Before we begin talking about listening to soul, let’s establish what it is we’re listening to. “Soul” is, for me, the best possible word for that which is alive and resonating in us and the world around us. Now pause… Let that sink in for a moment. Because that’s essentially it.
In a sense, it is simple. You don’t have to hold any specific religious beliefs to engage with soul. You don’t have to read philosophical books. You only have to stop and listen and notice. Soul is always moving, humming within and around and between all of us. It is always expressing itself. And I believe that, unlike the typical dictionary definition, soul is not separate from matter – I believe that we can and must engage soul by also engaging the physical world, including our bodies.
So listening to soul is simple in that we are listening to something that, I think, wants to be heard, received. It is not hiding from us.
What makes it challenging and endlessly fascinating is that this seemingly simple act of listening asks much of us (not always what we would think) and it gives us much in return (not always what we would expect).
In this blog, I want to explore the profoundness of listening to soul – the expected and unexpected ways that soul expresses itself, how we struggle with it and embrace it, how it feeds and changes us, how it simultaneously solidifies and ignites our sense of self. Lest it seem that this will be an exercise in singing Kumbaya or thinking happy thoughts, I want to state clearly that listening to soul is an act of vast courage because it requires us to receive and feel what IS, which might go against the grain of what others expect, what we have lived, what we want to be true. So I want to wade into the waters of soul by starting with why it is often hard for us to listen inside and what this means about the posture required to listen.
If soul is ever-moving and ever-present, why do we so often have trouble truly listening to it? Why aren’t we just automatically and irrevocably tuned into it? Why is disconnection from our aliveness, I believe, so prevalent that it is a near epidemic in our society, playing a significant role in myriad issues such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and somatic symptoms? Because many of us have, in some way, learned to dismiss it or distrust it or have been blocked off from it – maybe no one has ever modeled for us what it means to listen to and manifest our aliveness, or maybe we have been actively discouraged from listening to it, or maybe we’ve experienced trauma (whether one big capital-T Trauma or several small-t traumas) that has cut us off from it, or maybe some combination of these. However it came about, this disconnection from soul from which so many of us suffer has been programmed into our way of being so that we automatically, and often unconsciously, react defensively to our aliveness – numbing it, repressing it, somehow avoiding it – because it feels disruptive, threatening. Even for those who are blessed with being able to feel and express their aliveness, it requires continual awareness and flexibility to embody the ever-evolving truths that are always rising up from the inside.
The ingrainedness of disconnection from our aliveness and the perpetually shifting expressions of it mean that we must listen differently when we listen for soul. We must listen openly and with curiosity, ready to hear what truly is; ready to make space for whatever we discover; ready to alter our previously held beliefs. Here we come to a crucial and provocative question in listening to soul: What else is true? This is the question that a professor in my counseling graduate program, Allen Koehn, repeatedly posed to me and my classmates. The course subject was the Trickster, an archetype that embodies the unexpected, a figure who is, as Allen described in the course syllabus, an “enemy of arbitrary boundaries.”
When listening for soul, we tend to impose arbitrary boundaries and approach it with preconceived ideas, assuming that soul can be found here and not there, that soul looks or feels a certain way, that soul is always “light” or “good.” If we ask ourselves, “What else is true about soul?” – if we really sustain that question without dodging it or retreating to what’s familiar – we immediately move into a space where soul can be something very different. In fact, a question that can often get right at the heart of soul in a situation is “Where do I think soul isn’t?”
I experienced life peeking out from an unexpected place recently. It’s a simple example but exactly the sort of small spark of aliveness that we tend to dismiss or never notice as touching something in us. As part of clearing some space in our backyard for a vegetable garden, we had to remove a large (and quickly getting larger) mimosa tree. Being an unabashed tree hugger, I was extremely sad to see it cut down and could not bear to watch as it was hacked into. After the dirty deed was done, jagged bits of wood lay all over the grass and only the stump was left, looking rather gruesome and obscene with its freshly, crudely amputated limbs.
Typical of a large yard project, the stump has remained long after its limbs were removed, and I was struck when I recently noticed new growth emerging out of the very cuts that would seem to have killed it. My immediate feeling was awe at how persistent life is. How amazing that tiny new shoots came forth from those deep gashes! The tree, stripped down to a mere stump, was still pressing outward, still insisting on life. Though I had seen other severely stripped down trees put out new branches, I had just assumed life couldn’t possibly come from these ravaged remains, but it was still very much alive – stirring in the dark underneath the surface, gathering its energy to find a new opening. And in a beautiful paradox of vitality, the opening where new life first emerged was a deep cut, a wound.
This is one of the hardest places for us to trust that our aliveness is expressing itself: our wounds and suffering. I will write more about this later but, for now, I want to hold that specific experience as just one answer to the larger question I am posing to you and to me, a question that we must begin with and repeatedly ask as part of listening to soul: what else is true about how soul can show up? Where do we think life, vitality, truth, or new possibilities cannot possibly come from? For if we don’t ask that question, if we don’t question our assumptions about soul, we preclude opportunities to hear it and engage it – within ourselves and with others.
So where do you think soul isn’t? And what happens when you ask that question? Does anything change?
© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2011.