SOUL AND SPIRIT
I think most people have an inkling of their two selves: a rational thought and logic-based self for day-to-day utility using primarily language as its means of communication within consciousness; and a deeper, emotionally intuitive self where their passions, wishes, dreams and aspirations reside communicated through the body’s dreams and somatic experience.
Whereas the thinking part of self is always located in our heads, the intuitive and emotional part is more physiological. People will often point to their heart or mid-chest towards the sternum as the location of this part of self.
We are advised to listen to our gut when appraising circumstances and deciding things, as if this gut and heart experience represents a truer form of our internal identity and might bring a closer understanding of our needs and a better path to our end goals. We could call this the body mind, appreciating how it bypasses the strictly rational self (and comes before it seeking self-preservation) and often seems to speak from a wiser or higher form of self.
We seem to instinctively know the gut is less encumbered by the rules and expectations we’ve picked up conforming to the wishes of adults who raise us. We can bypass the intrusiveness and often endless complications of our thinking by going directly to the gut. We realize our trust in thought alone is faulty because we know our thoughts are informed just as much by other’s wishes for us (or for themselves in our regard) as they are our own.
I read that we often have tens of thousands of thoughts in a day. How many feelings will I have in that period? Because of the power of focus, I’ll only become aware of a tiny portion of either of these. Feelings paint my experience with much broader strokes than do my thoughts, which are often errant and imprecise themselves.
We realize our very survival depends upon having a well-honed intuition for danger. That “sixth sense” we sometimes detect when confronting a puzzling or uncertain circumstance can make the difference between life or death. There is more than a little truth to the maxim, “if you’re in your head, you’re dead.”
Often enough, thinking gets in the way, and feeling and acting saves the day.
A hundred years ago, Carl Jung’s model of the human psyche described how we have a “true self,” something we are born with. It’s our essential nature, what we arrive with, perhaps in terms of raw material encoded in our DNA. It is also what becomes obscured by ego formation, the process of learning to conform with the adults upon whom we depend for sustenance and protection. Later, the psyche is further divided as the ego adopt various masks to wear in public or in private performing differing societal roles.
You may be one way at home, another at work, and adopt differing personalities as a father or mother, lover, friend, community member, churchgoer, etc. Jung called these personae and we can see how this ego buries true self even more.
The true self idea is interesting because it suggests we arrive in this world with a blueprint, a “truth,” which is later forged into a self concept which takes into account those around us. Our idea of who we are, then, becomes how we see ourselves contrasted against how we believe others see us.
This inner self would contain our “potentials and possibilities,” something the mythologist Joseph Campbell mentions in his books, “the Power of Myth” and “Pathways to Bliss.” We could even call it something like a soul. Jung himself authored a book called “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” in 1933.
They say Immanuel Kant gave us back our concept of “soul” in the late 1700’s, wresting the idea from the rationalists, saying, “I, as a thinking being, am the absolute subject of all my possible judgments and this representation of myself cannot be employed as a determination of any other thing. Therefore, I, as thinking being (soul), am substance.”
Kant seems to say because everything we see, think and feel, can only be through our personal lens. It is this internal system which allows us to project a systematizing force upon our environment. It precedes reality.
Our DNA blueprint is ours, and how it is manifested upon the world around us is filtered by ego and experience but still entirely personal.
And what would this “soul” be made up of? Is there proof of its existence beyond a sense that is there? Can we point to some tangible proof from the sciences and the metaphysical arts? Something which would tell us it is more than a simple heuristic? Let’s take a shot at it:
First, we know influences on ancestral DNA are passed down through the methyl groups. This is field of “behavioural epigenetics” holds a lot of promise. I have often thought it might even explain why alcoholism runs in families. Grandchildren of holocaust survivors are affected by their ancestral experiences.
Furthermore, we’ve identified inborn temperaments such as labile vs non-reactive; dysthymic vs optimistic; anxious vs calm; obsessive vs distracted; passive vs aggressive; irritable vs cheerful; shy vs sociable and mood suggesting methyl group influences. We are not born as a blank slate but come programmed in advance.
Wouldn’t that be part of the soul?
What about Carl Jung’s idea of collective unconscious, humanity’s shared memory? Pointing to the mythological record, we see variations of myths have been repeated throughout history, often continents apart and in different era, in cultures which had no contact. This gives us an idea of our connection to each other.
Similarities occur from Egyptians and ancient Greece, China and India and even North and South American Indian myths and rituals, to the three Abrahamic religions, and we see the same stories in variation. The two books by Campbell mentioned above are a good start if you are interested in learning more.
Jung suggested we all possess this common background. We are all born afraid of the dark and of heights. If you showed a snake to grade school kids in Siberia in the 1950’s where there are no snakes, half of them would recoil in fear. Why? Jung would say that’s the collective unconscious. It is our instincts, the ones we have in common with others.
We know from the baby gaze studies at Yale that we are born with at least a rudimentary sense of justice. We can tell good from evil almost right away. Far from arriving into this world as a blank slate, we each come pre-programmed with some of our direct ancestry’s influence and archetypes—qualities of memory which govern all men (and women).
Couldn’t we say that’s part of your soul?
With what we know about how emotions are made in the last ten years I’d add at least one more thing: we know the brain is “predictive,” not reactive.
In any given situation, beneath your awareness the brain receives messages from the body (called interoception) through the tenth cranial nerve wired to the brain stem. It uses this information to put you in the best-guess state to meet circumstances relying on your databank of prior experience since birth. Then, your brain corrects after the fact according to the social reality before you. All this happens mostly beneath awareness.
Arrive home later for supper and snap at your significant other over something trivial. Later, while eating you realize you had not had any food since late morning and were famished. The body responded and you lashed out without even realizing what was driving your impatience.
The whole brain works predictively this way, subconsciously running things beneath the surface. You only get the results. Thoughts reflect what is happening in the body. Then, we use those thoughts to make sense of our world, applying an ample internal bias to the process.
So, we possess an inborn temperament and we share a collective unconscious… so wouldn’t a databank of prior experience become part of your soul?
This would suggest the idea of a soul made up of your personal ancestry, a species-wide shared memory, and a personal lived history, forces informing the present with what is brought forward from the past.
We could add another influence to account for gender.
In his book, The Psychology of Transference, Jung wrote: “The “soul” which accrues to ego-consciousness during the opus has a feminine character in the man and a masculine character in a woman. His anima wants to reconcile and unite; her animus tries to discern and discriminate.”
Since males have XY chromosomes and females XX chromosomes, it would mean Jung’s masculine and feminine “energies,” as such, would be less derived from DNA per se, simply because women with two X chromosomes would not experience influences from the “male” Y chromosome.
Rather, it is the varying levels of the male and female sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, which occur because of the XX and XY differences. Both sexes have some, though men far higher levels of testosterone and women far higher levels of estrogen.
As men age, their level of testosterone wanes. Is this why aging men often find they can access the anima (feminine sourced energy), becoming more compassionate and finding the inter-connectedness between all things? That’s fine with me and as good a guess as any. But let’s leave that aside for now.
Combined, this gets us to the present, but how does the soul manifest itself?
What about spirit? We see it in admiration of types in the animal kingdom, appreciating a spirited horse, for example. We may find ourselves stirred with the animal spirit when we consider the great migrations of African Wildebeest or Canadian Caribou. Or the majesty of a Bald Eagle, an Asian Tiger or African Elephant. It’s clear we have a sense of spirit if only in the way we might admire those whom we find “spirited.” My adopted “animal totem” is the rooster, standing for loyalty, flamboyance and protection, among other qualities. It was the first animal heard in the morn after a battle and the Celts said it was communicating with the dead. Mysterious.
And who can see a sunrise or sunset and not feel a connection to spirit? Go into a desert or Canada’s arboreal forest at night far away from the lights of the city and gaze up and the sky and the Milky Way. If you have never seen the Northern Lights, I say go see them and tell me about your spirit.
Great art, cathedrals, music, nature and people all lift spirit. And why is it we cannot help but be attracted to the underdog in any story? Why is it the quintessential human experience is to root for the downtrodden? From Rocky Balboa to Luke Skywalker to Florence Nightingale and Joan of Arc, we appreciate heroes for their spirited commitment to a cause.
Because it always involves the spirit acting to overcome a challenge. It is always about being lost but somehow, our hero finds themselves again. It’s the great Hail Mary Pass of life, the long shot, the one in a million chance. It’s irresistible.
And that’s because so are you. It’s the Hero’s Journey, something the mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” In this collection he shows how the Hero’s Journey is the story of human beings. It is the stuff of our legends as told around fires for thousands of years.
We live these stages repeatedly in our lifetime, roughly following these steps:
The hero is confronted
The hero rejects the challenge
The hero accepts the challenge
The hero undergoes a road of trials
The hero gathers allies, gaining power
The hero confronts evil—and is defeated
The hero undergoes a dark night of the soul
The hero takes a leap of faith
The hero confronts evil—and is victorious
The hero becomes a teacher
This is our shared destiny and your soul and spirit are compelled to contribute. You see, the universe doesn’t make mistakes.
Though you began as a glint in your parent’s eyes, something like 40 million to 1.2 billion possibilities competed to bring you to life. You could have been born a girl, a boy, with missing limbs or whatever. But, no, you were born you.
You were the underdog and you vanquished all others and won the race. This is a staggering feat: the universe in its infinite wisdom, the same force which put a billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, chose you. Your prize was a life.
I suggest your soul represents your true self, the gifts you bring to this existence. The spirit is its voice. One is the present and past combining into your potentials while the other is the present and future suggesting your possibilities.
Consider that your self concept is made up of how you see yourself contrasted against how you believe others see you, maturation involves strengthening your inside game, relying less on what can become the tyranny of external influence. Soul and spirit are your keys to a more powerful you. It’s how you gain awareness of what was previously only in your subconscious. This is what brings about the possibility of change. It is where your free will begins: personal power equals agency.
Kant said, “two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral laws within me.” It is your duty to share your contribution with the world. “Be afraid to die,” said Horace Mann, “until you have won a victory for mankind.” Give us something, anything, it says, if only the goodness you spread among your fellow man.
The soul and spirit are the forces behind your Hero’s Journey. Not because it’s what you can do. Not because it is necessarily because it’s what you want. No. It’s because it’s what you owe. The miracle of your life demands it.
Take time to honour your soul and listen to your spirit.
Stay powerful, never give up
©2020 Christopher K Wallace
all rights reserved
Methyl groups and epigenetics
The Power of Myth, 1988, Anchor Books
Pathways to Bliss, 2004, Joseph Campbell Foundation
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949, Meridian Books
Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933, Harvest Books,
The Psychology of Transference, 1983 Routledge Books
How Emotions are Made: the secret life of the brain, 2017, Pan Macmillan
Hero’s Journey interpretation
Steven Barnes, Lifewriting
Katharina T. Kraus, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 2017
Kant’s Critique of Metaphysics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004
The Soul as the Guiding Idea of psychology: Kant on scientific psychology, systematicity, and the idea of the soul