15 Jan

SoulCollage®: Self-Actualization or Self-Transcendence?

(I wrote this for a class. Even though it’s super-long, I thought someone might like to read it!)

“Man is asked to make of himself what he is supposed to become to fulfill his destiny.” ~ Paul Tillich                       

“In growing psychologically one moves toward increasing autonomy and independence. In growing spiritually, one increasingly realizes how utterly dependent one is,  on God and on the grace of God that comes through other people.”  ~ Gerald May, Will and Spirit                                                                                     

I have long been interested in practices and processes that contribute to growth and understanding (such as meditation and the Enneagram) that can be used for the healing and evolution of self and ultimately for the healing and evolution of our world.  In November 2013 I discovered a growth process through images, called SoulCollage®. The first time I participated in a brief SoulCollage® workshop, I was hooked! It seemed to combine three passions in my life, and most recently in my life’s work: creativity, psychology, and spirituality. As I have gone forward in learning more about this process of tapping into and working with images, personal energies, and sub-personalities, and have become a certified SoulCollage® facilitator, the question that kept coming up for me was this:

Is SoulCollage® (merely!) a psychological process that strengthens the ego (defined here as a collection of certain personality parts essential for a human’s survival in the world), that increases self-esteem, and that aids in advancement toward potential (Maslow’s Self-Actualization), or is it also a tool for spiritual growth and Self-Transcendence?

This is important to me because as I grow in my calling as spiritual director (and also continue in chaplaincy), mechanisms that stop at psychological growth do not fulfill the yearnings of my soul code. I believe we all long for the Field-Beyond-Image; ultimate unity with All-That-Is (self-transcendence). I want to accompany others as they realize their soul codes and move toward wholeness, both psychological and spiritual.

So, in this article I want to introduce the process of SoulCollage® and attempt to answer my question through examination of mostly Christian understandings of Soul and Spirit, and the Incarnational Franciscan tradition of the Cosmic Christ Archetype, defined as that aspect of God which pervades all of creation, the Christ who “fills the Universe in all its parts.” (Ephesians 1:23)

SoulCollage® combines imagination, intuition, and images to create a deck of simple cards to explore soul, shadow, and inborn gifts. These cards are used individually and in groups to listen to intuitive wisdom that comes through the collaged images.  A deck becomes a visual journal with beauty, meaning, and a flexibility that evolves with the card maker. It becomes a symbolic reflection of his or her one many-faceted, evolving Soul.

The images chosen for our cards represent inner guides, allies, and challengers that are active in every soul and that speak from their own unique perspectives. Some images we choose symbolize our personality parts, such as the Explorer or the Perfectionist. Others are more mythic and represent larger-story energies that are universal and eternal, such as the Great Mother or the Fool. Following the work of Carl Jung, SoulCollage® calls these energies archetypes. Some cards and images symbolize inner energies that correspond to animal energies and to the Eastern concept of chakras.  All of these cards have form, and therefore have potential for shadow and shadow work.

Also, all decks eventually include three Transpersonal cards that acknowledge a deeper truth underneath the personal diversity of all the other cards; the Oneness and the Mystery out of which these forms arise and back into which they return. These three cards have no form, and so no potential for shadow. They are silent.  They have no voice, so they don’t speak to us. They are: Source, SoulEssence, and Witness.

One of the key ideas in SoulCollage® is that of working with the shadow. We pay attention to the shadow side of our cards because they won’t disappear by ignoring them.

The spiritual understanding is that every form (SoulCollage® card) is manifested from one mysterious and formless Source and therefore, because of its origin, is holy. At the same time, as long as they are in individual form and thus partially separated from Source, forms have the potential and freedom to lose their balance. (SoulCollage Evolving, Seena Frost)

This is different from dualistic models that draw a line between good and evil. More in the tradition of mystics from every faith, SoulCollage® sees every form as a mix of positive and negative that constantly shifts as the density of the imbalance changes. So good and bad can be understood and worked with as a matter of losing or gaining balance. All forms have the potential of reaching a balance that will allow them to fulfill their essential imprinted design (James Hillman’s Soul’s Code).

Though a creative and meditative process in its own right, SoulCollage® doesn’t stop with the making of cards (described by SoulCollage® facilitator Mariabruna Sirabella as making a great soup, but not eating it). The transformative work is largely in journaling from and reading from the cards. In consulting our cards in various ways we are able to access our Soul’s counsel; often surprising, wise, and sometimes life changing.

In the words of the late SoulCollage® birth mother, Seena Frost: “I like to think that SoulCollage® has become one of the “imaginal cells” working within this still cocooned “old caterpillar” of a society to help it transform into the new butterfly of a society that many are envisioning. We are joining together with other communities of awakened human beings, and adding our special gifts of images, intuition, and imagination. … We are working to end the dualisms that separate people into good and evil camps by teaching that all beings are unique and at the same time holy, each being blessed with a spark of Source,”

Psychiatrist, author, and spiritual teacher Gerald May says that the three basic facets of human longing are the desire for belonging and union, for loving, and for just being. We are frustrated in our attempts to ease this longing because we protect ourselves against the disappointment of being found wanting and because we seek it solely in relationship to other people when in fact, it must come as well from our relationship to the source of our existence.

One thing that makes SoulCollage® more than merely a tool for self-understanding (that I call navel gazing), is that it is a tool for acceptance and celebration of all of our parts, shadow included, and the important inclusion of the transpersonal cards. These three cards (which some equate to the Christian Trinity and the Hindu Trimurti) align all aspects of our selves in relationship to Source and suggest that we contain a spark of that Source. SoulCollage® is ultimately a tool for realization of the Divinity within all forms. This can be the Cosmic Christ who fills the Universe and all of its parts, “the aspect of Christ that determines each creature’s being and unifies all that is, bringing differentiation and union in the universe (Thomas Berry).”

With this realization is an acceptance of all our multi-faceted parts, and also those of others. With acceptance of others comes the ability to forgive, and then to cooperate. Community is important to this process: imbedded in SoulCollage® is a concept of the One and the Many. Philosophy has tackled this subject extensively (William James wrote an especially cogent examination of the subject:  http://www.authorama.com/pragmatism-5.html.) Seena Frost defines it for the practice of SoulCollage® in this way:

“I am one whole, unique person and, at the same time, I am made up of many parts. You are the same. Your family is many and yet one family. So also is our nation, our planet, our solar system, our universe. All life, and indeed all that exists, is nested into Oneness… There seems to be in human beings what I call “a spark of conscious spirit”. That spark, in some, awakens and yearns to rise and shake off the sense of separateness and the busyness of its mind. It wants to know the Oneness…For most it takes discipline and long practice to still the mind and body enough to experience this blissful unity. Some just happen upon it suddenly, as on a walk in nature, and then yearn forever to go there again. It is a place of peace and calmness and joy. Many have called it union with God.

While our spirit may, at times, yearn to rise and merge with Source, it is our soul that loves the many! The soul wants to stay grounded in the beauty and the muck, in the dance of the particulars, creating and loving and fighting for causes. It is soul that is heart and compassion and will take the risk of making mistakes and looking a fool and feeling harried, all in the name of being alive and vibrant. Down here is the Land of the Many, of the particular, of the complex. We could call it Soul-Land. I am not the first to make this distinction between spirit and soul. James Hillman also does, as do others.

Often in books by ardent advocates of the nondual position, the many of people’s particularities and unique characters, including their egos, is given short shrift. Ego is seen as negative, a limiting thing in the upward thrust towards Oneness. Not so in the SoulCollage® practice. Here ego is accepted as one part of soul, perhaps a limiting, restraining part but still an essential part of personality. Here in soul are the lovers, the caretakers, the creators, the dancers. Also here are the whiners, the procrastinators and the critics. These are all soul parts of us, and our Council archetypes work through them to evolve the planet.”

Ken Wilber has a very interesting take on this difference between spirit and soul. He sees the upwards thrust of spirit as masculine and he names it Eros. On the other hand, he uses the name Agape for the descending, all embracing “face of spirit” (which, for the sake of this blog I call Soul) and sees it as feminine. Here’s a short quote: “Where Eros strives for the Good of the One in transcendental wisdom, Agape embraces the Many with Goodness and immanent care.” (p. 284 in A Brief History of Everything)

The concept of the One and the Many reminds us that we are not only individuals, but part of a community, with responsibility to the whole. In “Near Occasions of Grace,” Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr talks about how since the “psychological age” began in the 1960’s, we as a society have bought into the idea that the best thing one can do is to “work on oneself.” Psychologist Adele Getty says that “rather than confront the social, political and spiritual dilemmas of the day, human growth has become a pacifier, a means to avoid the larger issues of human survival.”

Rohr says, “We are attaching great significance to passing feelings which many world religions have termed “illusion.” In classic traditions of Christian spirituality, the search for understanding oneself or healing is seen at best as the early “purgative way,” but not yet the “illuminative” or “unitive” paths…In true spirituality and healthy religion, we are pointed through ever-changing psyche to never-changing spirit. “

Like Contemplation, SoulCollage® seems to me to be a practice that is less about explaining than about containing and receiving everything, and holding on to nothing. It refuses to judge too quickly and instead values observation and awareness. My belief and experience is that SoulCollage® is a practice that acknowledges feelings and heals wounds, but also goes beyond the individualism of the private, ever-changing psyche by seeing through to its madness, its illusory existence, and points the way to the body of the Transcendent; the never-changing Cosmic Christ.