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What is Soul? Ask a Poet.

I n Ursula LeGuin’s rendition of the Tao te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way published in 1997, the very first poem, “Taoing” gives this sage advice

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.


Sarah Carlson


And yet we try.

In contemplating soul almost daily, I track and “want” soul. Or is it that I need soul as never before in times of climate threat and human cacophony? The same poem says,

So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.

Aligning body and soul to the Beloved Power and Mystery that envelops and is beyond human chaos IS needful. I feel it in my body. But as the poem goes on,

Two things, one origin
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.

So there is a door.

Seeing quotes on soul, I wrote them down. To my delight, Rob Brezny was way ahead of me and sent a gaggle of soul quotes. Thank you, Rob, master artist of the English Language, astrological wizard, trumpeter for the Truth and Beaty Lab, and author of Pronoia! You can get his weekly readings here. Most of the quotes below were in his last newsletter.

Mystics, contemplatives, young and old sensitives, attendants to what can’t be named, innkeepers of the holy, it’s our job to keep the light on for The Way as others did before us. Whether we do it with touch, a glance, a kindness, a breath a song or a word– we know something hidden.

There is a door.




The entire universe contributes incessantly to your existence. Hence the entire universe is your body.

—Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj


One in body and soul, . . Though outwardly separate in form. As the Source strikes the note, Humanity sings

—Mechtilde de Magdeburg


“I call the high and light aspects of my being spirit and the dark and heavy aspects soul.”
“Soul is at home in the deep, shaded valleys. Heavy torpid flowers saturated with black grow there. The rivers flow like warm syrup.”
“Spirit is a land of high, white peaks and glittering jewel-like lakes and flowers. Life is sparse and sounds travel great distances.”

—The Dalai Lama, as quoted by James Hillman in “A Blue Fire”

Soul is something creative, something active. Soul is honesty. I sing to people about what matters. I sing to the realists, people who accept it like it is. I express problems; there are tears when it’s sad and smiles when it’s happy. It seems simple to me, but to some, feelings take courage.
—Aretha Franklin


let my body dwell in poverty, and my hands be as the hands of the toiler;
but let my soul be as a temple of remembrance
where the treasures of knowledge enter
and the inner sanctuary is hope.”

― George Eliot


The soul is shy

―Trish Watts


Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, but yet the body is the book.

―John Donne


The self is something we lay claim to. The soul is what lays claim to us. Soulfulness is not a human quality. It is a quality that human beings partake in, a quality that can be found in how you move, how you see things, how you talk and ponder and eat and love. Soulfulness is the tea and rice of your life. It is a kind of language, and in its calm face we can recognize ourselves and each other, and we can see the way of the holy and the way the natural world has of being itself. The souls way makes and sustains our kinship with the world and with strangers, and as we have seen, there is hell to pay when this kinship is forgotten. the world soul contains and embraces and sustains all those things that human beings find are implacable and opposite, and it gives humans a means of understanding how to live inside their contending ways. With this quality of soulfulness in our minds, we are now on the track of our soul’s desires.

―Stephen Jenkinson, Money and the Soul’s Desires: A Meditation


The soul will not be confined; nor will its explosive power be contained: “The soul has moments of escape – / When bursting all the doors – / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings opon the Hours.

―Emily Dickinson


The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.

—Carl Jung, The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man (1934).


And god said to the soul
I desired you before the world began.
I desire you now
As you desire me.
And where the desires of two come together
There love is perfected.

—Mechtild of Magdeburg


I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of
hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself — the latter I
translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”


How prompt we are to satisfy the hunger and thirst of our bodies; how
slow to satisfy the hunger and thirst of our souls!

—Henry David Thoreau


The soul should always stand ajar,
That if the heaven inquire,
He will not be obliged to wait,
Or shy of troubling her.

—Emily Dickinson


This earth is honey for all beings, and all beings are honey for this earth.
The intelligent, immortal being, the soul of the earth, and the intelligent,
immortal being, the soul in the individual being—each is honey to the

—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad


Ondinnonk is an Iroquois word with two related meanings: 1. a secret wish
of the soul, especially as revealed in dreams; 2. the spiritual part of our
nature that longs to do good deeds.


In the best-known version of the Greek myth, Persephone is dragged down
into the underworld by Hades, whose title is “Pluto.” But in earlier, pre-
patriarchal tales, she descends there under her own power, actively
seeking to graduate from her virginal naiveté by exploring the intriguing
land of shadows.

“Pluto” is derived from the Greek word *plutus*, meaning “wealth.”
Psychologist James Hillman says this refers to the psyche-building
riches available in Pluto’s domain. Hades, he says, is “the giver of
nourishment to the soul.”


Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the
senses but the soul.

—Oscar Wilde


“There is a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears,”
writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes. But the magic of that formula may not
unfold with smooth simplicity, she says: “The teacher comes when the
soul, not the ego, is ready. The teacher comes when the soul calls, and
thank goodness—for the ego is never fully ready.”


What is the “soul,” anyway? Is it a ghostly blob of magic stuff within us
that keeps us connected to the world of dreams and the divine realms? Is it
an amorphous metaphor for the secret source of our spiritual power? Is
it a myth that people entertain because they desperately want to believe
there’s more to them than just their physical bodies?

Here’s what I think: The soul is a perspective that pushes us to go deeper
and see further and live wilder. It’s what drives our imagination to flesh
out our raw experience, transforming that chaotic stuff into rich
storylines that animate our love of life.

With the gently propulsive force of the soul, we probe beyond the surface
level of things, working to find the hidden meaning and truer feeling.

—Rob Brezny


Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

—Pablo Picasso.


“The works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with
clinical coolness,” said the painter Joan Miró in describing his artistic process.


“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul,” wrote environmentalist
Edward Abbey.


“I had tended to view waiting as mere passivity,” wrote author Sue Monk
Kidd in her memoir. “When I looked it up in my dictionary, however, I
found that the words ‘passive’ and ‘passion’ come from the same Latin root,
*pati*, which means ‘to endure.’ Waiting is thus both passive and
passionate. It’s a vibrant, contemplative work . . . It involves listening to
disinherited voices within, facing the wounded holes in the soul, the denied
and undiscovered, the places one lives falsely.”


If you need to visualize the soul, think of it as a cross between a wolf
howl, a photon, and a dribble of dark molasses. But what it really is, as
near as I can tell, is a packet of information. It’s a program, a piece of
hyperspatial software designed explicitly to interface with the Mystery.
Not a mystery, mind you, the Mystery. The one that can never be solved.
By waxing soulful you will have granted yourself the possibility of
ecstatic participation in what the ancients considered a divinely animated

—Tom Robbins


As part of the Beauty and Truth Lab’s ongoing crusade to wrestle the
English language into a more formidable servant of the ecstatic impulse,
we’re pleased to present some alternate designations for “soul.” See if any
of the following concoctions feel right coming out of your mouth:

1. undulating superconductor;

2. nectar plasma;

3. golden lather;

4. smoldering crucible;

5. luminous caduceus.

If none of these work for you—or even if they do—have fun creating your
own terms.


“Each person is a story that the Soul of the World wants to tell to itself,”
writes storyteller Michael Meade.


At times it seems to me that I am living my life backwards, and that at the
approach of old age my real youth will begin. My soul was born covered
with wrinkles — wrinkles my ancestors and parents most assiduously put
there and that I had the greatest trouble removing.

– André Gide


The soul moves in circles.—ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus


Sensual pleasure passes and vanishes, but the friendship between us, the
mutual confidence, the delight of the heart, the enchantment of the soul,
these things do not perish and can never be destroyed.

—philosopher Voltaire in a letter to his partner Marie Louise Denis


You will never be able to experience everything. So, please, do poetical
justice to your soul and simply experience yourself.

—Albert Camus


I note the echo that each thing produces as it strikes my soul.



I am not quick moving. I have to wait for myself—it is always late before
the water comes to light out of the well of my self, and I often have to
endure thirst for longer than I have patience. That is why I go into solitude
— so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern.

When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I
really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish
me from myself and rob me of my soul—and I grow angry with everybody
and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.

—Friedrich Nietzsche