Jung on Soul Tending

“Without soul, spirit is as dead as matter…because both are artificial abstractions; whereas man originally regarded spirit as a volatile body, and matter as not lacking in soul.” Jung (1938)[1]

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this post and member of the faculty at the Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences Whole Person Learning in a Jungian Context.

“The crime of the spirit was that the spirit brought about the fall of the soul. … Accordingly the soul, as the lapis pretiosissimus, has the significance of a redeemer.”

                                                                                                Jung (1954)[2]

“Soul” represents a higher concept than “spirit” in the sense of air or gas. As the “subtle body” and “breath-soul” it means something non-material and finer than mere air. Its essential characteristic is to animate and be animated; it therefore represents the life principle.”

                                                                                                Jung (1942)[3]

“… withdrawing the soul and her projections from the bodily sphere and from all environmental conditions relating to the body. In modern terms … would be a turning away from sensuous reality, a withdrawal of the fantasy-projections that give “the ten thousand things” their attractive and deceptive glamour. In other words, it means introversion, introspection, meditation, and the careful investigation of desires and their motives.”

                                                                                                Jung (1954)[4]

                Many essays that appear on The Jungian Center Web site originate as research for a course I am preparing, and so it is with this essay. As I prepared a course on soul tending, I wondered just what Jung had to say about the soul and how we might “tend” or care for it. Addressing this question proved to be a substantial endeavor, since the Index to Jung’s Collected Works devotes seven columns to the heading “soul.”[5] This list includes definitions, features of the soul, and why the soul is important, in addition to giving us suggestions for how to care for our souls. I’ll tackle each of these in turn.

Definitions of “Soul”

            The dictionary offers seven definitions of “soul:” 1. “the part of the human being that thinks, feels, and makes the body act; the spiritual part of a person as distinct from the physical;. 2. energy or power of mind or feelings; spirit; fervor; 3. the cause of inspiration or energy; leading spirit; prime mover; 4. the essential part; 5. a person, individual; 6. the embodiment of some quality; personification; 7. the spirit of a dead person.”[6] Our English usage clearly covers wide application.

            Jung’s definitions are far more focused, but required the Editors of the English transition of his Collected Works to append footnotes at various points[7] in order to address the “almost insuperable difficulties”[8] in translating Jung’s German Seele into English. There is no single English equivalent that combines both “psyche” and “soul” as Seele does. As “soul” is used “in the technical terminology of analytical psychology,”[9] it “refers to a ‘functional complex’ or partial personality and never to the whole psyche.”[10] In some citations, Jung used “soul” in a “non-technical sense,”[11] meaning “a psychic (phenomenological) fact of a highly numinous character.”[12] In other places, Jung used “soul” when referring to a transcendental (i.e. Neoplatonic or Christian) conception.[13]

            I went through all 15 of the volumes of Collected Works[14] that had any citations to “soul,” and came up with the following definitions: the soul is “a kind of life force,”[15] a “moving force”[16] and “a healing force,”[17] as well as “a function of relationship,”[18] “a ‘function complex’ or partial personality,”[19] whose nature is “as a vinculum or ligamentum,”[20] i.e. a binder or unifier.

            Elsewhere Jung defined it as “the active principle” (the body being the “passive principle”),[21] the “subtle body”[22] and “breath-soul,”[23] “that bodiless abstraction of the rational intellect,”[24] “the arcane substance,”[25] “a transcendental thing,”[26] “a volatile but physical substance,”[27] “the immediate datum of experience,”[28] “a semiconscious psychic complex,”[29] “a psychological function of an intuitive nature,”[30] “the birth-place of all action and hence of everything that happens by the will of man,”[31] “a fulcrum from which to lift the world off its hinges,”[32] “an agent of immortality and perfection, a mediator and Savior,”[33] “a living thing in man, that which lives of itself and causes life,”[34] “a life-giving daemon,”[35] “a spiritual substance of spherical nature,”[36] “a tacit assumption that seemed to be known in every detail,”[37] “the only experient of life and existence,”[38] “the body’s mistress and governor,”[39] “the salt of the earth,”[40] “a breath-body or a volatile but physical substance,”[41] and a “tremendous problem.”[42] Those of us of a more pedestrian mind-set than Jung would say he nailed this last definition: a problem indeed!

            Why a problem? Because, Jung felt, the soul is “very hard to find and to comprehend.”[43] Jung was loath to be labeled a “mystic,”[44] and so he tried to come up with a conception of the soul that was “purely phenomenological,” rather than “indulging in any psychological mysticism.”[45] He sought to “grasp scientifically the elementary psychic phenomena which underlie the belief in souls,”[46] and assiduously avoided anything that smacked of mysticism.

Features and Functions of the Soul

            What Jung meant by “soul” might be easier to understand if we examine the features Jung ascribed to the soul, and what roles he felt it played.

            Features. The soul is “paradoxical: black and white, divine and demon-like,”[47] standing “between good and evil,”[48] “consisting in a certain sense of two parts–one part belonging to the individual, and the other adhering to the object of relationship, in this case the unconscious.”[49] It has both feminine traits (the anima in men) and masculine (the animus in women), allowing men to feel and women to reflect.[50]

            With a “leaping and twinkling nature,”[51] the soul is “elusive as a butterfly,”[52] “quick-moving, changeful of hue, shifting and wily.”[53] As an autonomous being, “transcending the limits of consciousness,”[54] the soul is “chthonic,”[55]“intangibly interwoven with the world and with matter.”[56] Jung describes it as “in chains,”[57] “bound in the elements,”[58] of “a very fine substance”[59] that “is densior et crassior (denser and grosser) than the spirit.”[60] But it is not purely material: it cannot be located in space;[61] it is timeless,[62] eternal,[63] and “a being without extension,”[64] with “spiritual values… which elude purely intellectual treatment.”[65]

            Thanks to its “pneumatic nature,”[66] the soul “has the dignity of an entity endowed with, and conscious of, a relationship to Deity.”[67] Of “heavenly origin,”[68] the soul is “a particle of the world soul, a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm,”[69] and a “powerful”[70] part of the human being which is “naturaliter religiosa,”[71] i.e. naturally religious, “partaking of some supernatural quality.”[72] Originally created good, the soul can be “assailed”[73] by temptation, the devil can take possession of it,[74] and it can become corrupted by rathumia, i.e. “carelessness, indifference, and frivolity.”[75]

            Functions of the Soul. The soul “animates the body,”[76] and “she [Jung used the feminine pronoun to refer to the soul] tends to favor the body and everything bodily, sensuous, and emotional.”[77] The soul makes “man to be what he is, a reasonable being, capable of perception and of knowledge,”[78] having “within herself the ‘selfness’ of all mankind.”[79] Thanks to our souls, we are grounded in flesh-and-blood reality, as Jung notes:

“With her cunning play of illusions the soul lures into life the inertness of matter that does not want to live. She makes us believe incredible things, that life may be lived. She is full of snares and traps, in order that man should fall, should reach the earth, entangle himself there, and stay caught, so that life should be lived; …”. [80]

Quite different from spirit (which would carry us off into the ethers),[81] soul keeps us grounded and conscious, and its “discriminative function separates opposites of every kind, and especially those of the moral order personified in Christ and Devil.”[82]

            We can thank our soul for our libido, our psychic energy, “whose nature it is to bring forth the useful and the harmful, the good and the bad.”[83] Why both? Because the soul is paradoxical, and contains both. The soul is the source of our sense of meaning in life,[84] as well as our creativity,[85] thanks to how it fosters our relation to the “archetype of the God-image.”[86] At those times when we feel depressed, we may experience a “loss of soul,”[87] or what Jung calls “a noticeable dissociation of consciousness.”[88] Like the primitive indigenous tribesman, Jung recognized that “loss of soul” was a perilous state.[89] Which brings us to the next section of this essay.

Why Bother with the Soul?

            Given the materialism and greed which are so pervasive now in our culture, most people would answer the above question with “Why, indeed?” and shrug it off. Jung was quite clear about this:

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn theosophy by heart, or mechanically repeat mystic texts from the literature of the whole world–all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their souls. Thus the soul has gradually been turned into a Nazareth from which nothing good can come. … “[90]

But this attitude, pervasive throughout the world, has resulted in “neuroses and similar illnesses,”[91] the loss of meaning in life, “mental epidemics”[92] and the “restriction of consciousness”[93] which leads to emptiness in life.

            Jung warns us that our denigration of the soul has left us “alone and you are confronted with all the demons of hell,”[94] showing up as “anxiety neurosis, nocturnal fears, compulsions,”[95] and all of this due to the fact that our souls have “become lonely;”[96] they are extra ecclesiam, no longer involved in any sort of spiritual support system.[97] Jung regarded religions as “the great healing systems for the ills of the soul,”[98] but he recognized that we are living in a time when the dogmas of many religions have been questioned, to the point that they have lost their “healing power.”[99] This situation has left people “prey to their own weakness,”[100] and when they seek out therapists, they get labeled “neurotic.”[101]

            Jung disagreed with this label:

“As a matter of fact it is something quite different: it is the terrific fear of loneliness. It is the hallucination of loneliness, and it is a loneliness that cannot be quenched by anything else. You can be a member of a society with a thousand members, and you are still alone. That thing in you which should live[i.e. the soul] is alone; nobody touches it, nobody knows it, you yourself don’t know it; but it keeps on stirring, it disturbs you, it makes you restless, and it gives you no peace.”[102]

Our penchant for explanations and theorizing doesn’t help here: “Every time you accept that explanation [i.e. that you have a neurosis] … you have not helped your soul; you have replaced your soul by an explanation, a theory.”[103] And Jung regarded theory as “the very devil.”[104]

            Rather than the theories and diagnoses of our current system, Jung would restore the vertical orientation that once characterized our world, the loss of which St. Augustine warned against in his Confessions:

Augustine of Hippo

“And men go forth to admire the high mountains and the great waves of the sea and the broad torrent of the rivers in the vast expanse of the ocean and the orbits of the stars, and to turn away from themselves….”.[105]

Few people these days turn within and find nourishment in the “symbolic life.” Jung recognized this:

“Now, we have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, grinding, banal life in which they are ‘nothing but.’ Everything is banal, everything is ‘nothing but;’…”[106]

In place of our current banal life, Jung would ask us to “embark on a great adventure of the spirit”[107] which would remedy our “loss of soul” and save it from “stultification.”[108]

            Countering the tendency to denigrate or dismiss the soul, Jung considers the soul “the lapis pretiosissimus,[109] the most precious “stone” (in the sense of the alchemists’ “philosopher’s stone” which worked to “redeem”[110] the soul and allow it to live). Jung reminds us that “Without the soul the body is dead, and without the body the soul is unreal.”[111] As our inner “eye destined to behold the light,”[112] the soul is the home of “supreme values,”[113] and serves as “a fulcrum from which [we can] lift the world off its hinges,…”.[114]    

            Why would we want to do this? Unhinging the world, to Jung, means achieving a different perspective from our materialistic concern with power and wealth–a perspective that shows us our true goal, which is “not in the mastery of this world but in the attainment of the Kingdom of God, whose foundations are in [our] own heart.”[115]

            Another way Jung felt the soul was important was in its ability to keep us in touch with reality. If we fail to value our soul, our spirituality “becomes ruthless, arrogant, and tyrannical.”[116] Our outlook on life becomes “unadapted,”[117] leading to a “state [of] definite pathos, a suffering of the soul, though at first it is not perceived as such because of a lack of introspection,…”,[118] but, over time, it shows up in conscious life “as a vague malaise.”[119]

            So the soul keeps us alive, keeps life real and meaningful, provides us with different perspectives, shows us our true goals, and helps to maintain our health, both physical and mental. Jung was very clear that soul is worth tending. Which leads to the final part of this essay: How to tend the soul.

Ways to Tend Our Soul

            Jung’s suggestions for soul tending are not original: He drew on the thousands of years of spiritual practices for his recommendations. For example, he speaks of the “withdrawal of the fantasy-projections that give the ‘ten thousand things’ their attractive and deceptive glamour,”[120] referring to the Buddhist teachings about the many ways we can be pulled off a focus on our inner life. Jung advises “introversion, introspection, meditation, and the careful investigation of desires and their motives.”[121] Such practices provide us with the “opportunity to discover the dark side of [our] personality, … inferior wishes and motives, childish fantasies and resentments, etc.; in short, all those traits [we] habitually hide from”[122] ourselves. In other words, we tend our soul by willingly, consciously confronting our shadow.

            Jung minces no words that such activities require “an unusual degree of self-abnegation to question the fictitious picture of one’s own personality.”[123] It is not easy to “emancipate the ‘cogitatio’ which is situated in the head,”[124] so as to “overcome the body.”[125] Nor it is comfortable to undertake the “adventure that carries us unexpectedly far and deep:”[126] it often leads to “a good deal of confusion and mental darkness, since it gives rise to personality problems which one had never remotely imagined before.”[127] Such is the nature of the nigredo phase of alchemical transformation.[128] I recall this well: in the first year of so of my analysis, to my consternation I did not feel better. Far from it! It seemed I just felt worse and worse, and I complained of this to my analyst. She acknowledged this was true (it’s archetypal, happens to everyone) and she assured me that it was not her role to make me feel better.[129] Duh??

            When we tend our souls, we make contact with the archetypes, those “numinous, structural elements of the psyche”[130] which “possess a certain autonomy and specific energy which enables them to attract… those contents which are best suited”[131] to our healing. These contents are symbols and they “act as transformers, their function being to convert libido [psychic energy] from a ‘lower’ to a ‘higher’ form.”[132] Archetypes are powerful because they hold stored-up energy, and, as a result, they can “seize and possess the whole personality,”[133] and they are “naturally productive of faith,”[134] i.e. they help us develop trust in the Self (our inner divine core).

            In tending our soul, we meet it on its own ground, which we are “bound to do… whenever we are confronted with the real and crushing problems of life.”[135] These problems are important: they are goads or incentives for us to undertake soul work. Without “crushing” problems we aren’t likely to summon the determination, tenacity and will to overcome the “carelessness, indifference, frivolity”[136] and sloth that are features of daily life.

            To determination, tenacity and will we should add courage, for it requires “daring–a daring which never leaves the firm ground of the real and the possible, and which shrinks from no suffering…”.[137] 

Business concept illustration of a businessman choose different way from other businessmen

It takes courage to stand against the crowd, to refuse to “dissolve in the featureless flow of unconscious community life”[138]–a life which poses “deadly peril to [one’s] soul.”[139] Jung was explicit that soul tending involves “endless suffering and toil in the struggle against all those powers which are incessantly at work persuading us to take the apparently easier road of unconsciousness.”[140]

            Hard though it is, we have help, not from without, but from within, in the form of the unconscious, “that spirit which we cannot control.”[141] From his many decades of work with patients, Jung recognized that “The cooperation of conscious reasoning with the data of the unconscious”[142] produces the “transcendent function,”[143] the “function [which] progressively unites the opposites,”[144] the function which “had … served as the basis of Hermetic philosophy for seventeen centuries.”[145] It is a “natural and spontaneous phenomenon, part of the process of individuation.”[146] And Jung notes that “Psychology has no proof that this process does not unfold itself at the instigation of God’s will.”[147]–an indirect way of suggesting that getting our act together might be something the Self wants to foster.

            Soul tending “entails the most painstaking self-examination and self-education, which can, however, be passed on to others by one who has acquired the discipline himself.”[148] This is one reason why Jung required his analysts to have undergone their own analysis. Only by experiencing the suffering, the toil and the struggle against the powers that would keep us in sloth can we understand what the work demands. Jung knew that “The process of psychological differentiation is no light work; it needs the tenacity and patience of the alchemist,”[149] i.e. the analyst, who helps the analysand withstand the heat and pain of the processes.

            Jung also understood that soul tending is not solo work: 

“… a radical understanding of this kind is impossible without a human partner. A general and merely academic ‘insight into one’s mistakes’ is ineffectual, for then the mistakes are not really seen at all, only the idea of them. But they show up acutely when a human relationship brings them to the fore and when they are noticed by the other person as well as by oneself. Then and then only can they really be felt and their true nature recognized. Similarly, confessions made to one’s secret self generally have little or no effect, whereas confessions made to another are much more promising.”[150]

In my experience, working with four analysts over years, tending the soul is made much easier by shared endeavor and mutual understanding. It also helps to have before one, in person, a living example that it is possible to go through this and live! We–my analysts and I–shared “the stillness of a colloquy, carried on in the healthful atmosphere of unreserved confidence,”[151] as “soul worked on soul,”[152] and “many doors [got] unlocked that [barred” the way to the innermost sanctuary.”[153] As Jung said, I found that “Psychoanalysis possesses the means of opening doors otherwise tightly closed.”[154]

            Does soul tending require the depth and intensity of analysis? No. Anyone can take the time to look within, to reflect on life’s meaning, to give time and attention to values, interest and activities that bring joy and fulfillment to personal life. Nourishing the body with healthful food, uplifting music, beautiful art, exploring and valuing our ethical depths in communion with others of like mind, and having contact with Nature–such activities are forms of soul tending open to anyone. In our Soul Tending course at The Jungian Center, we include concerts, poetry readings, regular “laughsitives” (e.g. savoring cartoons from The New Yorker), Nature walks, mandala making, dream work, and exploration of the myths we are living (as shown by our dreams and our natal chart). In such ways we strive to achieve the alchemists’ unio mentalis, “the attainment of full knowledge of the heights and depths of [our] own character.”[155]


Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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