Spirit and Soul

What’s the difference?

Both may be defined as “the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character” and are often used interchangeably. But over the years, I’ve come to regard these words as distinct from each other, although they do share the feature of being “the nonphysical part of a person.”

Before proceeding, I must state that I owe much of my thinking about this subject to the author, Thomas Moore, who, in his excellent book Care of the Soul, explores the differences in great detail. I first read this book nearly twenty-five years ago, and have recently returned to it, along with one of its sequels, Soul Mates. Moore is a fascinating person, with a background that includes music, seminary, religious life, and Jungian psychology. Other authors whose works have contributed to my thoughts about spirit and soul include Erik RoutleyMary McDermott Shideler, and Madeleine L’Engle. I encourage you to explore their work.

I’m not attempting an academic, historical research project on these words, but rather, an essay on facets of our inner being, born from my own contemplation over the years. Whether my thoughts fit with traditional, philosophical, or theological doctrines isn’t really important (though I write from within Christian tradition and experience); that’s not my purpose here. I believe that we all, to greater or lesser degree, spend at least some of our time in reflection and introspection, and what follows is my attempt to offer some perspective on this activity.

The ancient Hebrew and Greek words, “ruach” and “pneuma,” respectively, are both used for “spirit.” The same words are also used for “wind,” and “breath.” This suggests that “spirit” is associated with movement, vitality, and power. It is dynamic. In our experiences, spirit is associated with inspiration, with single-minded focus, and with feeling energized to accomplish a specific goal or task. Inspiration can result in the sudden production of literary or artistic works, or to the exceptional performance of a musician, dancer, or other performing artist. During the inspired phase, the individual is completely “taken up” with the task at hand, and other thoughts are eclipsed or submerged. Inspiration is sudden, focused, and has immediate, obvious, effect.

Soul, on the other hand, may be thought of as that part of our inner being where our conscious thought does not dwell; where we find the seat of emotional responses, “gut” feelings, and the like. The etymology of the word soul includes Germanic influence, and carries the meaning of “coming from the sea, or lake.” Borrowing a metaphor from Genesis, it is akin to “the Spirit of the LORD was brooding over the face of the waters.” Brooding describes the act of the mother hen, resting upon her eggs until they hatch. The verse from Genesis provides us with the idea that before God unleashes the life-giving energy of creation (“Let there be light”), there was a period of stillness, of waiting—this “brooding over the face of the waters.”  If “spirit” is likened to inspiration, with its sudden burst of creative energy and action, “soul” is more associated with depth of emotion, with sub or even unconscious rumination, and those parts of ourselves that find (often inexplicable) pleasure or satisfaction in things, places, relationships, and so on. Moore uses the word “attachment” to describe the longing of the soul—the desire for connection. In contrast, he describes the desire of the spirit to be unattached, free, and energized to pursue a lofty goal.

I like the word fermentation to describe some of what happens in the soul—a word we use to describe the process whereby pickles are made, beer and wine are produced, cheese is made, and yeast breads are leavened. All of these processes involve combining ingredients and allowing them to develop over time. It’s worth noting that most of these processes involve the anaerobic action of bacteria or yeast. They happen without air, “under the surface,” and often “in the dark.” While each of these processes requires being set in motion, after the initial “getting started,” there follows a period of simply waiting, while the microbes do their work. Sometimes, during the waiting period, brief acts of tending are needed to keep the process headed in the right direction—taking the lid off and stirring, adding more ingredients, pouring from one vessel to another, etc. This quiet and subsurface “percolating” often goes completely unnoticed by us until it has begun to manifest itself in emotional states we cannot explain, feelings of sadness with no apparent cause, or, conversely, experiences of sublime joy or satisfaction.

Fermentation, or “soul work” is probably always happening, to greater or lesser degree, deep inside all of us. Some of us never take the time to take the lid off the pot and tend it, or, to even see that anything is there at all. Sadly, I believe that a lot of people aren’t even self-aware enough to engage in this kind of self-reflection. I can’t help but wonder if this becomes the root (or at least a contributing factor) of issues such as addiction, depression, neuroses, etc.

Left alone, most fermenting substances will eventually spoil from lack of tending, or failing to properly preserve the resulting product at the end of the process. Take sourdough bread starter, for example. It needs to be fed every few days by stirring in additional flour, and the liquid “hooch” skimmed off the top. Properly tended in this way, it can be kept going indefinitely, with bread being made from it on a regular basis. It can also be left alone for longer periods, in a cool, dark location, and allowed to go almost dormant. Later, it can be revitalized by discarding a large portion of it, and adding the remnant to a new batch of flour, in effect, starting over.

What are the kinds of things that end up “in the pot,” hidden in the recesses of our souls? Here, undetected by others and sometimes even by ourselves, these powerful elements combine with the raw, primal pieces of our personality and identity, and form a lush, fecund “soil” where the various aspects of “who we are” take root, grow, and blossom. For me, relationships, treasured items, special places, music (both listening and performing), cooking, and special occasions, all belong on the short list of the things that I find “in the pot.”

Both of these facets of our being, spirit and soul, though they may be distinct from, cannot and must not be separated from the physical parts of our essence. Being human is being fully alive in our own bodies, along with these non-corporeal parts we’re discussing here. As we care for the body (or should), I believe we do ourselves a great service by also attending to the needs of the soul and spirit.

Thoughts? Feel free to comment, and begin a discussion!