Untangling the Triad of Life Force, Spirit and Soul by Eline Kieft

Calling Home at the Sealskin Soulskin Workshop 2018. Image Credit Justyna Skowronek

Most cultures recognize an animating ‘life force energy’, such as chi, qi, ki, kundalini, n/um, ruach, prana and mana. Life force is very closely related to ‘soul’, and often indicates vitality, original nature, instinct, intuition or inner compass. Another term is ‘spirit’, and I must say, it confused me for a long time how they are related, and how they are different. In this article I explain how I understand the nuances between these terms.

Shamanic paradigms consider ‘spirit’ as the animating life force both in our bodies and in the animist world around us. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this concept is called ‘Qi’, or life force energy. This can be affected by ongoing stress or other health concerns that sap our vitality, but while we live it’s always there.

‘Soul’, in shamanic views, refers to an original essence that makes us who we are. This metaphysical part of us is in direct relationship with the sublime. The soul “continues beyond death and into eternity and into infinity. We could literally say that our soul has a body, much more than saying that our body has a soul” (Villoldo, 2018). This soul essence can be damaged: parts of it can ‘leave’ following traumatic events.

During an intensive workshop called “Singing over the Bones” (2019), I asked Clarissa Pinkola Estés how she distinguished between soul and spirit. Her answer initially confused me, as it appeared to be the opposite of how I’d understood it before. Like Villoldo, she describes the eternal quality of the soul, but according to her, this part can never be damaged or broken. Instead, it is the spirit that can be crushed, lost, torn, or stolen, or otherwise affected by life’s circumstances. Her use of the term spirit appears to be more akin to ego, i.e. the personal expression of who we are.

Holding Space for Emotions at the Coventry Life Festival 2017.
Image Credit Mark Radford Photography.

Thankfully, both views emphasize that any damage to the soul (in shamanism), and the spirit (according to Pinkola Estés) can be healed.

Comparing these views led me to distinguish not two but three different aspects of this intangible essence, which I already touched on in my recent post on Oakness as a Metaphor for the Wild Soul:

  1. The physical life force quality that ignites and beats the heart, which is present while we live
  2. The personal expression of who we are in this life, shaped by contexts such as upbringing, education, and relational experiences
  3. The metaphysical part that connects us to a larger knowing beyond the body and can transport us to the sublime, for example, when watching a rainbow or beautiful art.

I like to emphasise that it is about one substance of threefold nature: the physical body, the frequency of the heart and our spiritual consciousness, as different but inseparable and essential aspects.

I found other sources that recognise three expressions of this intangible (dare I say magical?) phenomenon. Jung for example quotes the work of Dorn, a 16th century alchemist, who describes a metaphysical substance concealed in the human body. This substance is “of threefold nature: metaphysical, physical, and moral”. It contains truths that “cannot be seen with the outward eye, but [are] perceived by the mind alone” yet has the capacity to “work miracles”. Jung interprets ‘moral’ as ‘psychological’ (Jung 1993 [1953]: 269), and this might be similar to Pinkola Estés’ use of the term ‘spirit’ as related to ego.

It also reminds me of the ‘Three Treasures’ or ‘Marvellous Energies’ in Qi Gong. These are energy centres within the body that support our physical, emotional, and spiritual existence. Jing is the physical, vital essence of the body. This resides in the abdominal centre and is about power and flow. If it would relate to a question, it would be “where am I, what is my physical orientation in space?” In this context, Qi represents specific energy connected to thoughts and emotions. It is connected to the heart energy centre, and is about passion, hope, and happiness. Here we ask: “what do I want to create with my life energy?” Shen is centred behind the third eye and associated with light and consciousness. This treasure is about purpose, our higher self that can observe life without being immersed in the nitty-gritty parts of everyday. This is about awe, inspiration and connection to the Dao or the source. The question here is “who am I at the core of my being?” This subtle quality is considered susceptible to destruction by the ego.

Listening for the Soul at the Sealskin Soulskin Workshop 2018. Image Credit Justyna Skowronek

More important in terms of health and wellbeing than defining the different terms, is of course ensuring that the system is as whole and complete as it can be. We are all impacted by life. Stress, illness, inertia, depression are some concrete effects of imbalance, loss, separation, and trauma. Paying attention to the three manifestations of this precious substance can help us prevent problems and address them when they should arise.

I therefore advocate ‘taking the pulse’ of these three energies on a regular basis. Are they aligned with each other? Is one taking more attention than the others? Do you feel ruled by emotions, restricted by a tight mind, or drawn behind the cart of your physical needs? What can you do to give each of them the space they need? You can think of giving your body nourishing food and sufficient rest to nourish the life force; expressing yourself through art, writing, dance and empowering social interactions to nurture the heart; and creating time to reflect on meaning and reconnect with the mysterious dimensions of life to rewild your soul…

I would love to hear your thoughts for further reflection!

Phoenix Rising at Global Peace Forum Coventry 2019
Image Credits glb_photo and tiabryantphoto.


Jung, Carl Gustav. 1993 [1953]. Psychology and Alchemy. London: Routledge, p. 269

Villoldo, Alberto. 2018. Shamanic Energy Medicine: The Healing Practice of Tomorrow. 10-Part Video Course. New York: Evolver Learning Lab.

BIO: Eline Kieft danced from a young age, including rigorous classical and contemporary training to become a professional dancer. She then studied anthropology, deepening her fascination with worldwide similarities between indigenous traditions regarding intangible aspects of reality and other ways of knowing, including embodied epistemologies and shamanic techniques. 

She pursued her PhD in dance anthropology at Roehampton University with the late Prof. Andrée Grau. She also gained more practical understanding and hands-on experience with shamanism while studying with Jonathan Horwitz from the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies.

Eline worked at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) at Coventry University for five years, where she created a Somatics Toolkit for Ethnographers.     

She left academia in 2020 to become a full-time change-maker and facilitate deep transformation in individuals and organizations through coaching and courses both online and in person. Her approach The Way of the Wild Soul offers a set of embodied, creative, and spiritual tools to re-connect with inner strength and navigate life’s challenges with confidence.

Website: https://www.elinekieft.com

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6 thoughts on “Untangling the Triad of Life Force, Spirit and Soul by Eline Kieft”

  1. Many thanks for a good and useful lesson. This kind of stuff can get really confusing! Let’s all try to stay centered. Bright blessings!


  2. This is a great explanation of how we can think of these three intertwined aspects. As I was reading, I got to thinking about how, with me, my focus on the three has changed as I have aged. When I was young, I was more focused on the physical energy and how I expressed myself through my body. When I was in middle age, my focus was definitely on the personal aspect of who I was and what my role was in society. Now that I am getting older, I am much more focused on the metaphysical aspect and my relationship to the greater universe.


      1. These were my EXACT thoughts when reading Carolyn’s comment. Another triad; I had never linked them to life stages before but it makes so much sense!!! Awesome correspondence!


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