Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Body and Soul: On the Condition of Being Human

This is a cool article that Grey Drane posted in the Integral Room at FriendFeed.

Body and soul: on the condition of being human

by Kurt Barstow

Alex Grey, Wonder
What makes us most human? This was a recent question posted on the website Gaia Community (http// There are so many ways to answer that question. Our character flaws and tender vulnerabilities are the first things that come to mind. Without these we are certainly not human and this is the reason we can have such empathy for others. The second thing that comes to mind is our self-consciousness, the fact that we are embodied beings who can sense our original nature as spirit and who therefore have this upward, expansive sense of self, which is another reason, recognizing this in all others, we can care for each other so deeply. The great fifteenth-century humanist and teacher Guarino of Verona was thinking precisely of this dual nature when he said in his speech welcoming Giovanni Tavelli as the new bishop of Ferrara:

"In these matters, there is nobody who does not know that man consists of such elements that the creator of things, source of a better world, when he placed holy and heavenly man in the world as an animal, made him erect while he made all the other animals inclined toward the earth; to man he gave a sublime face, and fashioned him to see the heavens and raise his uplifted face to the stars.

For because there was no expectation of immortality remaining in those animals, he designed them to be stretched out on the earth and slaves to their stomachs and to food. But man he made erect and tall, so that when all "fallen things" have been trampled, he would take up the virtue to which he was born, he would know his origin and contemplate God himself; and since the other animals are animals of man, man would understand that he is the animal of God."

Perhaps what makes us most human is to be located in soul, for by its very nature it seems to bridge these two worlds of the corruptible and the incorruptible, the mortal and immortal, the earthly and the heavenly. This tension even seems to come out in the two primary models of soul that seem to be active in psychology today. On one hand, there is the neo-Jungian, Imaginal soul as articulated especially by James Hillman and Thomas Moore. This is a kind of downward force (Hillman calls the process of the soul descending into embodied form and living its life “growing down”) that is behind our biographies, our fate, our uniqueness. And in this version of soul we have to sometimes honor rather than cure or wash away our symptoms, our perceived weaknesses or flaws, in order for soul-making to occur. We sometimes need to embrace and work through the messiness of our lives rather than to sanitize it or narrow it down to some standardized norm. As Moore says, "Care of the soul means respecting its emotions and fantasies, however objectionable," and, "We do not care for the soul by shrinking it down to reasonable size." In this version of soul it is our idiosyncrasies that need to be tended to by the faculty of our imagination, the soul’s greatest means of communication.

On the other hand, there is the evolutionary soul of Sri Aurobindo, the great twentieth-century Indian sage, that is set forth in Brant Cortright's book on Integral Psychology. (And one might say that this is also probably pretty much the way in which Ken Wilber thinks of soul along integral developmental lines, although soul seems to me to be less clearly in focus than spirit in his work.) This soul is immortal and passes from body to body during successive lifetimes. In Aurobindo it is the secret heart (the hrdaye guhayam), the psychic center located behind the heart. It's importance is developmental and it acquires new powers and capacities in each lifetime as it matures. As Cortright says, "The psychic center is spirit in manifestation, ever alive, ever whole, ever pure, yet also progressing as it evolves new abilities out of itself." The cultivation of this soul leads to authenticity, to greater depth of living, but the direction it takes is clear; it is part of the movement upward toward Spirit. As Cortright further says, "The psychic center moves always toward harmony, truth, beauty, goodness, and tenderness. Its intrinsic nature is spiritual, and to these higher spiritual values it is irresistibly attracted. But at first its voice is overshadowed by the clamor of body, heart, and mind." Rather than the quirky, imaginative, highly individualistic soul outlined in Moore and Hillman, this version of soul-making is about purification and its movement is toward a series of values that define a norm.

These two views of soul would at first seem irreconcilable. One explanation might be that the neo-Jungian soul as I have characterized it is not really soul but something soul-like that operates at the level of heart and mind rather than a stop on the way toward Spirit. It may also be, however, that a developmental model of souI is too sanitized and normative because it only looks at movement in one direction--soul as a goal--and doesn’t account for the development of soul in the vagaries of an embodied being’s life. I think, however, that it is notable that these two visions of soul together seem to comprise the poles of precisely what makes us human--the mutable and immutable. Taken together they seem to provide a more complete picture of soul than either do separately. Perhaps this is simply a matter of immanence and transcendence. In the first version of soul what is being described is primarily soul in its downward manifestation, taking care of earthly, perhaps unfinished business. In the second version of soul, soul is a vehicle in the evolution of consciousness, the ultimate journey of each soul, which is the same and involves purification on some level, as it ascends toward Spirit. In any event, I think we can say that it is this thing, which is also a kind of faculty or capacity at the same time it is an essence, that makes us human. It’s natural home is between the body and mind, on one hand, and Spirit, on the other hand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating article! I’m just starting to really learn about Buddhism and I’m so glad I found your site. I’m also a political junkie, and while I fear we may be on different sides, I’m always interested in all perspectives. Take care.