I was recently asked, “When people say they are “spiritual,” what do they mean?” I thought it was a brilliant question — one that spiritual seekers themselves often don’t stop to ask.
While there are countless practices, beliefs, traditions that fit comfortably under the heading “spirituality,” I think there’s a simple answer to this question that unites them. In short, I believe that to be spiritual is to seek connection with spirit: the soul, or “essence,” of reality.
Here it’s useful to distinguish between “spirit” and “soul” — two words that are often used interchangeably. Psychologists and spiritual writers like John Welwood and Bill Plotkin define “soul” as the essence of an individual entity, and “spirit” as the soul of the universe — the essence of reality.
The spiritual landscape can be roughly divided into traditions that focus more on spirit or more on soul.
Plotkin characterizes spirit as the upward path while soul is the downward path (though not in a negative way). Spirit is universal, transcendent, and is characterized by the upper world: the realm of light. Soul is personal, immanent, and is characterized by the descent inward to the essence of who we are: the intimate darkness.
While all religious traditions acknowledge the “upward” and “downward” movement of spirit and soul in some way, Plotkin argues that the dominant world religion focus on the upward path of spirit. This includes Buddhism, Abrahamic traditions, Hinduism, Taoism, where the goal is to know, unite, or align with the universal essence.
By and large the earth-based, indigenous, animistic, magical, traditions emphasize the path of soul, where the goal is to descend into the earthy, watery depths to find there your true self (which is a unique expression of the universal Self). The traditions that focus on the downward movement to soul — those that are earthy, natural, or “dark” — were historically demonized (often literally) by traditions based on the upward movement to spirit. However, the movement upward and downward are really both a movement toward a central truth.
Whether our spiritual practice seeks to touch the universal spirit (the essence of reality) or our personal soul (the essence of ourselves) we are reaching for, and connecting with, the same thing.
In Hinduism, atman is considered both the universal soul and the soul contained in every individual. In Kabbalistic Judaism, each person carries a “spark” of the same divine. In Christianity, the Kingdom of Heaven is said to be within.
Another common question about spirituality is what distinguishes it from philosophy? I believe the key difference here is that philosophy (as it is generally understood today) seeks to understand with the mind, spirituality seeks to experience with the whole being.
In the practice of philosophy, the tendency is to try to understand the world with reason, keeping it at a distance in order to maintain intellectual clarity. In the practice of spirituality, the aim is to let the world wash over and through us, to achieve an intimate, felt experience of connection – or union – with reality.
Thus, to be spiritual is to seek connection with the spirit of the world — to experience the essence of reality with our whole being — in order to enter fully into the heart of life and live completely.
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4 thoughts on “What is Soul? What is Spirit?”
Daniel, very nice post and I am largely in agreement with it, especially the conclusion. The one thing that troubled me a bit is Welwood and Plotkin’s defining spirit as “the soul of the universe — the essence of reality.” If not supernaturalistic, this definition certainly makes spirit a highly metaphysical entity.
The terms spirit and soul are a big part of the vocabulary I use in writing about spirituality. As I use the terms, spirit refers to that part of our mind that uses words and that is capable of setting goals. Soul refers to all the rest, the nonverbal elements – appetites, emotions, dreams, fantasy, imagination, and such. In evolutionary terms, spirit refers to the most recently evolved part of our brain, and the cultural “software” that it uses, and soul refers to the older part of our brain, the part that we share with most animals. Bringing these two parts of our being into harmony is one of the great challenges of a spiritual life.
I do well understand, however, what you might mean by “spirit of the world.” Again, trying to find a more naturalistic language, I call that Nature – the self organizing, creational source of everything including us. I think, though, that the experience of “connecting with this” is the same regardless of how we define our words, and the experience is the important thing.
I posted an article here several years ago titled “The Marriage of Spirit and Soul” (https://www.snsociety.org/the-marriage-of-spirit-and-soul/) the addresses some of the same things as your post, but from the viewpoint of spiritual alchemy.
Thanks for the reflection Thomas. And I agree: we might use soul and spirit in different ways, though the experience itself is what matters. And the way I’m using “Spirit” in this post could easily be replaced by “Nature,” which to me is not a metaphysical entity. – though what do we know about the ultimate bounds of Nature? Maybe it does go “above” the physical laws and plane. If it exists, It is still a part of Nature nonetheless.
I have to be honest here.I recently have become infatuated with spiritual naturalism and how things are defined and explained.I also recently became a true believer in stoicism which led me to spiritual naturalism.Reading Daniel’s take on the soul and the spirit was refreshing,then reading further what Thomas had to say yet again gives me clarity beyond anything I’ve encountered before concerning both spirit and soul.As Donald Crosby say’s,to be the best member of the community of Nature is what my individual responsibility is as a rational being.Concerning myself with anything supernatural is well to me nonsense.At any rate,being able to view these two things in the way you present them allows me to find meaning and clarity in something I up till now stopped concerning myself with because my view of both were supernatural in a sense.I am not sure if I made much sense in articulating my vocabulary lol.I suppose I am attempting to Express gratitude to both of you for helping me understand concept and application of perspective pertaining spirit and soul.Thank you both of you…
Thank you Eric. I’m glad that my writing and Thomases perspective resonated. It sounds like you’ve come to the right place.
There are lots of awesome thinkers on this site, and if you’re interested in more for me, I’ve just started my own substack where I publish more frequently.