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Molding the Raw Material of the Soul

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Several years ago I made a two hour drive on a snowy winter day to Boston to hear a lecture on the creative life. I told a friend about my plan, and he said something I've never forgotten: "I wish I had that much enthusiasm about my life."

Recently I received an email from someone I didn't know, telling me about his efforts to be unique and eccentric and yet fit in as a typical American. His words burned with his passion to figure it all out. I felt like my friend of old: Wouldn't it be great to be so enthusiastic about life, to lose sleep over an issue of personal character?

I have the impression that many people see their lives as evolving, just spinning out in time. Things happen, and then other things happen. There is no intensity of reflection, no self-confrontation over failures and stupidities.

I see it all differently. I see the point in life to become more mature. That means to have more substance and bite, more character and understanding for having faced certain outcomes of ignorance. You make a big blunder, and you sentence yourself to months and years of sorting it out, until you are a person who won't make that blunder again. You've gone somewhere. You've become something.

When I read the statements of our politicians and business leaders, I'm often struck by this lack of soul-process by which they could become mature enough to lead. I see naive blindness and unprocessed behavior everywhere, as though one of the requirements for these positions is that you have never reflected on values or meaning. They seem to see no problem in floating bubbles of moral platitudes with no intention of ever taking them seriously. They broadside their opponents, routinely flouting the ad hominem principle (attacking the person rather than discussing the idea) instead of engaging in subtle, complex argument.

Self-awareness doesn't arrive on a golden cloud. It's an achievement won through pain and courage. It takes a strong heart to face certain weaknesses again and again until, through this practice of reflection, they become strengths.

Today people readily use the word "mindfulness" for the important process I'm describing. But I'm worried that mindfulness can be taken as a passive, painless, romanticized version of what is needed. Awareness comes from a battle, like the ferocious one described in the Bhagavad Gita or the battering sea-journey of the Odyssey. Both Jesus and the Buddha were tested mightily before they went out teaching. You don't find out who you are and act maturely from a restful weekend at the cottage.

When I first became a psychotherapist I had to face several unprocessed traits in me: a tendency toward sentimentality and some self-justified jealousy. I went through months of intense struggle sorting these things out, not just intellectually, but emotionally and as elements of character. I knew that I couldn't do the work if I didn't make some progress with this raw material of my soul.

That's how I see it: raw material. The politician who tries to make gains by vilifying his opponent or manipulating his constituency by telling them what he thinks they want to hear, is raw, unprocessed, immature, not ripe enough to hold the important position as a leader and representative of the community. We need more character from a leader than that. He has to show some signs of having sorted through the raw materials of the self so as to speak with courage and substance.

"Courage" often appears in public speaking as a bubble word: It floats easily and lightly but doesn't have the gravitas of the real thing. "Courage" means "heart" and involves the heart. To confront yourself, process the past and sort out your rough patches is not just an intellectual exercise but a real engagement requiring courage and tenacity.

Some of us therapists voluntarily or by rule go through months or years of therapy to prepare for our work. I can imagine every occupation having a similar requirement. You want to work at this bank? You'll need six months of guidance in self-examination. You want to be a doctor? You'll have to spend a year maturing your soul.

This is a pipe dream, of course, but we could at least teach our kids the art of courageous self-reflection. We could help them read the Bhagavad Gita and the Odyssey as models for their lives. We could help them reflect on moral conundrums and character issues that come up in every child's life.

The best way to ripen a nation's soul is to start with myself. I could stir the flames of self-questioning about who and what I am. I could take old bits of unconsciousness and habits of self-interest, place them in the alchemical crucible of reflection and work hard at transforming them into gold.

Leaders mirror the lives of the people. We get the leaders we deserve; they come from among us. To get good leadership, one by one, we have to take our lives seriously, subjecting them daily to the tough work of examination. One by one we could become a more mature nation, a people of soul, possessed of hard-won self-awareness, capable of the subtleties of world leadership.

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