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Soul Loss

April 19, 2012

Many cultures make distinctions between the parts of the self: body vs. mind, body vs. soul, mind vs. emotions, soul vs. spirit. Sometimes the distinctions are less dualistic and more tripartite: body, soul, and spirit; soma, psyche, and pneuma; basar, nephesh, and ruach; corpus, anima, and spiritus.

The problem is, these distinctions are not terribly solid. In Hebrew, nephesh is sometimes “the soul”: the part of us that lives on, spends time in Sheol, lies at rest in Abraham’s bosom, or reincarnates, depending on who you’re listening to at the time. But nephesh is also “a life,” the way we might say, “Over 1500 souls were lost when the Titanic sank.” Genesis says God blew the breath (ruach) of life into Adam’s nostrils, and he became a living soul, a living being (nephesh). Nephesh is more about the living, breathing person than about the eternal soul whose fate many preachers worry over.

Of course, nephesh and ruach both mean breath, though ruach can also mean wind or spirit. And you have the same sort of muddiness in other languages. If mind is synonymous with soul, as it pretty much is in the Greek concept of psyche, where are the emotions? Are they a subset of the soul? Or do they stand in apposition to the mind (as they often do in my life)? Aren’t both my heart and my intellect parts of my psyche?

I’ve been learning lately about Chinese philosophy. They had a whole lot of different and conflicting models of the nonphysical self, but most talk about a hun, which is separable from the body but is the person’s dominant spiritual self, and nearly what we might call the soul; and the po, when is the animal and sentient side of a person, the tangible consciousness—what we might call vigor or spirit—which dissolves upon death.

Then there’s the physical energy of the body, which Chinese philosophy calls the Three Treasures: essence (or jing), which is inherited and constitutional; qi, which is the flow of energy throughout the body, our bioelectric field, comparable to the Sanskrit word prana; and shen, which seems closest to thought or consciousness: ephemeral, lightning-fast, able to direct and move qi, etc.

Shamanic cultures often see “soul” as quantitative. Someone who experiences great trauma, whether physical or emotional, often has “soul loss,” which makes him or her seem dispirited, depressed, not “all there.” Someone with a great deal of passion has, as even our language puts it, a lot of soul. Or a lot of spirit, further confusing things. This type of “soul” doesn’t seem to be immortal; it’s the strength and depth of the self—and that won’t last when we’re no longer alive.

I guess the reason all this is coming to mind right now is that within the last eight months, three friends lost their spouses (two to cancer, one to sepsis after heart surgery). All three were “too young” to die, and all three suffered a great deal before they died. I’m not entirely sure why their deaths have hit me so hard. It could be the vicissitudes of middle age—that having several people die in quick succession makes each new death harder to bear, and thoughts of my own death more insistent. It could be the pain of loss in general, the impossible demand to embrace the impermanence of existence. It could simply be Weltschmerz, world-woe, or perhaps wanting to bear some of the pain my friends are feeling, as if to lighten their load somehow. But it has caused me to think of the soul, the spirit, the afterlife: is it all just wishful thinking? Who wants to believe that our brief time here is all we’ll ever get, and all the world will ever see of us?

What is it at work in near-death experiences, or when we see the tunnel of light? So many who die and are revived give very similar reports. Why the commonality? Biologists talk about it as signals the brain receives as it is dying, the last firings of our neurons and such. I have no problem with that as a description of the mechanism, but I don’t think it helps with the meaning of it all. I think there is clearly a nonphysical part of us, and everything I’ve seen and experienced tells me that what is uniquely us doesn’t simply stop when the body does.

In the end, there can be no objective certainty, but I’m not entirely sure it matters. What we humans care about is having enough meaning for ourselves that we can get through life peacefully and productively. Yes, we’d like to be “right,” but we won’t know that for sure until we die—if then!

Then again, Buddhists talk about the soul as being both inside and outside of us, rather like plunging a pitcher of water into a lake: is the water inside the pitcher, or outside of it? It’s indistinguishable, of course. Modern physics has taught us that the body is not a container so much as is a locus of slower-moving energy, that we are waves of energy moving at different speeds. If that’s the case, and if the law of the conservation of mass is true—that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged—then yes, I think we can say that we live on. Whether it’s as a discrete unit, or more as a pitcher of water tossed into the ocean, I’m less certain.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2012 4:30 pm

    Two things are certain: 1. that we will die. 2. only in the moment is life.

  2. April 19, 2012 5:21 pm

    Thanks for the post – a nice summary of the vagueness of it all and you’re only middle-aged! I translated the Psalms without using the word ‘soul’ once. That must make it a soulless translation. I don’t think we can make many assumptions. Alex has two certainties. I wonder if there could be more that are expressible. Paul tries in the ‘we shall not all sleep’ section. I think Alex’s sense of the present moment is important. This means being present to the love and pain of others. It also means not exploiting our currency. Play with the overlap between the religious and economic metaphors.

  3. April 20, 2012 1:04 am

    I’m not entirely sure the age-old idea of similarity between near-death experiences is true. I seem to strongly recall hearing statistics to the contrary, but then again, such is memory. It is all quite odd though. Logically, it is highly wishful thinking. Logically, we have little reason to strongly assert the idea of an afterlife (minus, fortunately, a few scientific endeavors– Ian Stevenson’s work on reincarnation comes to mind). Intuitively, however, nothing else could make more sense. Psychologists/Biologists can say what they want about intuition’s bias, but it still can’t be disregarded. Our brains are indeed computers which must thereby use some algorithmic language at core, and intuition, albeit very fast, must work upon those concepts to.

    Either way, I like the hope.

  4. April 20, 2012 2:17 am

    In the 19th century we were all machines. Now we are likened to computers, But we still are ignorant of consciousness, time, and gravity at the computational depths required to say we ‘know’. That’s why the present is the important reality. As I began this comment with a profound thought into which all thought might be stuffed for consideration, the phone rang and I had at this somewhat late hour to be present to my son, even to discuss for a moment illness, death, and future estate management. So the thought vanished like the Lost Chord at the Organ in that lovely 19th c ditty by Proctor and Sullivan.

    I think we concentrate too much on thinking. Hope is more than a thought. It must be grounded in a present reality, a presence. Besides the religious and economic metaphors, there is also the analog of love. The pain experienced at loss reflects this. I received some care this week at emergency which in the 19th c might well have caused my death. “I, I am finished.” While prone I considered that Psalm, 39, and its oscillation – Make me know, Lord, my end – and the measure, such as it is, of my days. How will I know it? How terminal I am… my transience is as nothing before you – surely all futility … they accumulate stuff and haven’t a clue who will get it next … my hope? it is in you. (My translation 5-8 snipped in a few places.)

  5. April 20, 2012 11:50 am

    I do indeed think there is more color to our intuitive notions than our culture currently perceives them. Nonetheless, I do think it is of high importance that we temper them with our “thinking.” We just can’t entirely trust them as is unfortunately. Yet analytical thinking is one of those things that are great servants but poor masters, and our current culture has definitely learned to worship it as master (or has at least tried to). It’s definitely hard to carry hope in that paradigm.

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