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The Myth of the Solitary Soul

soul n. from Proto-Germanic saiwalō, meaning "coming from the sea, belonging to the sea," because that was supposed to be a stopping place of the soul before birth and after death, according to F. Kluge's Etymologisches W÷rterbuch der deutschen Sprache.1

What is the soul? We picture it as the disembodied, yet separate self. This self exists before the body and has rights to a body, according to pro-life theology. This self carries its baggage with it from body to body, according to reincarnation theology. In traditional Christian thought, this self is vulnerable to pain after death. But have we projected earth onto heaven, by creating the soul as another 'body', extending separation into eternity? If our true Self is One with humanity, the division into many bodies is an illusion. The individual soul compounds that illusion into our spiritual reality. Perhaps the body and the soul aren't one or two, but are zero. Perhaps the lonely soul doesn't exist - in the after-life, before-life or beside-life of the equally illusory body.

In the I of the Beholder

"What is Reality?" states the mystical question, according to Evelyn Underhill.2 But a different question precedes it, and predetermines its answer. "Who am I?" is the question that comes first. We could phrase this question as whether we exist in a temporary body with an eternally mindful soul, or in a body and mind, both impermanent. When I describe who I am, I might mention my physical appearance, my job or my social roles. If I describe who I really am, I would describe myself again by what differentiates me - I'm a poet, a rebel, a creative thinker. When I imagine myself after death, I keep these distinctions. If I think about slipping back into the Great Melting Pot of Consciousness, it's very frightening. It feels like "I" would disappear. A Five for Fighting song goes, "I'm nobody without you, body." Oneness, let's face it, has little appeal, in this life or the next. We want to see humanity as the ground on which we shine. We want to see our self as what sets us apart, what makes us special, whether that's a body or a soul. But ancient and modern mystics are out to disabuse us of this notion:
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
From The Thunder: Perfect Mind, Nag Hammadi Library3
I am Protennoia, the Thought that dwells in the Light.
I am the movement that dwells in the All
I am She in whom the All takes its stand.
From Trimorphic Protennoia, Nag Hammadi Library4
I am the Effective and the Ineffective
I am Fullness and Emptiness
I am Living and Dead
I am Difference and Sameness
From Seven Sermons to the Dead, Jung5
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on the small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
From Please Call Me by My True Names, Thich Nhat Hahn 6

The Conundrum of One

Rather than the choice of body and soul, or body and mind, both describing a state of separation, perhaps the choice is only separate or One. The concept that we're One, while universally acknowledged in all religions, is universally ignored in practice. Up on a theological pedestal, we're safe from its life-altering social implications. If we entertain the possibility that we might be One Mind, we have to reconsider Reality. We have to ask, "Isn't what we refer to as reality merely a consensus, an agreement between us that certain things are real and others aren't?"7 If only One is required for a consensus, Reality is up for grabs.

Take, for instance, the magazine that you hold in your hands. We agree that the magazine exists because you and I both see it. Because you and I are separate, and we agree, the magazine has objective reality - it exists as an object outside of our subjective perception. If one of us saw it and the other didn't, one of us would be hallucinating. Proof is the agreement between independent observers.

But if we're One Mind, there's no such thing as independent observers - all perception is subjective because it exists in the same mind. The magazine could just as easily be our shared delusion. To extend the theory, we could be creating history as we go. We might first come up with the idea of dinosaurs, and then start inventing evidence for it by imagining dinosaur bones. Creating one's own Reality apart from the consensus is called schizophrenia or self-empowerment, depending on whether it's made money. But what if the consensus is a psychotic break into multiple personalities? What if we're One dreamer dreaming six billion dreams, with different heroes, villains and victims? Who's to say that One Mind isn't capable of this? If we are One Mind, we're not as stupid as we think.

Then what is the body? When I question the existence of the body, other people get the urge to stick pins in me, just to prove to me that I'm real. Can we feel pain in a dream? Certainly our mind causes any sensations that we experience. An electrode in the brain can make you feel excruciating pain in your hand, even though your hand is untouched. The One Brain could distribute a self-inflicted pain to various bodies, assigning some the role of victor and some the role of victim. Only the senses of the body tell us that the body exists - it's a self-confirming system. We see the body with the body's eyes and touch the body with the body's fingers. If I choose to touch your hand, are you choosing to touch your own hand through me? If you choose to stick pins in me, am I choosing to stick pins in myself through you? Or are you choosing to stick pins in yourself through me? Can we all opt for caresses instead of pins, if we realize that everything we do and everything that's done to us, we do to our Self?

The Mind's I

In the Gospel of Mary8, the grieving apostles ask her what the Savior might have said when they weren't around. Giving them more than they had bargained for, she recounts an occasion when she told Yeshua9 that she had seen him in a vision earlier in the day. He congratulates her. Miryam10 asks him, "With what does a person see a vision - the soul or the spirit?" He answers, "not...with the soul or with the spirit. Rather the mind, which exists between these two, sees the vision..."

If the mind exists between the soul and the spirit, how are they different? It wasn't Yeshua's intention that caused her vision, because it was news to him. Neither did she ask for a vision. Why would she, when she was meeting with him later that day? He congratulates her for not wavering, indicating that the "action" in seeing a vision is not taking action to obscure it. This sets any assumptions about passive vessels on ear. Miryam simply accepts her experience without flinching away. To be perfectly passive or obedient is to see Reality as it is, and not actively distort it. Each soul, the individual vessel for holding the Spirit, is capable and worthy. The Spirit doesn't pick and choose - the Spirit chooses inclusively. Only the well-trained Mind, practiced in the art of seeing things as they are, makes one person different from another in time, not inherently different by nature.

The Nature of Reality and the Plan

Jacob Needleman says in "The Hidden Union":11 "To begin to understand [The Gospel of Philip], we need to have a question, and to question ourselves." In The Sophia of Jesus Christ12, Philip himself supplies the question. The resurrected Christ shows up laughing at their consternation, then asks "Why are you worried? What are you thinking about? What do you want to know?" Quick on his feet, Philip answers, "What is the underlying nature of the universe and the plan?" In one phrase, he's succinctly cut to the chase. Put yourself in Philip's shoes - your country is occupied, you have no rights, and your best friend has just been hideously executed for an infraction. Understanding reality isn't idle speculation. In fact, it's more than life or death - you've already made your life forfeit in order to gain this knowledge. So how can you use it to change the suffering of your people? The mystic revelations of Philip, for all their symbolic abstraction, have the hard edge of urgent need. Philip already answered "Who am I" with his actions, risking his personal safety for the good of others. He's chosen self as One, and his text reads in this context.

What are the implications of One Mind to human suffering? Remember when the protagonist in My Dinner with André says, "If I were to think about all the starving people in the world, how could I enjoy my steak?" As One Mind, we're already conscious of the starving people, since we are they. The effort required is to disassociate our consciousness and forget who we are in order to achieve some peace of mind. But the peace is uneasy and under constant threat, requiring anti-depressants, media distraction and busyness to keep the One Mind from thinking. You can make a good living from Enlightenment - a woman just told me that she was no longer afraid of death after her $3500 spiritual weekend. How many third-world families could $3500 give a chance to avoid death, earn income, protect their children from slavery, and have hope for a future? Which way will lead to the peace of a mind at One? Rather than charity being an act of compassion, compassion may be sensibly selfish - the life you save may be your own.

Entertaining the Possibility of God

In "God Owes Us an Apology", Barbara Ehrenreich13 writes, "Any religion centered on a God who is both all-powerful and all-good...should be subject to a thorough post-tsunami evaluation. As many have noted before me: If God cares about our puny species, then disasters prove that he is not all-powerful; and if he is all-powerful, then clearly he doesn't give a damn." An all-powerful, all-loving God and the world we know cannot both be real, so we conclude that God doesn't exist. But there may be another possibility. Calling the existence of the world into question opens up the possibility of God.

Let me give an example. If one of my daughters is having a nightmare, do I exist in her nightmare? My image might exist as a projection of her worst fears, failing to save her from the evil or even turning against her. But if I were really in her nightmare, as an autonomous actor, she would feel herself to be safe and it wouldn't be a nightmare. The fact that I don't exist in her dream isn't because I'm not real, it's because her dream isn't real. If I had the power to magically appear in her dream, I would be acknowledging her nightmare as reality - terrible news, because it would validate the dream as real. Since I don't have that power, and I want to end her distress, I'll hold her and talk to her, saying her name, until my voice calls her back, choosing to remember me and the waking world.

Maybe God doesn't exist in this world, not because God isn't real, but because this world isn't real. Maybe God in this world is a projection of our fears, the God who fails to protect us and can even turn against us. The Gospel of Philip14 says "Father and son are simple (aplous) names; The Spirit is a double (diplous) name, for it is everywhere: above, below, in the visible, in the invisible. Spirit (pneuma) becomes manifest when descending, and unmanifest when ascending." The Son can be seen as us, as we really are, in the unified Mind that knows this isn't reality. The Father is the all-loving, all-powerful God, outside the bubble of unreality. Is the Spirit the voice of the Mother in our dream? Only we can control our own dream, and take action within the dream, but the Voice can go between both realms. The Spirit can work with the Christ-mind or Buddha-mind or atman in us to bring about the re-cognition (knowing again) of our true nature.

Miracle vs. Magic

This puts an altogether different spin on the concept of miracles. Rather than exceptions to the 'laws' of nature, they could be cracks in the fašade of limitation. In a dream, parting the Red Sea is no harder than parting your hair. We could walk on water, replenishing the fish as we go, or throw a mountain of Third World debt into the ocean. These aren't, however, the types of miracles we're requesting. We're asking God to make an exception to the rules for us. Implicitly, in this type of miracle, we're asking God to confirm the existence and importance of the body, validate our fears and reinforce our helplessness.

Magic is the instant-gratification miracle. A ritual, a flash of insight, a place or person of power and - poof! Magic is the belief that God grants favors. But obviously not based on the urgency of need, deservingness of asker or sincerity of request. God's criterion, if God has one, is inscrutable, unequal and unfair. We call this grace, the unearned gift, but behaviorists see an erratic, non-ruled based system of punishment and reward as the quickest way to turn a rat into a nervous wreck. God is also incompetent, because the exception proves that the rules weren't perfect in the first place. Like the obedient patient staying in the doctor's good graces, we don't want to come out and blame God for our cancer. But it's the inescapable conclusion of such a request - God caused it, therefore God can cure it. God is therefore unfair, incompetent and cruel.

Possibly the true miracle isn't the exception; but is a different set of rules than we've imagined. It isn't a special favor; it's favoritism on the side of everyone, that won't settle for less. We see ourselves as separate entities lost in the swirl of chaotic and threatening forces, with only our advantage to keep us safe. Each empathetic thought, each facing of fear, each act of sharing is a step in the direction of miracles, and there are only steps - no flashes, no pop of enlightenment, no magic person or place. There's no way to leap over the messy business of Oneness with humanity and reach Oneness with God. Before we can see God, we have to see the person who made our shirt. Beneath the veneer of civilization is the violence and suffering that enables us to consume without producing. To know God, we have to know the Chinese farmgirl working 18-hour days in the factory15; her love of music, her dreams, her parents' hopes for her. If there is One Mind, it's out to thwart the peace of the little mind in its quest for a comfortable insanity.

In the Beginning

...was the castle of Eden, where Beauty lived. One day she pricked her finger on an illusion and fell into a deep sleep. In her dream, she created a whole thicket of illusions that made her a helpless victim, waiting for a magic kiss. Many aspiring princes came, hacking with their machetes, and all perished. After a long while, a gardener thought, "this vine wouldn't be so bad if I trellised it". He started bringing order out of the chaos. He pruned the roses with care, ignoring the thorns and seeing only beauty. He was patient with the prickly bush, knowing its magnificence in bloom. He taught others to shape the overgrown shrub, bringing out its true nature so everyone could see how fine it was.

One day, the gardeners looked up and there was Beauty, walking towards them in the scented arbor. She reached them all simultaneously, lifted her hand and touched their face, all at the same time. She smiled into his eyes, and kissed him full on the lips - a long and breathtaking magic kiss. The gardeners turned into one Prince, who kissed her fully back. In the ever after they had many children, all of whom delighted in bringing Beauty about.

We created this world out of the waves of the sea, and we can recreate it. We made the sunset and the tsunami, the fullness and the emptiness, the Thought that dwells in the darkness and the Thought that dwells in the light. We cast our Self daily into the roles of whore and holy one, honored one and scorned one, raped girl and sea pirate. The role is all that divides us, until we give each other release. Until we weave the vines instead of hacking them apart. Until we become She in whom the All takes its stand.

1 Barnhart, Robert K., Editor. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. H.W. Wilson Company: New York, 2002. p.1037
2 Underhill, Evelyn. Essentials of Mysticism.
3 Robinson, James, Editor. Nag Hammadi Library. The Thunder: Perfect Mind.
4 Robinson, James, Editor. Nag Hammadi Library. Trimorphic Protennoia.
5 Jung, Carl. Seven Sermons to the Dead.
6 Editor, Selected Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
7 Sting. Broken Music: A Memoir. Bantam Dell: New York, 2003. p.13
8 Leloup, Philip. The Gospel of Mary the Magdalene.
9, 10 The authentic names are used rather than those falsified to be non-Jewish.
11 Needleman, Jacob. The Hidden Union. Parabola, Spring 2005. p. 61
12 Robinson, James, Editor. Nag Hammadi Library. The Sophia of Jesus Christ.
13 Ehrenreich, Barbara. God Owes Us an Apology. The Progressive, March 2005.
14 Leloup, Philip. The Gospel of Philip.
15 The Truth about Toys. Real Money, Co-op America. Actual hours are 17-20 hrs/day in a supplier factory for Hasbro, Wal-Mart and Disney.