Friday, October 14, 2011

The Material Soul


It is something of a shock to realize that one’s soul is material.  The idea has been around for a long while, and one might recognize this truth intellectually,  but to grasp this insight experientially, at the depth of one’s soul, is quite a different thing.  How can this inner being, so weightless, so intangible, be made of the same thing as bricks and mortar, wood and water?  But the evidence is clear – the anesthesiologist puts our soul to sleep with his gas, and a hard bump on the head also puts it to sleep.  Were our soul un-material, it could defy these material things, but it can’t.  Despite the ghost stories from all times and places, the soul is material, its comings and goings are dictated by material conditions.

But then a brick holds a few surprises too.  According to Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, matter is energy also, and a little matter is a whole lot of energy.  If one could all-at-once convert all the matter of a brick into energy, it would shine with the brightness of our sun for a white hot instant.   The light of that explosion would race off in all directions, traveling forever at the speed of light, which is the speed of time.  It would travel as a wave (or is it a particle?) eternally, and eternally it would define the present.  And what is a wave, what is a particle?  Are they anything more than verbal containers to encapsulate something that defies encapsulation?  Are they anything more that the soul’s inventions? 

The soul has long been imagined metaphorically as light.  The soul brings things to light, and the soul bringing more and more to light is an en-lightened soul.  Is there, perhaps, more than a metaphor here?   The soul is awareness.  The objects of awareness are sensations, perceptions, appetites, emotions, imaginings, and thoughts.  These things “inform” our awareness, and if pertinent our body responds.  All this is mediated by electromagnetic energy traveling along neurons.  Light is a form of electromagnetic energy: so, perhaps the soul is not merely metaphorically light, perhaps it really is light. 

In the first shock of the realization that the soul is material, one might have imagined the soul's dignity deflating; but in the after tremor, should we not find that being material does not diminish the soul's dignity in the least; the soul is still that which brings to light.  If anything, the realization ennobles matter – for it brings to light the fact that self-consciousness is one of the potentialities that matter has always possessed.  And that is a rather mysterious fact to contemplate.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Is Spirituality without the Supernatural

In the first two stanzas of his song, All Along the Watchtower, Bob Dylan portrays a place where “business men drink my wine, plow men dig my earth.”  In the third stanza, however, we find ourselves in very different place -- at a watchtower, with a princess in the wilds.

In the first two stanzas we are in the secular world of common, earthly affairs.  It is male, the earth is tamed, the dimension is horizontal like the plowed field.  In the third stanza we have been transposed to a world more female, wild, and vertical like the watchtower.  The difference between the stanzas is akin to the difference between the male, heroic world of the Iliad, and the wild world of the Odyssey with its many goddesses and the watching, waiting Penelope.  To put it shortly, in the third stanza we have moved from the secular sphere to a different sphere – which we can tentatively label a transcendent sphere.

The journey to the watchtower, in Dylan’s song, brings to mind the Grail Quest in the Arthurian tales.  There we also have a separation of space between two spheres, but what a strange space it is.  The knights, realizing that there is neither path nor direction that can get you to the Grail Castle, simply ride into the wilderness and turn themselves over to forces beyond reason or will to guide them.  We are given a spatial metaphor, but at the same time we are being told not to trust it.

Taking the spatial metaphor as literal is simply a misunderstanding, though a very common one.  We know how to journey through space and time -- we are prepared for that, even if it is through dangerous territory.   But a journey like that of the Grail Knights or of Odysseus, where we must forsake our own powers and give ourselves to powers beyond our ego, is much more frightening.  The powers, like spiritual transformation itself, are of the mind, nothing supernatural is required.  But it does not belong to “our” psychological power.  From the point of view of the ego, these energies are outside of it.  They are unconscious. 

In the previous entry, with its story of the little tern, I have suggested a possible naturalistic explanation for the presence of this inner possibility.  In future entries we’ll explore it further.  Here we’ll only conclude that many people are apparently quite content to stay in the land of commerce.  This blog is not for them.  But many, like Dylan’s Joker and Thief, feel in their bones that there is more.  Theirs is the quest (and if I can say anything here that aids someone’s quest, then I have fulfilled my purpose).

Finally, we will take from Dylan’s song a motto for this blog: “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”