The Soul

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

The self, awareness and intent cannot exist in a void. It makes sense that they are the properties of a relatively discrete (non-material) energy field. Despite its baggage, the traditional name for this part of a living organism, the soul, still seems to be the most apposite. To ease possible discomfort from certain associations that the usage of this word may evoke, we will start with a brief historical perspective.

The notion of the soul (interpreted in various ways) appears in practically every culture: the Egyptian term was ba, the Hindu atman, the Jewish neshamah, the medieval Christian anima divina. Popper writes:

There is an abundance of important evidence that supports the hypothesis that dualistic and interactionist beliefs concerning body and mind are very old – prehistoric and of course historic. Apart from folklore and fairy tales, it is supported by all we know about primitive religion, myth, and magical beliefs. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.157)

For most Greek philosophers too, the soul was a matter of fact. They identified the soul with the life principle itself and also the source of inner movement. Plato considered the self (soul) distinct from the body and capable of living without it. Aristotle also acknowledged a non-material aspect of a human being (although he interpreted it in a different way from Plato). Roman biographer Plutarch speaks about nous, uncorrupted soul that survives death. Cicero too was a dualist. Soul, as a breath of life, appears in Egyptian Gnostic Myths, the book of Genesis and the Arabian Creation Myth. Not all religions, however, support this notion. Mainstream Buddhism rejects the idea of the eternal non-material soul as taught in Hinduism (anatta doctrine), which is consistent with its creed of impermanence and makes its essentially idealistic position closer to materialist views. However, this creates a number of other inconsistencies (regarding the concepts of the self, reincarnation and Nirvana). The Old Testament seems ambiguous about whether humans are purely physical beings or not. In the earlier period, the emphasis is very much on this world. Later, though, the soul becomes more independent from the body. In Christianity, it is considered an eternal, divine, perfect and beautiful aspect of the human, which nevertheless resembles the physical body and can suffer an equivalent of physical pains and pleasures. Some modern theologians (such as Teilhard de Chardin) rejected these naïve notions of the soul and developed much more sophisticated interpretations. In a nutshell, the idea of the soul has a long tradition, and should not be identified with a particular religious framework.

We already suggested that the self, awareness and intent are attributes of the One. If life forms are in the process of becoming the counterpart to the One, it makes sense that they must also have a self and at least rudimentary intent and awareness, and consequently a non-material aspect – the soul[1]. Energy is alive if it has a self and the abilities of awareness and intent. This is what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate. Without the interaction with this non-material aspect, there is no life. This view was commonly held since antiquity. Thomas Aquinas wrote (using the Latin term anima for the soul):

Animate means living and inanimate non-living, so soul means that which first animates or makes alive the living things with which we are familiar. (in Thompson, 1997, p.120)

However, the soul does not necessarily correspond to an individual biological form. Almost certainly not every fruit fly or ant has its own soul and self. Considering the highly synchronised nature of their societies, it is more likely that most of the related non-material energy of single-cell organisms, as well as some insects and plants is focused collectively, while individual selves constantly appear and disappear depending on the extent of separation from the collective that is happening at any point. Even in higher organisms some energy fibres are still attached to a collective energy field, which could account for the cumulative learning of species mentioned earlier on (p.142). So – particularly in the case of simpler life forms – rather than bubbles, souls are better imagined as the crests of waves that are connected underneath, or pieces of music that share the same base line.

[1] If referring to these elements rather than to the physical body, humans and, in fact, all life forms reflect indeed ‘God’s image’ (in the case of the latter, of course, God merely reflects the human image).

The Perception of the Soul (Epistemological Issues)

As the soul is non-material, happenings in the soul cannot be directly detected through the physical senses or mechanical instruments. They can, however, be experienced or felt. Most people are vaguely aware of these experiences. For example, it is common to describe individuals in terms of energy properties, such as ‘warm or cold’, ‘open or closed’, ‘deep or shallow’, ‘being on the same wavelength’, etc. Rather than being just metaphors, these may be the descriptions of something that involves the non-physical level. Still, the understanding of the soul has remained rudimentary even for those who believe in it, for several reasons: such direct (not mediated by the senses) perceptions are unstable, fleeting, unstructured, vague, and difficult to classify, so they are usually ignored as background noise; and they are easily overrun by more intense and tangible physical and mental processes such as sensory inputs from the environment or cognitive processes (e.g. imagination, thinking); as they are not based on physical perceptions, these experiences are much harder to verify and conceptualise within a socially shared framework.

This is not to say that a fuller comprehension of soul phenomena is not possible, but it requires the combining of several methods:

  • Mechanical instruments are made of matter, so we cannot expect them to find non-material properties. However, as non-material reality and material reality interact, so observations that modern devices enable can still be useful (e.g. in picking up the results of this interaction). For example, we now know that vibration producing movements define living cells, which can be indicative of the nature of this interaction.
  • Transpersonal experiences are of course essential, but they require shifting the focus of awareness. Considering that we are focusing here on the non-material, using a visual apparatus is not necessary, but other things are: maintaining the attention (on a person or another life form), tuning in beyond the mental constructs (image) associated with the object of our attention, and sensitivity to pick up faint and fleeting impressions. This is a tall order but not impossible.
  • An accurate perception requires separating what comes from the perceived and what comes from the perceiver. So, phenomenological reduction – an attempt to approach these experiences without social and personal presuppositions and interpretations – is essential. In other words, the accuracy depends on the extent to which we are capable of bracketing or going below our projections.
  • We can make some inferences following the reasoning criteria described in the part The Synthesis Method. These inferences can bridge at least some gaps in our understanding in a verifiable way.

The Description

An objection may be raised that any attempt to describe the soul may ruin the magic and mystery associated with this subject. Being different from anything else, the soul is indeed very special, but there is no reason to mystify it. Besides, there are still plenty of things in relation to the soul and otherwise that remain mysterious, so there is no need to worry about attempts to understand and describe what could be understood and described.

The first challenge that such an endeavour faces is that the soul is not a kind of substance or ‘stuff’ (as assumed in the so-called ‘ectoplasm’ account). It is more accurate to think about it as focused fluctuations of pure energy (meaning without stuff that fluctuates). However, for any intelligible account it is practically impossible to imagine or speak about the soul and avoid completely the terms usually associated with substance (i.e. shapes or colours). In a similar vein, physicists represent light, for example, as a wavy line with peaks and troughs although, in fact, light is not like that. So for the sake of better understanding, these familiar terms will be used in the description of the soul, fully acknowledging that any conceptualisation is not only limiting, but crude too.

On the basis of the above mentioned methods, several inferences can be drawn. The soul, first of all, does not resemble the physical body. It would not be functional for the soul of a rabbit, for example, to have the shape of a rabbit. This shape is adapted to life in the physical environment and would not be of much use in non-material reality (what would be the purpose of legs, for example?). The disparity between the body and the soul, despite their resonance, is possible because wave patterns produced by an organism is very different than the physical shape and structure of that organism.

So, if there is no parallel with the body, what can we say about it? We have already proposed that at least some of the energy in this field has to be focused and create loops. Hence, we suggest that the best topological representation of the soul would be a torus[2] (a doughnut shape) with an infinitely small point in the middle (known as an ‘umbilicoid’) and an infinitely large field. The soul, therefore, can be considered a field that consists of energy loops and two major vortices. This resembles an electro-magnetic field (except that the latter does not have a centre). However, transpersonal experiences indicate that the energy is not uniform. It seems that the soul has a complex structure, with various components and their specific functions. So, such an energy field is better compared to a single-cell organism, with its centre, inner space and membrane (the latter being more dense). These components are not sharply demarcated though – there is much greater fluidity between them than between biological components.

The membrane (or sometimes several membranes that we will later refer to as ‘rings’) is particularly interesting because it separates a small part (or some processes) in the soul associated with physical life from a much larger part that remains dormant during one’s life. The former is so distinct from the rest of the soul that it can be seen, for all practical purposes, as a discrete unit. Again, a parallel can be drawn with the one in a dream and the one who is dreaming. The dreamer is not really in the dream, but is still experiencing, and these experiences can have an effect even after waking up. To follow this analogy further, it could be said that, as the person who is dreaming, the soul sleeps during the lifetime (meaning that the self is not aware of non-material reality). This is why the soul does not exist for most people, as the one who dreams usually does not exist for the one in the dream. In terms of quantum physics, the soul is suspended in a state of uncertainty until the function that is physical life collapses (at the moment of death). The soul is not in the body, nor does it leave the body after death. It is a relatively discrete energy field that is all the time in non-material reality, even when its part resonates for a while with the body. Soul is not physical because it exists in a non-material realm where only some known laws are still relevant (e.g. the effect of a variance in energy potential).

The soul defines how one is, rather than who one is. So, in the case of human beings, various physical and social descriptions such as one’s appearance, name, role, gender, race, nationality or religious affiliation have nothing to do with the soul, although they may affect it indirectly, to the extent to which these descriptions are allowed to influence one’s experience and actions. Certain personal qualities, however, may have their correlates in the soul. Plutarch (among many others in the ancient world for whom the perception of the soul was a matter of fact) thought that the variations and movement of colours could reveal the passions and vices of the soul.

Because they are often associated with an ideal image, the common assumption is that souls are perfect and beautiful. However, some transpersonal experiences suggest that this is not necessarily the case. For example, some energy configurations can be too ‘soft’ or too ‘hard’. There may be some ‘cracks’ that interrupt the flow of energy. There may also be darkened areas (that can be the result of inner conflicts or traumatic experiences), dents or depressions, as well as spikes or protrusions (probably as a result of some impulsive or unfulfilled desires when the energy of the soul stretches out before an action). The general movement of the energy may vary too: a soul normally pulsates in a particular rhythm, but sometimes this pulsation can be erratic or resemble trembling. There could also be dis-synchrony or dis-harmony (or grinding) between various energy movements within the soul. Nevertheless, every soul possesses an element of infinity, which without doubt has an aesthetic quality even if some of its aspects may be less appealing.

This is what we can discern so far, but we must concede that it is hard to achieve reliable verification of any accounts (including our own), and much unknown remains in this respect. Far better communication between those who explore this topic is needed to put this jigsaw together.

[2] A torus is different from a sphere – one cannot be reshaped into the other.

The Dynamics of the Soul

Contrary to popular belief, souls are not perfect. In fact, the idea of perfect souls is incompatible with interactionism and purpose – what would be the point of physical life if souls were perfect and unchanging? Souls are actually initially latent, little aware, and with minimal internal control (akin to babies). In other words, they are the units of volatile energy that require more solid forms to provide boundaries as well as relative stability and coherence. For the purpose of their growth and development they are exposed to various experiences in physical reality and shaped by ‘tools’ such as the body and mind. So souls are limited by the body and by the mind until they becomes capable of self-control. The soul energies grow only gradually and become harmonised through the evolution and development. An infinite number of waves can be focused in one point, so souls can vary greatly in volume and complexity.

The soul is shaped through life experiences – interactions with our external and internal environments. Differences between souls are the result of different experiences and making different choices. Every experience redistributes energy and by doing so affects its shape. We are aware of these shifts as feelings, the recognition of the effects of an experience on us (which should be distinguished from our emotional reactions). As we experience through our body and mind, they affect the soul. In return, the soul can affect the body/brain by the power of intent and its internal dynamic, but these influences are relatively weak in comparison.

The most important characteristic of the soul is that it is a focused energy. This focal point that enables awareness and intent can be called the self. However, the self needs to be distinguished from I (personality); awareness needs to be distinguished from the materials of awareness (such as thoughts, images, feelings, etc.); intent also needs to be distinguished from other possible causes of activity (reflexes, urges, desires, will). To make this clearer, we will now discuss these three properties and how they relate to the material aspect of the human being.