What is Soul

What is the “Soul” in Family Constellations?

By Dr. Dan Booth Cohen

“Anything can deliver us from our loss of memory of the soul. And anything can enslave us. But if we are lost in time and suffering from amnesia, we need something to startle us into recollection.” – William Irwin Thompson

Constellations influence as an aspect of inner being that can be witnessed and experienced, but not captured or defined. Some facilitators call this the ‘soul.‘ This essay looks at the various meanings of ‘soul.’

In 21st century American culture three major mythologies of the soul co-exist in a kind of spiritual melting pot:

  • The myth of the non-material immortal soul.
  • The myth that consciousness is brain function. The myth that individual consciousness is a node in a field of universal consciousness.

Myths of the Soul

The Immaterial Immortal Soul

The first myth is that the human soul is an immaterial, immortal part of ourselves that endures after death. The idea is each of us possesses an immortal soul contained in a mortal body. The myth of an angelic soul entrapped in the physical body is a constant element in Western culture.

In traditional Christian philosophy, the human soul is considered literally the centerpiece of all Creation. The immortal human soul endures the toils of the Earth as a prerequisite to a heavenly reward:

The measure of God’s goodness is that God created a rich world to unfold the nature of the human. Man is a ‘noble animal’  for whose sake alone God fashioned this marvelous contrivance of the world” (Erasmus).

As Jung (1933) put it, “Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness.” But this myth could not withstand scientific inquiry. In the modern world, “such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely veil to shreds.”

The Brain as the Source of All Mental Activity

The second major mythology of contemporary U.S. culture is empirical science. In the 19th century, psychology was considered to be a science of the soul. By the 20th century, psychology had more or less abandoned the soul and replaced it with the mind. Stripped of the mantle of immortality provided by religious dogma, the soul becomes the unconscious mind.

During the 20th century scientific neurophysiology succeeded in reformulating a model of consciousness along materialistic lines. In its simplest articulation it states: the brain is the source of all mental activity.

To contemporary science, the human soul is an illusion; consciousness is a pulsating gelatinous mass of neurons and neurotransmitters. The geneticist Ondrias (1999) conveys this myth: “faith, conviction, consciousness, the soul, and even so-called free will derive from human brain function.” Out of this stripping away of the myths of faith, “man is just a biological machine controlled by a program supplied by its hardware and software equipment.”

Within this mechanistic myth, “mental illnesses are caused by abnormal quantities of various substances produced by the brain” (Soltys, 1999). When depression, addiction, and other disorders are perceived as being biologically based, pharmaceutical remedies and empirically validated behavioral therapies are optimal interventions.

The myths of religion and science share an interest in exercising control over the human condition. Rank (1930) understood that there was an inherent, if unacknowledged, tension in psychology.

We must distinguish between two facets of psychology: that of self-knowledge, and that of knowledge of others. The first is the psychology of self-awareness, and the second is psychology as a means, tool or technique to understand and control others” (p. 2).

The priest, psychiatrist, and geneticist all share an interest in modulating the internal and external states of being of others.

Despite the vast discoveries of science, the movement to empty the heavens of angels and the inner being of its soul has not succeeded. The empty universe with its randomly forming and mindless colliding particles remains too frightening. The inner world, abandoned by the fleeing soul, becomes hopeless, chaotic and dark. To Jung (1933):

Science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.”

Between the terra firma of the Ptolemy’s celestial sphere and the existential void of the infinite abyss, emerged a third mythology, largely derived from Eastern philosophy and quantum physics.

The Soul as Universal Consciousness

For those who do not wholeheartedly believe in religious creed or brain science’s debunked illusion, the search for a soul endures. The passion for spirituality yearns for an outlet of expression.

Soul Work is a subset of the contemporary spirituality typified by James Hillman (1975, 1996), Thomas Moore (1992, 2004), Ken Wilber (1979, 1998) and many others. It has roots in classical philosophy, mystical branches of major religious traditions, indigenous shamanism, and New England transcendentalism.

In this third myth, the soul is the essence of inner being and part of a larger external or systemic whole. Laszlo (2004) frames the question in this way:

“Are human beings entirely discrete individuals, their organism enclosed by the skin and their minds enclosed by the cranium housing the brain? Or are there effective, if subtle, interconnections between humans, and between humans and the world at large?”

Jung (1933), using the term ‘self’ as an alternative to ‘soul’ calls it the “organizing center from which the regulatory effect stems… a sort of nuclear atom in our psychic system.”

The Soul in Family Constellations

In Family Constellations, the soul is a subjective, not a metaphysical, concept. We cannot observe whether it is a ‘thing’ as according to religious myth or ‘no-thing’, as according to scientific myth. Instead, we describe the soul metaphorically as a “realm or dimension of human experience subjectively distinct from both mind and body” (Beaumont, 2006).

This ‘soul’ is an orderly force that creates a movement from within. Soul movements support life and love, but also propel negative and destructive behaviors. For example, when an alcoholic who has pledged sobriety brings the glass to the lips, the soul moves the arm. When a woman or man is irresistibly compelled to forsake their marriage vows, the soul is being served. When a teenager finds comfort and control in self-destructive behaviors, someone from the forgotten past is being loved.

When seen in the silence and stillness of a Constellation, these movements of the soul make perfect sense. There is an architecture to existence. Although the yearning of the soul can be neither accurately explained nor fully understood, in most cases a glimpse is enough to bring about a profound and lasting change. “The soul is immeasurably deep and can only be illuminated by insights, flashes in a great cavern of incomprehension” (Hillman, 1975).

Beaumont (2006) speaks of ‘soul’ as the originating source of compelling feelings such as intense longing, heart-wrenching compassion, or the tearing loss of intense grief. He asks:

Are these experiences mental or physical? Or are they human experiences of a third kind inhabiting an inner space between body and mind?

The soul of Family Constellations whispers a story that the ears cannot hear; gazes in desire at what the eyes cannot see; echoes with fates that are lost to memory, and feels what it touches as belonging to itself. The illuminating insight of the Constellation melts a frozen pattern and allows the movements of the soul to slowly flow again like water.

Written by Dr. Dan Booth Cohen, a Constellation facilitator based in Boston.


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