In the early years of my career, I was the typical “coffee achiever”. I was at my desk before daybreak. Once I dialed in, I burned through my to-do list. Sure, I was tired, but that’s where the coffee came in. I’ve never been so productive. A few years into this pattern I started getting feedback — from my body. I found a tired that coffee couldn’t touch. I found stiffness and soreness in places that I didn’t know could hurt. Fat, weak, tired and depressed, I knew that something had to change. I had reached my physical limits.
I’ve adjusted a lot of habits over the last few years. No more coffee, for one! Better sleep, exercise and healthier food choices have restored much of my vitality — but it’s hard work. I have to fight the temptation to pursue productivity and neglect my body.
But that isn’t the only place where I’ve run into limits. I can take care of my body but still experience anxiety, bitterness, fear, envy, and loneliness. What do we do when faced with a problem of the soul?
It is with our soul that we experience deep connection with community, the world, and God (your Higher Power, “the universe” — whatever works for you). Having a soul makes us human; connecting with and caring for that soul is an integral part of our capacity for fulfillment. You can pursue success, beauty, money, fame, whatEVER — but if you are not taking your soul into account, you will hit a wall. We see it all the time in those people who seem to “have it all”. We’re always surprised to discover that they struggle with depression, anxiety, or just emptiness. And, we see people who “have” nothing, who seem amazingly content, generous, and satisfied with their lives. The difference isn’t in the stuff. It’s in the soul.
So what’s your soul telling you?
The problem with having a soul these days is that we aren’t taught how to listen to it, or take care of it. There’s a huge industry that tells us to tune into our bodies — to exercise and eat to stay healthy. But how do we “tune in” to the soul? How do we process feedback from the soul? These questions are tough to consider when we live in a world driven by results and measurable outcomes. I use numbers and measurements to evaluate the health of my business or even my body, but I cannot apply them to my soul.
The soul won’t fit into that kind of paradigm! To talk of the soul we need to use metaphor, analogy and story. To connect with the soul we need a different practice. We cannot force connection with the soul any more than we can summon a wild animal. If we shout, or control the process, the timid soul will run and hide, like a rare bird. Like a creature of the wild, the soul is met in a rare moment, or a place of safety.
To be purposeful about connecting with the soul, we need to cultivate safety. One way to do that is to sit still. Do nothing. Wait. I recently saw a documentary about a man who spent two years living in a hole in the ground hoping to get video footage of Siberian tigers in their natural state. Two years is a long time. It paid off. To date, no one has learned more about the social habits of the Siberian Tiger than this man. I admired him for his patience and commitment, and I thought, this is what it takes to connect with the soul. Like waiting for the tiger, we hunt for signs and hints of its whereabouts. We go there, and we wait.
This fleeting character of the soul makes it tricky to nurture. If we are already disconnected, it is only worse. We may feel anxious, alone, or afraid, but instead of hearing that soul feedback, we check our email, visit our favorite social network, or play a game. In our world filled with entertainment, technology, and consumption, it is safe to say our souls are left in the dust. Without even trying, we relegate them to the realm of some childhood memory, or the nostalgia of a one time experience that left us feeling whole.
Neglect and ignorance are one thing, but as it goes with our bodies, so it goes with our souls. The workplace kills the soul. In fact, my experience of the world of business is nothing short of violence to the soul. The Soul is nurtured by beauty, by connection to community, and by times of quiet. But the world of business is full of functional (and mostly ugly) offices; individualism is rewarded and demanded at the same time; and every quiet moment is another moment to fill with meetings and emails, notifications and “to-dos”. Nothing personal. It’s just business, is a phrase we hear all the time. It casually dismisses the violence that the business place does to our souls. We are socialized to believe that, when something tears the fiber our souls, we should dismiss it. It’s just business. We need a thicker skin.
In this environment soul damage is continual. It is easy to become further and further disconnected from the part of our selves that sustains our humanity. In such a state, we focus on short term gains and on maximizing our outcomes in almost every arena.
But the soul governs our place in the ecosystem of humanity. When it is displaced; we are displaced. We can no more reap the benefits of community than we can offer them to someone else. Instead of attending to our soul needs we hide, work, run, or medicate. Yet the fact remains: if we want to experience real fulfillment and connection with others, we desperately need our souls. Like a child, our soul needs space, time, and attention, among other things.
Listen! We don’t take our to-do lists into the afterlife! No one ever died wishing they spent more time at the office! But I’m sure that the extra time I take to care for my soul — “unproductive” as it seems — is something I will never regret. Whether it is in silence, a slow walk outside, or extra time with my pre-schooler, I need to make room for my soul. That is how I balance a perspective that is too often skewed toward “efficiency” and “the bottom line”.
I’m not the only one on this journey. How do you care for your soul?