Meander through any spiritual section of a bookstore, browsing amongst the myriad of titles on offer looking to open you up to the vast vistas of potential just lurking within you and not far into any of its pages there will be found a seemingly inevitable phrasing indicating a lack to be found in your humanity. The “limits” of the human are detailed for all to read though often if not always bound within the nebulous realm of poorly defined metaphor, odd usage of analogy and misunderstandings of human psychology. These “limits” are often phrased as some version of ” the soul is not bound by the human” or “it is beyond the understanding of the human part of you” or “the human part of you knows only limits but the soul knows freedom.” In any case there is a subtle and at times not so subtle demeaning of the human condition, as if finding a means of sloughing off this meat-suit would result in a new existence of perfection, intellectual profundity and cosmic strength.
The pervasive dualism here hearkens back to the days of gnosticism and its hierarchical system of belief placing the physical/material and therefore bodily/human aspect of people below that of the spiritual/soul. The material was considered corrupt and of a lesser substance than the purity of the spiritual and truer form in heaven, undoubtedly connecting, albeit poorly, to Plato’s notions of a realm of form that all instances of which on earth are but poor facsimiles. At the time this thinking was at the center of the so-called Arian heresy, whereby it was noted Jesus could not have been fully god as perfection would never demean itself by being placed in an inferior physical form it had already moved beyond, the two are simply too separate. This unfortunate philosophy has come down to us through the millenia buttressing further spiritist thinking and being given further weight by the dualist philosophy of Descartes. Indeed, it is a common phrasing in mystic studies that one’s soul is a “truer” you than your human self. The end result is a belief, though often not explicit, that one’s mind is at the mercy of poor human thinking that must be discarded for a higher or deeper quality of knowing.
That this dualistic thinking continues to this day, despite the massive advances in neurology, psychology and sociology is a testament to the power of how lived experience doesn’t match scientific understanding. We use the phrase “I hit the wall” as if we are a moving object hitting a stationary one, yet the reality is that the “wall” hits us with as much force as we hit it, for it is anything but stationary at a molecular level. The sun rises and sets but we know this isn’t actually true, no more than when we describe the “front” of a tree or other object in nature that it possesses a real front. All of these examples, and there are plenty more, point to our lived experience and the analysis of it as being contingent upon our physical form but also that such thinking is valid only from a phenomenological or personal view, not an objective one. This is not to say that such thinking is completely false, only that we should be careful of giving greater truth-value to something that seems to make intuitive sense.
Thus it is that when we discuss our soul as being “more true” than our human self, we run into two notions that are based on a subjective reality which is only partially accurate. The first deals with the ethics of living in a social world. We constantly struggle, at least those who think of such things, to be better reflections of ourselves in our actions, looking upon behavior deemed unworthy as indications of having not reached our true self, even to the point of using phrases such as “that wasn’t me” or “I wasn’t in control there” in attempts to distance ourselves from the reality that there was nobody else responsible. It is simply easier to believe that there exists a goal of achievement out there in the distance or deep down below the surface, where resides the self we think we truly are. Whether that person is reached through the personal revelatory experience of “being saved” in fundamentalist religion or the “deep knowing of intuition” in mystic practices, the goal is still the same.
The second notion concerns a feeling of possessing a transcendental self. We live a life in which we believe, falsely, our thoughts are under our control and there is an “I” existing apart from our actions. However, just as the “front” of a tree exists only as a means of providing a means of locating one’s bodily relation in space to it, so the “I” of the self is simply a means of locating one’s bodily relation in space to everything else. To be utterly visceral and not a little gross, were the body incapable of differentiating itself from other animals, there would be no holding back from munching on ourselves when we got hungry. The “I” descriptive is not a thing in itself, however real it may feel as we live the narratives the brain supplies.
First, identity. There is a disconnect when it is posited a separation from the human and one’s highest or deepest good or true self. We are, inevitably, part of this world and therefore subject to it, feeling our way through it via the nerve impulses running through our skin, being funneled through our optic nerves, oracular canals and olfactory nerves. When we begin denying the centrality of these senses by inferring they are somehow lesser than some other, undefined, sense that is subject to no objective analysis, i.e. the intuition of our soul, we put ourselves at the mercy of whatever forces are happening regardless of our awareness of them. There is so much more occurring than we are usually aware of, but through training and education can expand, none of which requires an extra sense or any removal from our physical/material reality. The world is simply bigger than our subjective experience typically lets us believe, science constantly opening up vast reaches of the cosmos that earlier would have appeared absurd.
Second, growth potential. This derives directly from the first. If one distances from the human through the imagining of a realm even subtly contrary to the one we are actually part of, then we lose sight of all the potential we can do by further study and expanding our awareness of our existence. Such notions as the soul are in the end nothing more than projections of an idea into mental space, much in the way we describe the center of a field. There is no objective “field” anymore than there is a “center” to it that must be “crossed” to get to the other “side.” These are all subjective metaphor projections, perfectly usable and required for navigation and determination of growing products, but in no way characteristic of anything other than our mental state. If we were to focus exclusively on the metaphorical boundaries we’d miss how the so-called “surrounding” land is affected by what we do within the field and how it is all interconnected from the field to the stream to the ocean and so forth.
There is great strength already in existence. There is monumental intelligence already at work. The usage of the soul is not invariably destructive or limiting no more than the usage of god is demanding and judgmental. All are projections overlaying and defining experience. The soul/god can exist as a descriptive for the embodiment of goodness/forgiveness/love/respect/tolerance/understanding, but it must never be forgotten that these are all derived from our humanity, not from something other than.
© David Teachout