Care of the Soul


Care of the SoulA Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday LifeNew York: Harper & Row, 1994.

Care of the Soul is one of the most important books of our times. It really had a bandwagon effect in that it pulled after it a whole train with similar productions. However, what all those who think they can write such a book from scratch overlook is that soul is not built from scratch, but in an often painful and lengthy process of birth or ascension.

Without the author having lived more than a decade of his life in the monastic environment, this book would not have been born. And without his lifelong studies of Renaissance art and literature, the depth of the book would not have been reached.

The book is the ultimate no in the face of the positivist mania of ‘getting everything fixed’ if only you buy the right book from the right coach. 

From my perspective, this book proves that ‘quick-fix’ coaching doesn’t work, because you can’t help somebody by bypassing the soul, simply because there is no growth without soul growth. And here the words ‘personal coaching’ and ‘personal power’ are misleading insofar as personal, looking at the etymological root of the word, means ‘related to the mask.’ It’s polish.

The recipe is clone a successful person, by modeling, as those hero-coaches express themselves, and you more or less become that person—which means for most people to become the wallet of that person. This means in practice you become alienated from your true self, and ultimately fail to realize your life’s mission. So what is soul, and what are soul values? There is no better book as this to find the answers. Thomas Moore writes:

Renaissance philosophers often said that it is the soul that makes us human. We can turn that idea round and note that it is when we are most human that we have greatest access to soul. (…) By trying to avoid human mistakes and failures, we move beyond the reach of soul./9

It seems obvious that without love there can be no cure, because love itself is healing. If this truth was known and the nature of love understood in our culture, we would not have the high amount of depression and schizophrenia that strongly marks our society and shows that most people have a vacuum in their hearts, there namely where they should have love. Moore writes:

The ultimate cure, as many ancient and modern psychologies of depth have asserted, comes from love and not from logic. (…) Often care of the soul means not taking sides when there is a conflict at a deep level. It may be necessary to stretch the heart wide enough to embrace contradiction and paradox./14

This is exactly what real coaching is about, showing options, in order to help the person out of an either-or dilemma brought about by judging and condemning. Fact is that millions of people are trapped by either-or choices in life because the tertium is not given (tertium non datur), and this is the abysmal and fatal consequence of Aristotelian logic that has subsisted over the ages, like a virus, until today. And it truly is a virus for it has perverted naturally integrated humans into schizoid angel-demons who act from a personal base paradigm of compulsion, and not from a sane and integrated mind. Moore shows with striking clarity the pitfalls of moralism:

Moralism is one of the most effective shields against the soul, protecting us from its intricacy. (…) I would go even further. As we get to know the soul and fearlessly consider its oddities and the many different ways it shows itself among individuals, we may develop a taste for the perverse. We may come to appreciate its quirks and deviances. Indeed, we may eventually come to realize that individuality is born in the eccentricities and unexpected shadow tendencies of the soul, more so than in normality and conformity./17

I would go as far as saying that moralism not only bypasses the soul, it also bypasses life. It is the reaction of emotionally crippled people, people who have from childhood been starved with love and who have learnt only one thing: killing. They have learnt to ‘kill perversity’ in themselves, thereby killing life in themselves, and thereby creating the soil for abysmal violence within and without. This is exactly how the hero culture works: it teaches people to kill, by teaching them to kill off their emotions when they are still in the cradle. Moore says that from the perspective of the soul, perversity is meaningful, and has to be embraced instead of being discarded out and wiped under the carpet:

Care of the soul is interested in the not-so-normal, the way that soul makes itself felt most clearly in the unusual expressions of a life, even and maybe especially in the problematic ones. (…) Sometimes deviation from the usual is a special revelation of truth. In alchemy this was referred to as the opus contra naturam, an effect contrary to nature. We might see the same kind of artful unnatural expression within our own lives. When normality explodes or breaks out into craziness or shadow, we might look closely, before running for cover and before attempting to restore familiar order, at the potential meaningfulness of the event. If we are going to be curious about the soul, we may need to explore its deviations, its perverse tendency to contradict expectations. And as a corollary, we might be suspicious of normality. A facade or normality can hide a wealth of deviance, and besides, it is fairly easy to recognize soullessness in the standardizing of experience./18

Embracing perversity is one leg of the integrated human, embracing suffering, or pain, or discomfort, is the other. Moore explains:


If you attend the soul closely enough, with an educated and steadfast imagination, changes take place without your being aware of them until they are all over and well in place. Care of the soul observes the paradox whereby a muscled, strong-willed pursuit of change can actually stand in the way of substantive transformation. (…) Renaissance doctors said that the essence of each person originates as a star in the heavens. (…) Care of the soul, looking back with special regard to ancient psychologies for insight and guidance, goes beyond the secular mythology of the self and recovers a sense of the sacredness of each individual life. This sacred quality is not just value – all lives are important. It is the unfathomable that is the very seed and heart of each individual. Shallow therapeutic manipulations aimed at restoring normality or tuning a life according to standards reduces— shrinks—the profound mystery to the pale dimensions of a social common denominator referred to as the adjusted personality. Care of the soul sees another reality altogether. It appreciates the mystery of human suffering and does not offer the illusion of a problem-free life. It sees every fall into ignorance and confusion as an opportunity to discover that the beast residing at the center of the labyrinth is also an angel. The uniqueness of a person is made up of the insane and the twisted as much as it is of the rational and the normal. To approach this paradoxical point of tension where adjustment and abnormality meet is to move closer to the realization of our mystery-filled, star-born nature./19-20

In order to become whole inwardly and in our lives, we need to embrace simplicity, and imperfection. Living in robotic culture, we can resist becoming robots by embracing the ultimate truth that we are always imperfect. Moore has found a tremendously wistful tradition with the Renaissance saints and healers that warned, more than five hundred years ago, of the pitfalls of perfectionism, which has become, in the meantime, a real cultural disease in our high-tech nations. More reminds Nicholas of Cusa:

Nicholas of Cusa, the great fifteenth-century theologian who wrote a book about the importance of educated ignorance says we have to find ways to unlearn those things that screen us from the perception of profound truth. We have to achieve the child’s unknowing because we have been made so smart. Zen also recommends not losing the beginner’s mind, so important for immediacy in experience./52

The two major problems young people experience in our modern robot-society is narcissism and boomeritis. The first condition is marked by an almost total absence of soul, the second is the inability to digest knowledge in a way that it becomes a part of self, instead of building layers around the person. Moore shows that there is more to narcissism, that modern culture is profoundly narcissistic in its very setup as a ‘scientific’ society:

Narcissism has no soul. In narcissism we take away the soul’s substance, its weight and importance, and reduce it to an echo of our own thoughts. There is no such thing as the soul. We say. It is only the brain going through its electrical and chemical changes. Or it is only behavior. Or it is only memory and conditioning. In our social narcissism, we also dismiss the soul as irrelevant. We can prepare a city or national budget, but leave the needs of the soul untended. Narcissism will not give its power to anything as nymphlike as the soul./58-59

What the narcissist does not understand is that the self-acceptance he craves can’t be forced or manufactured. It has to be discovered, in a place more introverted than the usual haunts of the narcissist. There has to be some inner questioning, and maybe even confusion./60-61

I suspect that this is a very concrete part of curing narcissism —talking to the trees. By engaging the so-called ‘inanimate’ world in dialogue, we are acknowledging its soul. Not all consciousness is human. That in itself is a narcissistic belief. /61

Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore

Before reading this book, it was indeed my habit to talk to trees that got me to be interested in shamanism. That was the trigger of my spiritual quest to ingest the traditional sacred Ayahuasca brew. I left this initiation completely transformed, regained the whole range of magical beliefs I once fostered as a child, and became whole again. This wholeness was precisely the cure of my narcissistic fixation. Now, Thomas Moore, has put a particular stress in this book on the danger of collective narcissism and he investigates the culture of the United States of America, to identify it as a narcissistic culture par excellence. Moore writes:

Nations, as well as individuals, can go through this initiation. America has a great longing to be the New World of opportunity and a moral beacon for the world. It longs to fulfill these narcissistic images of itself. At the same time it is painful to realize the distance between the reality and that image. America’s narcissism is strong. It is paraded before the world. If we were to put the nation on the couch, we might discover that narcissism is its most obvious symptom. And yet that narcissism holds the promise that this all-important myth can find its way into life. In other words, America’s narcissism is its refined puer spirit of genuine new vision. The trick is to find a way to that water of transformation where hard self-absorption turns into loving dialogue with the world./62

Narcissus becomes able to love himself only when he learns to love that self as an object. He now has a view of himself as someone else. This is not ego loving ego; this is ego loving the soul, loving a face the soul presents. We might say that the cure for narcissism is to move from love of self, which always has a hint of narcissism in it, to love of one’s deep soul. Or, to put it another way, narcissism breaking up invites us to expand the boundaries of who we think we are./63

A neurotic narcissism won’t allow the time needed to stop, reflect, and see the many emotions, memories, wishes, fantasies, desires, and fears that make up the materials of the soul. As a result, the narcissistic person becomes fixed on a single idea of who he is, and other possibilities are automatically rejected. /67

Peter Pan resisted to grow up. And astonishingly so, Thomas Moore writes that growing-up is not a cure for narcissism, in the contrary:

But the solution of narcissism is not growing up. On the contrary, the solution to narcissism is to give the myth as much realization as possible, to the point where a tiny bud appears indicating the flowering of personality through its narcissism. (…) Narcissism is a condition in which a person does not love himself. This failure in love comes through as its opposite because the person tries so hard to find self-acceptance. The complex reveals itself in the all-too-obvious effort and exaggeration. It’s clear to all around that narcissism’s love is shallow. We know instinctively that someone who talks about himself all the time must not have a very strong sense of self. To the individual caught up in this myth, the failure to find self-love is felt as a kind of masochism, and, whenever masochism comes into play, a sadistic element is not far behind. The two attitudes are polar elements in a split power archetype./71

Anyway, from the soul perspective, and leaving political realities untouched, Thomas Moore writes:

The secret of healing narcissism is not to heal it at all, but to listen to it. (…) I am stuff. I am made up of things and qualities, and in loving these things I love myself./73

This is in accordance with a general soul-based healing approach that was the prevalent approach to healing during the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance.

Care of the Soul, New Edition with Idiotic Subtitle
Care of the Soul, New Edition with Idiotic Subtitle

Robert Burton in his massive self-help book of the seventeenth century The Anatomy of Melancholy, says there is only one cure for the melancholic sickness of love: enter into it with abandon. Some authors today argue that romantic love is such an illusion that we need to distrust it and keep our wits about us so that we are not led astray. But warnings like this betray a distrust of the soul./81

Interestingly enough, Krishnamurti’s approach to fear, pain, humiliation and suffering is very similar. He often said in his talks that we should not escape from pain or what we consider as negative, hurtful or humiliating in life, because if we do, there will be scars, while when we stay fully aware and do not escape the experience, there will be no scars.

I believe that the quotes suffice to give a taste of this unique production of a real author-artist who walks his talk. I recommend this book without hesitation and I recommend it also to young people and elders. There is much spiritual water to draw from it, for all members of our culture.

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