Here’s an additional way to appreciate the difficulty: We humans possess a special realm or veneer of consciousness — our ego’s conscious self-awareness — that rides on top of the more extensive consciousness we have in common with all other species. Our human ego is both a great boon and a great barrier. For example, because each individual ego, unlike the soul, is a child of culture and language, we at first — in our childhood and teen years — come to understand our place culturally and linguistically, which is to say in terms of social, vocational, and religious roles. This is unavoidable, entirely necessary, and a good thing. But we’re also born with an entirely different kind of knowledge, a felt-sense about our ecological place or niche in the world, knowledge that exists only within the deeper realm of consciousness that all species share, knowledge that is not linguistic but imaginal, knowledge that an immature, egocentric ego cannot access.
So the question becomes: how do we discover what this is, this innate, imagery-based, and mysterious knowledge about our ecological place in the world? How do we discover what it is when it exists at a deeper level than the ego-consciousness that dominates our experience and sense of self by the time we’re in our early teens? And how do we linguistically identify it to ourselves and others once we experience it consciously?
In a word: metaphor.
When it comes to identifying soul, we can only point to it or allude to it using metaphor — in the manner of poetry or myth. We can linguistically understand our souls only indirectly, only mythopoetically. Not coincidentally, this is precisely how we learn about our souls in the first place: We discover (or remember) our innate place, our true home, our soul’s purpose, when the world mirrors it to us by way of nature-based metaphors, human archetypes, or other mythic or poetic images or symbols. We don’t choose these metaphors or figure them out. Rather, we’re shown them in a moment of numinous vision or mystical revelation. They are shown to us by … by what? “Mystery” is as good a way as any to name our benefactor, our guide, our initiator.
Soul is a child of nature, not of culture and language.
What I mean by “soul,” then, is something mystical but not upperworld mystical and not any more mystical than monarch migrations. It corresponds to what poet David Whyte refers to as “the largest conversation you can have with the world,” a conversation you were born to have and that only you can have and that the world needs you to have for it to be whole. The seed or catalyst for this conversation has existed within you from birth or conception in the form of what Whyte calls “the truth you make everyday with your own body” or “the truth at the center of the image you were born with.” Take a moment to consider that these two sorts of truths — which to the Western mind seem so strange, mystical, and improbable — really do exist, and for everyone. These truths, these images, these conversations — and the niches, roles, functions, identities, meanings, and purposes associated with them — are not cultural or even merely human; rather, you were born with them, and they are ecological and mythopoetic, which is to say clothed and communicated in the metaphors, symbols, images, dreams, and archetypes of the wild world and of our own wild minds. As Diane di Prima reminds us:
… you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes …
This is actually true of all creatures, not just humans: every being has its own innate poetics. And there’s no better way than poetry to identify a unique ecological niche. Try describing the niche of a fox, for example. You can point to some of the primary relationships she has with other species in a particular habitat and perhaps the way her uncommon cunning allows her to carry out her distinctive calling, but her niche is something more than that and categorically different. Her niche is the sum of all the relationships she has with everything else on Earth, if not the whole universe, something we can’t even get close to fully describing. The best way to understand a fox’s niche is to live for several years as a native in her neighborhood while offering your daily reverent attention to her wanderings and ways. Then you’ll know something of her niche but still not be able to describe it precisely or systematically. Your best option, really, for portraying her niche would be to recite fox stories, preferably outside at night around a fire or in the dark beneath blazing stars. Or fox poetry. Or vixen myth. And that of course is precisely how nature-based people have always done it.
It’s no different when it comes to linguistically portraying a human’s soul.
Through the journey of soul initiation, we come to understand that we each were born as something like a poem, as a unique dance, as a story in conversation with other stories, as an essential and utterly singular episode in the unfolding story of Earth, of Cosmos. As Gary Snyder writes,
The world is made of stories. Good stories are hard to come by, and a good story that you can honestly call your own is an incredible gift. These stories are part of a bigger story that connects us all.
Next week, we’ll explore several examples of mythopoetic identities. And we’ll consider the essential difference between our soul’s purpose (our mythopoetic identity) and the means by which we embody or manifest that purpose — such as a job, craft, project, art, or profession.