“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the Universe to know itself.”
What if what survives are our intentions and ability to witness?
Nobody wants to die. So why not believe there is a part of yourself that never dies? The concept of soul is a sense of self conceived as immortal, eternal, one with life and one with God. Isn’t your soul your sense of “I,” your sense of self, your core sense of identity?
My best guess is that when I die I will be blown away by the overwhelming magnificence and compassion of unfiltered life, which will be greater than anything of which I can currently conceive. I will have that experience independent of having a body, so the word “soul” can appropriately be used for it. At that moment I will live in an eternal now, immortal, in the loving embrace of all-knowing goodness that many people call “God.”
Like most people, I grew up with a belief in souls and life after death. My parents believed in both as well as in reincarnation and communication with the spirit world, and so did I. As a teenager I became steeped in the philosophy of the Edgar Cayce readings, of Chakras, reincarnation, energy bodies, karma and soul purpose. I read Sylvan Muldoon on Astral Travel and later Robert Monroe’s remarkable work on Journeys out of the Body. I’ve had my share of visitations by disincarnates, both in dreams and waking life, via mediums, as well as past-life memories. As a student of comparative religion, I became familiar with both Hindu and Buddhist concepts of soul.
I say all this to let you know that I do not come at my doubts about the existence of soul from the perspective of a humanist, scientific humanist, atheist or agnostic, but as someone who firmly accepted the concept for almost sixty years. Nor can one assume I have changed my mind due to misfortune or any particular disillusionment. The growth in perspective is due more to a general disillusionment conjoined with persistent curiosity. Most importantly, it is due to the influence of hundreds of interviews with dream characters and personifications of life issues, few of which have shown any interest in or reliance on the concept of soul whatsoever. Why not?
Where the word “soul” no longer works for me is regarding what happens next, after the mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, sacred and transformative mystical and “near-death experience” of death itself. As I become one with life, what will generate continued individuality associated with a “me?” Indeed, like Carl Sagan in the quote above, I believe life inherently seeks to individualize itself so it can know itself through objectification as endless “others” – galaxies, worms, velociraptors and humans. Obviously, the creative potentials of life are only limited by the contexts and conditions allowing for the generation of things and life forms. We look at the miracle of billions of snowflakes, each unique, and have all the proof we need of the unlimited creativity of life itself. But few of us imagine that snowflakes have souls or reincarnate. Why not?
If the belief in a soul is a delusion. then it is a pervasive and extremely persistent collective delusion, one that typifies humanity and one that has been important for our social, cultural and personal growth. Indeed, it is probably impossible to resolve this issue, for good reason. We spend the first third of our lives building a strong sense of self; it has survival and adaptive benefits. To deny the existence of the self, as questioning the existence of the soul appears to do, is to pull a chair out from under someone. It is one thing to move a chair when one is standing but quite another to move it when someone is sitting on it. In addition, we have plenty of evidence that identity persists provided to us by mystics, near death experiencers, mediums, dreams, past-life memories and various forms of psychic and drug experiences. To toss these off as delusional or the misfiring of neurons is disingenuous and a discount of both experience and the genuine value of these experiences for people of every nation for millennia.
Looking at the concept of soul is a bit like a two-dimensional flatworm attempting to perceive three dimensions; we suspect that there is a bigger picture than the one that we have, but we just can’t seem to grasp it. We keep getting clues that our beliefs and assumptions about the soul are too limited, too constrained, that somehow there is a bigger picture than the one brought back by mystics and near death experiences and relayed to us by mediums and channelers. The closer we examine the ideas of immortality, of Self and soul, the less they hold together. Like examining movies, the closer you look, the more you slow down the action, the more you see the artifice and the holes in the illusion. Some of these holes in the story we tell ourselves about an immortal soul include more people being born than their being previously incarnating souls. So either we have “new” souls coming on line continuously or else you have souls incarnating from other planets or transmigrating from trees and rats. Then, if a famine or war wipes out masses of the population, you either have stranded souls or they hop a ticket to another solar system to incarnate. To find out the answer to such imponderables, just consult your favorite psychic, but don’t consult two, because you will probably get two different answers.
If you reincarnate, how about your dog? How about flowers, snowflakes and cockroaches? Do cockroaches go to cockroach heaven? Is there a doggie hell? If dogs chase cats in doggie heaven is that a cat hell? Perhaps humans are special and only they live after death or reincarnate. With man being the “Crown of Creation,” as Aquinas taught us, and just a “little lower than the angels,” as Psalms and Hebrews proclaim, how is that not discriminatory or exceptionalistic toward other species and life forms? You have a soul but monkeys do not? Monkeys have souls but slugs do not? Are you OK with being an immortal soul and being discriminatory and exceptionalistic toward other species at the same time?
Most people do not bother themselves with such questions, which they may consider ridiculous, sarcastic or reductionisms by petty, rationally-addicted minds. One example of the other extreme is the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, one of my favorites. Instead of reasoning about the soul, he simply uses God to validate its existence and, more importantly, uses his own personal experience of mystical oneness with his soul and God to validate its existence: “”Where my soul is there is God and where God is there is my soul. And that is as true as God is God.” That this is a tautology of two unfalsifiable constructs, the soul and God, makes no difference to Eckhart; should it to us?
Does the soul live on multiple dimensions at the same time? This belief is reflected in the idea that, “Your soul never incarnates completely. While you’re in a body you also exist in higher dimensions…” The idea of the soul living in multiple dimensions at the same time implies that you are not who you think you are; you could be anyone or anything in any dimension, freeing you to believe whatever you like, without regard to rationality. You can then discard thinking about such things as beneath you, as the pursuit of small minds which simply cannot grasp the big picture. Isn’t this the same sort of non-answer as saying the soul is energy in a holographic universe of quantum everything? Aren’t these ways of sounding scientific without really saying or explaining anything? With multiple dimensions, as explained by quantum physics, anything you want to believe becomes possible. Therefore, there no longer becomes any way to tell what is true from what is not. If it doesn’t make sense here, it is because it’s happening in another dimension where it makes sense. Just go to that other dimension and all will become clear; just die and you will know that you have an immortal soul. Such “explanations” may be acceptable regarding metaphysical questions, but do we really want to throw out the ability to differentiate truth from falsity? Don’t we want to know if medical claims are true? Don’t we want to know if we are reading “fake news” or not and how credible the sources are that are telling us that something is fake news? So it would seem that at least consulting our reason, in addition to our experience and beliefs, regarding what the soul is or is not, is wise. It would be a shame if life spent millions of years evolving human frontal lobes and then for us to choose not to use them.
Another challenge posed by the idea of the soul is that it is, on the one hand, elevationistic, in that it propels you and reality into an after-death world that has no boundaries except those that your intuition proclaims exist. At the same time it frees you to discount and discredit the views of those who disagree with you as merely the rational fulminations of those who are not yet evolved enough to see the light. This is a form of reductionism, based on the inability to conceive that there could possibly be a view that is broader and more liberating than the one you currently hold.
There are other questions regarding the nature of the soul after death that sound facetious and sarcastic but are instead meant to point out the absurdity of some of our assumptions about afterlife as a soul might be like: Do you wear clothes after you die? Is there weather? Is the ground grass, dirt, sand, marble flooring or swamp? Do you think in English or in heavenly Esperanza? Perhaps you don’t even need to think, you just feel everything with divine love with your heavenly heart? If there is nothing to dislike, nothing not to love, nothing that is less than perfect, what keeps life from turning into a bland ocean of endless bliss?
Do alcoholics stay dead alcoholics or does the magnificence of the afterlife miraculously cure them of their addiction? If not, does that mean that the afterlife is a stratified hierarchy where you don’t have to rub shoulders with people who aren’t of your class? If heaven is self-selected segregation based on your level of moral development, isn’t heaven the duller, less authentic, and more boring for it? Doesn’t that imply the sort of masculine-dominated hierarchy that feminists and Gaia-lovers hate because it is intrinsically non-egalitarian and non-pluralistic? Is heaven really discriminatory, with forced bussing not for the cause of integration but to separate the sheep from the goats? Even if we do this ourselves, based on our own level of development, doesn’t this keep us from meeting perspectives and behaviors that challenge our own and which cause us to grow? Isn’t that actually one of the benefits of being alive in the first place? To the extent that others represent aspects of ourselves, doesn’t such a system of segregation separate us from parts of ourselves? How smart, healthy or loving is that? Wouldn’t that mean the after-life is a form of self-disownership? If so, is that wise? Is that a model of heaven you want to subscribe to?
Most people dismiss such unanswerable questions as beneath the revelations of their intuition and personal psychic experiences or those truths revealed by scripture, mediums, dreams and revelation. But how is this different from how Pope Urban VIII and his cardinals viewed Galileo? How is this different from how the embedded hierarchy viewed Copernicus?
If you think you are awake when you are dreaming, how do you know that your experience after you die is real and not a self-created delusion? If being dead is like a dream, then where is the reality of a self or a soul? In other words, if we are certain when we are dreaming that we are awake, then how can we trust our certainty about the testimony of mystical and near death experiences? We might point to their extraordinary vividness and clarity, yet we can have extraordinarily real and vivid dreams and lucid dreams, can we not?
Are only the good parts of life after death real while the hellish parts are self-created projections? This is a common conclusion of esteemed researchers of near death experiences. Isn’t this a way to pick and choose what version of heaven you are comfortable with, rather like what scholars have been doing with the Bible for some two thousand years? Is heaven, life after death and the soul simply a Rorshach test that tells us more about ourselves than about anything external to us?
How can you have soul and selflessness at the same time? Are you not simply substituting Self, Atman, a Self that is One with God, for ego? This is called replacing psychological geocentrism, the belief that life revolves around you and yours, with psychological heliocentrism, the belief that life revolves around a Self that has been so inflated that it is now one with the equivalent of the center of the universe. How is this not simply grandiose? How is this not narcissistic? As your sense of self expands, until it is one with the universe, with God, with dharma with the divine, how is your soul not a bad case of grandiosity, narcissism and ego-expansion into identification with a timeless, spaceless infinite immortality? Does the continuation of self or Self into the transpersonal not reduce the transpersonal to subtle forms of personal self-centeredness?
“Transpersonal” means “beyond the personal.” How can you have anything that is transpersonal that has any sense of self whatsoever? If the transpersonal is really a grandiose state of expanded individuality, to the point where it is one with everything, why have a transpersonal at all? Selves are personal; it doesn’t do to differentiate between a “personal” and an “impersonal” self because an “impersonal self” has no individuality, by definition. Therefore, an “impersonal self” is either a contradiction or something that is totally useless to you because it has nothing to do with you.
Another way of addressing the question of the soul is to consider it as a holon, a basic concept from Wilber’s all quadrant, all levels, all lines, all states, all styles (AQAL) model. The concept of holons, “part/wholes,” tells us that wherever you find collectives you find individual members of collectives, so you can’t have a collective of any sort without individuality. Similarly, you can’t have an exterior that doesn’t have an interior, and vice versa. To be a holon, a soul has to have collective, individual, interior and exterior aspects or facets. One would then ask, “What happens to the individuality of you and me after we die, if we are holons?
When we look at a snowflake that melts, what happens to its individuality? It becomes a potential for an underlying molecular holon we call H2O or more commonly, water, which is to single out one of its four potential states of existence, as water, ice, gas or plasma. We do not talk about the individuality of a snowflake continuing to exist after melting, as a soul that can reincarnate itself. Instead, we recognize the potential for an underlying holon, H2O, to individualize itself in one of multiple forms, depending upon temperature, pressure and the presence or absence of other elements. As a potential, the individuality of a melted snowflake no longer exists in some heavenly akashic record or some snowflake heaven. It doesn’t have to, because life is limitlessly creative; it has no need to “remember” or recreate any particular snowflake. What can and will happen, however, is that snowflakes are created that are so similar in important respects to previous ones that for all intents and purposes they are the previous ones reincarnated. Therefore, we might become utterly convinced that what we are seeing is the reincarnation of a previously existing snowflake. However, a little reflection will tell us that this reflects an ignorance of both how the potentials of holons manifest as well as being a discount of the incredibly diverse creativity of life itself.
If we think about ourselves using this analogy to a snowflake, what happens to individuality after death is that it becomes a potential of an underlying holon, life. As a holon, life itself possesses individuality and consciousness, in the same way that H2O possesses individuality and consciousness, yet in a much more vast variety, that is in terms of all evolved emerging potentials. So one can say that yes, individuality continues to exist after death, but it is neither a personal nor impersonal individuality, because while for you and me it would be completely impersonal, as the holon life, it is intensely personal. Hence the experiences of “coming home,” of immense love, acceptance and compassion of near death experiences. Individuality continues to exist after death, as the individuality that life itself possesses.
The ideas of an immortal soul and Self hold together as long as we don’t think about them too much or too seriously, rather like our experience of the sun rising and setting. Indeed, for sensory experience the reality of geocentrism not only works but is necessary for life; it is only after many millennia of the objectification of consciousness that one can say, like Copernicus did, “Hey! Wait a minute! There is a bigger, broader, more inclusive picture!” How is your soul not the psychological geocentrism of the ego (you are the center of the universe) projected outwardly as a psychological heliocentrism (you as God are the center of the universe) in which your sense of who you are is one with all, with life, with the center of everything? How is that not a prepersonal belief, validated by mystical and psychic experiences?
This was more or less the conclusion of no one of less stature as an enlightened meditating mystic than Gautama, who became known as the Buddha. Gautama’s experience was that his soul got between him and life; it created a separation through its inherent duality. When you have a self, you then unavoidably find yourself surrounded by, both without and within, that which is not self. Gautama therefore declared that there is no Self, or Atman, and dealt with mystical, after death and reincarnation experiences of soul by making the soul impermanent and finally, a delusion. For Buddhism the soul is made up of five elements, called skandhas, essentially sense data, images, feelings, cognition and consciousness. Desire keeps these together even after death, with sensory input replaced by dreamlike after-death delusions, enabling a continuity of identity over lifetimes. Therefore, while soul and Self are real enough for all of us, including Buddhists, if we have the right experiences, for Buddhism they are fundamentally delusions.
This clever solution has not satisfied mystics, near death experiencers or people who have had real enough experiences of soul with mediums, dreams, psychic experiences or past life memories. This is because the concept of skandhas views the soul, something that is not only real and meaningful but which gives life meaning, as a delusion based on attachment. But for most people, without a sense of self there is no organizing principle, nor a reason or motivation for almost everything that humans spend their time doing. Without a soul people ask, “What’s the meaning of life?” They can’t see one.
More importantly, questioning the concept of soul flies in the face of direct, personal experience of it. Just like seeing the sun rising and setting every day, we have plenty of experiential data that validates our belief in both our Self and the concept of soul. We have data not only from internal examination but, as mentioned above, from psychics, mediums, dreams, scripture and our own psychic experiences. No one is going to tell a near death experiencer that God and soul aren’t real. So we have strong experiential, sensory, emotional and rational attachments to the idea of self, and we aren’t going to give it up because of some abstract philosophical concept.
My current position is not that there is no soul or no reincarnation but that neither one of these, if they exist, are unlikely to be like or driven by any of the forces that we commonly assume are causative. There are two arguments against the soul that seem persuasive to me and one for it. Here they are 1) What keeps the lights on? When we are awake daytime sensory experience as an objective “other” keeps the lights on. In dreams the perception of sensory-derived others keeps the lights on. We know that in the presence of sensory isolation almost everyone goes psychotic sooner or later. Therefore, those who believe in souls have to come up with a convincing “other” to substitute for sensory experience after death. So far no one has come up with one other than something like Bishop Berkeley’s non-answer: God.
2) Cui Bono? “Who benefits?” What is the functional value of a self continuing to exist without a body? Yes, we are reassured by the idea, but if life doesn’t need snowflakes to go to snowflake heaven or reincarnate because of life’s unlimited ability to simply create more unique snowflakes, is it not self-serving and grandiose to make ourselves the exception to the rule? What use does life have for souls? This is the second question that I have never seen a satisfactory answer for. Except, possibly for the following, which requires a bit of background to understand.
A suitable answer may be provided by the integral psychology of Ken Wilber, although Wilber himself does not mention it. In Wilber’s model the self as soul climbs the ladder in the three stages of the prepersonal, the three stages of the personal, and the three stages of the transpersonal, called oneness with energy and nature, the path of the yogis; oneness with God, the divine, love and bliss, the path of the saints; and oneness with formless selflessness, the path of the sages. All stages are integrated thereafter in the “non-dual,” a context that transcends and includes all previous stages. In the non-dual there is no difference whatsoever between the formless and form, nirvana and samsara, life and death, self and other. It is at this point that it no longer makes any sense to speak of a soul or any sense of self whatsoever.
Wilber’s model also differentiates over twenty developmental lines, but there are four of them that are critical, the self, cognition, morality and relationships. The self is the line that climbs ladders of cognitive, moral and interpersonal development and masters ladders of physical, mathematical, musical, artistic and many other competencies.
The problem for the soul that arises with this model occurs when we realize that if the non-dual is real and is the ever-present ground or reality within which all exists, then right now, at this moment, not only the ego but the Self and soul are figments of our imagination. This is because the non-dual makes all dualistic concepts only conditional truths; none are actually true because they depend on some other concept, usually an opposite, for their reality. This was Buddha’s point, but one which his doctrine of the skandhas did not resolve for most people.
Given that reality, we all recognize that we have outgrown beliefs and behaviors that we once strongly believed in. It might have been in Santa, the devil, nationalism, or unquestioning trust in some family member, lover or guru. If we continue to grow it is close to a certainty that we will outgrow whatever beliefs are the unshakeable bedrock of our current sense of who we are and what life is about. If this is true, then it is probably true that those who believe in the Self and soul will at some time outgrow those beliefs while those who do not believe in the Self and soul will at some point embrace them. Theists will probably become atheists sooner or later and atheists will become theists of one flavor or another, sooner or later.
One way of approaching the Self and soul that can untie this Gordion knot is to ask, “What if what lasts is not the Self or soul but our intentions? What if lines of development other than the self, such as the ability to objectify and witness, is what survives death?” What if the self is simply an aggregate of processes, like the Buddhist skandhas, that exist to generate objectivity?
For this idea to make any sense at all you have to shift your perspective. You have to let go of your normal way of looking at the world from our two-dimensional flatwork self-Self-Soul perspective and approach it as if we were life looking at it. When we do so, differences immediately arise. As life, do you any longer need an identity? No, because you include and encompass all identities. Do you, as life, need selves to survive as souls? No; you can just create more out of your infinite abundance, like you do with snowflakes. Do you as life even need to differentiate between living and post-death existence? While things change form all the time, you as life do not seem to differentiate between water as liquid, gas or snowflake, flower as seed, sprout, blossom or withered dust. These distinctions matter so much to us that it is difficult to take a perspective from which they do not matter.
Now life may in fact care a great deal about whether a sparrow falls or how high a flea can jump, but probably not. If so, are there things that you might care about if you were life? Well, yes. It is pretty obvious that you as life care about growth, what we call evolution on the grand span of time. You also care about what might be called “negentropy,” or the building up of stuff into greater and greater forms of complexity, in defiance of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And so we might conclude that as life you have an intention to grow. Intention, and clarity of intention, is indeed a developmental line. While we normally think of selves as having intention, would you, as life, not have intention, yet be selfless, since you include both all possible selves and non-selves?
If life has intention, and that intention is innate and not associated with any self, the implication is that the intention we see in the world is misinterpreted as an indicator of a “creator” or “self” that is the source of that intention. Rupert Sheldrake provides examples of simultaneous invention to support his theory of morphogenic fields. We know that invention has occurred at about the same time without any causal connection, implying a common intention but no creator or self that is responsible for it. Examples of simultaneous invention, also called “multiple discovery,” include the 17th century formulation of calculus by Issac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, the 18th century discovery of oxygen by Scheele, Priestly, Lavoisier, the theory of evolution, by Darwin and Wallace, the blast furnace, invented independently in China, Europe and Africa, the crossbow, also invented independently in China, Greece, Africa, northern Canada, and the Baltic countries, and magnetism, which was discovered independently in Greece, China, and India. What is important about this is that it implies that intention is something that is an innate feature of life that is independent of selves or a soul, implying that perhaps what survives is intention rather than a self or soul.
If you as life have an intention to grow, what are some of the things we know about growth? When we in utero we are subjectively one with life without any awareness of discrimination from it. We might say there is no separate self-sense. With birth we become sensory selves that objectify submerged oneness with life; we now have a self-sense, but it is purely sensory as we see in insects and alligators. Cats of all types have a self-sense that appears to also be very much one with their senses. We then develop an emotional self that “has” sensory experience within a body. Dogs provide a good example of this sort of self-sense. We then become a concrete linguistic self that objectifies and creates things by naming them. We then become an ego that separates “mine” from “not mine” not just on a sensory and emotional level, as animals do, but linguistically. We have a mental concept of identity, of self, which is an astonishing evolutionary achievement. This is a form of objectification that is new and amazing, something that arguably has not existed before. We then become a social self that generates identity through belonging to a family and various groups, such as gender, race, nationality, work, professional guild and religious affiliation. We then become, if we get so far, a rational questioner that organizes experience into universal principles called social and natural laws. We then become an empathetic self that puts human welfare before principle. We then begin to recognize that there are multiple definitions of self, equally valid. No longer dependent upon one separate identity to validate our sense of self, the concepts of Self and soul lose both meaning and relevance.
Each of these steps is a movement toward increased objectification or disidentification from some smaller, more concrete and limited, definition of self. With each climb up another rung of the developmental ladder who you are becomes less concrete and personal and more abstract and universal. You become less identified with something, a “self,” and more with the flow of processes in the here and now. Why does this happen? What is life’s intention for evolving increasingly complex forms that are capable of more complex forms of objectification of the self? What could be the purpose for this?
This enterprise does not appear to be about the creation of selves; life does not seem to care about the creation and existence of such selves, since it allows them to be killed off regularly, in a multitude of gruesome and painful ways, without appearing to care whatsoever. What it does seem to care about is this process of objectification, of learning to witness first the other and then oneself.
Indeed, this appears to be where the evolutionary arc is leading humanity. We are beginning to witness ourselves, to objectify not only our ability to feel and think but why we create concepts like spirit, God and soul. We are learning to objectify our very sense of self, to stand back and say, “what is this thing I call ‘myself?’ What is its purposes? How real is it?
At that point we stop personalizing our sense of self. Life stops being about us. Who we are and what we do becomes less central; it begins to matter less. Rather than being a thing, “self” or “soul” we experience ourselves more and more as life witnessing itself. This shift is a movement into the transpersonal because life is no longer centered on who we are or any concept of who we are, including Self, Atman or soul. What lasts at that point, what is immortal, is not ourselves, but life itself. We, including our collective, unified Self and soul, are like snowflakes and flowers, externalizations and objectifications of life, without a life after death or any immortality.
If that is the case, how do we explain memories of past lives and visitations by deceased loved ones? What do we make of fully embodied disincarnate personalities, like Jesus in “A Course in Miracles,” Marian apparitions, seen by hundreds or people born with birth marks looking remarkably like weapon wounds they can describe as having been received in a previous life? Are these not all confirmations that selves survive death and that souls do exist and are real?
Our answers will fall into one of three categories: literalist and concrete, meaning, “If my senses tell me something is real, even if I’m dreaming, it’s real.” This is the classical position of all things shamanistic. It says, “Because hundreds at Fatima saw the sun bouncing like a ball in the sky it really happened, even though no one else anywhere else on earth described such an event.”
The second category is subjective and delusional, meaning, “I create my experience, so everything is basically like skandhas: when analyzed they are seen to be something other than they appear to be.” This is the position of Buddhism and contemporary psychology. It essentially says that the self and soul are self-generated delusions.
The third position is rare because it is uncomfortable and disquieting. It is a position of ambiguity that says that experiences cannot be reduced to subjectivism, delusions, or complete self-creations, or, on the other hand, to utter objectivity, meaning that we have no responsibility in their creation. This is the position Integral Deep Listening (IDL) takes in general and which it is taking here, in reference to the Self and soul. It is asking you to consider the possibility that at the soul is neither an objective reality nor is it a completely subjective delusion; it exists on some sort of continuum between these two halves of the human holon.
So are we meeting disincarnate Jesus or is he a figment of our imagination? Are near death experiences soul experiences or are they something else? IDL believes it does these experiences violence to reduce them to either purely objective or subjective realities. The truth is that we are like flatworms looking at three dimensions but only seeing two; however the discrepancies we experience are letting us know that there is indeed a broader, more inclusive perspective.
We can be fairly certain that life cares more about intentions, like growth and awakening to itself, more than it does about the existence and mortality of things. If that is the case, then the question of whether or not souls exist, while of vital importance to some humans, is probably of very little importance to life itself. To the extent that intention generates reality, how life manifests is as limited or unlimited as its intentions. Because the desire to objectify, to witness, is itself an intention, there is no reason why this process stops with what we call death. But notice that intention can and does exist without Self or soul, as in the “intention” of water to crystallize into billions of unique snowflakes or the “intention” of a seed to sprout. Intention does not require some being who has intention and intention does not recognize what we call life or death. What it recognizes is objectivity, not selves or things.
It may be that life is interested in other developmental lines, like empathy, cognition or morality, but if so, these are less obvious than witnessing or the desire to objectify selves. Empathy is largely ignored by dream characters and the personifications of life issues interviewed by IDL, implying that it is largely a social and personal issue rather than an intrasocial and transpersonal issue. The same is true for morality; life seems not to view experience in terms of good or bad but instead in terms of adaptation: what works and what does not. Life is probably much more interested in the growth of awareness itself rather than in wisdom, to the extent that it is mediated by language and thought, which are both human artifacts.
This brings me to a third reason why I evolved out of a belief in soul and selves; hundreds of interviews with my own and the “emerging potentials” of others, in the form of dream characters and the personifications of life issues of importance to their ongoing daily lives, caused me again and again to embody perspectives that were selfless. They were real, autonomous and not my own, yet they had no sense of self, none of what Buddhists call bhava, “own-being.” By the way; this is not something one must or should take on faith. All you have to do is follow the IDL Dream and Life Issue Interviewing Protocols and form your own conclusions. This is why IDL is a yoga and an integral life practice – it is an injunctive method that is not dependent on dogma or authority.
So in what sense might the soul be real and continue to exist? As Carl Sagan said at the beginning, perhaps “we are a way for the Universe to know itself.” What if what survives are our intentions and ability to witness?
While I am skeptical regarding the soul, I believe life itself is alive and compassionate and generates the vast and magnificent negentropic project of cosmic evolution to wake up to itself. However, that does not explain how or why life needs individuality after what we call death.
This objectivity is what we call “individuality.” Self, when viewed from the perspective of life, is another name for a process of waking up through objectification. This moves the discussion from ontology, “Do things such as souls exist,” a study of nouns – things, to epistemology, “How do we arrive at the experience that our soul exists? This is a study of verbs – experiences and processes. The difference is not academic; it means that the whole question of the reality of selves and souls is an artifact of language. Let me try to give a short and simple explanation.
Due mostly to the evolution of language over the last 100,000 years or so, humans can objectify their consciousness and witness themselves in ways that other species arguably do not. This ability to objectify consciousness, combined with intention, might drive consciousness into continuing consciousness after death. I do not rule it out.
Few people like this idea because we want to believe that our current way of thinking is superior and that we would never embrace the opposite of what we now consider real and true. In my experience, this is not only false; it is naive, because it forgets or glosses over the very real transformations in belief that we have all gone through in our development over the years, while ignoring the basic nature of growth itself. We do not go back to a previously held belief as much as we expand our own beliefs to include, accept and integrate beliefs we previously discarded. So atheists arrive at positions that include theism and people who believe in souls arrive at positions that are not built around an immortal self.
Intention and witnessing are not so much nouns as verbs; they are processes that are done rather than states of being. Whenever we examine anything, as the Buddhists did with the soul, it dissolves into processes. What remains are actions that we turn into nouns, things and substances, the way we can turn the motion picture of life into snapshots or vignettes with our cameras. Things burst into existence when processes become frozen in time through the act of naming. “Treeness” gets turned into trees; “burning” gets turned into fire; “flowing” gets turned into water; “spaciousness” gets turned into air and space. Even “nothing” gets turned into zeros. Do these things really exist? Not really; what exists is life in motion; things like animals, plants, selves and souls are abstractions that we humans project onto life, compartmentalizing and dissecting it so we can understand and use it.
If life is not about you and me, if we are not the “crown of creation,” immortal sparks of divinity, what are we? What if life is about life intending to wake up to itself? What would it do? How would it do so? Wouldn’t it objectify itself so that it could perceive and experience itself? Wouldn’t we call that process “evolution?” Wouldn’t life no longer be about the climber of the ladder but about our growing ability to stand back and watch ourselves go by? Wouldn’t it be about our ability to get over ourselves, our dramas, our precious sense of worth and self-importance? From such a perspective would it matter who we were in a past life or whether we continued to exist after death? Wouldn’t our lives be more and more about cultivating a humility not based on social conscience, but on the recognition that life isn’t about us?
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For other words and concepts that are and are not supportive of enlightenment, click here.
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