John Tarrant’s dharma understanding emerges from the confluence of several streams of wisdom. He is a lineage holder in Zen Buddhism and has studied in the Tibetan and Theravada traditions; he is a psychotherapist in the Jungian school; he is a poet and a student of both English literature and Australian Aboriginal culture. Meeting in Tarrant’s beautifully written book, The Light Inside the Dark, these streams sometimes blend, but just as often clash with each other, causing eddies of contradiction, a jumbled flow that has a remarkable resemblance to the river of our lives. In the following conversation, Tarrant offers us his unique perspective on Western spiritual life and practice, bringing our worldly pulls and passions—our soul—into the mix. Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker spoke with John Tarrant at Spirit Rock Center in the Fall of 1998.
Inquiring Mind: As you may know, we Theravadins are supposed to be committed to the idea that there is no soul, so your book is very puzzling to us. Just kidding. This is such a wonderful exploration. Let’s start with a definition of terms. How do you envision soul in contrast to spirit?
John Tarrant: I began to use these terms out of what felt to me to be a need. I noticed that there is not just a single inner life as opposed to the outer life. There are a lot of different kinds of inner experience. It seemed to me that “spirit” was a pretty handy word for what we were looking for and serving in meditation. Everybody who pursues the meditative path with any diligence has experiences of equanimity, a dropping away of the formations of thought and personality, a kind of oneness with all things, no-self, emptiness—the various names we call it. The sense of being at home in the universe and in the eternal aspect of things, the vitality that comes with this experience of spirit, is very powerful and persuasive.
At the same time, it seemed to me that there was a whole part of life that could be neglected when we pursued spirit. At first I thought that this was an easy sacrifice, or at least a doable sacrifice, for the person pursuing monastic training or going on a meditation retreat. But I came to see that some things crucial to our humanity were being sacrificed in the course of spiritual training. I wanted to find a way to examine what was being neglected without throwing out the truths of spirit. The challenge was to bring the attention offered by the great Eastern meditation traditions to other fields that are more familiar to us: the dance between the sexes, being with children, the field of love, and interactions between people. I found that the most useful word for that realm, a word that has already been in use in the West for a long time, was “soul.”
I think of soul as that part of us that loves life and connects with others, that likes pleasure as well as melancholy, that loves the past and wants to tell stories and imagine how things could be different. It seems to me that sometimes, if you have a puzzle about life, it’s good to note it, as you do in meditation, but sometimes it’s good to read a novel or go to a movie or fall in love and be disappointed—all of which develop a different aspect of the inner life, which I’m calling soul as a point of view, rather than as a being.
I like to think of soul and spirit in terms of metaphor. There’s the ocean that everything comes out of—mysterious, unknowable and complete. The waves come out of the ocean, fascinated with how different each wave is from the other, enjoying being this particular shape and falling in love with that other wave. But from the ocean’s point of view, the waves are still ocean, coming out of ocean and going back to ocean.
IM: Have you found that you can ever really stay in spirit? Even at the monastery, have you found that you could hide from soul?
JT: Personally, I have found myself completely unable to pull that off. I think you have to narrow so much that you sort of freeze. You get a level of clarity, but it’s only a foot wide. And you can’t embody, you can’t realize. To use that old Cabalistic or Gnostic metaphor, we need the light spilling down through all the realms. Each of us, each part of being, carries a little portion of the original light of the universe, or as we call it in Zen, “Buddha nature.” We discover this light through meditation, but our task in life is not just to go back home to where the light came from; our task is to struggle here, with consciousness and for consciousness. That’s what we do for eternity. As the eyes and ears of eternity, we have to give something back. We’re the only eyes and ears the Buddha has.
IM: So the distinction you’re making between soul and spirit is not simply a distinction between the realm of the householder and the realm of the nun or monk.
JT: No, I think that good dharma anywhere has some sort of conversation between these two great aspects, but the monk’s and nun’s way tends to lean towards spirit, and the householder’s way tends to lean towards soul. Still, householders can be surprised by huge awakening experiences, and people on the monk’s and nun’s way are always getting surprised by falling in love inappropriately or discovering a sudden passion for Rolls-Royces. The two sides always contaminate each other and intermingle a little bit, so that you can’t get away with simply being one or the other. I like this contamination; it brings the two points of view into conversation.
IM: You talk a lot about the danger in following one path as opposed to the other, particularly the risks of following exclusively the path of spirit. Could you please talk about that.
JT: I came to this book out of an awareness that I wanted to be more embracing of, and warm towards, the shadow of the spiritual path. In our initial interaction with the East, we Westerners thought there’d be no shadow and we’d find perfect wisdom. Then we thought there was a shadow, but it was all the fault of bad teachers or bad students. Finally, we’re coming around to the view that there is a shadow and it is us.
Part of our shadow is spirit itself—its certainty, its clarity, its quest for purity. If you really push in that direction, you always end up shutting out life. In spite of our materialism, or perhaps even because of our materialism, we are overly spirit-oriented as a culture, overly oriented towards clarity and certainty and linear processes. So our interaction with “soul stuff” tends to happen underground, in the shadows; we are frightened of love and sex and are not particularly warm towards children.
IM: When you talked about the scandals in the various spiritual communities, you suggested that they happened in part because they were underground, because that soul stuff wasn’t being attended to.
JT: The spirit thinks none of the chaos of life and community should happen. But from the soul’s point of view, maybe the suffering and descent, disasters, scandals, disappointments and defeated expectations enlarge our compassion and bring us all into this mess together where we can connect. We have to jump around and be human, stamp grapes together to get the wine. Through our descents, the light of eternity then threads more through matter and through the actuality of our lives. That’s one of the primary points of the book.
IM: Is this purist point of view of spirit the so-called “stink of Zen”?
JT: The stink of Zen occurs when people overidentify with the “not-picking-and-choosing” aspect of life: “If I’m not attached to life, then life will always flow like water, there will be no stain, and everything will be pure.”
I think the effort towards spirit is good because it does give us an orientation and a steadiness from which we can then have a deeper level of conversation with soul. Then we don’t get flung around so much. But when we experience some of the peaks of spiritual practice, there’s a tremendous tendency to overidentify with the states associated with those peaks. We forget that half of the conversation is the soul stuff, which is about taking out the garbage, playing Mancala with the children, how my body’s feeling, how my teeth are falling out, what is beautiful to me, and what story I’m living in today.
IM: Yes. There are many of us who have at different times hidden in our Buddhist practice, taking the viewpoint that none of the mess of ordinary life really matters. Practice has become dry, missing compassion.
JT: The Zen tradition has a great emphasis on prajña, or wisdom. It says, “If you take care of the prajña aspect, everything else will take care of itself.” Of course, that’s not true. Sometimes people react against this and say, “If you just take care of the compassion aspect, the wisdom will come.” And of course that’s not true, either.
You can’t have compassion without wisdom, and you can’t have wisdom without compassion. Even on retreat, which one might think of as a pure spirit situation, I’ve found that if you include imagination and love and the sheer bigness of life, and you actually pay attention to these inclusions, then the wisdom that dawns is deeper and more involved with the compassion. And it’s always a mess, because that’s what life is—a mess. But our task is not to make it all pure and linear; what matters is how we interact with that mess, how generous we are, and how at ease we are with the waves that come and go.
When you get big awakening experiences, you might experience a compassion that is very general. But it’s much more difficult to be civilized with the people we interact with all the time. Exploring these everyday interactions is the soul’s task. This descent out of the wisdom and brilliance of awakening is good, because from the point of view of eternity, it brings the light down to thread through the darkness, to thread through matter. It enlarges us and deepens us and brings love to the path.
IM: Do you have specific ways that you bring the soul element or the fullness of life into the spirit work?
JT: Soul likes the interaction of humanity and likes stories and metaphor and imagination. To let that into even the most austere retreat is good. There are a lot of ways to bring soul into retreats. For one thing, we always have children at our retreats. At first there was a lot of reluctance, for good reasons. People didn’t want to give up the purity of the spirit practice, of deep concentration states, to do child care. Then we found that the people who were doing the child care often had the deeper meditation experiences. I thought that was very interesting, that the children were giving something back.
Another way of including aspects of soul in meditation retreats is through art. The artist and meditator Mayumi Oda sits with us. Sometimes she comes in the middle of a silent meditation retreat and teaches art. At first people think, “How awful! I have to interrupt my meditation to do art.” But I found, in the same way as with the child care, that the art interrupted the “grind” of practice, that the meditation was much deeper afterwards, because doing art let the imagination in and let the world carry us a bit, breaking through our tendency to meditate out of striving and ego.
We’ve brought music into retreat. Rich Domingue, who leads Gator Beat, a Cajun band, also sits with us. Right when people were expecting the evening chanting with its drums and bells—stern and very high Zen—Rich arrived in his Mardi Gras costume with jangling things sewn into his jeans and with great purity and force sang a Cajun song. Everybody’s hair stood on end. I thought, This is wisdom and love hitting perfectly. It was like those old Zen stories in which hearing the sound of a cuckoo brought somebody to awakening. The next day, again, there was silence, everybody sitting still in rows. Suddenly we had a different appreciation of the aesthetic of silence, itself a wild poem.
At first, when we bring the world into retreats, everybody is upset. They are thinking, “If I just hold my mouth right, I’ll get enlightened, and this is stopping me from holding my mouth right.” So people get angry, but that makes the soul come into it. When people get angry at something, you can work with that. At least they hate what’s happening!
IM: Earlier you talked about meditation as spirit work. How would you describe what happens during meditation?
JT: My basic take is that in meditation we always start out by resting in the primeval silence, being still in some way, whether physically or psychically. That requires a certain amount of concentration. When we turn away from what we usually give our attention to, we are turned towards spirit and towards the eternal. As the surface stuff drops away, we start noticing how we actually perceive the world. We bring mindfulness to that process.
At what we might call the engineering level of meditation, vipassana is unparalleled in its precision. Vipassana describes how you pay attention and what kind of events are likely to happen if you pay attention—being mindful of the sensations of the body, of what we would call the feeling or emotional tone, of the thoughts, of the big thought structures.
I’ve found bringing the mindfulness methods of vipassana into Zen to be very valuable. In the book, I compare mindfulness to Adam naming the animals: “That’s a zebra, that’s a giraffe, that’s a kangaroo.” Likewise, in following the path of consciousness, we note: “This is grief, this is sorrow. I thought this was anger, but actually it’s fear. I thought it was fear, but actually it’s disappointment.” In describing the way we attend to our inner lives, I also draw on the Psyche and Eros myth in which Psyche’s mother-in-law, Aphrodite, has given her the apparently endless task of sorting grains. There’s a stage in meditation in which we feel as though we’ve been given a hard labor by a hostile mother-in-law and that our task is just not possible. At that time we must plod along in the midst of the impossibility, sorting and sorting.
But at a certain point in meditation, engineering doesn’t work because life is an art, not an assembly line. The Buddha used the metaphor of the raft, that you could let go of the raft once you’d crossed to the other shore. All traditions have ways of defeating their own successful methods in order to allow something beyond the apparatus. In Zen, there’s that moment when you realize that even the trying to meditate is just trying and has nothing to do with meditation. There’s a lot of subtlety to that, and there are many layers. In the story of Psyche, help came from unexpected quarters—ants took pity on her and sorted the grains for her. In the West we call this grace. At some point we let go and leap into the open field. There are many poetic koans to work with, and the imagination comes in as an actual way. Then, in a certain sense, the emptiness—the mystery of life—imagines us, imagines buzzards and redwood trees and California and meditation centers, and even imagines the quest for consciousness about itself.
IM: Does the presence of the soul’s perspective mean that you never get enlightened or home free?
JT: From the point of view of spirit, we’re already home free. I think that understanding is essential to the spirit’s point of view, and when we’re in that point of view, it’s tremendously compelling. But from the soul’s point of view, you need to deal with something stupid you did last week. Somebody’s angry with you, and they’re right, and you’re not sure you want to admit it. From the spirit’s point of view, that’s okay, too. But from the soul’s point of view, you’ve got to wrestle with it and say, “Oh, God. This is exactly what I do. I did it to this person before, too. Oh, no!”
Once you really have a good connection with spirit, it will always be available to you if you turn towards it in a dark time. I’m not saying spirit is a false promise. It’s a true promise, but it doesn’t do our living for us. That living is the part we have to do for ourselves. And when we do that, then the soul comes in.
IM: Does it seem to you that in your therapy practice you’re treating soul and when you’re teaching Zen you’re treating spirit?
JT: The psychotherapeutic project tends to be directed towards the soul interests: towards childhood, memory, and the layered quality of experience. I think what spirit does for the psychotherapy project is blow the lid off of it so that it opens into the infinite. We can’t just substitute soul work for spiritual work. The pathologies of soul are endlessly interesting, and spirit gives a bigger perspective, revealing the vast background against which all this occurs, the light out of which we all came.
Both as a therapist and as a Zen teacher, I’m really trying to treat the integration of soul and spirit. Unless you know that you can rest in eternity, then you’ll never be quite secure. And if, on the other hand, you think that you’re held by this vast force of the Tao or Buddha Nature and that you don’t need to live, then you’ll never do your living very well; love will not touch you.
IM: Just as therapeutic work can draw on spirit work, it sounds as if you are saying that meditation is not only spirit-building, but soul-building as well.
JT: There is a lot of soul work in meditation. But there’s still a tremendously strong tendency in all the meditation traditions to see this work as stopping and taking a pebble out of your shoe, so that you can go on and do the real work. From the soul’s point of view, taking out the pebble, slowing down, admiring the view, commenting to your companion, developing blisters, is the real work.
IM: Let’s say somebody is sitting in meditation and that all they can see is a soul issue—they’re obsessed, they hate their father!
JT: One of my friends said that for years she spent her first twenty-five minutes of meditation hating her father and the last five minutes doing something she might call meditation. Then she realized that maybe the time hating her father really was meditation. She started just being with that. After a while she stopped hating her father. That’s doing the work of the soul.
IM: Actually, in meditation, what you’re doing in some ways is bringing the spirit’s perspective in to allow the soul to do its work by saying, “Okay, you can hate your father. Just sit there and hate your father.”
JT: If spirit can bring a wider perspective, it’s a tremendous gift. But if spirit then starts making up all these rules, soul starts to feel like it’s being put in a box. Spirit says, Don’t do this and don’t eat chocolate and don’t go to the movies; just sit down and do meditation, and you end up with one of those cults where nobody’s allowed to dance or listen to music.
In the book, I talk a lot about the voluptuous way the soul tends to darken darkness in our lives, to seek dark experiences or things that are strange or weird. Anyone who is a meditation teacher or a psychotherapist knows how much weirder we are than when we’re walking around in our suits and power ties.
Sometimes soul even deepens something, and you see people go back to a relationship that everybody knows they shouldn’t go back to. Even their cat knows they shouldn’t go back to this relationship, and they just do. Whatever it is, the soul tends to deeply immerse itself and find strangeness and quirkiness. Just as one impulse of spirit is towards ascent, the impulse of soul is to get tangled with matter. Such entanglement or immersion breaks down our opinions and acts as an initiation. The soul will sometimes seek an experience that’s painful because it’s authentic and real. In that case, it’s a relief not to split off into some pure, celestial, spiritual state, and we go toward the grief or the pain or the difficulty because it brings us more life and is the gateway to love and connection. This is another one of the strong themes in the book, to look at the difficult and painful experiences of life as initiatory ordeals.
IM: Is it possible that someone might use this way of thinking—the potential learning through some soul descent—as an excuse for acting in an irresponsible way? Let’s say that I have a tendency towards anger. What if I begin to act out my anger and justify it as a way to deepen my journey?
JT: This is always the spirit’s terror, that somehow soul will use things as an excuse and stay in the mess. I’m really glad you brought that up because that’s the archetypal fear that rises in us: They’ll take over the temple and they’ll be yelling at each other and taking off their clothes. I have the same feeling in myself, of course, or else why would I have written the book?
I actually happen to have a hot temper. So I start looking at it, and then part of the ordeal becomes the pain of being angry and then the pain of the shame at having been angry and hurt somebody. And that becomes part of the descent. What soul does is to sink and sink and sink, to be masochistic and bite itself. But if you bring consciousness to it, eventually consciousness wins out.
If we did completely give things over to soul, it might be a mess. But when our experience becomes overwhelmingly painful and all our ideas and opinions are stripped away, then what arises is naked compassion and a naked connection with life. Love comes and gives us tasks.
There is a literary example in Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The sailor has committed a kind of ecological crime by killing an albatross, and the outcome has been terrible—the ship is becalmed and all the rest of the crew has died of thirst. So he is in a horrible situation, comparable to being in Rwanda or Cambodia during the times of massacre. He has been utterly stripped of anything that might support his previous identity. What brings him to new life is compassion and the involuntary imagination. He sees sea snakes on the surface of the ocean and finds them beautiful:
Oh happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
This love is itself enough to begin the upward movement. He makes it back home and is then compelled to a psychological task: from time to time he must tell his story—in the poem he offers it a to a reluctant wedding guest—and this task seems to be part of living in harmony with life.
Meditation is an example of such a task that we have to do every day. Love commits us and hooks us into the world, and so we have to pick up the telephone, change the diaper, answer the e-mail, teach the students, get yelled at, sit on the zafu. Love is the soul’s contribution, and it dignifies the tasks that we do, whether of meditation or preparing lunch. It makes them into a kind of service.
IM: Do you have any closing thoughts on what you are trying to do in your book and in your teaching?
JT: I’m trying to speak up for soul from the point of view of someone who’s deeply committed to spirit, who is profoundly anchored in the spiritual tradition. I’m not one of those people who speaks up for soul but says spirit’s just an illusion. I’m fascinated with soul partly because I feel like it has been more underground in my own real life, and I’m always trying to learn its ways.
Moreover, I think that our big task as a culture at this time in history is to get the inner voyage right. Our ancestors all came here through a voyage, and one way or another we all came through voyages. Whether or not we ever go on to the stars, one of the contributions that we can make is to inner development. Spirit doesn’t need to develop; it was already perfect in the time of the dinosaurs. But the soul likes to develop and gradually add its tiny drop of consciousness over the millennia. So our job as a culture, and our job as meditators—people who hold that job in the culture—is to integrate meditation so that it’s not split off and it’s not alien. In the book, there is a map of the stages of the journey; for example, a descent will inevitably happen after an enlightenment experience, because the descent brings the soul to bear. This is not what most of us were taught, but it is liberating to realize.
My final two cents about our task is that we need to have a conversation between soul and spirit, directing the journey of consciousness in such a way that our knowledge of the inward realms can help steady our culture, wherever we’re going.