In the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino put it as simply as possible. The mind, he said, tends to go off on its own so that it seems to have no relevance to the physical world. At the same time, the materialistic life can be so absorbing that we get caught in it and forget about spirituality. What we need, he said, is soul, in the middle, holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.

–Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

Repair of the Soul

For a number of years I co-facilitated a leadership workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One day wandering through that small town, one of my facilitator colleagues found some t-shirts for the three of us. On the front they were emblazoned with the words, “Soul Repair” and “Rejuvenation of Spirit” written in large letters above and below a picture of crossed skis. I always appreciated that imagery — because surely skiing can be a wonderful form of soul repair and rejuvenation. There’s almost nothing in my experience like the adrenalin rush of launching over the edge of something I wouldn’t in my right mind want to walk down. The only alternative is flying.

Of course, we wore the t-shirts to do our work as facilitators, too. That was a different kind of flying. Our work embraced the contradictions and dilemmas of ordinary people trying to understand how to live and lead in ways that tapped their deeper, better selves. The edges they were going over were in their own lives, externally and internally. A doctor struggled with his impatience and alienation of co-workers. A young woman needed to revisit and re-evaluate how her life had changed since the death of her partner in a freak accident. An administrator assessed her short-comings as a leader and decided she wasn’t so bad, after all. The work was all about claiming and reclaiming their lives in the aftermath of something that had challenged them in the past or might challenge them sometime soon: divorce, desertion, job termination, failure, incarceration and, plenty often, a vague unease about loss of meaning. Most often, they did the work with creative tenacity and came way greatly renewed.

IMG_4110

The stories we heard were all about the repair of souls. All we did as facilitators was create a place for the work — a work shop — a space with a few tools, some “benches,” and the gift of time. All we did was say, “this is a good place and time to wonder, go deeper, grow in whatever ways you feel you are meant to grow toward a life you want and deserve.”

Repair of the soul is not something you do once and it is over. It is pre-eminently not a workshop. That was just one vehicle. Soul repair is going on all the time because it is about finding the meaning in things — in daily events and encounters, challenges and miseries. I think of a young woman I’ve been helping overcome the pain of her recent termination. It’s particularly difficult for her because it’s from her first job in her field (health care) after getting an advanced degree. It’s just been torture for her to go through the stages of grief. Some around her want her to “hurry up,” get over the hump, take yoga, get out there and apply for some other work right away, or at least, for crying out loud, cheer up.

But true repair isn’t made of such dross. It requires more of us — the sleepless nights reworking events again and again, asking bigger questions: Why did this happen? How did it happen? What am I supposed to get from this? What am I supposed to do now? How do I deal what I’ve been blind to all along? These bigger questions are the “soul searching” that deepens us.

IMG_4109

Often that searching ends less in a clear, conscious, articulable answer than in a greater acceptance of life being exactly as it is supposed to be. The paradox of that acceptance — surrendering to deeper events and deeper genius — is that it enables movement forward in a new way. The attempt to push ahead without the search, resisting the soulful, provocative self-questioning, is what causes pain to embed itself permanently in the spirit. Not listening to suffering turns it into a background parasite of some kind, or maybe more accurately, a slow infection that will show itself later and at a particularly inopportune moment — maybe just when you think things are going really well. It’s acceptance and learning that open a new door.

Our business culture turns away from soul work, tries to hide it under a patina of optimism and the oxymoronic condemnation of all forms of negativity. Some like to hold contempt for anyone who has to do that inner work as if they don’t have the right stuff anyway. They really don’t want to explore anything like failure, even be terribly curious about it, let alone discover its lessons. But others, maybe more sensitive or intuitive, more willing to experience, know in an unspoken way that every attempt to simply seal up the walls against soul work ultimately postpones the inevitable. For every child locked in the basement there is the disturbing sound one day of footsteps ascending the darkened stairs.

IMG_4111

Just so, my advice to the young woman has been to stay with the situation and not to “heal too fast” but to use these events to reclaim an important meaning before the opportunity is lost. She’s struggled, she told me, with finding her true voice because she’s given it up to eating disorders, to serving others and being what they want her to be. I sense her termination could make her want to seal that voice off again, blamed and sent way before she’s had time to listen to its full story and implicit guidance. That’s what soul repair is, I believe, the work of finding a way through the dilemmas, just as Thomas Moore suggests in Care of the Soul. It’s not about running away, but running toward the very thing that’s causing the suffering. In this sense, the young woman is finding out that her service to others, her care and love, is contingent first on her care and love for herself — a self she doesn’t care for much at the moment, and maybe has not been cared for enough for an entire life.

Why would we turn away from such work? Why wouldn’t we share in it with one another? Support each other as any true partners, true colleagues, true community might?

How many discordant relationships at work are the product of people running away from the problem, rather than toward it and through it with each other?

How many ineffective managers defend themselves instead of thoughtfully holding up a mirror — to see what their soul is truly made of?

How many leaders don’t want to know how they are colluding in the problems and failures they say they want to solve?

These are all problems of the soul at work, and of the needed work of the soul. They are evidence of the need for repair in every one of us — so long as we first believe in the nature of our own souls and the good we might do.

IMG_4112

Images in this post are screenshots from this movie.

RSS and email subscription, monthly Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of this page.

12 Comments

  • Lolly Daskal wrote:

    repair of the soul is remembering your soul.

    Life is a journey, every minute of every hour, we are remembering who we are meant to be and repairing we are repairing what we need to heal. It is a cycle we will do until we cant do it anymore.

    Your post is an important reminder to us, for us, and about us.

    Thanks for sharing stunning words of your heart.

    Lolly

  • Dear Lolly~

    As always, I so appreciate your taking a moment to share. I love the notion of “remembering,” Lolly, and also that there is a cycle we are meant to complete. These are powerful insights that mirror my experience, too.

    All the best
    Dan

  • ‘Soul repair is going on all the time.’

    I wholeheartedly believe that everything we are going through is an invitation for the recovery and discovery of our soul. The glimpse of which we can catch in any moment that we let go of the should be’s of others that drown out the voice of our very own WHAT IS and wants to be right now.

    I also love what you wrote here:

    ‘The work was all about claiming and reclaiming their lives in the aftermath of something that had challenged them in the past or might challenge them sometime soon: divorce, desertion, job termination, failure, incarceration and, plenty often, a vague unease about loss of meaning.’

    Yes, this is all part of the sticky business of living this thing called life. We can find it a little easier to breathe when e no longer have to pretend that life isn’t messy at times. And doesn’t fit conveniently into some ‘ideal’ of perfection we’ve read somewhere. We want and need tools to help us along the way. Those tools are only helpful as long as they aren’t trying to force us to hide or sell our own souls, but to embrace it’s true nature.

    Your post also reminded me of one of the pillars of Tai Chi training called Pushing Hands. After the practitioner learns the forms and has worked solo for awhile, the next phase of training is to work with a partner. You intentionally try to maintain your own balance while pushing the other off balance. Pushing each others hands is a way of learning how to feel the energy and movement in the other person. And vice versa. However, this practice is unlike a competitive sport in that it’s intention is to expose where we are still weak. Once we have identified the area of weakness exposed with a partner, this is simply revealing the info we need to take back into our solo practice. Now we know what we need to work on.

    When I read about Pushing Hands in Tai Chi training, it struck me that this is exactly how our relationships serve us in real life. They naturally reveal to us where our current work lies. When we understand this, the less frightened we need to be over so-called imperfections. None of us have ARRIVED.

    It’s an on-going, ever-evolving, life long SOUL JOURNEY.

    Thank you so much for sharing yet another heart felt post.

  • […] For a number of years I co-facilitated a leadership workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One day wandering through that small town, one of my facilitator colleagues found some t-shirts for the three …  […]

  • Magnificent post, Dan! Made me truly think about the real importance of not just moving forward from our challenges but rather take the time to understand and work through them.

    I also love the idea- Soul Repair! And yes it is on-going and evolving.

    Terri

  • Thanks Dan.
    Years ago I was practicing incipient spins as a student pilot. With a mixture of ineptitude and fear I experienced the plane going into a full spin. I did not experience the plane spinning so much as the ground swirling and rapidly approaching me. I remember swearing in the cockpit and suddenly “woke up.” You see the only way out of a spin is to go into a spin. I had to push the controls towards the earth and steer into the direction of the spin. Thankfully, I survived. I learned that day that the way out is through. It is a lesson I know but a lesson I keep learning.
    Thanks for a reminder,
    David

  • Tom Rhodes wrote:

    Dan,
    Thank you for your wonderful post. A little more than 2 years ago in a 10 day period I lost my Dad and was demoted from a position because my boss felt I “cared to much” about my people.
    My Dad had taught me the people skills that had brought me to where I was so in this time I had lost my hero and had is every word challenged. My soul has been under repair since as in the next year I was fired and have faced emotional and financial challenges I had never seen in my 60 years.
    Thanks to my family, people I have connected with on Social Media and my children my beliefs and my soul are mending. But you are very right it is a process that takes time. It can not be rushed.
    Thank you again for this wonderful post.
    Tom

  • Hi Dan
    Oh I love this article. It resonates with so many thoughts and experiences that come “shown up” recently.

    Not only does most of business culture turn away from soul work, it’s often brutally dismissive of it. I use the word, a harsh one, brutal, decidely. I’ve seen and heard too much lately about the ways in which the rapacious drive of so much business (and it’s not just business – it’s institutionalizing everywhere) tries to override human needs. It’s a form of PTSD that so many workers are experiencing. And like John Wenger wrote in a recent article… a form of Stockholm Syndrome sets in.

    I echo what Tom Rhodes said in his comment about the callous and ridiculous thinking of a manager who tells an experienced employee “he cared too much” about his people. A CEO was recently told by a new partner “your people like you too much, they need to fear you.”

    When will we extricate ourselves from such damaging ignorance? And as you say so eloquently, ”
    Not listening to suffering turns it into a background parasite of some kind, or maybe more accurately, a slow infection that will show itself later and at a particularly inopportune moment —

    I fear that slow infection is a large part of the “disengagement” problem we’re experiencing in nearly every workplace – globally.

    Soul work indeed….

    Thanks for another wonderful post.
    ~Louise

  • Dear Samantha~

    Soul work shares much with the martial arts. There’s a discipline in “going where we need to go,” as Theodore Roethke said in his well-known poem, The Waking. A discipline and a dance and a concentration of reflective power, like light focused through a magnifying glass on the meaning of our challenges. I love the image of Pushing Hands and how that points us in the right direction.

    Thank you, Samantha!

    Best
    Dan

  • Dear David~

    What a fabulous image — steering the direction of the direction of the spin. It reminds me of Parker Palmer’s story of feeling stranded as he learned to rappel down a cliff, recounted in great little book, Let Your Life Speak. After minutes of denial, being frozen, and insisting he didn’t have a problem, a rock climbing teacher watching him from below shouted out her direction to him: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” It is a soulful moment when you realize it’s entirely up to you.

    Thank you so much, David.

    All the best
    Dan

  • Dear Tom~

    I was moved by your circumstances, Tom. No picnic. It sounds like that process of mending is leading to very different ground — better ground — and an understanding of your own life and its dimensions in a new way. May good wishes to you and thank you so much for sharing your important story.

    Best to you
    Dan

  • Dear Louise~

    We assume too easily we are part of an enlightened rather than primitive age. A repressive, fear-based mindset all too easily comes forward — uncontested. I expect from time to time to hear the oddball comments about people needing to fear the boss, but the real question is whether there’s any response. Has anyone spoken to challenge this nonsense?

    We must find a way through that dark space, as individuals and as communities. We have to find the burning coal under the ash heap, and I believe personally that when we focus too much on extremes of courage or cowardice we defeat ourselves. Connecting is awkward but necessary.

    Thank you so much for your observations and keen support, Louise. You are a wonderful teacher.

    All the best
    Dan

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree