I went from professional journalist to fawning fanboy to newly-divorced-dad-on-the-therapist’s-couch in a matter of 30 minutes when I interviewed Thomas Moore by phone last week. The author of “Care of the Soul,” “Soul Mates,” “Dark Nights of the Soul” and many others has been a constant companion of mine for the last two decades, and his new book, “Ageless Soul,” comes at a time when the world dearly needs a soul lift.
Or maybe that’s just me, thinking that the concept of soul itself is eluding us, and that humanity is getting less and less concerned with its own soul and therefore the collective soul.
“You’re one-thousand percent right,” said Moore from New York, where he was in the midst of his umpteenth book tour. “Writing in ‘Care Of The Soul’ at the very beginning of that book, and that was 25 years ago, I wrote that all of our problems — the individual’s problems and society’s problems as a whole — are due to a loss of soul. And it’s more true than ever. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and we’re going through that now. I think that’s the way society’s going, and if we can survive these back steps, society will be fine.”
We’ve been lucky to have Moore keeping tabs on the state of the soul all these years. As a one-time monk, psychotherapist, musician and university professor, his work on the somewhat ephemeral notion of soul provides a welcome tool for these turbulent times.
“I didn’t invent the word, but I’ve helped give it some attention in the past few years,” he said. “Many of the writers that I’ve been reading for a long time from centuries ago wrote about the soul — Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, John Keats, Emily Dickinson. So it’s out there, it’s just that we haven’t seen its relevance to contemporary life.”
As such, the just-published “Ageless Soul” may be Moore’s most crucial work to date and a must-read for contemplatives of all ages.
“Soul refers to our mysterious depth and substance, what remains after medicine and psychology have analyzed and explained us,” writes Moore, 77. “It is a profound sense of self, far beyond what they call ego, and it helps us connect with others. The soul offers a strong sense of identity and individuality, but at the same time it includes a felt awareness of being part of humanity. In some mysterious way we and others share an experience of what it is to be human, and we do this so deeply that, according to many traditional accounts, we share one soul.”
Dealing with life and loss is a sure pathway to a soulful life. The deaths of parents, spouses, children, loved ones, pets and a sense of our former selves can take a toll on individuals, and at the moment there has been a loss of an illusion of innocence in America. The entire world, in fact, feels as if it’s going through a loss-motored transition stage — which can be good growth news.
“The loss is not easy to handle, but I’ve always felt that a good way to get soul is through loss, and in failure,” he said. “Soul comes more from having something taken from you than being given something, I think, actually. I mean, I don’t want to say it’s unimportant to gain knowledge and have good experiences and make friends and all of these positive things, which are important. But life itself, at least half of it for most of us, is loss and failure. So I think to be a human being, you have to be able to handle both and see that they’re mixed up with each other together and you don’t separate them.”
In other words, embrace the scars and let the bad times roll, as famous soul man Paul Westerberg sang it.
“That allows you to be who you are,” said Moore. “You’re not your real self if you avoid or just ignore and leave out the bad times. Because they do things for you, too. The bad times really make us more ourselves and bring out our capacity and power and personalities more than the good times. Good times tend to be surrounded by unconsciousness; you don’t think much about them.
“But when you have to go through something that’s challenging, you have to sort everything out. You have to have deep conversations with friends and family members. You don’t do that when you’re just having a good time. So there’s something about the disturbance of life that encourages reflection. And that is a very important step in real aging. All of us have experiences of various loss, making mistakes, and you really have to process them and talk them through and look at them closely.”
Beyond dealing with the inevitable loss that life brings, and partaking in the everyday rituals of silence, solitude, meditating, prayer, reading, art and music, what can a person do to actually gain soul?
“There are a lot things, but let me mention two things, because these are the two things that are mentioned the most in the history of literature on the soul,” said Moore. “The first is friendship. Most people who have written about the soul say that the thing that nurtures it is friendship. It keeps the soul going and healthy and alive. So anything you can do to foster friendship and take time out for friendship, be it writing to your friends, an email or even a letter, or sending a little gift from out of the blue; staying in touch and supporting — all of those things are so important to a foundation for a soulful life.
“Very closely related to that is a sense of home. All these great writers on soul say that you need to find the right neighborhood and home to live in and then take care of your home. Make it a warm place where you can nurture friendship and family.”
“These days, I’m talking about soul in terms of the aging process,” he said. “And by that I don’t mean just getting older, I mean becoming somebody. That aging is not just spending time, but going through experiences that make you into a real person and bring out your potential and your individuality. So two steps to getting some soul back, at least in the individual would be: One, say yes to life with all the invitations it offers, and the second is to process what you’ve gone through.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org