I’m trying to reclaim the soul, so this exploration of aspects of soul is part of my attempt to articulate this mysterious region. We know about it, we feel it, we sense it, but our thinking-obsessed culture keeps restricting human experience to the brain, to the mind, as though human beings don’t exist beneath the neck. Yet we know that we do—our hearts and our bodies contribute to our emotional experience in ways which we may not see on a functional magnetic resonance image of the brain, but they are nonetheless palpable to us as humans.
Our language reflects our understanding that we possess a soul. We speak of psychology and psychotherapy—study of the soul, therapy of the soul. Yet despite the wisdom evident in the etymology of these terms, the term mental health has begun to predominate in our conversations about what I would prefer to describe as soul health. Mental health may restrict our understanding of the soul to our thinking life, shutting out a whole spectrum of experience and neglecting an entire realm of exploration.
However we can all be explorers of soul phenomena: here’s some research you can try at home. What happens when you cry? Observe yourself next time you burst into tears. Where do you feel the emotion that aroused crying? What provoked your tears? What do you feel after you’ve cried?
I doubt whether you will feel the sensations in your head. Even though of course, tears emerge from your eyes, the area where we feel them welling up is probably in another part of your body. For me, I can sense it in my chest; a kind of tightness just to the left of my heart, which is eventually loosened by crying. For example after crying tears of sadness and then triumph at the events depicted in the film ‘Selma’, I felt the soul cleansing that a favourite Arabic saying promises. The saying tell us, ‘As soap is for the hands, so tears are for the soul’.
There are of course other tears apart from those we cry for soul-cleansing purposes (otherwise known as emotional tears). Basal tears cleanse and nourish our corneas, and onions induce reflex tears.
Maurice Mikkers, a Dutch photographer, has gone even further in his research on tears. Formerly a medical laboratory analyst, he became enamoured with the poetic imagery of tears. Mikkers went out and caught people’s tears in a pipette, placed the tears on microscope slides, and allowed them to crystallise to create his imaginarium. He asked people both for their tears and for the stories that aroused them. His images are moving micrographs of these stories. He found that all tears are unique, perhaps creating tiny portraits of the feelings that motivated them.
With enough tears, and some creative exploration, eventually our souls will be washed clean enough and we must prepare for a new stage of life—we cannot stay stuck anywhere, even in tears. In one of my favourite versions of the Cinderella story, the Georgian tale known as Conkiajgharuna, the rag girl grieves not only her dead mother, but also the beloved cow which has been killed on the order of her stepmother. She cries—a lot.
When Conkiajgharuna is told by her stepmother that she must fill a trough with tears and sort dirt from millet before she can attend a festival, a wise neighbour puts salt in the trough and fills it with water implying that the girl has cried enough. ‘These are your tears,’ the neighbour tells the girl. The woman sets her equally discerning chickens to work at sorting millet from dirt. (And yes, Conkiajgharuna gets to the festival and beyond, but please read the story, as the climax is quite, well…piercing.)
Just as tears cleanse the soul, stories and metaphors can help us towards healing in the mysterious way and at the mysterious pace which is soul time, the time of ripeness rather than the time of worldly urgency.
Stories also speak to all parts of our experience and allow us to move beyond personal suffering. Recently, after I narrated a traditional story that echoed aspects of her own experiences, a client was visibly moved. She told me, ‘I can relate to everyone in that story, I understand where each one of them is coming from’. That is one of the gifts of stories. They allow us to perceive all the shades of life experience, from the darkest to the brightest, in the characters who act within their narratives.
If we let ourselves enter their mysterious and tangible realm, our souls have sufficient breadth to do that—to take in all that we experience, to let us cry when we need to grieve, to laugh as we head to the festival, to experience beyond our own pain so that we can understand the stories that motivate even those who have harmed us. This is the wide territory that we begin to inhabit when we are prepared to explore the territory of the soul.