Humans are symbol-making, symbol-using, and most importantly, symbol-needing creatures. Our capacity to engage life symbolically is what creates our cultures and ultimately, what makes us human; however, it is also this capacity that makes life an uncharted quest for meaning that few are taught to navigate.
Why is it that humans seek marriage, reputation, outward success, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when we have attained exactly what we were seeking? And more importantly, what can we do to satiate this inherent hunger for meaning that we so often ignore?
In James Hollis’s Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, he bifurcates humans into the ego and the soul, stating “Who we think we are is only a limited function of the ego, that thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul.” The ego is the part of our psyche that experiences the outside world and reacts to it. Its agenda is one of security and emotional reinforcement, just as it is to solidify what is in flux. Whereas the soul is our intuition of the depth we have as humans, our longing for meaning, and our participation in something much greater than ordinary consciousness can grasp.
Another way to think of it is this: our ego diminishes us; our soul expands us.
While our soul is always speaking, we are rarely listening. This is because ever since birth, we’ve let our egos guide our lives, blindly adopting societal norms, worshipping false gods of our culture, power, materialism, hedonism, and narcissism, all of which we’ve projected upon our soul’s longing for transcendence. And because most of human life runs on auto-pilot, these projections often rise from issues, values, and tasks we have not yet made conscious, so they spontaneously arise from the unconscious and enter our lives in seductive ways. How cunning is this ego, that it tempts us with the things that we already possess inside.
While our egos help us make sense of the world, it repeatedly flees from suffering, which is the essential thing that stretches our souls to expand our spiritual horizons and growth. As Dr. Hollis states, “Experiential spirituality will stretch us, sometimes test us, but will always ask us to be larger than we wish to be. What must Jesus have meant when he invited those around him to take up the cross and follow him? Surely it was not an invitation to a life of ease or collective approval.”
When it comes to satiating this great hunger of human meaning, we simply have to expand ourselves into an experiential spirituality. While spirituality will seldom provide us with answers, it will encourage us to ask ever-larger questions about ourselves, enabling us to live ever-larger lives that are in alignment with our souls, for when we don’t experience our souls inwardly, we will listen to our ego and project outwardly onto things of our world (objects, ideologies, relationships) that momentarily carry spirituality for us.
Practically speaking, reading our lives in reflective ways, digging deeper into our past, old agendas, replicative patterns, all help us tackle the auto-pilot of emptiness and existential dread that is driven by our egos, for when we’re ignorant of the forces that limit us in our past, we will likely make choices that run counter to the principles and guidance of our souls.