01.07.2008

Soul Truth

On behalf of us all, Eric Harrison poses the ultimate question: when we die does our soul live on?

Onbehalf of us all, Eric Harrison poses the ultimate question:when we die does our soul live on?

When Shakespeare said, "To thine own self betrue", he was quoting a proverb that had its rootsin ancient Greece. "Examine yourself," saidSocrates, who argued that self understanding is essentialfor happiness and the pursuit of any knowledge whatsoever.It is little exaggeration to say that all of Westernpsychology and science starts with Socrates' littlephrase.

When I look at myself, however, I see an endless cavalcadeof sensations, emotions, memories and habits withinin one everchanging body. I seem to be too big, toocomplicated, too disconcertingly variable to nail downin any meaningful way. And yet, despite all this, Istill know exactly who I am. I will never mistake myself,nor be mistaken, for any other human being.

This gut feeling of individuality comes from a placethat precedes words. Even amoebas, with the most minimaldegree of consciousness, and no understanding of language,can recognise self and not self. If nothing else, thisability is essential for the functioning of the immunesystem and thus life itself. Thanks to the vagariesof sexual reproduction, every living thing is utterlyunique, and vigorously protects its autonomy.

But does a bug have a soul? Aristotle thought so.He quite sensibly regarded the soul as the integratingintelligence of any living organism, including animalsand plants. But this hasn't stopped people in the pastfrom trying to draw lines in the sand.

It goes without saying that educated males have alwayshad souls. But at different times in history, women,slaves, Negroes, Asiatics, those of different religionsand even the lower classes have been regarded as soulless,and therefore ripe for exploitation. And that is justreferring to human beings. Now that we know we share98 per cent of our genome with apes, and 60 per centwith fruit flies, it becomes so much harder to regardourselves as quintessentially superior.

But is the soul immortal? Aristotle defined the "soul"as being virtually the same as "life". Consequently,when the body dies the soul does, too. According tohim, the soul, or "anima", is that which animatesall living things, including plants and animals. "Psyche",another old word for the soul, literally means "breath"and "life" in the same sense as the Sanskritword "prana" and the Chinese word "chi".The soul is fundamentally that which keep us alive andwell. Shaw calls it "the life force"; Bergsoncalls it "the vital spirit"; Schopenhauercalls it "the will to live".

Aristotle also said that the soul has different levelsof functioning. The first is life itself, which evenplants possess. The second involves functions such asthe kinds of memory, emotion and judgement that animalshave. The third is "human" reason, our usualmode of operating. The fourth level is the capacityfor self reflective, abstract, independent thought,or "Reason" with a capital R. This is whatDescartes, who was also a great mathematician, regardedas the most glorious function of the soul.

The soul in all its complexity is unimaginably smart,far smarter than our conscious minds. Our biological,self regulatory mechanisms keep us from excess. Ouremotions keep us safe and satisfied. Even our intellectualactivity is clearly shaped and guided by deeper forces.Aristotle describes all these as functions of the soul.

All this, however, is dependent on being alive. Whenthe being dies, the soul does, too. The soul, afterall, equals "life". It is anchored in biologyand, as such, can't be immortal. So where does the mythof the immortal soul come from?

Meister Eckhardt, the 14th century German mystic,said the soul also contained a "scintilla",or spark of the divine. We recognise this most vividlywhen mind looks back on itself and becomes entrancedby its own radiance, its capacity to see. In this state,the soul seems to transcend the usual objects of consciousness,and thus time and space itself. It sees what seems tobe the Absolute.

When mystics try to describe this experience, theytypically say it is eternal, infinite and beyond matter.They also say it is our true nature. The Indian formulais that "atman is Brahman". The individualsoul becomes one with God, and is therefore equallyimmortal.

The mystical vision is often described as the insightthat all is one transcendental consciousness, and thatnothing of real importance ever dies. Only people. Andleopards. And polar bears. And dragonflies. Unimportantthings. I do have my doubts about the mystical vision.

So is this the Truth, or is it just a vision? Cana deep conviction of eternal life be regarded as anykind of proof at all? Or is "eternity" justa metaphor for an experience which, by its very nature,is transient? Is the soul the deep, organic intelligenceof the whole body and mind, which is bound to disintegratelike all living things, just as Aristotle says? Or isit some pure essence – a ghost in the machine– that lives forever, even when the body dies?
As human beings, we are very good at holding contradictoryopinions simultaneously. There must be some evolutionaryadvantage in it. I am always astounded that it is soeasy for people to believe in life after death, althoughthe evidence to the contrary could not be more overwhelming.Everything that lives dies, and always has. Not a singleone of the countless billions of living beings sincetime began has escaped death. Yet we find it so easyto believe that we can't "really" die. Itis 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 to be alive to do so. Parmenides, 2600 yearsago, drew the logical conclusion from this that deathis a fiction, and that, in fact, nothing ever dies.Ramana Maharshi, the Indian sage, about a hundred yearsago, came to exactly the same conclusion. He could imaginehis body dying and being cremated, but he couldn't imaginethe death of his consciousness. He therefore concludedthat his consciousness had to be immortal.

Ramana spent the rest of his life in almost totalsilence, isolation and inactivity, refining this conviction.He spent decades doing virtually nothing at all exceptsitting and sleeping. He even let people feed and bathehim, like a baby. Although he eventually started toteach, he was probably one of the most peaceful menwho have ever lived. His photos show a face of vacuousserenity. Yet when he died of cancer at the age of 73,I'm sure his "immortal" consciousness diedwith him, despite what he believed.

I suspect that the conviction that we can't "really"die has something to do with our clumsy, cobbled together,perception of time. To me, the future beyond the nextweek or two seems more like an idea than a fact. I thoroughlysympathise with people who spend every penny they earnbecause the future seems so bloodless.

We are not hardwired to understand the passage oftime. We have to learn it. It seems that we are onlyconscious of time because we notice movement. Our bodiesmove, our minds move, the world moves around us. Overthe years, we develop a working sense of passing timeby reading this constant sensory input, but it is alwaysapproximate, and something of an effort, and frequentlybreaks down.

This sense of time can easily vanish if the movementaround and within us slows down or stops. In deep meditation,when the mind falls silent, and the body becomes verystill, the sense of passing time can collapse. In thisstate, the breathing virtually stops, and the spacebetween out-breath and in-breath can seem to last forever.

To look inwards, to have no thoughts, no sense ofthe body or personal identity, and no awareness of anymovement paradoxically results in total bliss. It isan experience of infinity and eternity even though,from another perspective, it may only last a few secondsof clock time. A good yogi, like Ramana Maharshi, canenormously enhance that sense of timelessness untilit feels like second nature to him. To perfect thisstate, however, demands a profoundly narcissistic withdrawalfrom the world, which few intelligent people would feelwas worth the sacrifice.

The other way we feel eternity is to recollect themindstate of childhood, before we really developed oursense of time. Unlike Ramana Maharshi's cold detachment,this is a state of connectedness and love. The metaphysicalpoet Thomas Traherne, 250 years ago, exquisitely describedthis feeling of being a little child enchanted by theworld:

"All appeared New and Strange at the first, inexpressiblyrare, and delightful and beautiful. I was a little strangerwhich at my entrance into the world was saluted andsurrounded by innumerable joys.

"The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat, whichshould never be reaped nor was ever sown. I thoughtit stood from Everlasting to Everlasting. The Dust andStones of the Street were as precious as Gold. The men!Immortal cherubims! I knew not that they were Born orshould Die. But all things abided Eternally as theywere in their Proper Places. Eternity was manifest inthe light of the Day, and something Infinite behindeverything appeared."

I am quite certain that we are not "spiritualbeings", capable of surviving the death of thebody. I find the concept of an immortal soul very sillyindeed if taken literally, but it does have one greatvirtue. It tells us that we really can know infinityand eternity as an experience, if not as an empiricalfact. Through stillness and silence, it is quite possibleto escape the dreary plod of time. On our noisy andpolluted Earth, every inch of which is stalked by death,we can still see the face of God.

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