Feeding the Soul

by Steven Kessler

Imagine you're eating an apple. You feel the crunch against your teeth. You taste the juiciness, the sweetness and the tartness, the texture as you chew.

Then you swallow and it goes down into your stomach. Your body starts to break it down. All those digestive acids start to separate it into the parts you can use and the parts you can't use. The sugars go to the muscles; the calcium goes to the bones; the potassium goes to the nerves. The bones get stronger, the nerves work better, and the muscles have more strength and aliveness for movement.

And then tomorrow, you're done with it. Your body has separated out what's nutritious from what's not. You go to the bathroom and you let go of what's not useful, what's not you anymore. And you have the use of the good parts for living. If you're a child and you're still growing, you grow. If there are parts of your body that are hurt, they heal. And this process goes on without you having to think about it. Pretty neat, huh?

But what does this have to do with feeding the soul? Well, there are some parallels we can draw between how the body eats and how the soul eats.

We know what the body eats: it eats apples and fish and pizzas and all sorts of things. What does the soul eat? It eats experience.

How does it eat experience? Let's go back to the example of eating the apple. Imagine biting into it. There is the experience of the sweetness, the experience of the tartness, the experience of the crunch and the texture. There is something in those experiences that the soul can use. But, like the body, it can't use those things in raw form. It has to put them through a digestive process to extract the nourishment.

Now before we continue the analogy, let's take a moment to talk about what we mean here by 'soul'. We mean the part of you that is aware, that experiences. We mean the experiencer, something that is not static, that is not the same when you die as it was when you were born. We mean something active and dynamic. Something that is curious and intelligent and juicy by its very nature. Something that grows and develops, something that learns by experiencing and digesting its experiences.

So how does this digestion process work? Well, just like with eating food, the first step in the process is to take the experience in and hold it. We hold our food in our stomach. How do we hold experience? We hold experience just by being there with it, just by our simple awareness of it. But we get in the way of this step when we push our experience away, when we say "No, that's not okay for me to experience. I don't think like that." Suppose you're feeling angry with someone, but you have a belief that says, "I'm not allowed to feel angry at people," so you deny that experience and push it away, out of awareness. As long as you keep it out of your awareness, that experience will not get digested, and you will not learn anything from it.

This is one of the problems with being judgemental. It serves to push away the experience that you're really having, which keeps you from digesting it and learning from it. And that's why self-acceptance is so necessary to personal growth. The first thing we have to do is to actually let the experience in. If you don't take the piece of apple into your mouth and chew it and swallow it, you won't get any food value out of it. And it's the same with experience: if you don't take the experience in, your soul won't get any value out of it.

Now, sometimes an experience is really overwhelming and we have to keep it out for a while. There can be good reasons for doing this. Maybe you remember something that happened to you that was so overwhelming you just forgot about it for a while. Or maybe you distracted yourself so you didn't have to pay too much attention to it. When an experience is overwhelming, we have to push it away in order regulate the amount of charge in our nervous system. When our system is dis-regulated, we can’t digest experience, anyway, so bringing ourselves back into balance has to be our first priority. But eventually we have to come back to the experience and digest it.

With food, if you eat something that isn't good for you, your body can get rid of it. There are a couple of options. You can throw up. Or you can get diarrhea – your body can flush it through. Or if you eat something that is toxic or poisonous to you, your body can coat it with mucous and pass it through without touching it – not even try to digest it, but just encapsulate it until it can be excreted.

So the body has these options – but the soul doesn't. When you’ve heard the bell ring, you can’t un-hear it. When we have an experience, we can’t un-have it; eventually we have to digest it. We can encapsulate it – that’s what repression is all about – but we can't excrete it. Sooner or later, since it's stuck in our bodies and is clamoring for attention, we have to attend to it. Have you noticed that we all have patterns in our lives, patterns that take us back to the childhood scenes where we were hurt? That is the action of those old buried hurts, saying "Hey! Pay some attention to me." There is something in us that knows we need to go back and digest those old buried experiences, both to get the learning from them and to clear them out of our bodies. And once we can do that, our behavior changes. The troublesome patterns diminish, and we feel lighter, clearer, stronger, and safer.

So sooner or later, we have to digest the experiences that we've had. But we have the option to do it when we're ready and with the support we need to be able to digest it. You can have people with you to help you accept and hold the stuff that was too much to hold before. You can give yourself the stillness and time to do it. That's what meditation is for, what psychotherapy is for, what support groups are for. Even talking with a friend about what's going inside you does this. So, the first step in digesting an experience is just to hold the experience in your awareness.

The next step is to put your attention on “what do you feel?” Without censoring anything out, without letting the list of shoulds control what's going on in you, what do you actually find happening inside yourself? And not just your thoughts abut it, but the raw sense perceptions in your body.

It can be pretty unnerving sometimes. There was one time in meditation that I found myself experiencing a kind of veneer or plastic coating over everything in the world. I could almost touch it. After sitting with it and opening to it enough, I discovered that the coating was hatred, my hatred for everything in the world. There was a part of me that was hating the whole world. Now, that's not such a complimentary thing to discover about yourself. But it was amazing. For some reason, I had come to a place in my inner work where I was ready to let myself become aware of and digest that part of my overall experience. I'm sure it had been going on for years, but I had not been able to notice it. There was something about staying with that experience and actually opening to feel the qualities of that veneer – the plastic, waterproof, impenetrable film that wouldn't let anything through it – that allowed me to learn what I needed to learn from that experience.

So I'm suggesting it is valuable to just let the digestive process happen by giving yourself time, permission, support, and letting the perceptions deepen and move through. Talking about it helps, writing about it, drawing it, painting it, dancing it, singing it – expressing it in any way – because when you put it into some outer form, when you put it into a poem or a story or a drawing, your soul can both feel it and put it outside of you, out in front of you where you can look at it and see how all the pieces fit together.

There is a sorting process that is at the very root of the process, whether we're digesting food or digesting experience. When you eat food, the body has to divide it up into the useful parts and the not-useful parts, the nourishment and the waste. Well, the soul has to do the same thing when it digests experience. So what part of our experience is nourishing? Truth is what's nourishing. It is truth that feeds the soul. That's why we value it. The thing that we really crave is to know the truth, to know the reality of the situation. And that's why we're willing to go through all this difficulty to find out what really happened in a given situation.

And what happens after you get this sorted out? Understanding, clarity, release of tension. There's a little relaxation that happens in the belly. There's a kind of clarity that comes into the mind. And suddenly things seem easier.

There was an issue that I worked on for many years, first completely unconsciously and then more consciously, and that was, “Why did my Dad treat me the way he did? Why didn't he love me?”

When I was young, it didn't occur to me that the fact that he was drinking six martinis every night was part if it. I thought everybody did that. I didn't know it was different. Later, when I was in graduate school in psychology, I attended a class on alcoholic families, and as the instructor listed the characteristics of the alcoholic family, I had to hold onto my chair because things were jumping around so much inside me. I was realizing, "My God, my family does all those things." I felt awful, but suddenly things made more sense. Some of my early experience was now digestable for my soul.

And then, years later, after doing more inner work, more therapy, more meditation, I came back from my annual Christmas visit with my parents, and when I went to see my therapist, I said, "You know, it wasn't that he didn't love me, he just didn't love anybody. He doesn't know how." The whole picture had shifted, and my soul, my psyche, was now able to separate out a new layer of what was true from what wasn't true.

I had tried for years to get through this issue. I had tried being angry with my Dad, I had tried coercing him, I had tried pretty much every method I could think of. I had also tried forgiving him, but that didn't work because there was a piece of it that I still needed to understand. I think forgiveness is a great thing, but it’s the end of the process, not the beginning or the middle. If you try to forgive somebody before you understand what happened, I suggest you're cheating yourself. You don't have to be mean to them, but notice your actual inner experience regarding them. If there is still resentment, maybe there is something that still needs to be digested.

Notice that there are steps in this process. After you eat a meal, your body needs time to digest it. And similarly, your soul needs time to digest your experience. And then there's a time for activity, for metabolizing what you have taken in, for living from it. And finally there is a time for letting go of the waste.

Fortunately, when digesting food, the body sorts out the waste for us. We go to the bathroom and the body knows exactly what part to let go of – we don’t have to think about it. With experience, what is the waste, the part we need to let go of? It’s what's false, what's not true.

However, sometimes that false stuff can be very attractive. For instance, you may like thinking "I am the brightest guy here." But if it’s not true, the world will not reflect it back to you. When you're holding on to something false, the world appears to act in weird ways. It fails to reflect your beliefs. It does not confirm your self-image. Reality rubs up against your inflations and distortions and dismantles them. This may be uncomfortable, but if you can allow the process to run its course, you will find that the truth is more nourishing than the fantasy, no matter how attractive it was.

So, how do you know when you're done digesting something? How do you know that the cycle is complete? With food, you know because your belly is empty; you're hungry again and ready for more. What is it that happens with experience? With experience, you are done with it when there is no longer a charge around it. What told me that I was finally done with my stuff around my Dad was that I was no longer invested in trying to get him to be different. I no longer was trying to coerce or persuade him into giving up drinking, or into coming back and being the father I had wanted. I still wished he would, but I had made peace with the fact that he probably never would. I felt sad about it, but I didn't have to push away the sadness by trying to change him or myself.

So this is my best answer to questions about how to feed the soul and what the soul needs. It needs truth. It needs the nourishment that the truth provides and the doorway that the truth opens into clarity, understanding, and compassion.

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