Ep. 105: Soul vs Spirit

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Today is about the question, “Who am I?”  


We talk about why it matters and how we hold it in a context where we debate if we even exist on certain levels. Specifically – I want to talk about the concept of non-self and and Ultimate Oneness as well as how – and if – this can exist simultaneously alongside the concept of the individual soul. I’m going to do this while reminding you that I’m no philosophy or theology expert, and that I’m sharing my own experience of this debate along the path – and it’s not a straight line! 


A friend recently asked me if Buddhism teaches that “nothing exists outside of the mind,” including self. Of course, Buddhism isn’t easy to give short answers about. Its teachings include over 2600 years of monastic debate, and of all the world religions, its doctrines are particularly diverse and contradictory, which I dig, but it can frustrate others. Especially if you want black and white answers. 


The “mind only” school of Buddhism can be interpreted as one that suggests “nothing exists outside the mind.” And you could say that Yogachara taught that while consciousness is ultimately real and perceptions arise in consciousness, perceptions are provisional, without essence, and are dependent. No existence in and of themselves. 


Now, it’s my own personal experience that we see a lot of spiritual bypassing when people ignore the suffering of individuals or groups of oppressed people, for example, and say they believe ultimately that we are One and that the individual self doesn’t exist, so therefore we shouldn’t focus on peoples’ differences and how their experiences in life might be different. 


They’ll shun the idea of the individual and try to transcend that and aim for the Oneness. This seems like a noble cause – to not live out of selfishness or ego-driven desires. 


But when I think about it, I always end up noticing, “Wait, but I DO exist.” I have a body, a mind, and ideas. I help people and I’m helped by others. That’s all real, in some way, right? 


But then, if I also believe in the oneness of it all, and you and I not being separate, then what is this? 


Well, as someone who is on both journeys simultaneously – of exploring myself and my not-self – I’ve found that, as usual, it’s not just one or the other. We are both. 


There are a couple problems with the “mind is real, things are not” view: 


One is that earlier Buddhist texts discouarge us from taking any firm opinion about whether things do or don’t exist. So we can’t fixate on either decision like, “The mountain is real.” or “The mountain only exists in my mind.” 


Each view is sometimes useful, but neither is ultimately true. 


The second problem with “everything is the mind” is it pretty much naturally leads to moral nihilism, which is definitely not what Buddha taught. 


For this Rebel Buddhist, the Middle Way – the idea that both can be true – is what I believe. 


Now, if we’re going to go down that Middle Way path, what terms can we use to differentiate between the individual and the emptiness of the individual (the Oneness)? 


Bill Plotkin’s definitions of the soul and spirit are really  helpful here: 


  • The Soul is the wild core of our individual selves. It is unique to each person, and is much deeper than our personalities. 
  • The Spirit is that single, great, eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and transcends all. 


So, for me, soul-work is on an individual level, and spirit-work is what is touched upon in the more transcendent (beyond the self) practices. And each soul is seen to exist as an agent for spirit. 


The idea is that your soul is what makes you unique. You are here on this plant and in this body for a reason. All things are fulfilling their unique individual purpose, and humans are not exempt from that. 


This is also a piece of why I use nature so deeply in my personal work and in my retreats with the Adventure Mastermind and Freedom School. When I was a climbing guide, living and working in the mountains, I was immersed in that connection naturally. When I started graduate school, I cried because my room only had a mall triangle of a window for me to glimpse a bit of sky.. 


Spirit, on the other hand, is the dimension of our experience in which we sense something larger than ourselves. Many of us have had that experience at one point or another. I think about how many of my clients describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, at a minimum there is an awareness of being a part of something bigger than themselves.  


It’s not like we live in that experience all the time. It could just be glimpses of that intermittently. But in general, nearly everyone has experiences of awe and wonder at some point. Watching a sunset. Giving birth. After an epic orgasm… 


So for me, working with spirit to access these transpersonal levels are my meditation and yogic practices, my personal retreats, and my daily practices. And working with soul is when I’m fully embodied and connected with nature and everyone around me. It’s when clear about, connected to, and living my unique Soul Purpose. 


Some people may block off focusing on soul purpose or find it contradictory to the concept of Oneness as well. Maybe they haven’t seen what I’ve seen. I can’t even begin to describe the degree of suffering I witness when people don’t know why they’re here. We all yearn for – and need – a purpose that can be embodied.  


And contrary to the belief that if we focus on the self we suffer more, I’ve found that to my surprise, as we discover our individual purpose, we are more intimate with the Oneness and interdependenc of all existence, and can transcend our sense of the small self. Like an initiatory process. 


I dive more into what soul purpose is in the full pod, but I don’t believe we’re just meant to transcend this life. In fact, I believe we’re meant to milk it for everything it’s got! To discover, know, and live our gifts and offer them to our communities. Our love for our own life, for all living things, and for community pours itself into the world, like a prayer, through our deepest purpose. 


And in my opinion, it is essential in this time of radical, global change. 


In this Episode you will learn:  

// What is Soul Purpose and Soul Work? 

// How the concept of “Nothing exists outside the mind” fits in with the search for our purpose 

// How we can be both individuals and an interconnected Oneness 

// The difference between the soul and the spirit and the practices that nourish both 

// How nature and soul work are inextricably linked 

// The 3 characteristics of Peak Experiences 



// Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, New World Library 


// Check out my Clarity + Courage Course here! This free 7-day course to help you finally get clear about what you want and how to go get it


// Listen to Episode 71: How to Find Your Purpose 


// If you’re ready to learn more about embracing all facets of yourself and your beliefs and heading into the next chapter of your life with a fresh, transformed start, head over to AdventureMastermind.com and apply for the Summer cohort. We have 2 altered states retreats, weekly coaching, virtual retreats, and more. I’ve got you! 


// If you’re new to the squad, grab the Rebel Buddhist Toolkit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll also get access to the Rebel Buddhist FB group, and tune in weekly when I go live on new topics.  


// Want to dive into this work on a deeper level on your own time? To study it and practice it together with a group of people with the same goals of freedom, adventure and purpose? Check out Freedom School – the community for ALL things related to freedom, inside and out.  


It’s also where you can get individual help applying the concepts to your own life. It’s where you can learn new coaching tools not shared on the podcast that will blow your mind even more, and it’s where you can connect over all things freedom with other freedom junkies just like you and me. It’s my favorite place on earth and it will change your life, I guarantee it. Come join us at JoinFreedomSchool.com. I can’t wait to see you there.