Bowl of Soul

An excerpt from the chapter 'Cups, Bowls, and Baskets' from "Notes on the Need for Beauty"

J. Ruth Gendler

For years I have been inspired by images of the body as a vessel, an earthenware pot filled with varying qualities, elements, and energies, the bowl of soul. It is an image with echoes from many ancient cultures. Soetsu Yanagi, who pioneered a movement to appreciate the crafts of everyday life (c) J. Ruth Gendler, 2015in twentieth-century Japan, emphasized the beauty of the natural, genuine, and simple. When Yanagi visited a Korean village where beautiful lathed wood objects were being made, he was astonished that the craftsmen used green wood. When he asked why they used material that would crack, the woodworker answered calmly, “What does it matter?” Inquiring further about the impracticality of using something that leaks, the woodworker replied, “Just mend it.” Yanagi discovered that the cracked bowls were mended so artistically and beautifully that they seemed better than the originals.

Our bodies are like the humble Korean bowls Yanagi celebrates. The functional beauty that Yanagi describes in the Korean bowls, offers us another way to look at our own forms. Our bodies are also strong and ordinary and useful, scarred and marked by what we have lived through, mended through our efforts, as well as through their own extraordinary ability to heal.

The word vessel suggests not only a container, but also a boat moving at sea, a starship traveling through space. A friend recalls that one of his most profound understandings of the body came out of a conversation with his father after his dad’s first major surgery. “I recognized the body is the vehicle through which we experience everything we experience—joy, love, the emotions which we play like musical instruments in our bodies. It is the medium for all our joys—anything good that has ever happened to me in my entire life is because I have this body. It is important, for a moment it is magnificent. It is like it’s the Titanic, it is a beautiful ship, it is not going to make it to the other shore. Realizing this brings to mind a poignant joy. My father is not someone to talk much about spiritual things, but out of this common humanness he and I met.”

“Lord, help me. Because my boat is so small and your sea is so immense,” a medieval French poet prays. “I am the vessel. The draught is God. And God is the thirsty one,” Dag Hammarskjöld writes.

Sometimes the vessel becomes a lantern; a fine fierce fire warms us from within, shines through. The inner light announces itself through the outer form. The question then becomes: What feeds this light? What happens to this light in the presence of other lights? Echoing the French medieval poet, I pray, “Lord, help me: because my fire is so small and your galaxies are so immense.”


Was someone asking to see the soul?
See your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the
trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.

– Walt Whitman

The double gaze opens into the world, into the self. Moment to moment we are looking out, looking in, breathing out, breathing in. Our task becomes simultaneously to attend more to the inner world and to find ourselves in the world around us, like our ancestors, who knew that memory is stored not only in our brains but in our landscapes. Often we speak of inner life as the life of dreams and yearnings, intuitions and emotions, the world of the spirit in contrast to the outer world of time and taxes, deadlines and dishes. Inner life also suggests the inner life of the body—muscle and bone marrow, vertebra and capillary, nerve cell and lung tissue. Outer world is also tree root and river rock, anthill and cloud. At some point the distinction between inner world and outer world itself dissolves.

Years ago a dance teacher took us outside to dance under the sky, and we discovered that dancing outside is a special ecstasy, to dance in and with nature. One night she invited us to dance through the o in God. Another night she said we usually assume the soul is a tiny element somewhere inside the body, a bright light in the mind or in the heart. What if the soul is big, bigger than the body, and the body rests inside the soul? As we dance through space, extending feet, hands, elbows, ribs, we are brushing up against our soul, moving in an energetic circle that is our soul. The body inside the soul! Everything turns inside out. The soul becomes as immense as the sky. Dancing with each other, we are moving together in this soulful air.

When we move from that image, it is like taking a walk through a dense forest and suddenly glimpsing the ocean through the trees, or emerging into a wide meadow that you had no idea was there. Turning a corner, the air is very sweet.


Every culture has words for “soul.” Different words for soul open different windows into the immensity, offering subtle fragrances, suggesting qualities of light, hinting at different ways of understanding not just the soul but the body. The Etruscan word for soul, hinthial, also means “image reflected in a mirror.” The Etruscans, like the ancient Egyptians and Chinese, believed that the mirror held the soul of the person looking into it, and so to keep body and soul together in the next world, they buried their dead with mirrors. Many traditions map and name different layers and levels of soul. There’s a beautiful Kabbalistic idea that we receive our fourth soul on the Sabbath.

Sometimes the soul is located in the head, sometimes in the heart, sometimes in the liver, in the lining of the gallbladder. In the spinal marrow, joints, and tongue. For a long time our ancestors thought the soul resided in the stomach; many Eastern traditions locate the soul in the belly. In early lore the diaphragm carried the power of thought and emotion. A contemporary doctor notes that everything between the heart and stomach is soulful!

The soul’s associations with specific organs is evocative but far from definitive. It reminds us how many different possibilities and visions our species has put forth. It evokes the abundance and variety of the soul’s experience. It suggests the impossibility of fixing the soul definitely, defining and containing it completely. The whole body is filled with soul.

The dimensions of the soul are much larger than we can wrap our minds around, but in our attempts we draw closer to our real nature as well as to the natural world. We develop many kinds of vision in the process. The eye looks out and in and beyond and sideways and through, and every kind of vision feeds the task. The eye of the imagination, attentive to dreams and metaphor; the eye of observation, alert to shadows and patterns of coherence; the eye of the heart, hungry for truth, are all necessary in this quest. The eye of the soul, Psyche’s eye, sees in the dark and in the light, sees the light in the darkness, the shadows in the light, looks back and remembers, looks forward to encompass the long view.

It is one thing to think about the soul in a specific location, as a bright kernel, a radiant core, a vital primary intelligence, a dove, a tender trembling flame, another to investigate how the soul moves within us and through us, how the soul moves us into the world. Many languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, link the soul with breath, the breath of life.

The close relationship between soul and breath sweeps across a landscape of time, what we were, what we are, what we are becoming moment to moment, breath after breath. The close relationship between soul and breath sings of the profound and delicate transitions and crossings that carry us into life and death. It is in our first breath that we join the human family, and it is in the gift of our last breath that we surrender our lives.

(“The Eskimo word for ‘to make poetry’ is the word for ‘to breathe.’ It is a form of the word anerca, the soul, that which is eternal, the breath of life,” writes Edmund Carpenter. “A poem is words infused with breath or spirit. ‘Let me breathe of it,’ says the poet-maker and then begins: ‘One has put his poem in order on the threshold of the tongue.’” This connection between breath and soul and poetry links life and language, joining the unknowable interior with the abundant air we move through. When we breathe in, we draw a tiny piece of the infinite sky into the finite space of our lungs. As breath gives its energy to blood, we are continually nourished, enlivened, ignited.)

Our English word soul with its tendrils into Saxon, German Dutch, Gothic goes back to a proto-Germanic word meaning “coming from the sea, belonging to the sea,” because the sea was believed to be a stopping place of the soul before birth and after death. The soul’s attraction to water is ancient and compelling. We are fluid creatures, breathing the steam, bathing in the living water, drinking in the wind. The soul belongs to the moisture of our blood and tissues, the vast oceans of water and air within and around us. The soul, like water, like breath, like music, mediates between gravity and levity, between stillness and motion, between life and death.

We are small bowls of soul, intimate jars for the immensity. Soul enters into form but surrounds form, too. The soul exists within and outside these vessels, our bodies. The soul’s creativity shines forth in her capacity for relationship. The soul may be everywhere and in everything, but there is also a sweet particularity in the soul’s friendships. Medieval women mystics wrote down dialogues between Love and the soul. Rumi inquires, “I am so small I can barely be seen. How can this great love be inside me?”

We have hardly begun to speak of the conversation between the soul and the heart, the soul and the body, the soul and the Beloved. The intimacy of the soul with the breath, with the life force, with a favorite piece of music, in a deeply focused task, are like a series of alliances that we rarely take the time to describe.

Perhaps the soul’s friendships are better described in music than in language. Flute and drum, flute and violin, three cellos, a saxophone and a piano, harpsichord and voice, a chorus of voices, a string quartet. By suggesting a few of these combinations of instruments, we remember the conversation between the soul and the heart. These duets, trios, quartets describe the gorgeous and spontaneous alliances that the soul is always alive to.

Perhaps the dialogue of love and the soul is suggested by color combinations—pale pink and silver, the peach of certain roses, and the deep purple of Japanese iris, the red of blood oranges and the gold of the sun.

Arranging small natural objects offers another way to make visible the way that the soul befriends whatever she engages with—put a white feather next to a pine cone, a candle next to a flower, and you can almost hear the soul speaking to the body, the soul befriending a fellow soul, the friendship of breath and body, soul and awareness. Perhaps it is because of the soul’s affinity for song that she is sometimes described as a bird.

The soul is that part of us which is eternal: it lives onward and outward, participating in ways we can only imagine, but here and now the soul lives in us, lives through us into the soul of the world.

Artwork: (c) J. Ruth Gendler, 2015

J. Ruth Gendler makes art that celebrates inner and outer nature, invites viewers to listen to silence, and honors the soul. Her drawings, monotypes and paintings have recently been exhibited at Google, the Commonwealth Club, Oakopolis Gallery, the Dream Institute, and the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts. Ruth has been involved with the intersection of writing and art, and interdisciplinary collaboration, for much of her life. She is the author of three awarded books which include her art work: The Book of Qualities, Notes on the Need for Beauty, and the anthology, Changing Light. Her art work has been on the covers of several books in the United States and Asia. A long time poet-in-the-schools, Ruth has taught writing and art to adults and children for thirty years. Ruth will be showing some of the tree monotypes featured in this gallery at the Oakopolis in April and May 2016. For more information visit

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29 April 2015

Tagged Under
revelation, soul, imagination, The Great Mystery, Our Sacred Heritage, Sensing Presence, mystery, body,
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