When I look into myself, I see a endless succession of thoughts, sensations and emotions all within the framework of an ever-changing body. I find myself quite hard to grasp. I am too complicated, too disconcertingly variable. Yet, despite this, I still know exactly who I am. I will never mistake myself, or be mistaken, for any other human being.
This sense of individuality precedes words and conceptual thought. Even amoebas, with minimal consciousness and no language, can recognise self and not-self. It is essential for the functioning of the immune system and therefore life itself. Thanks to the gamble of sexual reproduction, most living things are utterly unique, and vigorously protect their individuality.
But does a bug have a soul? Aristotle thought so. He quite sensibly regarded the soul as the integrating intelligence of any living organism, including animals and plants. This hasn’t stopped people, however, from trying to draw lines in the sand, dividing those with souls from those without.
It goes without say that educated white males like myself have always had souls. But at different times in history, women, slaves, negroes, asiatics, those of different religions and the lower classes have been regarded as devoid of souls, and therefore ripe for exploitation. And that just refers to human beings. Ever since we learnt that we share 98% of our genome with apes, it becomes so much harder to regard ourselves as quintessentially superior.
And is the soul immortal? Aristotle defined the soul as being virtually the same as ‘life’. The soul, or ‘anima’, is that which animates all living things, including plants and animals. ‘Psyche’, another old word for the soul, literally means ‘breath’ and ‘life’ in the same sense as the Sanskrit word ‘prana’ and the Chinese word ‘chi’. The soul is fundamentally that which keep us alive and well. Since soul and life are virtually identical terms, the death of the body equals the death of the soul.
Aristotle said that the soul has different levels of functioning. The first is life itself. The second involves functions such as the kinds of memory, emotion and judgement that animal have. 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.
The soul as Aristotle understoond it is unimaginably smart. Our biological, self-regulatory mechanisms keep us from excess. Our emotions keep us safe and satisfied. Even our intellectual activity is clearly shaped and guided by deeper forces. Yet it is all dependent on being alive. It is anchored in biology and therefore can’t be immortal.
Meister Eckhardt, the 14th century German mystic, disagreed. He said the soul also contained a ‘scintilla’, or spark of the divine. We recognise this most vividly when mind looks back on itself and becomes entranced by its own radiance. In this state, the soul seems to transcend the usual objects of consciousness, and therefore time and space itself. It seem to see the Absolute.
When mystics try to describe this state, they typically say it is eternal, infinite and beyond matter. They also say it is our true nature. The Indian formula is that ‘atman is Brahman’. The individual soul, the atman, becomes one with God or Brahman, and is therefore equally immortal.
The mystical vision is often described as the insight that all is one transcendental consciousness, and that the immortal soul is all that matters. Only unimportant things ever die – people and leopards and polar bears and dragonflies, for example. I do have my doubts about the mystical vision.
So is this The Truth, or is it just a vision? Can a deep conviction of eternal life be regarded as any kind of proof at all? Or is ‘eternity’ just a metaphor for an experience, which by its very nature is transient? Is the soul the deep, organic intelligence of the whole body and mind, which is bound to disintegrate like all living things, as Aristotle says? Or is it some pure essence – a ghost in the machine – that lives forever, even when the body dies?
There must be some evolutionary advantage in holding contradictory opinions simultaneously. I am always astounded that people believe in life after death, although the evidence to the contrary could not be more overwhelming. Everything that lives dies, and always has. Not a single one of the countless billions of living creatures since time began has escaped death and none have returned from the experience. Yet we find it so easy to believe that we can’t ‘really’ die. It is virtually our default position.
It is easy to imagine dying. It is like being sick, only worse. But it is impossible to imagine being dead. We have be alive to do so. Parmenides, 2600 years ago, drew the logical conclusion from this that death is a fiction, and that in fact nothing ever dies. Ramana Maharshi, the Indian sage, about a hundred years ago, came to exactly the same conclusion while still a child. He could imagine his body dying and being cremated, but he couldn’t imagine the death of his consciousness. Because of this, he concluded that his consciousness had to be immortal.
Ramana spend the rest of his life in almost total silence, isolation and inactivity, refining this conviction. He spend decades doing virtually nothing except sitting and sleeping. He even let people feed and bathe him, like a baby. Although he eventually started to teach, he was probably one of the most peaceful men who have ever lived. His photos show a face of profoundly vacuous serenity. Yet when he died of cancer at the age of 73, I’m sure his ‘immortal’ consciousness died with him, despite what he believed.
To do nothing, to look inwards, to have no thoughts, no sense of the body or personal identity, paradoxically results in a state of great bliss. A great yogi, like Ramana Maharshi, can enormously enhance that sense of disembodied timelessness, until it feels like second nature. To perfect this state, however, demands an extreme narcissistic withdrawal from the world, which few intelligent people would feel was worth the sacrifice.
The other way we feel eternity is to recollect the mind state of childhood, before we really developed our sense of time. Unlike Ramana Maharshi’s cold detachment, this is a state of connectedness and love. The metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, 250 years ago, exquisitely described this feeling of being a little child enchanted by the world: “All appeared New and Strange at the first, inexpressibly rare, and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded by innumerable joys.
“The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat, which should never be reaped nor was it ever sown. I thought it stood from Everlasting to Everlasting. The Dust and Stones of the Street were as precious as Gold. The men! Immortal cherubims! I knew not that they were Born or should Die. But all things abided Eternally as they were in their Proper Places. Eternity was manifest in the light of the Day, and something Infinite behind everything appeared.”
I find the concept of an immortal soul very silly indeed, but it does have one great virtue. It tells us that we really can know infinity and eternity as an experience, if not as an empirical fact. Through stillness and silence, it is quite possible to escape the dreary plod of time. On our noisy and polluted Earth, every inch of which is stalked by death, we can still see the face of God.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2007