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Keeping your soul alive is an adventure, a delightful challenge, a rousing responsibility, and an essential spiritual practice.
The phrase first leaped out at us from the pages of a 1990 novel, J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron. The protagonist, a retired classics professor in South Africa, writes to her daughter: "I am trying to keep my soul alive in times not hospitable to soul." We decided to explore what that effort would require.
Keeping your soul alive, we soon learned, becomes urgent during tough times in your life. But it is perhaps even more crucial during good times. It is related to that process of coming into your own called "soulmaking"; it is about the kind of ongoing attention implied by the phrase "care of the soul."
What is required to keep your soul alive?
A detailed understanding of what "soul" means is not necessary. In fact, soul eludes explanation or location. It is not defined as much as it is recognized and expressed. We notice, for example, that some objects have "soul" and describe particular behaviors as "soulful."
Certain words are naturally attached to soul-words like depth, meaning, value, essential nature, genuineness, imagination, passion, mystery. We identify soul by the quality of our experiences.
Here are other indications of soul, along with some things we have come to understand as its messages.
- The soul savors the present moment. You don't find it hiding out in the past or waiting for you in the future. It says pay attention to what ishappening to you right now.
- The soul speaks its own peculiar language in the messes and miseries of life. It does not run from trouble or lift itself above the fray of the everyday. Don't think you have to fix everything about yourself for your soul's sake.
- The soul savors simplicities love that is true, wonder that is childlike, humility that is homegrown.
- The soul also revels in complexity. It is evident in the maze of your feelings, thoughts, and commitments.
- The soul is a meaning maker, always putting odd combinations together and spawning new possibilities. It asks you to be open to the unusual and the new.
- The soul is deep and doesn't enjoy skimming the surface. It locates treasures by getting to the bottom of things.
- The soul is always on the lookout for fresh wonders. It likes taking the long way home. Be patient with its haphazard and zigzag meanderings.
- The soul cherishes pleasure. It delights in the senses and the luxuries of leisure time. It wants you to indulge yourself occasionally.
- The soul yearns for beauty and will seek it out continually. It invites you to join the quest.
- The soul and joy are good friends. Let them be together as often as possible. Always give the soul's ardors full expression. Don't suppress your enthusiasm and your ecstasy or your tears.
- The soul reaches out to others through love, compassion, and forgiveness. Let its music play through your words and deeds.
- The soul satisfies itself and finds fulfillment in comrnunity. Recognize that your family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues all represent opportunities for spiritual collaboration.
- The soul's embrace of people and things is wide and welcoming. It is hospitable to strangers and revels in the opportunity to be an angel for another soul in need. Never constrain this impulse.
- The soul expresses itself through image and imagination. It is a great storyteller spinning yams in your dreams and fantasies. Don't ignore these messages.
- The soul stretches itself through risk, renewal, and travel. Don't be afraid; be adventurous.
- The soul seeks out silence and solitude in order to hear the soft voice of God. Treasure the quiet times and make a place for them in your busy life.
- The soul is fed by lifelong learning. Many sacred texts and other resources will speak to your deepest needs and illuminate your path. Remember that a little study every day is good for the soul.
- The soul is nourished by ritual and celebration. Punctuate your life with these special occasions.
- The soul gives thanks and counts blessings. Notice this activity. The soul knows we usually have more than we need or deserve.
- The soul itself is a mystery and therefore has great respect for the inexplicable. Don't try to figure everything out.
We skate around an explanation of soul and end up with these indications and imperatives. What we know is that we dare not ignore this essential dimension of our lives. The more we try to understand it, the more we are convinced of the importance of honoring, nurturing, healing, stretching, and caring for our souls.
Throughout the ages, spiritual teachers, mystics, philosophers, activists, and artists have shown us that there are specific ways to keep our souls alive. This book includes one hundred of their suggestions. Here are places to be, attitudes to assume, perspectives to embrace, actions to try.
Some of these strategies are from ancient teachers and texts, but most are from contemporary writers. We urge you to explore their works and discover even more ways to keep your soul alive.
The quotations are followed by invitations to do something practical and specific. Think of these as good first steps for keeping your soul alive. Like many first steps, some of them are questions.
This book does not present a self-improvement program for problem-free living. Soul is not about satisfaction, comfort, or entertainment. Follow the advice given here and most likely you will find yourself more connected not only to your inner life but also to your neighbors and the larger world. Such soulful connections are rarely without pain and complexity, but they are marks of a deep and full life.
This collection of quotations and activities does not try to pinpoint the "right" ways or the only steps to keep your soul alive.