Is there any such thing as a soul? If so, what is it, where is it and why does it matter?
People often think of the soul as something that’s added to a person at conception and leaves them at death. Then there’s the belief called “Frisbeetarianism” where the soul leaves the body at death and gets stuck on the roof.
Like a Frisbee on the roof, the soul has proven hard to find. In the 17th century, Descartes argued that it’s located near the center of the brain in the pineal gland. His evidence for this theory was about as wobbly as a Frisbee in the wind.
Locating the soul has been like a game of Where’s Wally. Maybe no one can find it because it’s not a separate part of a person. Maybe we don’t HAVE souls. Maybe we ARE souls. Paulo Coelho said,
I’m not a body with a soul, I’m a soul that has a visible part called the body.
This was the Hebrew idea of the soul. In Hebrew thought, the soul was the whole of a person, their life force. It wasn’t one thing isolated from the body, but the body itself in complete harmony. Portuguese author, Jose Saramago said, “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”
It was the Greeks who separated soul from body, influencing most western, religious thought on the soul ever since. Outside of religion, taking a cue from Descartes, people started interchanging soul with mind and consciousness. Enough of the mini history lesson.
The closest thing to scientific evidence for a soul is the near death experience; where some sort of consciousness/ memory/ sensation seems to carry on after the brain stops functioning. People report some common experiences of light and peace.
My take on the soul is not that it’s something that leaves your body when you die. I think the soul is all that’s left when you strip away everything that is non essential. Maybe the soul isn’t added to a person at birth. Following from the Hebrew idea, I see soul as another word for the essence of who you are. Waking up to this essence is when we really come alive.
I came to this view partly after spending time with some people as they died. In one unforgettable experience, I was with a friend named Les when he died. I had the privilege of gathering with his family as he breathed some big last breaths. With each breath, it felt like he was letting go of things, saying goodbye and purging himself of any last regrets. His last breath was the biggest. It filled the room and seemed to hang in the air. Then we held our breaths and waited, but Les breathed no more.
Later I reflected on the experience. We spend so much energy in life being something we aren’t, things we think we’re supposed to be. Often, the essence of who we are gets buried under layers of pretense and protection. Death is the final stripping away of this pretense. After the words, there is just breath. After the breath, the silence. Nothing to prove and nothing to fear. I think the soul is all that’s left once you have stripped away all that is changing, temporal and finite.
We don’t need to wait for death either. As Kami Garcia said in the novel Beautiful Creatures, “Dig deep. Find your way to your soul.” Thinking about the soul this way can lead to an immediate turn around. Start stripping away things that aren’t essential NOW. Start living the essence of who you are NOW! At your essence, everything is whole, peaceful and soulful. What could be more satisfying than to live this essence?
The Irish poet John O’Donohue, describes this soul process-
Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment.
More on soul and imperfection here.