Soul and Self (book review)

It may surprise people to hear psychologists talk about the “soul.” Generally in American culture we tend to think in high-walled categories. We often assume that you are either one thing or the other: either a “believer” in spiritual truths or else an “atheist scientist” type who sees no soul, only a brain, as the ultimate explanation of human life. It’s the old “science versus religion” debate.

The problem with that kind of assumption is that it can blind one to visions of life that are more complex, but also more beautiful and useful. For instance, many psychologists certainly live comfortably with the apparently contradictory notions of “self” as something rooted in biology and learning, but also some notion of “soul” as a kind of inner “presence” that is somehow connected with the divine. In such cases, dogmatic “certainty” about the existence of such a soul may be replaced by hope; “faith” is defined as “belief without proof” instead of a simpler, but impossible to defend dogmatism.

Psychologists who believe in, or are at least very interested in the “soul” are not necessarily walking contradictions. They may in fact understand that “paradox” is the name of the game. I often encourage my graduate students to try to get comfortable with paradox, because most of the really interesting things in life, especially things involving people and their complex feelings, are situations that are just loaded with it. If you can’t handle paradox, you probably can’t handle being a therapist or even a coach.

I’ve been thinking about “soul” for a long time and have recently been reading a wonderful new book that tries to bridge the gap between our paradoxical notions of “self” and “soul.” A highly respected and esteemed psychologist colleague and friend, Dr. Paul Fehrenbach, has just published Soul and Self, subtitled “Parallels Between Spiritual and Psychological Growth.” It is a unique book, a tiny hundred-odd pages of rich, beautiful writing that describes very nicely the psychological changes a person undergoes as they develop a greater awareness of the presence of a “soul” at the core of their being.

Far from being some kind of “instant redemption,” the growth of awareness of that “something sacred” within is usually a gradual process. (Sometimes you may <i>think</> you had an “instant conversion” because you forget the many tortured hours, or even years, you’ve spent wrestling with the messages from within, before you finally “let go” and attend to them.) This growth tends to progress, according to Dr. Fehrenbach, from a focus almost entirely on the external world, to a gradual awareness of one’s having an inner life, and from there, to a sense of some kind of underlying “theme” or “presence” that has always been there, “talking” to you. This is very similar to Neale Donald Walsch’s series of Conversations with God books. Dr. Fehrenbach’s book is, among other things, one of the best manuals ever written about the process of having one’s own “conversation with God.”

Growth in your awareness of your soul often requires the presence of another, what Fehrenbach calls a “sponsor” who helps one listen for those inner messages. A friend, partner, spiritual guide or yes, a therapist, can often be an essential help on this journey.

I’ll say more about this topic in the future. For now, I recommend checking out Soul and Self. It may help you find a bit more of your own soul.

(This post was originally published in fall, 2006 in the Newsletter of the Minnesota Society for Psychoanalytic Studies.)

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