Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Who “Has” What? The Relationship of Self and Soul

Originally posted on April 1, 2009

Do I have a soul, or does my soul have me? The word “have” and the notion of possession may be misleading.  When you were a young child you learned about what it means to have something by associating it with simple concepts: “I have my toy, I give it away, I don’t have it now.” Soon you learned that having something meant that you can turn it upside down, make your toy fly, hide it where you can retrieve it, make it pretend talk and say what you want it to say. It was “yours.”

At the same time, you also learned about relationships, and that your own set of parental and sibling and other family relationships somehow utilized a similar term: You had a brother, you had a mommy. Yet the meaning here is quite different. Your degree of possession regarding your mother meant that she bestowed on you a special right of access. You could climb up into her arms in a way that most others cannot. Indeed, you learned this in a very physical way years before there were any concepts or words.

Then you learned about your soul. Weird concept. Magically, you would live even though you died. How does that work? No matter, it would be you. As you grew older, certain other questions came up: What is this soul-stuff? Can it be measured or weighed? (There were scientists a few hundred years ago who tried to do this!) If you died when you were old, or when you were younger in a horrible accident, would your soul carry with it that same degree of decrepitude or would it be youthful? But which age would you experience yourself? If younger, would your mind be correspondingly naive? What if your mind at the time your body was most vital was foolish or embedded in sinful thoughts? Do you get your most wise mind and your optimal body? Who decides which and when?

It occurred to me that it all derives from the notion of having. Another thing about soul is that the word is used in different ways. For some, the meaning of soul is not only what remains after death—and some folks don’t even link soul with after-death states! Some think of soul as being a deeper part of the self. There’s ordinary waking consciousness—the ego; and then the deeper creative consciousness—the soul; and then the life force—the spirit. There certainly is no unanimity in how folks think about this!

The term “soul” is sometimes mixed with vitality and feeling, so it might be said that a certain song is sung “with soul.” Spontaneous and expressive dance or performing on a musical instrument, or writing or reciting poetry, may be soulful. The term is meant to suggest a mixture of sincerity and depth, and tends to imply some degree of resonance with the speaker who describes it thus.

There are people who have been influenced by the analytical psychology of Carl Jung who write about the “care of the soul”—there’s a book by Thomas Moore with that title. I sort of like this approach, though I realize that we are weaving cloth with invisible thread (as in the story of the emperor who wore no clothes).

Here’s how I imagine it: I envision my ordinary self (the part that I can identify or find most familiar) to be perhaps only a tenth or maybe even only a hundredth of my unconscious potential. I agree with Freud about the unconscious being a function of what I repress. (That refers to thoughts or feelings I don’t want to have any idea that I’ve even entertained.) But I think this is maybe only 10% of it. I find that there are sources of inspiration that are mysterious, and the sources of dreams. There’s the adaptive unconscious where I drive a car or type on a keyboard and hardly know what I’m doing. There seem to be lots of things that are going on about which I feel little or no control.

So I have the following idea: There’s this “oversoul” or complex of possibly multiple non-physical angel forces blending with this oversoul, feeding into my subconscious and from there into my conscious mind. The relationship of this oversoul complex is analogous to the relationship to the parent to the child.

Now here’s the point: When I was a little kid, I had my mommy. But if she were articulate, psychologically-minded, a bit philosophical, and reflected on this, she might think to herself (but not say): “Kid, you don’t ‘have’ me the way you ‘have’ your toy. I have scores of facets of my personality, scores of activities, that you don’t even know about. Some I don’t want to burden your consciousness by hearing about—like my sex life. Some you are too immature to appreciate, such as what I have to go through to make you breakfast. You take me for granted in so many ways, and that’s okay for your age and our relationship.”

“Indeed,” says the mother, remembering her reading of the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, “Neither do I ‘have’ you: There are so many aspects of your complexity, my child, that I cannot control, nor do I really want to. You aren’t my ‘thing,’ a toy to be played with. Part of my work is to draw your potentials forth, to discover and work with your temperament and learning style, your interests and natural abilities (and weaknesses).”

This whole re-alignment of what it means “to have” is also addressed by Martin Buber in his writing about “I and Thou.”  You are not a thing, an “It,” that I can ever fully understand, formulate, treat as an object. You are a “Thou” who is capable of changing your mind, surprising me, being spontaneous, challenging whatever assumptions I’ve made. You as a “thou” are capable of saying, “Well, that was true before, but I’ve changed.”

Now, apply this to “our souls” and that relationship. I suspect that the proper relationship is that of attentive openness, as if to say, “Okay, what can I learn from you today?” The relationship also seeks a comfortable alignment. We can stretch and exercise it to a point of mild discomfort, as we do when we exercise our bodies, but should not go to a point of pain or overload. We should use those cues that something is “too much” to back off and get back into alignment.

This is important because it is possible—and, alas, all too common—to drive oneself, to stoke up on coffee or retreat from life through too much numbing-out (in sleep, through alcohol, etc.)— and lose the proper alignment with the natural inclinations of the soul-body-mind.

The way my life has unfolded, I find it amusing and comforting to imagine that “my” soul is much greater than me, and it would be more fitting for me to think of myself as it’s (temporary- and in this spatial reality) extension. I suspect it has many surprises and hold many potentials of which I can barely imagine, and probably would not be able to understand with my limited mind. This is okay with me. Indeed, I find it supports an attitude I call “faith-ing,” expecting long-term “it’s going to be all right”-ness, whether or not this expectation is based on adequate evidence. In turn, I find that a measure of faith-ing to be the most effective way to live in this problematic and complex world—so ultimately, faith-ing and the myth that supports it all serve a pragmatic goal.

The After-Life

A major function of the soul in the minds of many is that it is the part that carries over into the afterlife, or is reincarnated into another body. I find these notions very problematic, and oddly unnecessary. They pander to the ordinary self’s sense of entitlement. A child feels entitled to be taken care of, and the weaning from that can take years. (In some cultures, in the welfare state, the value of nurturing is overdone and people are enabled to retain that sense of entitlement.)  I think we’re promised immortality as if it was a good thing, an important thing. It is suggested that losing our sense of self in death is a bad thing, something to be feared. With this fear in place, certain established powers can manipulate us to give them money and do all sorts of things with the promise that we will live after death in a comfortable place; whereas if we don’t give them money and do what they say we will live after death in a very un-comfortable place. The idea that it’s really quite okay that “we” don’t live after death at all seems to be inconceivable.

My own thought, influenced by some philosophy that suggests that life is a wonderful work of art, and that it naturally ends; and also, who “we” are is an extension of the soul-complex that doesn’t live after life as “us”—rather, that soul complex is itself part of the all-ness of everything that goes on almost beyond time and matter and space. It’s sort of an extension of God, or a part of God. Such a myth means that I don’t have to worry, I can just sink back into the All-Ness after I die. It’s a more comfortable myth and doesn’t require the fear-based shenanigans that conventional beliefs involve.

Is it true? I don’t know. It seems to me to be more useful for living an engaged life that is enhanced by mental peace of mind. All this mythmaking is a work in progress, so I’m open to dialogue.

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