Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Care of the Soul

A wonderful interview with Thomas Moore. His ideas have more layers than a red Spanish onion!


a conversation with Thomas Moore

The recent book Care of the Soul got our attention right away. Such a simple yet provocative title. Reading further, the subtitle is A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness In Everyday Life. We began our research on the ideas and works of Thomas Moore, and found that he was not talking about an other-worldly reality but about the mysterious and infinite depths of a person or society in everyday life, where the strongest emotions and the most important thoughts reside. Moore has stretched our view of soul and revived its rightful place in our lives.

Thomas Moore is a writer and psychotherapist. Over the past fifteen years he has become a leading teacher and lecturer in the United States, Canada and Europe, in the area of archetypal psychology, an approach developed by James Hillman, his friend, mentor and colleague. Moore edited and wrote the introduction for A Blue Fire, an anthology of Hillman's writings. He is the founder of The Institute for the Study of Imagination, a non-profit educational organization that sponsors lectures, workshops and publications on imagination. He has published a book entitled The Planets Within: A Renaissance Psychological Reading of Astrology, as well as Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (HarperCollins 1992).

MICHAEL TOMS: Perhaps we can begin by hearing you tell us how to recognize soul. I know it's difficult to define it, but how do we recognize soul?

THOMAS MOORE: Soul likes to be connected. When you're with somebody--a friend, or even a family member--where you really feel the connection, and it's not just based on some kind of common work or something you can actually express and define clearly, but you can feel the connection, heart to heart, it doesn't even have to be terribly emotional, but that kind of connectedness is one sign of soul.

There is so much emphasis in today's world on change and personal growth. A whole psychology has developed out of being in contact with one's inner child and one's inner adult, going back into early childhood and bringing up old memories and old experiences, as a way to become a more whole person. You suggest that that's not necessary to be a whole person. Could you talk a little bit about that?

We have to make some distinctions about this. It seems to me that soul loves the memory of childhood, loves the stories, loves the characters. So if I'm doing family therapy, I want to hear those stories, the stories of the uncles and the aunts and the mother and father and grandparents. And even before them, the stories of the family, the places where we lived, all that kind of thing. In fact, that's exactly what dreams do; dreams take us back to those characters and places, a good indication of where the soul likes to be.

But that's different from trying to change oneself and become better by somehow healing that person or that childhood, or certainly blaming what happened in childhood. That's not a soulful way of imagining family or the past, to say, "I am who I am today because my father was alcoholic, or there was abuse in the family, or people were distant." I think that this blaming of the family is one of the causes of difficulties with our families, the fact that we can't find the love and connections of family. It seems to be a healthy thing because we're finding the roots of our current problems, but I think that's an illusion. It's one thing to try to contact the family in order to change; it's another simply to honor and respect that family, and to take it as it is. Again, the soul likes the particulars--the way this family is--not some abstraction that sounds romantic and wonderful.

MT: You wrote that "All families are dysfunctional."

TM: Yes. If we say that certain families are dysfunctional, that's like losing our own soul; that's like saying, "My family isn't," or, "My family is, and I can blame my family for being dysfunctional." In either case we have lost that sense of the shadow, the gaps, the holes in every family. It's in the very nature of family to fail at a certain level. Even in the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve, they fail--the mythological parents fail. That's a necessity. It's really a wonderful image--if we could understand it, feel it deeply enough, and take it to heart, then we wouldn't expect our families to be perfect.

MT: So if we're focusing on a single parent: "Hey, this parent was very bad, or they didn't really do well by me," and so forth, in some way we're out of balance, we're not recognizing the good parts of that parent because we're focused on just the negative qualities?

TM: That's one way of looking at it--we're not dealing with a complicated person. Here's another soul word--complexity. Soul remains in complexity. We're with people who are very complicated; everyone's complicated. If we think someone is simple, then there's something wrong in our perception. I've never met a person who wasn't complicated. To care for the soul means, then, to live with that complexity.

It seems every single institution in our society is moving toward a simplistic view of what human life is. And that's where soul vanishes, because soul is complicated. I can see the motivations for moving away from soulfulness--it would be nice if life were simple. It would be very nice if we could blame somebody for who we are and not have to face it ourselves, not have to deal with our own complexity. But that's not the way it is. We lose something of utmost importance when we give in to that temptation to oversimplify.

MT: You brought this up in your accounts of dealing with some of your clients--we define ourselves by a label, saying, "I'm an incest survivor; I'm an alcoholic; I'm a recovering Catholic." And the label is like a self-limiting definition of who we are, that may prevent us from being whole.

TM: Exactly, because it is a label, an oversimplification. It's a psychological fundamentalism. It's one story, just one story, that a person might believe in. When one takes a story like "I'm a child of an alcoholic," and professes belief in this story, that's very much like a religious fundamentalist saying, "This is what I believe in and everything else doesn't make any sense," or "I'm going to be defensive about everything else." Taking that position is a defense against the complexity of the soul.

MT: It's like saying, "It's that way because it says so in the Bible," and it's like interpreting these lines as meaning one thing and one thing alone.

TM: Right--whereas life is never that simple. That story may be compelling because it provides an explanation. But soul does not thrive on explanations. An explanation, from a soul point of view, is an avoidance of complexity. The soul doesn't want explanations. It wants reflection, constant rumination, constant storytelling, images without end, nuances, interpretations without end, never a final solution to anything, never one story that will explain anything, because that's not what it's about. The soul is poetic.

If we take an experience like jealousy and treat it as if it were just a plain emotion, there's no fantasy around that. As a therapist, what I do is try to hear about jealousy. I want to hear all the stories of it, as much as I can, because it's in the stories, and in all the images, and even in dream images that seem to focus around it. All those images, then, show the soul moving in this jealousy. And that's what we have to do, because it's going somewhere, it's moving somewhere. Jealousy has a fulfillment, then. It's like an initiation, a ritual itself. If we just say, "I've got to be free of these painful feelings," then we don't get that initiation of the soul. I'm not saying just surrender completely to these things but, rather, enter them with imagination, see the poetry of them, let them speak.

MT: So when one is in, let's say, a deep depression, there's no real answer to that. There's nothing you can say to a person to take them out of the depression, other than to say, "You have to live this, and in some ways welcome it into your life."

TM: Yes. You have to be a host, in a sense, for soul. One of the most important roles of ego is to host the soul, to give it a place, to clear the decks in life and say, "OK, I'm going to allow myself to feel this. I'm going to give myself a place where I can talk about it." I may want to go and talk to a friend who I know won't try to save me from it, who will just listen to me and talk about it, or maybe go to a therapist who can listen and not try to save me from it too.

MT: In some ways it has a very Buddhist quality, of really experiencing the suffering, going into the suffering.

TM: Yes. It's going into it with imagination. It's not going into it just because it's good masochistically to suffer these things. There's nothing masochistic in what I'm suggesting here at all. I'm trying to suggest being active, and imagination is a very active thing. You host these feelings, you give them a place actively, so you're not their victim. If you're feeling victimized, then you're probably not using enough active work of your own.

MT: So it's not the old Christian adage, "It's good to suffer."

TM: Oh, absolutely not. That's masochistic, and it doesn't do us any good whatsoever. It's very active. Where we can get confused is that we've been sold a bill of goods here that when we have a painful experience we need to "get rid of this thing" somehow. We know that we can get rid of physical pain through various drugs and so on. And we think that the soul works the same way, that we can get rid of these things just by some therapeutic method, or some chemical or other. That's not really being active with imagination. That's being literal with our activity.

What I'm suggesting is something much more subtle. It deals with the subtlety of soul, which is to be active in the sense that I'm going to listen carefully to this emotion of mine. I'm going to talk about it. I want to hear what other people say about it when they're not trying to get me out of it. All of that brings so much imagination to the thing that it does its work. Then you actually come through it instead of around it.

MT: One of the references you made in Care of the Soul, Tom, was a reference to Ingmar Bergman's movie Fanny and Alexander. I thought it was a great analogy, the two family situations. Maybe you could just tell us about that for a moment.

TM: As I remember the film, there are two families. One family is full of life and vitality and color and a kind of bawdiness all the way through, which is also part of soul. This is family as you find it.

MT: There's the light and the dark also present in that family.

TM: The light and the dark. It's not a clean place. This is not what you might call the ideal family at all. But there's vitality, and there's food, and there's music, and there's laughter. These are all signs of a soulful family. Then the film shifts over to a bishop's dreary, gray, moralistic, awfully oppressive home. The contrast shows what happens when we move from soul. Soul is not clean and neat. But when we move to something that is more ordered and has lots of principle--as with that bishop's life where there's a whole tradition behind him of living a very principled, clean life--the soul has just vanished. The color is gone. The humor is gone, and nobody wants to live in that.

It's not just about churches that do this to us. Psychology does this to us. Psychology has a terrible moralism, puts a tremendous burden on us, takes a lot of color away when it tells us that we should be healthy emotionally. I don't think care of the soul has anything to do with emotional health. You can be a very soulful person and be nuts. (laughter) Really!

MT: I'm sure we have lots of them in the mental institutions.

TM: Well, of course. It makes no difference. A lot of very interesting and very soulful people have done crazy things in their lives. We put a terrible burden of health on us. Health has nothing to do with soul. That's something else.

It's more important to stay with the traditional qualities of soul, one of which is pleasure. Whenever people in the past have described soul they've always talked about pleasure, and that's different from health. You might say that the purpose of your activity in life is you're going to really take care of yourself now for awhile, but for pleasure's sake--deep pleasure, not just quick entertainments and things that distract you. I'm talking about really deep pleasure, the kind of pleasure you get from really listening to some music that you like, of whatever kind; or of talking with a friend, where it really stirs you; or seeing nature in a way that really touches you. That kind of pleasure. I'm talking now like a true epicurean, I think. Epicurus talked about pleasures that were lasting, as opposed to the pleasures that go by very quickly. That's what I'm discussing here as a goal, rather than health.

MT: Fast food versus slow food?

TM: Slow food! Very good. Slow dining, right? (laughter)

MT: Like the French. They turn dining into an experience. It's not just eating.

TM: Absolutely.

MT: One of the things you said that you enjoyed doing and had become a soulful activity for you was washing the dishes. I'd like you to explain that to me.

TM: Did I say that? (laughter) I don't know how that got in there. Well, it's a fact. I hate to confess to this, but I do like washing dishes. I have a hard time with dishwashers. There's something about that--it's a way of being in touch with things, where it gives me a lot of pleasure to touch and to see a thing get cleaned, where I've been eating. I enjoy that whole process. It also gives me a time to reflect, and that's an important part of housework. Housework is an opportunity to meditate that is not abstract--where you're not trying to shut the world out--in fact, just the opposite. By allowing the world in, it invites a certain kind of meditation that is not therefore too ethereal. It's very concrete.

MT: So it's important to build in pauses in our life where we have time to step back and just reflect.

TM: If we just live our lives with care--care of our homes is what we're talking about now--then, yes, there are all kinds of opportunities for meditation that is focused right around home, to home spirits, to the gods and goddesses of the home. I don't think we think of this very much any more, but many traditional societies have. There are spirits of the home. But that can be thought of in a way that's not terribly soulful. If you think of it more soulfully, I think you'd say, "Well, yes, at least for me, when I'm drying those dishes, I'm inviting a certain connection to my home that I would not have if I didn't do that work. I would be divorced more from my home if I didn't do the work around the house."

MT: Let's take that phrase from the Bible that one learns--I went through Catholic school and I learned in the third or fourth grade about the rich man getting through the eye of the the needle.

TM: It's more difficult for a rich man to get to heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of the needle."

MT: So there's this imbuing, early on, of the idea that somehow having a lot of money is going to prevent you from getting to heaven.

TM: Hell, yes, but I don't think soul is too happy about getting to heaven. I think soul has to be on this earth. So it's true, it's going to be very difficult to be in heaven if you're chasing after a lot of money. That's one of the things you have to pay in order to go after money. You lose heaven, but you get a lot of soul.

MT: So it's OK to lose heaven?

TM: Oh, yes.

MT: Here we have a one-time Catholic monk saying it's OK to lose heaven. That's great.

TM: Well, just think about that. I'm not judging either side of that. If your purpose in life is to be heavenly--you like the sky world, you like to live in the air, and that's a certain kind of spirit--that's fine, it's great. If that's what it is, then you probably don't want to have much money around because that's a hindrance, it ties you down. But if you like living on the earth, if that's your pleasure, then, yes, it would be very difficult to be in both places. Money keeps you grounded on earth.

MT: What about your phrase, "living art-fully"? What does that mean, to live artfully?

TM: Now, we're moving to a slightly different direction. I'm trying to say here that caring for the soul requires a kind of craft. It's not something that just happens by osmosis or by wishing it to happen. It's a day-to-day thing. It means that whatever we do everyday we can do thoughtfully--this will sound Buddhist to you, too--mindfully. We can live with thoughtfulness about the very simple things, and with an artist's aesthetic sense, so that caring for the soul does not require any kind of health. We can instead, then, move toward a sense of art, that we can live artfully instead of healthfully. That would mean, then, that we use our imaginations to deal with our problems, even to be artful about them, instead of just rushing to someone to get rid of our problems--to use a mind that has some craft, to have a sense of balance and beauty and working with our lives poetically.

That sense, the artist's sense, is very different from the mechanical sense that we usually bring to our problems. For the most part we're auto mechanics of the heart--I'm not saying anything against auto mechanics, but we think of our souls mechanically. I don't think we even are aware of how mechanical our language is, but it's extremely mechanical. If we move instead to an artful base for our dealing with these issues, we come up with very different solutions.

MT: In the same way we think of our hearts as a mechanical pump.

MT: Exactly. We think of our bodies as all kinds of machines--the brain as a computer, for example. All of these metaphors have a great effect on the way we relate to our bodies and to the world around us, because we do think of the world around us mechanically too. Problem-solving is really a mechanical approach. I never want to use that word "problem-solving." I don't think it's necessary to solve any problems. The point is to be artful about them.

Just as a painter will take some very painful experience and put it up there on a canvas--not just the lovely things but the painful things--or photographers tend to photograph some of the tragedies. They go to the fronts in wars, and they photograph accidents. Then they show us, and these are beautiful. They are beautiful because we get an aesthetic point of view on ordinary human experience, including the tragic. That's a good guide for how we might care for our souls, instead of thinking that we have to get our wrenches out and put in a new piece where some piece has failed.

MT: So by following your adage here, the more soul we have in our life, the richer our life will be.

TM: Absolutely. Yes. You'll feel the richness of it, the texture of it. You don't find abstract meaning and you don't feel "above it all" and saved, in that general sense--saved from life. I quote a Keats poem where he says that the point is to feel existence, not to be saved from existence.


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