From the ancient saying “Know Thyself” to modern identity politics, people have always recognized that who we are matters. Self-concept supports any number of uniquely human pursuits. In spiritual practices, finding an answer to that essential question — who am I? — informs everything we do.
It’s easy to say “We’re all souls.” But the questions and quests leading to this discovery are themselves divine. They help that truth sink in. This article will look at what the soul is and some ways in which understanding it can benefit us, as well as those in our lives.
The Sun and the Sunshine
The Absolute, or God, is like the sun. Countless souls emanate from that sun like photons. As the Chandogya Upanishad explains, bahu syām: “Although I am one, I shall become many.” Although the sun and sunshine share the same properties, the differences in their power can’t be overstated.
Some of the spiritual properties we as individual souls share with the Supreme Soul are eternality, perfect knowledge, and bliss.
Eternality means that we have always existed and always will. According to the Vedas, the soul is eternal in this sense, not that it was created at some point and then lasts forever. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (2.12)
Knowledge is the ability to discern reality from illusion, especially matter from spirit. This innate knowing becomes covered by false ego, which causes the soul to think, “I am this body.”
Bliss is unconditional and endless joy. It is the ultimate absurdity of worldly life that we toil day in and day out just for the occasional moment of happiness. As the Bhagavad-gita tells us, “for one who takes pleasure in the Self, whose human life is one of self-realization, and who is satisfied in the Self only, fully satiated — for him there is no work to be done.” (3.17)
In addition to these three qualities, we also share independence. However, like the other properties the soul inherits from the Absolute, our free will is relative. God controls nature, but we have natural limitations around the body, society and time we’re born in. These are material factors which we as souls must navigate in our present lifetime.
We experience dramatically different sensations depending on which nature we are controlled by — material or spiritual. Identifying with our bodies, minds or possessions, that is, with material nature, results in narrow experiences, and incompatibility with sections of the world opposed to our tastes.
By contemplating the Absolute and living a life aligned with spiritual principles, we come back under the influence of spiritual nature and revive our innate peace and happiness. Experiencing that unconditional satisfaction crosses over into our work and relationships in miraculous ways.
Spiritual Vision in Practice
Because we’re susceptible to identifying sometimes with matter and at other times with spirit, the soul is said to be located in the margin between these energies, like a dolphin which can cross to either side of a river. The soul is objectively spiritual, but we dream that we are matter.
Knowing a bit about the relationship between the soul and the body it inhabits gives us clues for how to cultivate spiritual vision. In Sanskrit, the soul is called the sakshi, or witness because it sees through the eyes, hears through the ears, thinks through the mind, etc.
Here’s an exercise to try out our innate spiritual vision:
- Point to your nose
- Point to your belly
- Point to your elbow
- Point to your eye
- Point to your foot
- Point to your knee
- Point to your chest
- Finally, point to your self.
The reason we can’t point to ourselves is because we’re not our bodies. We’re the soul within.
Spiritual Vision in Perfection
Building on the point that the soul lives in the margin between the spiritual and material energy, one can ask, “How is the soul really spiritual then?” Spiritual nature can be divided into two parts, the energy and the energetic source. The souls are derived from the spiritual source.
This is a complex subject, but in brief, God, the Absolute gives rise to the sources of all energies, spiritual and material. A particular spiritual energy produces us, the souls. God then descends within every particle and every soul, while also remaining beyond them.
To see all this is far beyond the scope of our most painstaking efforts. So, why do we practice spiritual vision? Actually, spiritual practices boil down to a request for grace. Theoretical understanding of the soul primes us, so that when that vision is revealed, we’ll be prepared.
When the Absolute, or the divine nature grants us spiritual vision in perfection, we awaken from the dream of identification with matter. That awakening can occur even as we navigate the confines of our body, society and so forth. This enlightened living is described in Bhagavad-gita:
“A person in the divine consciousness, although engaged in seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, moving about, sleeping and breathing, always knows within himself that he actually does nothing at all. Because while speaking, evacuating, receiving, or opening or closing his eyes, he always knows that only the material senses are engaged with their objects and that he is aloof from them.” (5.8-9)
Our Shirt and Jacket
As mentioned above, the soul is embodied. The physical body is an obvious covering of the soul, our jacket, if you will. But beneath the jacket, there’s a shirt which also covers the soul within. That shirt is our mind. So, the mind and soul are different, although they’re both invisible.
As we reincarnate from one physical body to another, our minds stay with us to help select the next body which will best satisfy our desires. In fact this mind remains with us until, by spiritual practice, we are freed from karma and reincarnation as a whole.
The eternal body of the soul is self-sufficient without needing a material mind or body. We souls get our mental coverings when we identify with matter. The mind then acts as the puppet of the soul. It dances due only to the presence of the soul within, veiling our original beautiful form.
Our Spiritual Body
Our spiritual form is without need of matter, but independence alone is not enough. The need of the soul is to be reunited in our relationship to the Absolute. That spiritually fulfilling relationship frees us from material self-image. Ego death can then evolve our spiritual life.