Distinguishing Between Soul and Spirit

Distinguishing Between Soul and Spirit


C. G. Jung said that the soul itself is fundamentally oriented toward life–the soul, he said, is the archetype of life–while the search for meaning or the quest for higher consciousness has some other root. The soul finds its home in the ordinary details of everyday life and does not in itself have an urgent need for understanding or achievement. James Hillman, Jung’s unorthodox follower, picks up on Jung’s distinction between soul and spirit, saying that soul resides in the valleys of life and not on the peaks of intellectual, spiritual, or technological efforts. In his essay on this theme, “Peaks and Vales,” Hillman writes that the soul is the psyche’s actual life, including “the present mess it is in, its discontent, dishonesties, and thrilling illusions.”

Something in us–tradition calls it spirit–wants to transcend these messy conditions of actual life to find some blissful or at least brighter experience, or an expression of meaning that will take us away intellectually from the quagmire of actual existence. When the soul does rise above the conditions of ordinary life into meaning and healing, it hovers closely and floats; it doesn’t soar. Its mode of reflection is reverie rather than intellectual analysis, and its process of healing takes place amid the everyday flux of mood, the ups and downs of emotions, and the certain knowledge that there is no ultimate healing: death is an eternal presence for the soul (Thomas Moore, Soul Mates).

There is much confusion concerning Soul and Spirit. They are commonly thought of as indistinguishable. The best way I know to relate the differences is the idea, prevalent in Meister Eckhart, and other theologies, of the God beyond Gods. This notion asserts there is a God who is totally transcendent to human ratiocination, totally beyond anything we are able to conceive of using the human mind. This is the God of apophatic theology, where the only thing one can say is what God is not. This idea is rather meta-macrocosmic, since it is really above what we conceive of as the macrocosmic Gods. The God beyond Gods is Pure Spirit and can never be understood by rational means. The macrocosmic Gods, on the other hand, can be discussed cataphatically, or in a positive sense. One can describe how these God are. One can make positive assertions about these Gods. These Gods are accessible to the human mind and can be spoken of, to a certain extent, using rational terminology. These Gods possess attributes that can be spoken and thought of. The God beyond these Gods has no attributes that we can speak or think of. The relationship between the transcendent God and the immanent Gods is similar to the relationship between what we call Spirit and Soul.


Spirit is really not within the purview of the human mind. It is not earth-bound. It wants nothing to do with the tangled web of earthly activity. All is transcendence. Spirit desires total union with God, to the exclusion of everything else in life. An overemphasis on Spirit produces a person who, as the old saying goes, is so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.

The human ego aspires to be like Spirit. Ego is drawn to the Sun. It is ego that builds skyscrapers to the heavens in an attempt to commune with Spirit. It is ego that travels to the highest mountain peaks, thinking that Spirit can be contacted there. ego is that element of Soul that most desires union with the transcendent God. In this way, a healthy ego can be a bridge between Spirit and Soul. An overemphasis on Spirit, however, produces an overinflated ego, which, as we know, is big trouble. The story of Icarus is a good example of someone who flew too high and perished in the sea. Those who fly too high are sometimes victims of Soul’s depths.


Soul is within the purview of the human mind, even though the depths of Soul are unlimited. Heraclitus said, “You could not discover the limits of Soul even if you traveled by every path in order to do so; such is the depth of its meaning” (qtd. in The Presocratics, by Philip Wheelwright, p. 72). Soul loves the tangled web of life on earth. It would rather trudge through the boggy swamps, dark caves, and deep oceans than to soar through the heavens. In Soul is mystery, all the mysteries of the earth and under the earth. Soul is innate in all things, interconnected with all matter. Distinctions between the two are illusory, even though we can speak cataphatically concerning Soul. We can only speak apophatically concerning Spirit. One of the myths of Soul is the legend of Hades, the god of the hidden wealth of the earth.


I do not possess Soul as I would a coat or tie, I am Soul. I cannot experience the world apart from Soul. Positivism or Behaviorism cannot tell me why my breath is taken away by Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique; or when I read Poe, Keats, or Goethe; or when I walk in the forest and relish the green earth. They might try and tell me these are merely chemical reactions in my brain, but anyone who has experienced these things will know of a certainty how ridiculous this is. The depth of the experience tells the story. All that I do and feel is because I am Soul.


If I am Soul, what about my body? What role does it play, besides enabling me to operate in the material world? I see material things (including the human body) as images and metaphors. To me, this world is filled with images of Soul. Through these images, I am able to learn more about reality. Through living in this body, I am better able to learn about Soul. For untold generations, the material universe has been viewed as an image of the inner workings of the human being. The ancient saying, “As above, so below,” speaks to this fact. Such a view makes the world incredibly fascinating and alive, for there is always something nearby to pique one’s interest and to shed light on the true.

Our yearning for a so-called “spiritual life” is actually due to our yearning for a connection to Soul, for we can have very limited concourse with Spirit in this imperfect life. But, even though this life is imperfect, Soul holds treasures far beyond our wildest dreams!



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7 thoughts on “Distinguishing Between Soul and Spirit

  1. I have to admit that for a long time I saw no difference between the two; they were interchangeable. As my path progressed, though, I came to know that what I most sorely needed was connection with Soul. I needed to feel the significance and beauty of the earthy, the fleshy soup, the real mess of life. I still love the transcendent – but in its proper place and time. For now, for me, the mystery and consciousness of the tree, river, human being, clump of mud, is the dearest source of wonder.

  2. Seth,

    I, too, once thought Soul and Spirit were the same. It was always confusing for me. The first time I really began to think about it was upon reading Jung. He opened my eyes to many things. 🙂



  3. This clears up some of the confusion for me as well; it also explains how I can go through periods of “spiritual” practices (prayer, meditation, etc.) & often end up in an extreme depression (probably) from neglecting “soulful” living or as you pointed out “become so heavenly bound, I'm no earthly good…”

    I like the new layout for the blog as well…

  4. Really good stuff, thanks. Jung & Hillman are soul makers extraordinaire and fine early guides until the path becomes one’s own. I cannot help but wonder if those who seek transcendent spirituality w/o the journey into earthy soul are deluding themselves. Surely spirit is the natural efflorescence of the deep rootedness of soul. It only appears after one has made the bottomless soul-journey through life.

  5. Not sure how one would get the two confused when etymologically soul origins means psyche. psyche is made of thoughts programmed information & learned behaviors etc. Spirit is quite another experience intimately connected to consciousness source energy chi activation awareness expansion macro energy having encounter with micro energy of the biological mechanism that is home to the soul psyche

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