‘To thine own self be true’, said Shakespeare, quoting a proverb that had its roots in ancient Greece. ‘Know yourself’ said Socrates, who argued that self-understanding is essential for happiness, wisdom and the pursuit of any knowledge whatsoever. It is little exaggeration to say that all of Western psychology and science starts with Socrates’ little phrase. Even an Indian sage like Ramana Maharshi condensed the whole spiritual path into the simple question, ‘Who am I?’
Yet the self is notoriously difficult to pin down. Being both the subject and the object of perception makes matters confusing. Though I am embedded in my self, and my every action expresses it, I can never understand myself as precisely as I do a cup or a dog. I can see your face clearly but not my own. I only know myself indirectly, through what I think and feel and do, and even that is disconcertingly fluid.
Although I have a profound sense of my individual being, it is hard to describe what it is. The words ‘self, soul, personality, individuality, character’ rarely get close to that gut feeling of ‘I’. They are too vague and abstract to describe something so uniquely me.
Our sense of self comes from a visceral place that precedes language and culture. If we have a strong awareness of this inner core, our words and actions flow naturally from it. If, on the other hand, our sense of self is weak, our words and ideas won’t feel like our own and others are likely to exploit us.
The word ‘self’ is a modern term which dates back only to the 17th century. It has a nonreligious, even scientific tone that is somewhat devoid of colour. In earlier centuries, the word ‘soul’ was used to describe exactly the same thing, but with a greater richness of meaning. The pagan philosophers discussed it extensively, and it is also found in most world cultures. Christianity certainly has no monopoly on it. Unfortunately, the word ‘soul’ is now associated with a kind of grim, institutional Christianity. We now commonly think of the soul as describing the immortal part of the personality that is punished or rewarded after death for its behaviour in this life. This is such a irrational and oppressive concept that most of us are reluctant to use the word at all.
Yet it is easy to rescue the word ‘soul’ by examining what it actually meant in earlier times. For most of history, ‘soul’ means ‘life’ and/or ‘mind’ in their most obvious senses. Even the philosopher Descartes, only 400 years ago, equated the soul with ‘Reason’ and the capacity to think clearly.
Aristotle and Plato were among the first to map the functions of the soul, and they squarely equate the ‘soul’ with life itself. The soul is fundamentally that which keep us alive and well. ‘Psyche’ literally means ‘breath’ and ‘life’, in the same sense as the Sanskrit word ‘prana’ and the Chinese word ‘chi’. Shaw calls it ‘the life force’. Bergson calls it ‘the vital spirit’. Schopenhauer calls it ‘the will to live’. According to Aristotle, the soul (also called the ‘anima’) is that which animates all living things, including plants and animals.
When they die, by definition their souls do too. The soul aims to keep us healthy and satisfied in every respect. Our biological, selfregulatory mechanisms keep us from destructive excess. Our emotional instincts, whether in company or crossing the road, keep us safe and satisfied. Even our intellectual activity is clearly shaped and guided by deeper forces. Aristotle describes all these as functions of the soul.
Meister Eckhardt, the 14th century German mystic, went further and describes the soul as having five levels. Following Aristotle, he says the first is the life force itself, common even to bugs. The second is ‘animal reason’ which includes functions such as memory, emotion and judgement. The third is ‘human’ reason, our usual mode of operating. The fourth level is the capacity for self-reflective, abstract, independent thought, or ‘Reason’ with a capital R. This is what Descartes, who was also a great mathematician, regarded as the most glorious function of the soul. Eckhardt’s fifth level is really just a refinement of the fourth. He called it the ‘scintilla’, or the spark of the divine, which is always there but rarely experienced in its purest form. It equates to the Sanskrit ‘atman’. It is the most transcendent aspect of the soul: the mind gazing on its own radiance and seeing what seems to be the Absolute Truth.
This hierarchy of levels automatically prompts us to make value judgements. We unthinkingly tend to see the mind and all good things as ‘up’ and ‘bright’. Conversely, the body and all bad things are ‘down’ and ‘dark’. We see the spiritual path as going from the dark to the light, and tend to forget that body and mind are profoundly interdependent.
At this point, many Western philosophers, and most Eastern mystics, succumb to the fantasy of transcendence. They become so intoxicated with the glory of consciousness that they think, ‘If only I could abandon my troublesome body and its gross desires, I can be one with the perfect, unchanging, divine mind.’
This idea is expressed in the Eastern mantra: ‘I am not my body. I am not my thoughts. I am not my emotions. I am the pure witnessing consciousness.’ When you gaze on mind itself, the experience can be so exquisitely still, serene and radiant, that it feels like you’ve found your ‘True Self’ at last.
Yet sooner or later – dammit! – you drop out of that state. The emotional demands of the body pull you back, and you now have to make a choice. Do you try to ignore the body and cultivate that serene, clear, observer mind above all else? This is the path of the spirit, which seeks to transcend matter and be pure. Or do you follow the path of the soul, which seeks to integrate body and mind? In other words, do you want purity or wholeness?
The path of the spirit is easier to understand, but it costs a lot. You cultivate selflessness and inactivity. You strive to give up your personal history, your passions and your thoughts. You abandon the search for love, beauty and even meaning, all of which involve an interest in matter. If you are considering any spiritual path, I suggest you first ask ‘How much does this serenity cost?’
The path of the soul on the other hand, says ‘yes’ to life in all its irreducible complexity. Your soul cares for you as a unique individual: that is its job! It supports you in the pursuit of your desires, since they express your character, and it doesn’t try to refine you into pure consciousness. As David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Since the soul is so vast in its activity, it makes sense to regard it as an entity somewhat separate from the smaller conscious ‘me’. Because it automatically looks after our physical and mental health, we can regard it as an inner guide or a guardian angel. Aristotle called this aspect of the soul our ‘daemon’ or ‘genius’, and said that happiness is only possible if we follow the prompting of our own genius. He defined happiness as ‘eudaemonia’, which means ‘being guided by a good angel’.
Following our own genius is not easy when the world and our conscious minds are prompting us otherwise, as they usually do. It is easier to follow the inner voice when we are alone, but in company we generally lose it. We prefer to behave the way we feel we should in order to belong, and this can be a fatal mistake. We eventually find that trying to be good, whatever that means, commonly leads to depression, anxiety and illness.
A Jewish story tells of a rabbi who was criticised for not being spiritual enough. “When I die and meet my maker,” he replied, “He will not ask me why I was not Moses. He will ask me why I was not myself.”
To follow our own soul can be very difficult. As Aristotle points out, it is a profoundly individual path. The soul can also be quite demanding. Each person has his own genius, his own guiding angel, which can be quite foreign to those around you. How many children feel they are born to the wrong parents on the wrong planet?
So how do you find your soul when you’ve lost it? You need to become a good listener, and be prepared for strange and inconvenient messages. The soul usually expresses itself indirectly through the language of dream, imagination, intuition and gut responses. You can get closer to it by asking ‘What do I absolutely love doing?’ and do that more consciously.
Only an ascetic’s soul is ascetic. We shouldn’t assume that our soul has to be dreary and self-denying, ever gazing upwards towards God in that idealised Christian sense. If we think of the soul as Aristotle did, we can see the soul as the principle of life itself. It is that passion for direct experience that visibly animates little children, and picks them up whenever they fall. Even in old age, the soul naturally seeks out what is beautiful and true and satisfying. If we follow the dictates of the soul, a crucial part of us can remain forever young despite what happens in our bodies.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2005