Mindfulness of the Soul

Photo by Sarah Bailey

In his book, Nothing Holy About It, Tim Burkett lists the four foundations of mindfulness as:

Mindfulness of our body;
Mindfulness of our feelings;
Mindfulness of mental formations; and
Mindfulness of our environment.(1)

In previous articles, I have presented some thoughts on the first and fourth of these.(2) Here, I will present some thoughts on the second. 

I will use the word “soul” where Burkett uses the word “feelings.” By “soul,” I mean that rather broad part of our inner being that is non-verbal. This includes our emotions; our appetites and urges; and our dreams, fantasies and imagination. I contrast this with what I call “spirit”, which I use to refer to the verbal part of our consciousness, including our reasoning and intentionality.

Included in the soul, as here defined, are things both dark and light. Among the dark things are our negative emotions, such as anger, envy and hate; bad habits, obsessions and addictions; and the whole range of our eroticism and sexual fantasies. Among the brighter things are our positive emotions, such as delight and joy; our ability to care and to love, and our creative imagination.

To be fully mindful of the soul is to be mindful of all of its aspects, both dark and light. But a word of caution here. Such mindfulness can awaken or unleash some powerful images and “energies” (to use a New Ager’s expression). 

Mindfulness of Dreams
A great deal has been written about dreams and the interpretation of dreams, much of which I think is nonsense. I am in agreement, however, with those who claim it is valuable to pay attention to our dreams, though perhaps for different reasons. I don’t pay attention to dreams because I believe they have some profound message to relay to us (though occasionally they do). Nor, as the Freudians and Jungians believed, that through interpreting dreams we could uncover the source of psychological problems, though perhaps occasionally that works. Rather, I find it valuable to simply focus on the images we can remember of our dreams, and to use these images as objects of contemplation. The contemplation of dream images can lead us deeper into our soul; bring us closer to that part of the soul where consciousness emerges from subconsciousness.

I find that when I just contemplate dream imagery without any attempt to interpret it, ideas about where the images come from and what they relate to come naturally. And occasionally these ideas provide valuable information about things I’ve been thinking about or have experienced. If nothing else, dream images are usually aesthetically interesting objects on which to contemplate. 

Mindfulness of Emotions
I grew up in a family where showing or expressing emotions was not encouraged. It was only after I was married that I began to understand how uncomfortable I was with my emotions. About the time I recognized this problem, I was reading Spinoza’s Ethics and came across the following line: “An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.”

I started to pay closer attention to what I was feeling. I tried to feel what I was feeling deeply, rather than avoiding it. And I tried to understand why I was feeling what I was feeling. In this way, I began to understand the truth of what Spinoza’s words. Emotions contain information. By paying attention to my emotions, I began to understand that information. Understanding that information, I could put it into words. 

Marriage can be something of an emotional minefield for a person lacking in “emotional intelligence.” Paying attention to my emotions helped me become something of a detectorist in that minefield. I became much better at communicating with my wife, which, I think, made me a better partner and certainly made me more comfortable with my marriage (my wife and I recently celebrated our 44th anniversary).

Beyond this, I became more fully aware of my emotions and this helped me to open up to the world in a new way. I could understand and deal with my negative emotions, like anger, and enjoy my positive emotions like joy and delight more fully.

Mindfulness of Appetites and Instincts
Here we are exploring a part of the human self that has been much reviled by religion, spirituality and philosophy. Here is the realm of our sexuality with its proclivities and what has been called our perversions. Here also is the realm of habits, obsessions and addictions. It is the place where temptation lurks; the devil’s playground. 

While Christianity found in this part of us a tempting snake, evolutionary science has also seen something reptilian here. Some neuroscientist label this part of the brain the “reptilian complex” thinking that it is responsible for the instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays seen in reptiles and birds.

It is, perhaps, not as hard for us to become mindful of this part of ourselves as it was for the Victorians who were shocked when Sigmund Freud insisted that this part of the brain was responsible for much neurosis and even psychosis in humans. Freud further insisted that it was necessary to delve into certain contents repressed in this part of the self in seeking a cure for mental illnesses. I think much of Freud’s psychological findings are not correct, but I think his work to shine more light on this part of ourselves is valuable.

So how do we become more mindful of this part of ourselves without going through some kind of analysis? For me, this was just an extension of my meditation practice.

Having read a considerable amount of Freud and Jung, I had a curiosity about the subconscious. Using meditation, I focused on how the various contents of my mind arose from seemingly nowhere. Included in these contents were sexual urges and desire for food. Observing how these appetites arose and how they entered my behavior, I began to recognize the instinctive basis of these appetites and the behaviors they led to.

Over time, this understanding helped me gain the upper hand in dealing with my appetites. Therein is one of the values of becoming more mindful of this aspect of our soul.

Another value is that when we better understand the strange world of our own soul, we also better understand the souls of others, in both their darker and lighter aspects. Such understanding is a foundation of compassion. 


You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you trod every path; such is its depths. — Heraclitus, fragment 42

What I’ve presented here is just the briefest sketch of some of the possibilities of becoming more mindful of the soul. The soul is like a mansion with numerous rooms. Exploring all these rooms is an activity for a lifetime. The ultimate value of this exploration is to make this mansion our true home; to be truly comfortable with our inner being. 

I have observed that many people seem uncomfortable with themselves. For such people, to be alone without distraction is like a punishment. For people who are comfortable with themselves, and particularly those who practice in mindfulness, to be left alone without distraction is more like a gift.

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(1) These foundations listed by Burkett were originally presented in the Satipatthana Sutra of Buddhism, but I am not interested here in delving into the question of the correct translation and interpretation of this Sutra, but describing them in terms of my own experience.

(2) See Mindfulness of the Body, published Oct. 5, 2023 and Mindfulness and Environment, published July 5, 2018.

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