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Soul-tending: an exploration of the essence of spiritual counseling


Soul-tending: an exploration of the essence of spiritual counseling

I do not know the original source of this video. If you are the creator, or know them, please reach out to me. I would be honored to provide credits.

This video, created by an unknown blessed soul, came to me in a rather serendipitous manner. For me, it speaks more deeply to the essence of spiritual counseling than any definition I have ever come across.

The video as a metaphor for an ideal spiritual counseling relationship

Here, the cupped palms hold a steady, safe and highly reliable container, within which the bird is free to find its own rhythm and direction. If we take the cupped hands to be the counseling container, and the bird to be the soul of a counselee – then this image really comes alive. Within the container there is divine grace, which flows steadily. The container does not “create” the water, its source is “transpersonal.” The palms are cupped enough so the bird feels safe and contained, but not are so closed off that the bird may suffocate or feel strangled. The bird trusts the container enough to engage with the water at its own pace and of its own volition. Diving into the water when it feels ready, even drinking from the font for a time, and then jumping out to “dry land” to rest and recoup before diving back in. The container appears safe enough that the bird can move across the threshold of dry and wet at its own pace. It is not being forced. So, it does not need to fly away in an effort to escape the pressure.

Depending on our orientation, we can describe and relate to the water in the video as divine grace, God’s love, an encounter with the unconscious, or an encounter with one’s disowned emotions. But whatever words we use to frame the experience, ultimately, it is an experience of freedom as one approaches a threshold of a numinous encounter.

A reality check for the counselor

One of the risks of this type of interpretation would be that the counselor may begin to identify oneself as the source of the “steady, safe and highly reliable container,” and forget that while the counselor is indeed being called to provide a container, that they are equally the bird, being held in the cupped palms of the divine. And in the cupped palms of their own teachers and mentors. We will do well to remember that we do not do this work alone. We are each held gently in the compassionate cupped palms of an infinite wisdom beyond all our conceptions. When we do not know where to go next, we can trust and relax into this ever-present container of safety.

The naming of the profession

I must admit that as I am establishing my identity as an (inter)spiritual counselor, the question of what to call myself keeps popping up. I have not yet come to a place of comfort and ease with any of the monikers.

In the world of professions, the known names are “spiritual director,” or “spiritual counselor.” Neither of these sit right with me. I am certainly not a “director.” I do not believe that any person can “direct” another person’s soul (although I know that not everyone agrees). Nor do I feel like a “counselor” or a “coach,” because I very rarely tell people what they should do.

One of my teachers uses the word “spiritual companion.” I like that a lot more than either director or counselor, although it is still missing something for me.

Some people use the term “soul friend,” or “Anam Cara,” or “Kalyanamitra,” but I am not sure the relationship is truly one of “friendship” as we conventionally understand that word.

“Soul-tending”: a newly emerging sense of my calling

As I sit with what I feel I am called to do in this work, the word that is emerging for me is “soul-tending.”

First, the word “soul,” for me, feels more embodied than “spirit.” “Spirit” feels more airy; more up there. In my stance in life, I am leaning more and more towards “soulful,” rather than “spiritual.” I also like the fact that the Greek word for soul is “psyche.” So, soul-tending includes all inner or “psychological” work.

And I am really falling in love with the word, “tending.”

First, when I sit with the word “tending,” it conjures up the image of a gardener – tending to the plants. Sometimes the tending is gentle – like in watering, adding fertilizer, or turning the soil. At other times, it can feel ruthless – such as when the gardener is weeding, pruning and shearing. But the gardener’s ultimate goal is the thriving of the plants under her care.

When I look up the etymology of the word “tend,” what I find is fascinating!

Our word “tend” comes from the Latin, “tendere,” meaning "to stretch, extend, make tense; aim, direct; direct oneself, hold a course." The PIE (proto-Indo-European language) root for this word is “ten,” meaning "to stretch." So, our word “attention” or “attending” originates from Latin “attendere,” meaning "to stretch toward" [from “ad,” meaning "to, toward" + “tendere,” meaning "stretch"].

Taking the idea a bit farther, we find connections with the word “tender.” “Tender” comes from Latin “tenerem” (nominative “tener”), meaning "soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful." It is related to Sanskrit, “tarunah,” also meaning "youthful, tender," to Greek “teren,” meaning "tender, delicate," and to Armenian “t'arm,” meaning "young, fresh, green."

And that brings me right back to the beginning image of the gardener – tending the young, green “tendrils” of possibility. It is an image of the potential for healing and wholeness.

So, the job of the “soultender” (just like that of a bartender), is just that. To tend (or attend to) the soul – the psyche. And the goal of this tending is to nurture the green tendrils that bring “greening power” (Viriditas) to the soul being tended. For a deeper delve into the idea of Viriditas, please see here.

The soul, infused with this Viriditas of attention and tending, becomes vital and verdant. It can now thrive, and in time, transmit its Viriditas, its greening power, to other tendrils in its proximity.

And the gardener, the soultender, watches with fascination, this tremendous mystery of growth, of this greening and renewal. In rare instances, the gardener may be gifted with a glimpse of the blossoming of the mystic heart. A blossoming of which he/she was an agent, yes, but also equally, a beneficiary.


Acknowledgment: many of the nuances of this post were born in conversation with my Spiritual Companion, Rev. David Wallace.


Meditations on a mandala: holding the tension between Being and Doing


Meditations on a mandala: holding the tension between Being and Doing

Mandala - viriditas

I colored this mandala a few days ago when my mind and heart were in turmoil. I needed to find ground under my feet. So, I colored this mandala intuitively, without really thinking. I let my heart choose; not my head.

Mandala as a tool for finding wholeness

Mandalas are circular drawings that are used in many cultures across the world as tools for meditation. Typically, a mandala has a center, and then radially expanding elements that move toward the periphery. They have been thought to represent, in two dimensions, the cross-section of a temple, with the inner sanctum at the center. Carl Jung brought the use of mandalas to Western psychology, and used them himself and with his patients as a way of finding a symbol for wholeness.

I am deeply drawn to Jung’s idea of wholeness, which is somewhat different from the new age idea of “healing.” Often, though not always, this “healing” is one-sided – choosing love and light and joy, and bulldozing over the unwanted opposites. Consequently, these rejected parts of ourselves lodge themselves in our unconscious, and dictate our behavior from there, without leaving us any choice in when and how they express themselves. Jung called them “autonomous complexes.” Jung’s idea of wholeness, which he called “individuation” (really meaning in-dividuation, or removing divisions), is about accepting ALL OF OURSELVES, warts and all! And working with a mandala, among other things, can be a tool to do that work.

Later, over the next few days, I have sat with it, and as things have revealed themselves, I have done more reading and thinking, and then gone back and looked at the mandala again. This approach, of elaboration and then returning to the symbol repeatedly, is what Carl Jung called “amplification,” or “circumambulation” of a symbol. This process reveals the many layers of meaning often hidden in a symbol, and this same process is utilized in the Jungian analysis of dreams and other imagistic material.

For me, this process of being with this mandala over the past few days has been the act outlined in the title – that of holding the paradox between Being and Doing – between focus and relaxation, between intuition and thinking. And it has felt like the gentle rhythm of the ocean – waves coming in, crashing, and then receding – in endless succession. There is something immensely soothing about it.

Of course, we never fully understand a symbol. Part of its very nature – of being a symbol – is that its archetypal core lives in the unconscious, and is thus mysterious and unintelligible to our conscious, rational selves. In fact, if and when we fully (consciously) understand a symbol, it no longer has its numinous quality (i.e., it is no longer a mystery, with both terrifying and fascinating qualities). At that point, it no longer remains a symbol; it just becomes a sign!

Here are, then, a few insights the symbol of this mandala has brought for me (as of now).

Viriditas: The medicine of the green container

The overall feel of this mandala is one of greenness – different shades of green. Green is a powerful color. The color green is invoked most poetically by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She used the term viriditas for the “greening power” of nature, which to her was synonymous with the greening power of the divine. For Hildegard, viriditas meant green, greenness, and growth, as well as vigor, verdure, freshness and vitality. The presence of green was synonymous with finding divine blessing and sanctuary.

Indeed, the image of spring, spreading her green fingers over a frozen and denuded landscape, is nothing short of a miracle! In the Northern climes, where deep winter lasted a very long time, and the arrival of spring was seen as a return of life itself, images of the Green Man were revered and celebrated. In Egypt, the God Osiris, who is killed by his brother, and then is brought back to life by his sister-lover-Queen, Isis, is often shown to have green skin. He represents the cycle of life, including that of vegetation – of death and rebirth.

Indeed, the word “Green” itself comes from Middle English grene, from Old English grēne, from Proto-Germanic grōniz, which all mean “to grow.”

Many Islamic countries use the color green on their flags, and the interiors of many mosques have green adornments. The dome and the interior of Muhammad’s tomb are green. The Christian crucifix, representing the dying and resurrecting Christ, is also often pictured as green.  

Green is also the color of love. Aphrodite and Venus have been assigned the color green. So is the color assigned to the heart chakra, Anahata, in Hindu/Buddhist system.

The shadow side of green

One lesson we keep learning in life, and one that was emphasized by Carl Jung, is that ALL OBJECTS CAST SHADOW! Nothing is purely and absolutely good! Indeed, the color green’s very relationship to life and growth also makes it a necessary feature of death and putrefaction. Slime, mold, poison, pus, and vomit are all green. So are the threatening faces of witches, the bodies of extraterrestrial enemies, dinosaurs, and monsters. In the psyche, too, there is the green-eyed monster of jealousy, and being “green with envy.” “Being green” is also about immaturity, inexperience, awkwardness, unripeness.

Finally, green growth alone, without a compensating red core of passion and its eventual self-destruction, will give rise to cancer, where out-of-control growth chokes out life!

Red: Green’s fiery complement

It is interesting that my intuitively created green mandala has a core where the dominant color is red.

Indeed, in color theory, red is the complementary color of green. Green is moist and cool; whereas red is hot and dry. The two colors need each other to make life possible and to keep things dynamic. Red is activity, focus, passion; green is relaxation, rest, rejuvenation.

In alchemy, “reddening” or rubedo is the final step of the Work (after blackening and whitening), and in psychological alchemy, it is often understood as the psyche – after going through its night journey of darkness, interiority and depression (blackening, or melanosis or nigredo), and then reflecting on and mentally understanding what it went through (whitening, or leucosis or albedo) – finally returns back into the lived world. This is the stage of reddening, or iosis, or rubedo. Once at this stage, the psyche becomes “sanguine,” i.e., it has life-blood coursing through it once again, and now it can fully participate in the mundane world, but from a transformed place.

The instinctive human psyche has always known this truth. In a Tibetan Buddhist thanka (see image), the serene Green Tara appears beneath a small red Buddha and above a fierce red dakini. To the Greeks, fruitful green Aphrodite was the lover of fierce red Ares. Using the symbolism of psychological alchemy, it is the green vessel that holds the red substance of the highest value – the Green Dragon’s red blood. Similarly, the emerald chalice of the grail contains the holy blood of Christ.

Indeed, this dance of green and red was appreciated by Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote:
“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.
You redden like the dawn
and you burn: flame of the Sun.”
–  Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae

Blue: the threshold guardian

In the mandala above, it appears as if the dance of the green and the red is mediated and “officiated” by the blue. Indeed, this is the psychological function of blue in alchemy.

Psychological alchemy is a vast subject, and I will continue to speak about elements of it (as I continue to learn more), because I believe that it is one of the most nuanced symbol systems to understand the evolution of human psyche. Briefly, psychological alchemy begins with the raw material (the prima materia), which corresponds to the psychic stage of chaotic thought and confusion (massa confusa). The Great Work (opus magnum) of psychological alchemy begins with the blackening of this prima materia. This stage is variously called nigredo, or melanosis. It is the stage of turning inward, going into the depths, the depression, the withdrawal from the lived world – in order to encounter what is brewing within. It is the legendary Dark Night of the Soul, or entering the belly of the beast! This stage is eventually followed by the next stage of whitening – the albedo. This is a stage of mental understanding of the inner suffering – a clearing, a lightening, a becoming like a silver mirror. Here we “understand,” what happened to us – a stage sometimes referred to as unio mentalis (mental union). Interrestingly, though, this stage was seen by most alchemists as not the goal of the Work, but only a waystation. However, this stage did represent a much-needed respite from the deep, dark depths. There are other stages that follow, but they are not the subject of today’s discussion.

What is important for today’s discussion, is the fact that this transition from black to white often happened through shades of blue.

To quote James Hillman:
“…the blues of bruises, sobriety, puritan self-examination; the blues of slow jazz. Silver’s color was not only white but also blue… The blue transit between black and white is like that – sadness which emerges from despair as it proceeds towards reflection. Reflection here comes from or takes one into a blue distance, less a concentrated act that we do than something insinuating itself upon us as a cold, isolating inhibition. This vertical withdrawal is also like an emptying out, the creation of a negative capability, or a profound listening — already an intimation of silver.”

Or, as Goethe said in his Color Theory:
“…blue still brings a principle of darkness with it... As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. . . a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.”

Thus, the blue in this mandala gives us that shade, that middle ground – that threshold – between the red core of passion and focus and excitement, and the green container of repose, relaxation. Indeed the blue threshold allows the dance between Doing and Being to flow and merge – to approach and move away – to live in dynamic contradiction that is life itself.


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