Spirit or soul? A New Age movement critique.Anja van Kralingen
I recently signed up with my Alma Mater to do a module called Contemporary Spirituality. The main concept that emerged for me is that the New Age movement is capturing the market of modern individuals attempting to connect with the transcendent. This essay is a critical look at the New Age Movement and its influence and effect on Modern Spirituality. I also explore the difference between soul and spirit and the modern attitude towards both.
The attitude towards spirituality and soul in western culture.
Modern Western culture promotes the separation of soul and spirit. In the west, feelings are deemed untrustworthy and unproductive and hence the feeling life is not encouraged or promoted. As modern medicine treats the symptom, so does modern psychology, with the focus on the symptom and not what is the emotional or psychological state of the individual (Didonna, 2009, p. 6). Being normal is the goal, and anything deviating from that is regarded as a problem to be fixed, adapted or medicated and ultimately brought under control.
Furthermore, the Western educational system is mind-centered and is often combined with an attitude that encourages the suppression of instincts and sexuality, frequently leading to a dysfunctional relationship with these aspects of the individual (Ferrer, 2003, p. 25). Many people seeking psychological help are treated from a cognitive perspective, and the focus is on mental regulation of the specific dysfunction.
With the focus of the Western culture so strongly fixed in reason and logic, the instincts, along with the body, is seen as something that can be controlled by mental effort. This belief is then subsequently brought into question when the individual suffers loss of health, either physically and/or mentally. Consequently, the modern individual often finds himself experiencing an existential crisis, loss of meaning and a feeling of being disconnected from spirituality, with no guidance on how to reclaim his spiritual self. When they do experience out of the ordinary spiritual experiences, help and guidance is rare. Research has brought to light that sixty percent of people entering therapy raise religious and/or spiritual issues, but therapists themselves are not trained to handle these specific issues (Lukoff, 1998, p. 2).
This is then the crises of modern man. As Jung claimed, he is in search of his soul, but the soul, along with the body, has been cast into exile (Farah, 2010, p. 218).
The place of soul, a world of imagination, passion, fantasy and reflection is the place that binds the physical and the spiritual together (Harris, 2001, p. 33). Modern Western society is one-sided in focus and development. With this focus on logic, reason and control, this has caused the concept of soul to be cast into the shadows.
The influence of the eastern systems.
The Eastern systems that have infiltrated Western culture are usually changed and adapted to accommodate this Western approach. For example, tantric yoga that is meant to produce “inner heat” for creation of the subtle body (Harris, 2001, p. 41) has been adopted in the west as an experience in a heated room and the focus is on gaining more flexibility.
The personal growth industry is huge and profitable. According to Market Data Enterprises, this a ten billion dollar industry in America alone. It is a booming market which attracts many individuals to practice some form of therapy since it is a largely unregulated industry.
As York claims, the New age business is largely cannibalistic and commercially driven. (2001, p. 364). In The Centre for Applied Jungian Studies, we often come across students who are addicted to the weekend workshop and chase the feeling of being swept away by their emotions or a spiritual high. There is no shortage of courses and practices to keep them busy for years. These individuals are looking for meaning and purpose and hope to find this somewhere in the New Age genre.
The modern individual finds that one system of practice alone is not fulfilling anymore. He likes to dabble in this and that and hopefully, eventually finds a system that ties everything that he has learnt together. The days of committing to one system religiously are over, and instead there is a movement towards the “do-it-yourself-religion” (2006, Auspers & Houtman, p. 201). Teachings of spiritual leaders are consumed but not digested. Very few New Agers commit to a teaching and spend time to develop their understanding of it.
What is the role of soul in spirituality?
The question here is, what is spirit and what is soul, and why is there a distinction? In my experience and practice I have approached the teachings of Jungian psychology from a spiritual perspective. However, I have realized experiencing spirit is very different to experiencing soul.
Descartes claims that the Soul is not merely lodged in the body as a pilot in a vehicle, but rather that he is very intimately connected to it, and that together the two make up a whole. Hippocrates claimed that the heart is the seat of the soul.
The experience of losing touch with your soul is a loss of meaning. Soul experience is one that takes place in and through the body. It reflects on incidents, and using imaginations turns all experiences into that of meaningful events. The soul, like the body, is vulnerable and suffers. It is experienced through imagination, passion, fantasy and reflection. (Lathrop, Stern and Gibson, 2014, p. 34). From a Jungian perspective one can say this is the experience of Anima or feminine energy.
Spirit, on the other hand, strives for sublimation, abstract principles, and always attempting newer heights. The intellectual mind ascends and tries constantly to refine and purify. It is active and can be identified as the masculine energy, or Animus (Lathrop et al., 2014, p.34).
These two definitions clearly identify the problem within contemporary Western society. The focus is on Animus, masculine energy, whilst the feminine energy, the Anima, is completely neglected.
Marian Woodman points out that the disembodied soul is a common phenomenon amongst modern women.
Refusing them (their souls) entrance into their own bodies, such people become enemies of their souls. Unconsciously they realise that they have sentenced their soul to perpetual exile and for this reason find no real satisfaction in the other outlets, however creative, that the soul in exile from the body finds for itself. Temporary release from despair through total immersion in work leaves them, when the work is done, in ever-deeper states of despair (Woodman, 1985, p. 57).
It is the connection to the soul that the New Age promises their followers. To experience life from a different perspective, one filled with meaning, passion and joy. But there is no clear understanding amongst these consumers of what it is that they are looking for and this is made more confusing and nebulous due to the many different approaches and promises that are offered by the various practices on offer (2005, Rindfleish, p. 346).
The soul and the link to physical disease.
As the soul is experienced through the body, it is often the vehicle that brings this imbalance of existence into consciousness. Jung said that the soul is the psychological experience of the body, the soul and psyche is visible in the body (Jung, 2014, p. 355). He believed that the symptomatic expressions of the body are a natural attempt at healing (Jung, 1960, p. 149). But this physical expression of the imbalance can often be life threatening or profoundly traumatic.
Yet, in contemporary Western psychology, the physical symptoms expressed in the body as a result of trauma or inner conflict, is subjected to treating the psyche only.
Even in Jungian psychology, there is a belief that the body will respond to psychological transformation. Although there is an acknowledgment that there is a body-psyche connection, the body is still under the influence of the psyche. (Harris, 2001, p. 19)
The New Age movement is addressing an essential need among contemporary western society. It attempts to provide a solution to the lack of soul experience so prevalent in our culture.
Unfortunately in many of the New Age movements, the product is a spiritual experience and this spiritual experience is often not enough to ease the disconnect with soul. The pursuit of many practices is a numinous divine experience, but unless the individual is able to symbolise this experience in the soul space, it often is regarded as an isolated occurrence. Alternatively, the individual is seduced by the experience and then is driven by a desire to repeat this type of experience, consequently leading to no internalisation or transformation.
Juxtaposed to the spiritual approach, there are many practices which explore only the physical body experience, but without the necessary consciousness brought to the practice it is a purely physical undertaking, similar to going to the gym. It is only through symbolising the physical experience in the soul space that this is then elevated to an inner movement of the soul, and subsequent transformation..
The goal of individuation or wholeness is to unite the disconnect in modern man between his spirit and body, and this is done in the realm of soul. Many individuals find themselves in a spiritual crises which can be addressed through working with the feelings and experiences of the body. This approach is currently being adopted by a variety of psychologists whom now include body work in therapy, for example dancing, drama, art and certain yoga practices. It is in this transpersonal psychology realm where the integration of both mind and body is possible.
Ultimately, the body and the soul needs to be brought back from exile into contemporary Western culture. Although there are many areas in Transpersonal Psychology and the New Age movements which address these aspects in their methodologies, contemporary Western education and medicine practices do not accommodate or encourage the connection with the body and the feeling life.
Modern man is in search of his soul, but the majority of the Western population does not understand what this means or how to claim back their soul life.
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 As per the website url http://www.slideshare.net/jonlar/the-us-self-improvement-market.
 Quote from Forum 1 submission.
 In his book Passions of the Soul.