I’m not sure what, exactly, the soul is (“I am that I am?”), but I do think I’m closing in, at least for myself, on what the soul does. Here’s the theory I’m working with. Please help me refine it if you think I’m missing something or am basically wrong:
The soul is the I am that I am which, from the vantage of a body, perceives particulars and apprehends wholes.
Think of your mind as a single flashlight with a narrow beam shining into a dark stairwell. At each moment your mind lights upon either a new particular awareness or a new holistic awareness. Think of these different awarenesses as the individual steps in the stairwell. In other words, attention is either lighting upon something very specific, and isolating it for scrutiny, or it is aggregating two or more things together into some meaningful pattern or whole. Put another way, sometimes the light of consciousness is focused on a part and sometimes it is focused on a whole (a gestalt).
Gestalt, I think, is an important word here, for it can mean a variety of things, such as the following: a pattern perceived from particulars; a binding up; something meaningful; an overarching story; a perception of form; something greater than the sum of its parts. Holistic or gestalt insights can seem to just come to you, or you can go in active search for them. They are epiphanies that, like the Second Coming, might catch you unawares in “the bed, the bath, or the bus.”
So here you are, O Whitmanian soul! Pick your simile. Like St Peter, you’re binding and loosing; like Buddha, you’re watching the (outer and inner) clouds drift by; like a flashlight, you’re gazing into the stairwell of existence, whirling up and down looking for something—but what?
Well, something meaningful, of course. Something whole; a resting place for the soul.
Now let’s add some fog to the stairwell. If the light of consciousness enters a fog it revs up its active search for meaning against the random, the gray, the chaotic, the confused, the tragic. Suddenly, you’re in the realm of To be or not to be; to act or not to act. There’s nobody, after all, more aware, self-conscious, and soul-searching than Prince Hamlet. The mind in a fog hopes that something will appear for its light to latch onto—a particular, then another particular, then, perhaps, an insight; a basis for decision; a passageway; a pattern. Like this:
Perhaps, in a maelstrom of lines on a manilla folder dropped on your desk, you notice an S, or a 4, or a 6. Or perhaps you notice all three and read it as a code for something, such as a message from an illicit lover:
[S]ex for us starts at :00 this evening.
In any event, the light of consciousness alternately draws out particulars and patterns; individual steps and stairwells. And these arrive via two routes:
- Outer experience. This includes incoming data from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin; the quale, say, of green grass as green; the voice of your mother from a bedroom; the ideas your eyes vacuum from the words in a book. In short, all present experiences of space, time, matter, and energies constitute awareness’s inputs from the outside.
- Inner experience. This includes the will, the emotions, thoughts, ideas, desires, aversions, indifferences, neutralities, self-talk, self-consciousness, memories, dreams, beliefs, resolutions, goals, confusions, choices, plans, and sundry imaginings. Inner awareness also entails consciousness of when you are an agent (making things happen) and when you are a patient (having things happen to you).
So these are the things that come to awareness, in alternation, from moment to moment, relieved only by dreamless sleep. And, typically, shifts and changes in awareness happen:
- at a rapid clip; and
- at an ever-varying degree (both in terms of energy and attention level).
Try, for example, to bring a sustained level of energy and attention to something—anything—and keep it there for one minute. It’s damn hard. And even if you maintain that attention, you’ll probably notice that either the object of awareness or your level of energy and attention has changed in some way. There’s a reason that the Buddha’s most famous sermon is his Fire Sermon (“O monks, the world is burning! . . .”) and the drink of the Buddhist meditator is caffeinated tea. The fire is both without and within you.
And so here we are at the burning gates of our five senses, and the fire is consuming us, as it were, from both sides of the wall. Our five senses, shifting with energies, are what Blake calls “the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”
Where, then, is the soul’s stability? Is the “I am that I am” really just one damn moment of random awareness after another, and so not actually stable and existent at all?
That’s one way to look at it (and it is the way that Buddhists do, indeed, look at it).
But there’s another way to look at it. When awareness enters into a causal relationship with a body (moving a body with will and being moved with desires and aversions by a body), then the “I am that I am” can choose the story it tells itself. By its gestalt powers it can bind up the rush of impressions into a summative narrative. Your soul can thus be the epiphany or story that you subscribe to about yourself.
Here’s an analogy. If you walk into a baseball stadium in the 7th inning of a game and you sit down next to a friend and ask her whether it is a good game or a bad game so far, she will be able to tell you straight off: “It’s a very good game!” or “It’s not so good,” and tell you why. In other words, her summative powers convey the soul of the game—of the sequence of event to that moment from her perspective. It is the summation of her moments of awareness as a game spectator that she communicates to you. And so here’s my definition of the soul:
Your soul is your summative judgment of your life as it has been attached to a particular body. Your soul is the story you tell yourself; the story that you can look back on thus far and have a felt impression about.
And, of course, others will see you and your soul in a different light, and maybe tell a very different story about you than you do. And, insofar as they are honest, they won’t necessarily be wrong. To echo Whitman, you are large; you contain multitudes. And others are watching and judging.
Now perhaps you don’t like the story you’ve built up so far. You don’t like your soul. But you’ve still got innings to play. Like the thief on the cross, the soul’s obituary isn’t written until consciousness leaves the body. (And St Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.)
So maybe it’s wise to work backward from the obituary you want and learn from marketers. Yes, marketers. Perhaps it’s time your soul underwent rebranding. Marketers are masters at capturing the soul of a product (Hummers are about domination; Campbell’s Soup is about home; the Republican Party is the daddy party; the Democratic Party is the mommy party, etc). And when the image of a product needs to change, marketers just do it. Likewise, your soul is your life’s brand; it’s an image, a feeling, an idea, a story. And if it’s not working, or not terribly interesting, you can change it.
For more hints on soul construction, you can also read novels and short stories, for fiction authors, like marketers, are master builders of souls too. Perhaps you’ve noticed that in the creation of characters, fiction writers shift back and forth from the particular to the general and from the outer to the inner, like this:
“And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you pain?”
He turned his attention to it.
“Yes, there it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”
“And death . . . where is it?”
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
“It is finished!” said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
That’s the ending of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). Now maybe you’re saying to yourself the following:
I want a soul more substantial than this; I want something more essential and obviously eternal than the build-up of a story from fleeting moments of awareness to an overwhelming conclusion.
But maybe this is the way that God (if God exists) sets up the life game. Maybe you make a soul as an author makes a novel, one moment of awareness at a time. Let’s imagine that, just before you were conceived, God declared to the angels the beginning of you as a new game in the universe by saying this:
Let’s put another conscious being on earth erased of any memory that (s)he came from Me. And let’s place her (or him) into a causal relationship with a single contingent body. Let consciousness move that body with will, and let the body move consciousness with pleasures and pains, desires and aversions. Then let’s see what consciousness makes of that relationship. What soul will emerge, at the end, from this encounter?
Maybe this is what life is about: you’re not born with a soul; you construct one from the accumulated moments of awareness that have built up around you. When you die, you give an accounting, before God and your fellow human beings, of all that you’ve made of the moments that you were given. Whether it is something large or something small, this is the presentation of your soul; the story you made of yourself.