One of the most enigmatic mysteries in spirituality is the idea of a ‘soul-child’ – the finding within us of a spiritual figure whose characteristics are those of purity and youthfulness; untainted by the world, yet somehow immature within it…
To approach a deeper understanding of this – one beyond the fanciful – we need to consider the words ‘soul’ and ‘child’, and set them within a context of both spiritual growth and modern psychology.
The word ‘soul’ may have started its long life in our learning as a word of precise meaning, but having passed through the fluffy ‘new age’ of spirituality, its definition is anything but exact.
Ask a person from a hundred years ago, and they would have said it was simple: a person has a body and a soul. When we die, if we’ve been a good person, we go to heaven – a place where the soul has a natural home, free from the harshness and temptations of the everyday world, rewarded for its goodness.
Psychology, more than anything else, taught us to use look beyond limitations of formal religion to use our minds to explore how we were made, not from a physical point of view, but from how we feel inside; how we think of our-selves as we grow and develop into a useful human. In short, to become our own priests.
The word ‘self’ is pointed to, here. Somewhere around the age of seven, we typically find ourselves in a moment within which we know we have suddenly gained a strong sense of identity with some state within us that we know to be ‘me’. Once won, it is never lost… and its emergence gives us an apparent centre of awareness and, eventually, power in our lives. It emerges as the personality.
This sense of ‘me’ is the product of the massively sophisticated machine in our head – the brain. But we don’t like to attribute our aspiring ‘spiritual self’ to the brain, instead reserving another invisible space, usually co-existent with our bodies, that we view as the actual or potential soul.
Our self or personality becomes the garment on which we paint the attributes of like and dislike; on which we pin the badges of achievement… and the fears of rejection. The self becomes an increasingly specific entity, until, with success in the face of effort, we become an adult – brave, powerful and capable… at least in our own minds, if not always recognised in the world.
The primary measure of this is how others view us; how much influence we have in the small world of our lives.
Sigmund Freud was the first popular psychologist to blaze the trail of understanding that this ‘self’ had at least three elements:
The Ego (Das Ich ‘I’ ); our centre of identity and consolidated awareness – what everything else affects.
the Uber Ich; Superego, ‘Over-I’ – an idealised and authoritative figure that is a composite of all the ‘should-dos’ of our life; constantly chiding us to do better and live up to our moral potential… the personal ‘road to Saint Me’. A road on which we are always destined to be disappointing.
The Id: a monster lurking in the basement. A collective of all the unhealthy, yet somehow natural traits and appetites of our nature. The ‘animal within us’, the beast…the wolf.
Freud was deeply engaged with the idea that the sexual force lay at the source of mankind’s motivations, and was an escape of energy from all this structure of societal expectations that frames our outward lives. The ego spends much of its life resisting the Id, thereby forcing the personality to life a divided life. Other psychologist, such as Carl Jung saw a spectrum of motivations, rather than just sex.
We can see in this an echo of the more lurid fairy tales that have been with us for hundreds of years. Of course the bad lone wolf wants to eat the desirable maiden! And which maiden has not wanted to run through the forest, chased by the (right) wolf! Only grandma, that usually dependable friend, spoils the action… But as crone – wise woman, she has another role harvested over a much longer time frame than the lovers.
Our emerging ‘self’ – the ego – wants, above anything else, wholeness; yet it knows it must divide its world and create a threefold castle in order to protect itself. Within this structure, it cannot be seen, but its presence will define ‘me’ for the rest of that life, and more importantly, it will determine how we act, how we behave… how we are. I may never know that it is a machine and not really me.
But for all that, it is a reflection of something very powerful and utterly real. Something that redefines the word ‘identity’.
But we did not choose to have this body, this wolf, this red-riding hood, this devil and angel. Worse, it is made up from the very substance of this earthy, beautiful and growth-driven planet…as though the very material of its ‘stuff’ wanted a vehicle to get back to the wholeness of which it had a primal memory…
Real spirituality is about – and only about – the relationship of this stressed ego with something found in the very heart of it-self. Eventually tired of the societal ‘joys and pastimes’ it notices that its greatest delight actually lies within and not without. With a shock, it begins to have a conversation, then a relationship with something within the self that is more ‘me’ than the personality. At this point we should swap the me for I, and begin adding a capital letter to the word Self.
The Self of the self is not fantasy, nor is it a product of the mind- much to the mind’s astonishment. Whether the personality is strong enough to take on itself will determine whether it can enter the forest and find the soul-child within. If it does it may find itself being taught by a loving symbolic child-mother-crone that seems to know everything about it…
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.