to spread in me, when I pan back from my tiny, clamoring life to a larger and larger picture, my problems start losing their charge. They’re still there, but they don’t feel bigger than I am. The more I practice, the more strength and space I feel in my core to hold them. And that strength and space feel intriguing to me, inviting, like some kind of internal doorway. I want to keep paying attention to it in case it opens up and leads somewhere.

My old pal Gautama Buddha said, “Do not follow blindly what I or others have to say. Find out what is true through your own experience.” He’s backing me up, I think, or I’m backing him up. What matters in these questions isn’t belief or theory. It’s action. It’s your own senses, your own experience. It’s what happens when you make a space for the question to live in you.

One of my favorite cards in the Tarot is The Hermit, which in most decks has a picture of an old man carrying a lantern, heading down a foggy path in pursuit of spiritual wisdom. I love that image: its dim, murky vibe and the fact that the old man looks a little like Gandalf. But the real reason I love The Hermit is that this is the card of the seeker: The Hermit has a quest. Whether he turns inward or outward for the answers, he’s looking for wisdom and meaning, and that search has been given the highest priority.

I think that’s a great priority. I share it. I’m a seeker too. For me, the search feels necessary. When the big difficulties have knocked me down, I’ve instinctively reached out for spiritual ballast to pull myself back up.

I went through a divorce in my twenties, which came out of the blue and shocked me like nothing else had. I didn’t have a spiritual practice yet and didn’t know how to steady myself, but I needed something. So I winged it and imagined myself plugged into the universe through a bright, golden cord of light that ran down through the top of my head. When I felt myself going under with grief and despair, I’d plug in and try to imagine a warm whoosh of loving energy flowing in through that cord. And it worked. I made it up, but it worked every time. That stream of imaginary golden light felt as real in my body as a shot of B-vitamins. It lifted me up and gave me the strength to move through the day, and in a more lasting way, it gave me faith in the process of seeking.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” I’m not a Christian, but I will say that’s what I’ve always turned up in my own experiments, and I stay oriented towards this mystery out of a sense of gratitude every bit as much as I do from a sense of curiosity.

Who is it that’s doing the giving when we ask? What opens when we knock? I have no idea. But I do know this: it’s my right and yours to fumble around in the dark and work it out. The money, I’m willing to bet, is in the fumbling.

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