The Process of Soul Searching

By Walter Donald Kring

Not long ago I reread Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. It is a book of a decade and a half ago. The wife of "The Lone Eagle," mother of five children and an author in her own right, tells in this small book of her struggles to keep her equilibrium and stability. She asks herself as she stands by the side of the sea what she can do to maintain a balance between her inner life and her outer responsibilities. I found this book particularly helpful as I read it again because it faces life's challenges, not in theological or abstract terms but from a completely human point of view that is valuable for all of us.

The problem that Mrs. Lindbergh poses is in actuality the most important problem of human existence. How can we combine the calmness and insights of the inner world with the demands of the outer? How can we maintain the inner life of the spirit in the face of the demands made upon us by ourselves and others and our necessary duties in this busy and hectic world? Most of us cannot express our dilemma in words as well as Anne Lindbergh, but we all feel the same need, and we seek the same solutions.

First, if we would try to make this adjustment between the inner and the outer, we must really desire to search our souls. Too many of us try to avoid facing our inner selves by keeping very busy. Some turn the radio on and try to work over the din that it constantly makes. Somehow they feel that they are not alone as long as there is the soothing voice of the announcer keeping them company, and the intermittent but not so soothing music blaring away. Others try to live in the past or the future and never in the present in order to avoid confrontation with themselves. Many never feel the imperative to face themselves at the present moment of existence.

Yet, even if we do not want to involve ourselves in the process of self-examination, sometimes we are literally driven to it by the exigencies of life. Things may go badly, and it becomes an absolute necessity to find ourselves — to discover where we belong in the universal scheme, to rebuild our perspectives, and then to act on the basis of what we may learn.

There is something else that is involved here, and this is the process of simplification. Our lives must be simplified by the development of a philosophy of life that gives us security and strength in the midst of a very busy life. It is far easier to say this than to do it. Our civilization is literally so complex that simplicity is almost a thing of the past. Our inventions and the new ease of living should make our lives more tranquil and give us more time for soul discovery. But this is not usually the case. They make it possible for life to be more and more harried. Decisions that once had to wait for the packet ship, for the telegraph, the telephone, and for personal conference, must now apparently be concluded within a matter of minutes.

In addition there is no longer anywhere in the world where we can go to find the simple life. Paul Gauguin went to the South Seas and found peace and solitude. Some of us have traveled in those serene waters which are no longer serene. One must dodge atomic tests and be whisked from one place to another so rapidly that one scarcely can get the concept that he has moved in space.

Yet, there are ways that we can disentangle our lives if we would but work at it. Instead of going constantly from one thing to another we can try occasionally to remember our roots. We can cast aside some of the trash of living, and try to concentrate on the more important and consequential aspects. We can actually become less dependent upon things. Anne Lindbergh says that the life of multiplicity "leads not to unification but to fragmentation." Our problem, she adds, is "how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life: how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center: how to remain strong no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel."

Mrs. Lindbergh further suggests that one of the answers is to "find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between solitude and communion, between restraint and return." She recommends periods of retreat in which hopefully one can learn something of the inner spirit which one can take back into worldly life. Vacations are often useless since we carry the complexity of our lives with us, or else we plan them with far too much activity scheduled in too short a period of time. Surely we ought to be able to live in the two worlds at once, the world of simplicity and complexity; the world of the one and the world of the many.

There is no easy solution to this finding of the eternal presence in the midst of the temporal. Somehow this presence ought to grow from year to year, but in order to grow it has to start. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Ye must be born anew." One interpretation of these words certainly is that the new man of whom Jesus spoke is a person who can live in the temporal world while at the same time can feel the undergirding of the world of the Eternal Spirit. It has to begin, and why should it not begin today?

I further believe that the process of soul searching, when it is translated into its religious dimension, involves the realization that when one finds his own soul he will discover to his joy that it is only a part of a greater soul, that his individual self is a part of a Greater Self.

When we first look into ourselves we see that we are very complex personalities. Like a beautifully cut gem we can reflect the light from many facets. Yet, we would be well advised to admit that we are imperfect gems with some facets that are not truly ground to perfection. There is among these many selves in each of us the front parlor where we receive visitors, the self that we keep neat and ready for inspection. This is the facet that we try to present to others whenever we can, the social self held up for public view. But there are also within each one of us some back rooms and a garret and cellar, less tidy, and not so open to public scrutiny. Here are the hidden, irrational, and childish aspects. We sense all of these within our own being, and sometimes we become so discouraged that we become distraught. We may even seek to escape into one of them, these lesser selves, or we may try to cover up the imperfections and begin to believe that they do not exist.

In spite of all these selves, the surface one and the hidden ones, we begin to sense through our own experience that there is meaningful affinity between something within our own souls and the Eternal Spirit of the universe. Beneath all that is changing there exists the Changeless; beneath all the lesser selves there is a Greater Self. If we could but realize this deepest and real self, we would not let it sink again into the quagmire of superficiality.

All over the world as men have sought to engage in this process of soul searching, basically they have come to two slightly different positions in regard to the nature of this unity which they as an individual feel with reality. These are represented by the ideas of Buddha and those of Jesus of Nazareth. As it is popularly understood, Buddha's concept of the soul is very close to that professed by much of modern thinking. The teaching of the historic Buddha was that to attain nirvana — which he defined as non-attachment to things — it was necessary to extinguish the individuality. If one could develop enough nonattachment to things and non-attachment to self, one could eventually reach a state of bliss, of desirelessness. The self by this process would be completely wiped out, and one could live in peace and serenity. Buddha said that what we call the self is totally the product of its experiences; that nothing goes on through eternity except the deeds of each individual — a concept held by many people today. The real way to attain enlightenment is to deprive the self of existence — to attain emptiness. This is a seemingly negative aspect of the teachings of Buddhism.

As an antidote for the kind of self-centered lives that most of us live, Buddha's de-emphasis of self is probably a good doctrine. Many persons in the West in these days have tired of the concept of material progress. But one ought to contrast this view of early Buddhism with that of later Buddhism and of Christianity. Contrast the soul, which has attained serenity by losing its identity into universal No-thing-ness, with the idea of the Bodhisattva — that all men can eventually be Buddhas, and having so attained, can linger here on earth to help other persons. Or compare the idea of the supreme Void with the idea of Jesus that all men can become sons of God.

In later Buddhism and in the view of Jesus, the self realizes its destiny not by annihilating itself, but by the gradual absorption of God-power into the soul until, in a real sense, the individual soul becomes divine. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God he was not talking about a condition of life which already exists in this world, but a condition of life that could be developed within each person. The Kingdom is already within man, like a tiny grain of mustard seed waiting to be developed. What worried him about Nicodemus and some of the others who wanted an easy answer to their searching was that they really didn't want to deal with the basics. They were concerned only with the superficials, such as wealth, position, rank, and perhaps an easy doctrine to believe.

The way to find a unity within our divided selves in this modern period is to follow exactly the same route that enlightened men have always gone. I happen to think that the salvation — if I could use such a theological term — of our lives depends not upon more activity, more straining and pressing, but upon the realization which each person should achieve that he as an individual is a part of a significant whole, and that therefore all that he does becomes infused with meaning. The grandeur of a life is to be judged by that which a life might become; and if you believe, as I do, that the process of soul searching leads us to find within ourselves the intimations of a Greater Self, then the significance of a life must be judged by the closeness which each individual life achieves to that Greater Self.

 (From Sunrise magazine, March 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)


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