Joseph Anderson

Putting the “Soul” in Soul Cartography

One of the saddest days of my college career was when a thief walked off with the four-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy I had received as a gift for joining the Book of the Month club. I liked the idea of owning it and it had become part of my identity to own it. But in fact I never really looked at it in the year or so that I had it, and it’s pretty likely I wouldn’t have looked at it much even if it hadn’t been stolen. Though it’s not something I like to admit, my relationship with abstraction has always been a little complicated. Somewhat absurdly, I like the idea of abstraction more than I like abstraction itself. I read a fair bit, and what I read is occasionally heady. But in the end, sensory input, emotional experience, and spiritual insight are my true sources of energy and inspiration.

Sometimes a bit of abstraction is needed, though. As the Soul Cartography material continues to grow, the meaning of that word “soul” is starting to stick out as something that needs to be addressed. There are two semantic directions this tricky word can take. I think they are complementary, but since I want the process to beneficial to anyone who goes through it, some clarification is in order.

The word “soul” has a more transcendent sense: the part of ourselves that persists beyond this lifetime. This is of central importance for religious believers of many traditions – monotheistic, Eastern, and beyond – as well as many “spiritual but not religious” people. In this context “soul cartography” might mean “reflecting on the path my soul is taking through this earthly lifetime so I can better understand my purpose in this lifetime and beyond.”

And the word “soul” has is a more experiential sense: “the imaginative, intuitive part of ourselves by which we connect to the physical world and more transcendent realities. In this context “soul cartography” might mean “engaging the imaginative power of the soul to deepen my experience of meaning, right here and now.”

It seems to me that these two meanings are not contradictory in the slightest, and speak instead to the richness and complexity our soul’s operation can take within us. But I recognize that there are some people for whom the first meaning of “soul”, that there is a persistent reality that extends beyond this lifetime, is all-important; and others for whom that transcendent concept of “soul” is less meaningful.  Where I think we can all meet and work together is in relation to the second meaning: using our imagination to deepen our understanding of our lives. If that transcendent “soul purpose” meaning is useful to you, then by all means use it to fuel your endeavor. If you find it falls outside your understanding of what is real, that’s fine: it’s not essential for the Soul Cartography process.

My vision for the class is that we gather our varying beliefs in a circle, agree to honor the work our imagination has to do for our diverse and beautiful souls, join hands, and dance.