The Relationship of New Age Spirituality to Depth Psychology
For depth psychology, a sort of working distinction is sometimes made between soul and spirit—soul takes a person into the depths while spirit raises a person into the heights. Soul is a way of referencing human fragmentation and spirit refers to wholeness. Soul takes us into the darkness of hades while spirit takes us into the heavenly light and so forth. Soul is often associated with the negative emotions of depression, panic, fear, sorrow, etc. Spirit on the other hand leads us into feelings of ecstasy, tranquility, courage and joy. Soul is often associated with death and disintegration while spirit is associated with life and integration. Soul’s depths are at the center for the depth psychologist; Spirit’s heights are at the heart of the New Age religions. Using a popular New Age bestselling book as an example, we might say the New Age is about the spiritual Law of Attraction, while depth psychology is about the soulful Law of Subtraction.
That being said, we must remember that terms like soul and spirit are symbols pointing to a slice of lived phenomena, not the phenomena themselves. There is a danger of making these two kinds of human experience, soul and spirit, too distinct and unrelated. In order to avoid a complete split we need to talk about the soul of spirituality and the spirit of soulfulness.
By the “soul of spirituality” I am suggesting that while in the heights of spiritual ecstasy, on might get a momentary hint of being too consumed by the heights, or of being too far removed from the common earthly human experience. Sometimes in the middle of ecstatic spiritual transcendence there is a moment of dread or suffocation from the light. One might hear a voice whisper things like: “This is too much for you.” “This will not last.” “You will not be able to identify with those around you.”
The “spirit of soulfulness” on the other hand might refer to the feeling of peace and familiarity that arises mysteriously while in the dark depths. Sometimes in the middle of deep murky musings there is a moment of freedom from soaring too high or a moment of profoundly valuable insight about oneself or life in general. One might hear a voice whispering, “Relax and stop trying so hard.” I recently talked with a woman in the final days of her terminal cancer. She was smiling serenely. She said, “This is so odd. I do not really want to leave this life, but I have no fear of dying. There is a sense of release and relief that I feel.”
These two realms or ideas of spirit and soul are not really radically distinct phenomena. Like the Chinese Yin/Yang symbol, a bit of light resides in the deepest darkness, while a bit of darkness inhabits the brightest light. Similarly in the Christian Gospel, the infinite divine God has united with the mortal decaying human in Jesus Christ. This is not dogma, but rather images and stories which reflect the internal human experience of us all--a dynamic flow of dark and light experiences to make each of us into unique souls. I like to imagine that the thin line running between the two realms is each person's individual soul in the matrix of diverse yet related life experiences.
Duality is a necessary requirement for the dynamic and ongoing creative process, demanding both spirit and soul, above and below, positive and negative. Yet the two are always working in tandem, never alone.
We find this inside of our own skulls: the two hemispheres of the single human brain—each side with certain unique functions, yet neither complete without the other. Just as a single light beam, we are told by physicists, is comprised of wave and particle, so the fabric of Being (God) is comprised of soul and spirit; each has a distinction set of functions, yet both work together. However, just as the naked eye cannot tell the difference between particles and waves in a single shaft of light, so most often we humans cannot discern the differences between soul and spirit in a given life experience, but they are always there. For example: A man and woman who have been married for many years are fighting again, on the verge of a divorce. Upon later reflection one of the persons may recall feeling a deep dark despair over the disintegrating relationship and the anguishing loss of love and family, while another tiny part of that same person was feeling a sense of relief and even anticipation of a brand new future life. Or conversely, one of the persons in that argument may recall feeling a great sense of freedom as the oppressive relationship was finally ending, while that same person may also have felt a tiny fragment of sadness flickering inside the joyful anticipation of release. One is experiencing the spirit of soulfulness, and the other the soul of spirituality. There is no such thing as pure light or pure darkness. There is no soul without spirit, nor is there spirit without soul. Again, as with the Yin/Yang symbol, each contains a bit of the other.
The danger lies in separating soul and spirit completely. If Depth Psychology has a fault, it is that of emphasizing the dark depths to the implicit or explicit denial of the radiant heights. If New Age Spirituality has a fault, it is that of emphasizing light, union and love over darkness, fragmentation and conflict.
This short essay is not meant to answer all of the questions. That is up to the reader. The purpose is simply to remind us that spirit and soul, while operating in different spheres with differing values and aims, are never operating separately.