Sunday, 5 October 2008
I'M A SOUL MAN: SOME THOUGHTS ON THE BODY, SOUL & SPIRIT: PART TWO
"It is the Soul, the Spirit, the Self that must be seen and be heard and have our thoughts and meditation, O Maitreya! When the Soul is seen and heard, is thought upon and is known, then all that is becomes known." - Upanishads
The Greeks identified the heart as being the seat of the Psyche/Soul and the head as that of the Pneuma/Spirit (see image in last post). This idea of the Nous, or Mind being the connection each of us has with the universal Pneuma continued into Eastern Christianity ie Greek, Russian, Byzantine etc which believes that each of us carries within him or her a spark of the Divine Nous or Consciousness. Unlike Western Christianity which holds to doctrines of Original Sin and, even worse, Utter Depravity (thank you Augustine and Calvin for those), Orthodox Christians hold that the Divine Consciousness within each of us, like a mirror, not only reflects God's light but can only be obscured, never destroyed. Thus for the Greeks the inherent dignity of humanity and its indestructible connection with the Eternal survived Plato and Constantine into the present day...
In fact the Greeks were a major source of thought on the Soul. From early on Radiant Bodies, Astral Bodies and Spirit Bodies were identified as being part of its make-up, some able to detach themselves from their physical forms and travel between worlds. Pythagoras, Plato and the later neo-Platonists all also explored the nature of the Soul, its relationship to the One and its existence in many lives through transmigration and reincarnation. Pythagoras was said to be able to recognise places and objects that had played a role in previous incarnations. Plato wrote in great detail about what the Buddhists would call the Bardo state, or intermediary state between death and rebirth. But it was the great neo-Platonist Plotinus who devoted his entire life to a study of the Soul, his monumental ENNEADS providing inspiration for all mystical writing in the West from Origen to Ibn Arabi to Isaac Luria. It was Plato and his successors who developed the idea of the Soul emanating from the One, the Godhead, incarnating in this body and seeking a return to its origin, an idea familiar to all the great traditions mentioned above. Indeed in Sufism this notion of the Descent and Ascent of the Soul is central to the whole idea of the Way. Here, the Soul incarnates and descends from the Godhead and exists in the flesh until the moment when it suddenly becomes aware of itself. At this moment of awakening, its situation becomes intolerable and, aware of its celestial origins, it begins to seek the means to return. It is at this moment that the Soul becomes suitable for embarking upon the Sufi Way, at which time the quest begins to be reunited with the Divine. I am sure most people reading this can remember the moment which 'woke' them up and began them on their own journey. Perhaps the Burning Bush before Moses or Paul's experience on the road to Damascus are dramatic images of this moment of self-discovery. Paul's awakening to the possibilities of the Soul is interesting in this context as it was from him that we derive the term 'Out of Body Experience', a concept found in the Merkavah Mystics of ancient Israel and the Prophet's Night Journey in Jerusalem:
"I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell, whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man (whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell; God knoweth) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful to utter." - 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4
It is this unity and origin with the One, the Over-Soul as the Theosophists put it, which makes the idea or existence of the Soul so important - the idea that there is a Cosmic Oneness of which all human Souls are part. In fact, once again, the idea is universal. In India, there is the Atman, or World Soul and in the West, the Anima Mundi, of which each of us possesses the Scintillans, or Divine Spark within us. In all instances, the World Soul is synonymous with the Cosmic Man, be it Purusha in India or Adam Kadmon and Christ in the West. And in all instances the World Soul and the Cosmic Man are united with whatever term the culture wants to call God - Brahma, the Father, the Ain Sof. In our inner selves, if not in our physical selves, everything is One.
By far the most comprehensive analysis of this connection in the West is found in Kabbalah. Here the three levels of the Soul already mentioned give way to two more, Chayyah and Yechidah. These are said to be operating on such a high level that they barely impact on our conscious lives. Nevertheless it is at this level that we connect to the Godhead in the most profound way. It is here that we find what I mean by our having 'never being severed from the Divine'.
We saw how in Kabbalah the threefold nature of the Soul consisted of the Nefesh, the Ruach and the Neshemah. Above this are the fourth and fifth levels, Chayyah and Yechidah. Chayyah is linked etymologucally to the word for 'Life' in Hebrew: Chaim (as in 'L'chaim'). Chayyah is, in sense, the Cosmic Life Force emanating from God, pouring down and suffusing everything. Even higher than this is Yechidah, which means 'the Only One' or 'the Singular One'. Yechidah is so intimately interwoven with God that it is almost indistinguishable. Isaac Luria explained this fivefold nature of the Soul by taking a Glassblower as an analogy. If Nefesh is the part of the Soul which, like the breath of the Glassblower, forms the shape of the glass object being created, Chayyah is the breath emerging from the lungs through the mouth while Yechidah is the idea of the breath in the mind. Thus on the most profound level (or the highest, depending on your perspective), we are at One with God. Needless to say, awareness of this can only usually be conceptual. Its almost impossible to actually directly experience this condition. And yet for the Kabbalist it is absolutely true. We are 100% one with God, even as we move in this world under the impression that we are an isolated part of Creation. Hence we are in a real sense 'never severed from the Divine'. This, presumably, is what Christ meant when he said 'I and the Father are One', suggesting that in this relationship lies the secret of what John says is our 'power to become all the Sons of God'.
And this is where the revolutionary aspect of the Soul comes in, for what is it that causes the most pain in this world we live? The sense of loneliness, of isolation, of meaninglessness, of being in a chaotic, fragmented universe in which at any moment someone or something could be out to get you? Fear, the belief that one is utterly alone, that the planet is a jungle where death and pain is just around the corner, where you cannot trust anyone - these are the causes of so much of our suffering and conflict. The Gnostics believed that this world of Matter was ruled over by a mad and blind God who sought to keep us from an awareness of the Soul. I have always thought that this was a perfect metaphor for life in which all access to the Spirit was snuffed out. A condition of fearful darkness in which even our material existence cannot be enjoyed. In the rediscovery of the Soul, that thing in us which connects us to everything - ourselves, each other, the Cosmos - is perhaps the means out of the situation we are in now.
So how do we begin to do this? Well to start with we have to believe in the existence of the Soul again. Easier said than done, as some people simply do not acknowledge such a thing, whether as a 'phsyical' reality or even a metaphorical one. This is a problem, as inherent in the idea of the Soul however one defines it is the dignity of the individual and his or her inner life. If this isn't acknowledged we don't have a chance. We will go on seeing each other as lumps of meat, economic units, expendable assets, things to be exploited and not sentient beings with an inherent value connected to each other. The only way of believing in the Soul's existence is to experience it.
Secondly, we have to rescue the Soul from religions and give it back to humanity. This is also tricky, as traditionally the world's religions have been how we have understood the Soul. All the wisdom I have cited here came from the very faith systems we are now so keen to reject. Outside them, discourse on the Soul is pretty hard to find, particularly in the market place where Matter is king. But if there is something to be learnt about the way the different religions speak about the Soul it is that the reality of the Soul is not only Universal, but NOT religion-dependent. The Soul came first, religious discussion of the Soul came second. Indeed all faiths came OUT of a new understanding of the Soul and its relationship with God or the One. If the problem with religion today can be defined it would be in terms of a reversal of this relationship. Instead of being a means to put people in touch with the Soul and set it free, religion has too often in our modern world been a way of binding it, obsessing more about what we do with our Bodies and with whom than how we might make contact with our own deeper selves. Intolerance, jihads, crusades, Inquisitions, suppression of women and destruction of cultures are not good ways of helping people discover their inner lives, although ironically the tyranny of religion is an inverse proof of the power of that inner life. If we didn't have one, it wouldn't be such a potent means of control.
The Soul, although an expression of the One, is not a herd animal. It needs to tread an individual path and it needs an environment to do so. When religion has facilitated the Soul, when it has served as a seed-bed for the Soul to flourish, when it has been Soul-inspired as it were, we have prospered. Historically, this has been the function of religion, to explore en masse what the Soul might mean. Every piece of information I have used in these posts has come from Christian, Muslim, Judaic or Hellenic sources - ie religious ones. The exoteric expressions of these religions enabled this esoteric discovery to happen. But religion, like everything else, is cyclic. What was once liberating is now largely lagging behind. The Soul needs to be freed. But as I mentioned earlier, how do we do so when all the terminology stemmed from those religions we need to move beyond? The answer is simple - we need to know where we came from. We owe a massive debt to these religions, they gave us a crucial framework for discussion of our spiritual natures. Like it or not, they are like our parents. However, if they are to survive, children need to leave their parents and become adults themselves which must inevitably involve rebellion and rejection. But perhaps once those parents cease to have power over us we can come to some terms with them, recognise what they have given us, pay hommage but move on into our own lives with that wisdom understood in a new way. Thus to reject the last 2000 years of spiritual development out of hand is foolish. This is why I refuse to take the fashionable 'all religion is crap' POV. We need to release the divinely-inspired beauty of what they have to offer from the man-made ugliness that has sought to subject us and find a way of speaking of the Soul without the connotations of guilt, punishment and misery that have made it such an undesirable thing to have for so long. The Soul needs rehabilitation! But if the environment is not given for it to thrive it will have to make its own. Thus religions - along with a few other things most likely! - will have to decide whether they will reembrace the Soul and nourish it or face going to the wall.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we have to understand the relationship between the Body and the Soul in a new way. If there is one thing all the different 'systems' of the Soul I have mentioned have in common it is that Body and Soul on all its levels are inescapably One. For too long we have allowed them to war with each other. The Soul gives us a gateway onto Eternity, but the ecstasy of that is entirely dependent upon us having a Body to experience it. The Finite defines the Infinite and vice versa. We need to stop seeing the Body as a prison for the Soul (a mistake even some of the greatest Mystics made) and instead see it as a tremendous OPPORTUNITY for its expression. We are here to experience life in the flesh in every way. There are things that the Soul cannot do without a Body. We are incarnate because the Soul wants it. Without it, it cannot experience Love, it cannot make love or properly understand its place in the Universe. What distinguishes us from the Angels is our combination of a physical body with a divine essence. That should be a joy rather than a curse. At the same time, the Body can become deeply impoverished without the Soul. Without it, the Body becomes utterly subject to the illusions of Time and Space and begins to fear for its own safety, becoming subject to the blind and mad God at which point the suffering of the Soul becomes so intense. Most importantly, sexuality must be restored to its rightful place at the heart of our experience of our Divine Nature. The greatest Mystics of all the ages knew this and couched their highest experiences in terms which were as much erotic as spiritual...
Greek Christianity speaks of the 'ensouled body' and the 'embodied soul', suggesting, perhaps, the real relationship between the two. Perhaps this is what we need to learn anew, setting the Soul free to fly again and allowing it kiss and be kissed by the Body once more. We have spent a long time going outwards with our behaviour. Its time to go inwards again and once we have discovered the treasure within, to inform everything we do without with that gold... It is a liberation and offers the possibility of a connection not only with the deepest things within us but the whole human race and, potentially, the Universe... Perhaps such a hope is naive. Perhaps the time is not available to us. But what more exciting horizon of opportunity could there be? A true understanding of the phrase 'the Kingdom of God is within you' each in our own individual way...
"Nothing under heaven can arrest the progress of the human soul on its long pilgrimage from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real, from death to immortality, and from ignorance to wisdom." Djwhal Khul, the Tibetan