… And so I landed at Copper Beech on Friday afternoon, carrying my own long history with Thomas Moore, my new life which is still striving to get born, and my wrestlings with my own spiritual heritage – along with a barely recognized need simply to retreat, pull back, stop, breathe, be nourished, take in, receive… none of which, I am discovering, I am particularly adept at. How wonderful then, that this indeed is what happened…
Reflecting on how I was changed by the weekend, what happened was first and foremost a string of experiences – learnings to be sure, but not lessons in the bookish sense this heady guy mastered the art of taking in, long before I ever made it as far as college. There were in fact lessons. Thomas Moore did deliver a series of talks – complete with slides to ensure we knew we were still in the 21st century – about the energies embodied in the ancient Greek divinities Aphrodite, Ares, and Hermes (Venus, Mars, and Mercury in the Roman pantheon), and about the remarkable Renaissance men Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and John Dee. There were numerous references, no surprise, to the work of C. G. Jung and James Hillman; along with a short introduction to the work of Rafael Lopez Pedraza, another of his mentors in the field of analytical psychology. Hearing a master discuss such things was impressive, and hearing a human being share deeply about subject matter and experiences that powerfully affected him personally was a compelling experience in its own right. Yet most of what he talked about is accessible in his writings. What made the time with him unforgettable and transformative was the soulfulness of the experience itself.
For this to happen, there was first a happy synergy of special pieces coming together at one place and time. Besides our Master of the ceremonies, these pieces included the venue, Copper Beech Institute with its remarkable staff and volunteers; the company of people who came together for this retreat, and another company of practitioners of Kundalini yoga gathered for a workshop with Hari Kirin. Roughly 20 of us took part in the Soulful Living retreat. We came from nearby, from easy commuting distance, from further afield, and from abroad. Mostly in our middle years, we came with different life experiences and circumstances, different faith and work backgrounds, and different stories to tell. Wonderfully and somewhat unusually, while together we were all able to be fully present, to listen as well as to share.
My own visit began with a special gift, when I attended a yoga class to get centered before the sessions began Friday evening and discovered unexpectedly the instructor was a favorite friend from West Hartford Yoga, where I first began to learn the practice five years ago. Supper was a chance to connect with friends, make new ones, and meet the principals. (Copper Beech, let it be noted, serves largely vegetarian meals, with gluten-free options for those who want or need them.) And so already soul-work was happening before the talk about it had properly begun.
As the weekend continued, it continued to happen – around meals, during the early morning meditation and yoga classes, at the Saturday evening sound meditation session presented by the Conduit Center, and at the opening of the Form and Void art exhibition organized by the Golden Thread Gallery, which shares the Holy Family facilities with Copper Beech, The Spiritual Life Center, and the monastery. Notable, though, is the fact that I would not, could not, have characterized what was happening this way – as deeply soulful – going into it, or even really coming out of it. It has taken time and reflection to begin to give the quality of what was happening a name, that name.
Time then to get into it: Already Friday evening, Thomas Moore (henceforth TM) laid out a crucial distinction – that between Spirit and Soul. This became a red thread that ran through the rest of our conversations. Where Spirit looks up, out, and beyond; Soul looks down and in, seeking ground. Spirit is made manifest in ideas; Soul appears in images. Spirit is logical and rational. Soul is intuitive. Spirit makes arguments and believes in causal connections. Soul tells stories and makes jokes and believes in magic. Spirit looks for the light. Soul revels in the dark. Spirit seeks the Truth. Soul wants Meaning. Spirit instructs. Soul plays.
In these times we are far more attuned to Spirit, even those who don’t consider themselves “spiritual”, while Soul lives in the shadows and reveals itself most often through its absence. It has been this way in the West at least since the 17th century when the Enlightenment commenced with the advent of modern science and philosophical rationalism; and arguably since the Christian Councils of Nicea (787 CE) and Constantinople (869 CE), when, as James Hillman pointed out in his famous article “Peaks and Vales” (to which TM directed our attention), Soul and its images were banished, leaving us with Body and Spirit as the only realities worthy of attention. From the shadows, Soul then lets itself be known through all sorts of craziness – poetry, humor, the arts, and self-sacrificing service at its best; organized religion in the middle ground; and psychopathology and violence among individuals, communities, and nations, at its worst. If TM as a public figure has an agenda with his work, it is to reclaim for Soul its rightful place in our shared consciousness, not only because it would be a healthier and happier way for us to live as individuals and families, but because it is what is most needed if the frightening disorders apparent in the daily news are to be healed.
Following Hillman, he suggested that going into our symptoms, rather than suppressing or trying to fix them, is the proper path to healing. Violence is pervasive in our culture and our times, from the inner lives of individuals to wars among nations and alliances of nations, because we do not know how to embrace in non-destructive ways Ares the Warrior’s wish to assert ourselves and claim our own due. Disrespecting Aphrodite, we live in a hyper-sexualized culture, because we are not able to honor the desires of our human body for sensual gratification and pleasure. Look at Botticelli’s “Primavera” and your eye immediately goes to the Three Graces, foreground left, representing Beauty, Pleasure, and Restraint, dancing together. A Holy Worldliness is what we need to recover.
Hermes, the god of surprises, and secrets, and trickery, and magic must have his due. His way is not linear. He does not always obey the rules or the laws. He does not draw inside the lines. He is not a problem solver looking for a fix, as a spiritual Hero would do. He’d rather talk about it, preferably among friends. Suitably surprising, for those of us brought up in a mainstream Christian tradition, TM’s take on the Jesus of the Gospel (in Writing in the Sand, for instance) is that he is much more a Hermetic Soul figure, with his predilection for paradox and parable, his appreciation of the sensual, his embrace of conviviality right down to the Last Supper; than the uni- directional Spirit figure he is traditionally made out to be.
It makes sense, following this insight, that TM supposes that churches too stand to be healed of the moribund state in which many find themselves, by seeking ways to become vessels for Soul in a culture where more and more people despair of finding it there. All the major religions have their mystics who have found ways to break out of the conventional and logical order of things, and to break through to the realm where a sense of connectedness to and oneness with the Source may be found. Pointedly, as we neared the end of our time together, with a mercurial glint in his eye TM threw out the question “What would happen then if we all became mystics?”
by Tim Cole
Tim Cole is a Copper Beech retreatant who blogs at Salamander’s World.