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Soulful Living: Why Is Cultivating the Soul So Painful?

Rather than ask "How can I stop this pain?" ask yourself: "Do I choose to suffer in service to my ego (false self) or in service to my soul (essence)?"
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"Everyone should know that you can't live in any other way than by cultivating the soul." - Apuleius, Roman writer

Several readers responded to last week's post, How To Know The Way Of The Soul, with observations that their own soul's process was extremely painful. One reader asked, " Does it always have to be so painful?" while another wondered, "How can I stop this pain?"

Thomas Moore, author of Care Of The Soul, writes:

Care of the soul speaks to the longings we feel and to the symptoms that drive us crazy, but it is not a path away from shadow or death. A soulful personality is complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failure. Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness.

Soul is the font of who we are, and yet it is far beyond our capacity to devise and to control. We can cultivate, tend, enjoy, and participate in the things of the soul, but we can't outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.

So we can see that the very questions, "Why is the soul's process so painful and how can I stop the pain?" are questions of an ego wanting to be in control. To the soul, this human life is a classroom, filled with opportunities for gaining wisdom, and as such, everything that occurs in our lives is simply "grist for the mill," as Ram Das would say.

By trying to avoid our human mistakes and failures and by wanting to side step negative moods, emotions, bad life choices and unhealthy habits, we "move beyond the reach of the soul" says Moore. The work of our soul is found, not by seeing our life's circumstances as problems to be solved or transcended, but by embracing precisely what is right in front of us.

"The way through the world is more difficult to find that the way beyond it." -poet Wallace Stevens

Renaissance philosophers have said it is the soul that makes us human. We could also look at it as when we are most human we have the greatest access to soul.

Thus, the voice of the soul can most often be heard through our symptoms. When the soul is not tended, we feel its "longings" issued through emotions and feelings we consider most painful:

Loss of values
Hunger for spirituality

The soul begs us to turn toward our pain, not away from it, for there in the midst of our suffering, lies the path to liberation. "The only way out is through" could be the mantra of the soul.

Life offers up the raw materials the soul uses to craft our very being. Thus our experiences of loss, disappointment, betrayal -- all anathema to the ego -- constitute the very stock from which our human quintessence is lovingly cooked and carefully rendered. We gain depth, character and wisdom through this rendering.

The way of the ego vs. The way of the soul

The ego seeks cure. The soul seeks care. The ego seeks understanding. The soul seeks mystery and imagination. The soul invites us to bring our imaginations into the mysteries of life, where the outcomes are unpredictable and surprise is on the menu. Pain arises when we resist this process. Life is painful when we follow the dictates of the ego, which requires a certainty and guarantee of the outcome before we choose. The soul requires that we expose ourselves to the rich depths of life's mysteries again and again.

"Never again. Been there, done that" is the ego's response to emotional pain. The soul, on the other hand, is your inner "poet in residence," hungry for the next line that will make its poetry part of a meaningful life. To live from the soul is to choose its path.

Think of your pain then, as flavors and spices to add to the stew of your life. The Chinese got it right with the creation of sweet and sour soup. All sweet and no sour would be a pretty boring concoction, as soups go. So would all sour and no sweet. It's the blend of the two "opposing" flavors that create the magical elixir we all know and love. So it is that the soul is busily working to create a masterful stew called your life, flavored with enough loss and pain, joy and laughter to make it delicious!

What is required of us is that we learn to love and care for our soul, not as a separate entity or "thing," but as the very essence of who we are.

At the end of the day, when your life is over, what do you want to be able look back and say about it? That you stayed close to the shore and made it through your life intact? Or that you navigated the rapids, allowed your heart to be ripped open, shredded into tiny pieces and given away?

Mary Oliver, from her poem "When Death Comes"

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

And so my friend, we can choose the careful path, the one of "visitation," or we can take the world into our arms and embrace the mystery.

Both paths have pain involved. The pain of the "carefully lived life" is the pain never being fully expressed or knowing our own depth. The pain of the soulful life is the pain of letting go, the pain of trusting in something we cannot see, the pain of breaking through fear, the pain of being seen and of loving completely.

Your soul knows the path it must travel. Your job is to align and follow. You will suffer if you don't. You will suffer if you do. For as the Buddha taught, "life is suffering."

Rather than ask "How can I stop this pain?" ask yourself: "Do I choose to suffer in service to my ego (false self) or in service to my soul (essence)?" How you view life and your role in it will determine which path you choose.

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For more material on the soul and learning to be human, please come pay a visit to my personal blog and website: Rx For The Soul.

Want to take on your life with more gusto? Check out the new group tele-coaching opportunity on my Life Fitness Coaching Boot Camp page. Team #2 launches on June 29. I hope you'll join us!

Bless you and happy travels!