The whole idea

At school, most of us study the geography of landscapes, maps and territories. But we don’t learn an internal geography. We don’t discuss what it is to be human and how to negotiate our own internal terrain. We aren’t shown maps for being human. Without a good map, we risk getting lost in dark territory or ending up on a one-way street. When we know where we are, we can get on with the adventure of exploring the territory.

There are lots of different maps of the human being, each with its own perspective. There are spiritual maps, soul maps and materialist maps. We get certain directions for how to lead our lives depending on which map we refer to. Each map is useful for the particular type of terrain it describes.

The spiritual map seems like it has been drawn from somewhere in outer space looking down at humans on planet earth. Details of the landscape are not important. It is concerned with the big picture. It is concerned with how the map of the earth connects with maps of ‘higher’ realms.

The materialists on the other hand live in a flat landscape. There is nothing otherworldly about their perspective. Action in the world is all that counts. On these maps, detailed descriptions of landmark achievements and acquisitions are considered important.

Those who deal with the soul, such as psychologists, are fascinated with detailed descriptions of small pieces of landscape. Places of interest include states such as anxiety and depression, happiness and wellbeing. Their maps can tell us how to move from one space to another.

A comprehensive map would put all these perspectives together. This map would give us a helpful guide for living a balanced life. It would take some of the confusion out of navigating uncharted territories. The spiritual, soul and materialist maps each focus on a particular zone within the human being. The spiritual maps the human spirit, the soul one maps the human soul and the material maps the human self. The human self is also referred to as the personality or ego.

The art is in using the appropriate map for the corresponding aspect of life. For example, you wouldn’t use a philosophical treatise on human ethics to help you repair your car. Similarly, we run into difficulty if we use spiritual instructions for navigating day-to-day material life. And spiritual instructions may not tell us how to deal with soul matters such as grief, relationships and creative expression.

Conversely, material concepts will not shed much light on the spiritual realm. And while learning something like how to manage investments may be good for the survival of the self, it will not be enough to satisfy the growth of the soul.

We also need to get clear about the difference between spirit, soul and the self. The words “spirit”, “soul” and “self” all refer to different aspects of the human being and a fair bit of confusion exists about which is which. To lead a balanced life, it’s beneficial to attend to each of these aspects of our being.

Spirit refers to the aspect of us that is eternal and unchanging. It’s like our own individual spark of creativity, light and love. It is a spark of the infinite, of the source of all that is. It underpins existence but has no form. Words used to describe this realm include unity, peace, truth and holiness.

The self is our particular identity that shows up through our actions in the world and interactions with others. It is our personality. It is our individual ego. It shows up via such characteristics as introversion or extroversion, whether we like sciences or arts, thrill-seeking action or quiet endeavour.

The soul has individual characteristics. It’s like our particular individual essence that surrounds the spiritual spark. Each soul will have particular things that inspire it and give it meaning. Each soul has particular strengths and talents as well as areas of challenge.

The soul is like an intermediary between the spirit and the self. It carries the spark of the spirit into the material world. The soul incarnates into a self that has its own particular genetic and psychological configuration. The soul’s task is to bring spiritual characteristics such as peace, love, truth and beauty into the body-self it inhabits. Each soul will have its own idiosyncratic way of doing this and each soul will be concerned with some aspects of spirit more than others. For example, an artist may work with beauty, a mother with love, a scientist with truth, a monk with peace.

At the level of spirit, there’s a few basic characteristics. We don’t have a lot of language to describe this indescribable level, but words such as emptiness, holiness, radiance and love point to the nature of this spiritual reality. These particular qualities of spirit then ray out and are expressed differently as they become expressed via the soul through the personality.

For example, someone who experiences the unity and interconnectedness of life at the level of spirit begins to understand we are all one. At the level of soul, this may be experienced as love and compassion for all beings. A responsibility for contributing to the wellbeing of others may then arise within the soul. As the soul then works on the self, this love and responsibility may be expressed in many ways such as through empathy, kindness, co-operation or loyalty. What starts as a pure truth at the level of spirit may actually be expressed and experienced a variety of ways once the individual self acts it out.

Levels of being

The territories of spirit, soul and self are each accessed via different approaches. Spirit can be accessed via meditation, contemplation and prayer. Soul is accessed via creativity, therapy, dreams, rituals and relationships. The self is accessed via work, family and social life.

These three areas of our being often get mixed up because the terms get interchanged. People may talk of self-expression but do they mean the materialistic self is expressing the soul self or the “higher” spiritual self? If a person is described as soulful, are they expressing impersonal spirituality via a meditative path or are they expressing individual soul via a creative path or perhaps a narcissistic self via a self-indulgent path?

Trouble also starts when one person diminishes another’s path. The monk meditating in the ashram may criticise an industrialist for not bringing enough peace and spiritual wisdom to the world. The therapist may criticise the monk for not bringing enough soulfulness and soul-healing to the world. The industrialist may criticise both the monk and the therapist for not bringing enough practical support to the suffering of others. In reality, each may be expressing love in their own particular domain. Each may be adding to peace and beauty in the world.

Neither monks, therapists nor industrialists are more virtuous in and of themselves. It’s the degree to which the soul manages to transform the monk, the therapist or the industrialist’s self so that more and more spirit is bought into the individual life expression.

Risks and benefits


Some spiritual people may meditate for hours or attend regular silent retreats. This may give them access to spiritual experiences such as stillness and peace. They may also understand wisdom such as: “Everything is connected; all is one.” Spiritual experience can therefore be inspiring and illuminating.

The risk with spiritual practice is it can lead to a spiritual arrogance whereby people believe that attaining spiritual wisdom means they have done all the work. I have come across spiritual groups who think therapy is bad because it takes the focus off the spiritual life. They proudly claim they have never done the soul work that therapy involves. In reality, spiritual wisdom has two other levels to translate through. At the soul level, there is work to be done in clearing out issues and unconscious material that might block the flow of spirit. Then the soul has to translate these impulses into action in the world via the self. Without this translation process, people ignore their unconscious motivations and may unwittingly cause harm despite their high spiritual intentions.

For example, a person may begin to understand the spiritual truth of eternity. They may experience this while meditating. They may realise eternity is not about a very, very long time but is instead about being in the present moment always; that there is only the present moment. The risk for people is that if they have accessed this understanding via meditation, they may then believe something like, “Well, if meditation gives me access to this state, I must meditate all the time. Maybe I should join an ashram or something.” The soul will not necessarily find this enough, though, because it looks at the personality self and says, “Yes, but as soon as I get up off the meditation cushion and go out into the world, my old neuroses come straight back up.”

The soul wants to bring spiritual awareness into the personality self. This might mean dealing with emotional issues such as anger, since anger throws us out of the present moment into the past. Or we may have to learn to manage anxiety since it keeps us out of eternity and in the future instead. It’s as if the soul says, “As my personality self walks around in the world, can I still maintain the spiritual understandings? Can I have them while I drive my car, while I work, while I relate to others? What parts of my unconscious still block my attaining spiritual understandings moment to moment? Let’s find them and clean them up. And does my work in the world contribute to the expression of my spiritual understandings? If not, let’s refine it.” The soul brings the spirit into the self; into the intellect, into the emotions and into the body.

Another risk of spiritual practice is it can encourage people to separate from the world. This can breed a spiritual superiority. I know a client who realised she actually became pretty unbearable when she was at her most “spiritual”. She noticed this superior air kept her separate from other people. Fortunately, she was able to see the irony of feeling separate when the teaching was that “all is one”.

Many clients have reported their spiritual community is rife with power issues, gossip and competition. This is never addressed, though, because the community is focused at the level of spirit. It ignores the other levels. Bad behaviour goes unaddressed. This can be quite dangerous, especially when there is a single leader of a community. When behaviour is not subject to the scrutiny of a soul level, all sorts of dysfunction can thrive. At its worst, it leads to sexual, substance and financial abuse. At its worst, it leads to things such as the Jonestown massacre.

Personality self

The benefits of self are obvious. We have comfortable lives where needs for food, shelter, health and education are fulfilled. Travel, entertainment, culture and self-expression are some of the endless array of comforts. We get to live longer and do more with our lives. There is a downside, though.

“Once you’ve tasted caviar, what’s next?” asked Phillippa. She so clearly captured the risk of a life that focuses only at the level of self. Once we’ve had many of our material desires satisfied, we’re left empty. Action and acquisition in the world don’t satisfy forever. They don’t provide enough meaning, as many people in wealthy Western nations are finding. A life lived only at the level of the self leaves the soul hungry. The result is depression and anxiety. People who are only in the world may also be prone to arrogance, which is different from spiritual arrogance. They are busy manipulating power, wealth or the intellect. This leads to a feeling of being superior to “childish” spiritual people. At their worst, such attitudes are dominating and abusive. They use others for their own ends with no care for the consequences. At worst, this leaves whole continents in poverty and the environment degraded.

People working at the level of soul attempt to develop self-awareness. The aim is to bring the unconscious into consciousness so it’s not able to do damage. Past traumas may be healed and emotional intelligence developed. Expression may be through art and creativity.

The risk of soul work is narcissistic self-involvement. I have come across people who have been in “recovery” for years, all the while never contributing to the broader community via some work or community participation. At worst, they are workshop junkies who never actually go and put their learnings into practice via work or relationships. At worst, whole communities retreat from the world and live on unemployment benefits as they cultivate their “inner self”.


None of these three ways of functioning is optimal on its own. It’s best to be working at all three levels. We tap into spiritual levels for wisdom and inspiration. Then we heal at the soul level so that we create the best “vehicle” for spirit. Then we translate this into the best action for the self in the world. Spirit is brought via the soul into the self and into the world. Soul translates spirit into matter.

I had been working with Roger, a client who had grown up with a mother who was cruel and sadistic, possibly with an undiagnosed mental illness. Roger had suffered abuse from his mother that left him with many painful after-affects, such as depression, anxiety and social withdrawal. As Roger worked through issues such as anger, hurt and resentment about what happened, he one day had an experience at the level of spirit which he felt translated as an understanding of: “This is just what happened.” It was an impersonal, peaceful attitude of complete, unconditional acceptance of what had gone on with his mother.

Roger explained that this new level of understanding didn’t cancel out the pain he experienced at the level of soul, but it did make it more manageable. At the level of self, he would still need to sort out issues such as what sort of contact, if any, should he have with his mother in the present. Spiritual insight gives a context for life, but it doesn’t deal with the management of painful emotions or practical life issues.

Another client, Angela, went through a phase of a few months where she experienced the world from a spiritual perspective. She saw everything as radiant and interconnected. She was filled with love and joy. Some time later, however, she found herself in the midst of an intense emotional pain she had never encountered previously. Angela thought this might mean she had done something wrong. How could the spiritual radiance have led to this? What was happening was that, as the radiance filled her soul, it then led to the soul uncovering and clearing out emotions and issues that were incompatible with the radiance. After spiritual enlightenment, it was then time for a soul-healing phase. After some time, this then led to changes at the level of her personality self. She was compelled to make changes in her relationships as a result of the healing.

Life can go in phases like this. A time of spiritual insight and awakening can lead to soul healing, which then leads to changes in the way we operate in the world. The phases can last any length of time and we go through many rounds throughout life. Sometimes, clients may complain: “But I thought I’d dealt with this issue!” What may be happening is there are further aspects and depths that need to be healed and expressed. Each soul may have key issues it is grappling with in a particular lifetime. It is a never-ending process of refinement.

Spiritual experiences give sustenance and inspiration. But then they need to be drawn down by the soul into the personality. And the beauty of the soul is that every one is unique. Some spiritual teachings criticise the human self-personality-ego, but as the soul works on the personality, it creates a unique, individual, idiosyncratic expression of spirituality. Individuality is not meant to be wiped out. That’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. Individuality/ego is meant to be transformed. Then spirit sparkles within each individual — through the work of the soul.

Six billion scintillating selves. That would be something. A planet where souls inspire and support their own self and the selves of others to express spirit as uniquely and completely as they can. A supportive web of consciousness that cares for the planet, with each soul focusing on their particular strength, be it compassion in the face of difficulties, equanimity within activity, wisdom to inform the intellect, or beauty to enrich experience. That’s my soul’s particular dream. What’s yours?

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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