Awareness, Consciousness, Self, Mind
One Perspective on the Soul
A Dear Friend Has Many Names
The British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, best known for his novel 2001 A – Space Odyssey, is also famous for his short-stories. In 1953 the short story The Nine Billion Names of God was published where he quoted a Tibetan proverb – there are nine billion names of God.
The same year saw a novel called Childhood’s End was published with a related idea.
When the Tibetan monks, aided by a computer, had listed all possible names of God, the stars went out one by one from the night sky. Although the idea that Buddhist monks would be interested in naming God seems a bit foreign, there might still be something to the idea. For in Childhood’s End, each star in the sky represents, according to the musings of one of the characters in the book who is an astronomer, a living human being or, shall we say, a soul, The Nine Billion Names of the Soul.
What the term ‘soul’ actually means is not easy to say, let alone what the word denotes, but Arthur C. Clarke’s idea might show us where to look which, however points in a direction where we cannot see anything.
The ‘soul’ is not a universal term, but it has both religious and philosophical connotations. I will focus upon its philosophical dimension and see how far we can get. There are two ways of talking about the soul: what the word means, and what we refer to when we use the word.
The word ‘soul’ is often used synonymously with ‘spirit’.
Aristotle talked about it in his treatise De Anima. ‘Anima’ means ‘soul’ but modern philosophers tend to think of it in terms of mental faculties such as thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. Modern science also uses concepts that refer to the mind when there’s talk about consciousness. In fact, we could say that modern science wants to get rid of the idea of consciousness altogether.
From anthropological research we often hear about the ‘spirit world’ and strange concepts such as ‘dreamtime’. It is reasonable to associate these concepts to altered states of consciousness that we experience, such as the dreaming state during sleep.
Sigmund Freud and others have written about dreams and how to interpret their content, and it seems legitimate to ask: Is our soul talking to us while we sleep? If so, why don’t we remember much of what it is telling us? It seems, however, that we are missing a point here. The question put in this way is misleading because we tend to assess phenomena like these through, and interpreted by, the limited awareness of our waking state.
We assume that the waking state is the normal state of awareness, and that the dreaming state is a secondary and inferior state of mind. This might be a mistake, for what if there could are other states of consciousness of which we are not aware?
In fact, other cultures have a concept for the contents of what we term ‘deep sleep’ and from which we do not remember anything. This is the Dreamtime of the Australian Aborigines mentioned earlier, and it is regarded as a spiritual realm, where time does not exist, only everywhen, the temporal equivalent of the spatial expression everywhere. That means that time in the usual sense doesn’t exist. We do not remember anything from our episodes of deep sleep; we only remember, at least sometimes, our dreams.
For the Aborigines, however, Dreamtime, or deep sleep, is seen as the primary state of awareness. Therefore, what we think of as our primary and most important state of awareness is to them the least aware state and therefore least important and also least real. To them dreaming is considered more real than the waking state, and deep sleep more real than dreaming. This is of course in direct opposition to common wisdom among us, but it is where we should look for the soul.
The Western materialistic interpretation of reincarnation is that a soul enters the body at some stage of its development after or even before birth, and then leaves the body when we die. There are many problems with this.
For instance, we should be able to notice when this happens, and secondarily, how it happens. And it seems odd to think that the soul would somehow be secondary to the body since it is believed to survive death. This is also related to the big body-mind problem that has shadowed Western thinking for millennia, until now surfacing in disguised form as quantum mechanics, particularly the Copenhagen interpretation, which states that the outcome of an experiment is always influenced by the observer’s consciousness. This is often referred to as ‘Mind over Matter’, but again, that is a misleading interpretation of the situation because the outcome is not affected by the observer’s thoughts, only by whether or not the experiment was observed.
Aristotle used the word ‘Anima’ for the force that makes us living entities, and there are other words for it such as Prāṇa or Qi, depending on language or tradition.
To the modern mind awareness exists in two stages, wakefulness and dreaming, and both are understood as products of matter.
At some stage in development we become aware because consciousness somehow enters, or is produced by the body. The body is made of matter. To traditional, original cultures, this is nonsense.
Cause and Effect
The principle of cause and effect plays an important part in modern thinking; however, it should be clear that it is just a product of thoughts.
No one has ever experienced cause and effect. It’s an idea that has been successful in science; that is, in that realm of awareness that traditional cultures regard as the least important and least real world.
In dreams the principle of cause and effect is almost absent and replaced by a seemingly illogical sequence of events.
According to the traditional perspective, the soul lives outside of cause-effect because it is related to something other than mind―the world of ideas and concepts―not least because the mind also goes when the brain dies. Whether or not this is true is difficult to know but it gives a better idea of what the word ‘soul’ may mean.
The mind-matter and body-mind problems arise because we believe that matter is a primary substance. That is a dualistic belief. If we, on the other hand, include a third state of awareness, then the situation will be reversed. If mind is seen as secondary, and matter third when determining the order of importance and degree of reality of the material world thus giving up dualism, then the situation becomes easier and at the same time more mysterious.
We may stop fighting windmills in the outside world and see that we won’t get anywhere unless we realise where they come from. Instead of body and mind of dualistic science we are talking about three levels of existence: Body, mind and consciousness. If mind is seen as the agent that produces reality (matter), that is, rather than body manifesting mind, then we may ask “What is the agent that manifests mind?” The Sufi or mystic will answer without hesitation: Awareness, consciousness. That is to say: the soul produces mind and body, thoughts and matter.
What, Then, Is the Soul?
The short answer is, we will never know. That subject will take us into deep questions about the nature of reality, space and time, and concepts such as eternity and the Infinite, that which has no dimension in time and space.
Suffice it to say that consciousness doesn’t change; only thoughts, perceptions and other objects in the mind change. They change all the time just like the body does. This fact seems to indicate that consciousness doesn’t age, and the Sufi will say that it is eternal. Indeed, some say that consciousness is infinite having no beginning and no end.
To add to an already complex situation, this is precisely what we refer to when we use the word ‘I’. It is important to note that, although we may debate what the word ‘I’, ‘I’ means: however, what we refer to when using it is not a thought or a concept.
We refer to the experience of our own identity at the deepest possible level, beyond the personality and the psychological realm.
So, we don’t know, and we will never know what our ‘I’ is; however, we use it every day, and when we do, we refer to our consciousness, to our capability of being aware.
The soul, then, is the level of us that is self-aware. And to make the nature of the soul even more perplexing, there is only one soul. This position is called non-duality, and it means that the awareness―whatever it is―that hears the question, and the awareness that hears the answer, are one and the same.
—Evert Wängberg works as translator, teacher, job coach and mentor and lives in Gothenburg