Sensing the Interplay of Soul and Place

Sensing the Interplay of Soul and Place:

(in Michael Jones’, The Soul of Place, 2014)

Ian Wight PhD FCIP : April 2018   Ian.Wight@UManitoba.CA

While the whole book is a rich offering, Michael Jones’ The Soul of Place’ offers up some real nuggets in the Glossary – where one can find some of the essence of the work, some deep distillations of key themes. They might be particularly inspiring for those interested in exploring Soul and Place – one of the sub-themes for the upcoming national conference of the Canadian Institute of Planners, in Winnipeg in July 2018. For openers, here’s Jones addressing ‘Soul’ (p 260 of the Glossary):

Soul “Where spirit seeks unity, peace and harmony that shapes our personality, the soul is found in the undergrowth, in our vulnerability and the depths of experience. Soul shapes our character. The soul is the mystery and the inexplicable in human life. It connects our day-to-day experience with a sense of depth, of destiny and productive ambiguity. The soul is the opaque light, the roots, the soil and the undergrowth.

We also associate the work of the soul with life’s possibilities including what we imagine when we create time for reflection, for dreaming, imagining and fantasizing. This is often when the soul assumes its other role as the disrupter pushing us to let go of old forms and conventional ways of seeing in order to think and imagine life anew.

To engage the soul is to also be in empathic resonance with the world. That is, to recognize that to know another is also to be known by the other – an act of mutual reciprocity – which draws out our own vulnerability and directs it toward the care and concern for the well-being of the soul of the world”.

Soul is contrasted with spirit, helping us appreciate the ‘shaping’ force of both – soul is what ‘shapes our character’. It turns up in our undergrowth, and in our vulnerability, and in our depths of experience. It is our primal place, rippling with potency, connecting us – mysteriously – to our destiny, and productive ambiguity. It routes us (roots us) to possibilities, valuing imagination and reflection, and fantasizing. Soul can assume the role of disrupter, nudging us to let go of undue convention, to invite new thinking and imagining. It also connects us with the world, in mutual reciprocity, tapping our own vulnerability in service of ‘the well-being of the soul of the world’. And all this is set in the context of place – the soul of place. Here’s Jones on ‘the purpose of place’ (p. 264-265):

The Purpose of Place “As we enter the world of leadership, being place-based is how we keep the dream of childhood alive, and with this dream, the source of our own creative power and well-being. Being place-based also respects the appetite many have to engage our world through something more than the anonymous transactional relationships that make up much of our public lives. When we feel connected to a place our relationships are more meaningful and significant and we tend to the places in our world in a more caring way.

Experiencing the soul of a place also reminds us that we are ‘creatures of belonging’. As such, places help us feel more rooted, more at home and more connected to something larger than ourselves. Raising the consciousness of place also increases our awareness of the extent to which we are shaped by our surroundings including nature, culture and community as much as we shape them. That is, we learn to appreciate how each evokes something from the other and that we are essentially sentient beings whose moods and emotions are deeply influenced by the subtle forces of tonality and atmosphere that move around and about us.

So, the purpose of place is to inspire a new guiding narrative, one rooted in a shift in our world view from seeing our environment as a backdrop primarily constructed out of impersonal bits and pieces of things, a legacy from the industrial age, to a world that is alive, complex, artful and intelligent – a world of place”.

Jones is writing here in the context of leadership, and the importance of that being ‘place-based’, in a very discerning, intentional, conscious way. This should resonate for planning professionals, seeking to plan with place-making in mind – attentive to the people in/of the place, especially when they themselves might not be ‘of’ the place in question; their planning can still be ‘place-based’, with the people in question. Place becomes a creative power source, a context for pursuing well-being, for engaging beyond ‘anonymous transactional relationships’. Space-regulation and space-allocation can be reframed, and put ‘in place’. More meaning; more relating; more caring.

There is a (secular) spiritual dimension to be embraced, as ‘creatures of belonging’; experiencing the soul of a place helps us feel ‘more connected to something larger than ourselves’, and more conscious of how we are shaped by our surroundings – nature, culture, community – as much as we shape them. Place reminds us we are essentially sentient beings, attuning to ‘the subtle forces of tonality and atmosphere’, that we might otherwise dismiss if we were fixated on space. It ushers in a new operative worldview – a world of place that is ‘alive, complex, artful and intelligent’. The purpose of our planning shifts commensurately, into cooperating with what Jones calls ‘emergence’ (p.270-271).

Emergence “Creating places where life can thrive will serve as one of the great animating stories for our future. To imagine places in the future that are vibrant, alive and nature-based we will need language to describe them. It will be a language, for example, that sees place in the context of organic networks rather than formal structures. We will look for signs of agility, adaptivity, flexibility, permeability, emergence, openness and diversity. 

Our ways of knowing our world will shift from concepts and plans to pathways and pilgrimages and, with this, our ways of navigating will become more subtle and tactile, our boundaries more porous and open to influence and our awareness of the quality of the places and spaces in our environment more discerning… in which we will focus more on informal gatherings and the movements of emergent, spontaneous collective action rather than formal strategies. 

 As our capacities and pace for learning quickens, our sense of place will become more refined and deeply felt. We will be more aware of the human cost of the loss of place on our own collective and systemic capacities for growth and integration as well as our psychic sense of safety, protection and well-being”.

The context is thriving, rather than mere surviving, or subsisting. The container is also different when place is privileged, shifting from formal structures to organic networks. And the operative epistemology shifts ‘from concepts and plans to pathways and pilgrimages’, the navigating becomes ‘more subtle and tactile’. More discernment is on offer, including more of a focus on ‘informal gatherings and the movements of emergent, spontaneous collective action rather than formal strategies’. This is pointing to a sea-change for planning, a whole new future that is emerged, by activating new place-sensibilities and accessing soul-sensitivity – a much more refined and deeply felt sense of place.

Planners may also need to revisit the planning they profess, with more explicit attention to the ‘making’ aspect of place, and to their own ‘makings’. Jones points to the potential of a reframing around ‘craft’ (p. 272): planning as a craft; planners as craft-persons; planning as more of an art than a science; planners as artisans, as artists of possibility.

Craft “Craft opens a path to bodily knowing and the body, more than the intellect, takes in the fullness of whatever place we are in. Finding one’s craft opens up a powerful relationship with place and with a larger unknown. This may be because, through our craft, we see place as the home that nourishes our gifts so that they may be enacted in the service of a larger goal. Through the arc of time there have been two paths: Homo sapiens, man the thinker and Homo faber, man the maker. With Homo sapiens we establish our competence in the world. With Homo faber we establish our craft. Both are important but too often we have allowed our competence to dominate and our craft suffers from neglect. When our craft suffers, our connection to the soul of place suffers as well. Each is closely interconnected with the other. 

The resurgence of craft leads to work that is more holistic and integrative. We can practice our craft in any field. To be ‘hands on’ simply involves doing our best and seeing our craft as our ‘art form’ in whatever field we choose. The resurgence of craft involves getting at the root of things through using local materials and local wisdom drawn from the place itself. This resurgence is leading to an attitude to work that is wholehearted and integrates the mind with the heart and the hand”.

Here we see the soul at work in the body, and the valuing of bodily knowing to better take in ‘the fullness of whatever place we are in’. Finding our craft is as important as finding our place; a coming home to ourselves, to better negotiate a larger unknown, and to better serve a larger goal. Getting in touch with our homo faber self, as much as our homo sapien self. Raising craft on a par with competence. Embodying a craft we are likely to be naturally ‘more holistic and integrative’; being hands-on, with craft as our ‘art form’ – wholeheartedly integrating ‘the mind with the heart and the hand’, from a soul perspective, between two poles: place as sanctuary and crucible (265).

Sanctuary (and Crucible) “Place is a sanctuary where we feel most at home and most naturally ourselves… Place can be a physical location, time in nature, a form of craft, a calling, an idea, a meeting or a community. It is a feeling and a possibility; it offers a sense of welcome, of invitation and inclusivity. As sanctuary, place is where we go for solace and rest. Without rest there can be no regeneration. Place may also serve as a crucible for transformation and change. Many can share stories of how a place offered a crucible moment that was life-changing. In this context, places can be complex and multi-faceted. As a sanctuary, if there is too much security, there is no growth. As a crucible, if there is too much change, there is no rest. It is in the middle of these two poles that the soul learns”.

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Ian Wight

A Canadian Scot. Ex-professor, now senior scholar. In re-firement. Passionate about (planning as) placemaking, as well-being (by design). Advocate of transformative professional learning, as professional-self design. Attentive to the making/s of professionals via praxis, ethos and poiesis.

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