Wednesday, February 27, 2008


In our culture, we have been taught one perspective when it comes to reading – to add one line to the next and climb the stair of reason or ride the roller coaster of emotion to a conclusion. Either way, we are on a linear journey to a goal, either rational understanding or emotional reaction. We read a text book in order to learn to know or do something; we read novels and the like to have a certain kind of feeling – love, lust, excitement, fear, etc.

There is a third kind of reading that we have not learned, though we do occasionally encounter it, and that is learning to read soulfully. This is reading which appeals to the neglected Psyche; not the psyche of modern material, diagnostic and statistical psychology, but the Psyche of ancient wisdom and modern Depth Psychology. This kind of reading does not present a linear argument or straightforward narrative leading the reader into an emotional or rational cul de sac. This sort of approach to literature does not aim to find the meaning or significance of something. This type of reading is not for the mind or the emotions, but for the neglected soul. Billy Collins touches on it in his "Introduction to Poetry":

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

A book or article written soulfully need not be understood or felt in a predictible way. When we are ‘done’ reading it, we may wonder what in the world we have read. It may seem to be full of some sort of sense, but we did not absorb any of it, yet we want to go on reading. This type of encounter changes or rearranges us soulfully. It is not spiritual. Spiritual always takes us higher, “into God”. Soulful reading takes us deeper, causing us to wander and wonder as we do in a dream. In fact, we need to allow the material to read me as a dream dreams me.

Dreams are often quite pleasant and entertaining until we wake up and the ratio-emotive mind takes over. That is when we tie the dream to the chair and beat the meaning out of it. Such an approach loses soul and puts the human mind and emotions back in control, trivializing and limiting the effect of the dream encounter. Soulful reading is like looking into a kaleidoscope. At first, the mind wants to find meaning in the cylindrical tube filled with bits of broken glass seen through the twisting kaleidoscopic lens, but then we relax and realize there is nothing to make sense of - and we see only the parade of chaotic images which somehow captivate and fascinate.

The soul-filled literature is not taking us anywhere, yet in some way it is taking us everywhere. Certain phrases and ideas may cause our hearts to soar, only to be followed by a line that leaves us utterly baffled. We may finish a paragraph and wonder what we have read, then read it again feeling that some elusive meaning is right in front of us. The experience of being lost, befuddled and frustrated is the meaning, yet there is a kind of psychological knowing (gnosis) that some thing is being grasped beyond the rational and feeling levels. It might be more accurate to say that some thing is grasping us, but we are not quite sure how, where or why. I personally believe that it is at this level where most of our so called 'development' or psychic rearrangement takes place.

One such author for me is James Hillman, especially his book Re-visioning Psychology. He says, ''The call of soul convinces; it is a seduction into psychological faith, a faith in images and the thought of the heart, into an animation of the world.''

This quote from Hillman is a statement I am tempted to tie to a chair and beat with a hose, try to extract meaning and in fact I do. There is nothing wrong with chewing on and trying to ‘see the meaning’ in such writings or having a visceral response, but one will most often feel like he has ‘not quite gotten it’; again, much like a dream. That is where faith in the dynamic Psyche enters, causing us to trust that there are personifications and soulful entities in this animated cosmos which operate beyond the ego mind and emotions. We are pulled into the depths, beyond logic, feeling overwhelmed by what we do not and cannot know.

I think the ancient Christian Gospel of Thomas touched on this when Jesus said, "When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before you and that neither die nor become visible, how much you will have to bear!" Gospel of Thomas, saying 84

It is bearable to see our likeness which can be digested by reason and emotion, but it is excruciating to encounter images which transport us beyond rational explanation and emotional categories. Another author who does this for me is Nietzsche, and Lao Tze of the Chinese Tao Te Ching. This experience may also occur in movies, music, true science, math and other mediums.

I am not talking here about literature that is just poorly written, or rotten movies and bad music. There is plenty of that around. I am speaking about that experience which draws some part of me into the depths while leaving me intellectually and emotionally baffled, frustrated, angry and feeling just a little or a lot stupid. It is that encounter that teases the ego and requires the momentary suspension of the intellect and emergence of imagination.

I encourage you to read soulfully. Find some artist or author who acts as a soulful catalyst to rearrange your psyche like the shards of colorful glass in a twisting kaleidoscope. Without this experience we become boring intellectuals, shallow emotionalists or angry ideologues.

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