Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

The Structure of the Soul

What is soul, this mysterious something that forms our true essence? Many speak of the soul, but rarely does anyone attempt to say what it is. And so soul remains a vague but profound question mark at the center of our life. Dare we wait until we die to explore our soul, in the hope that death will offer a ray of clarity? Despite the confusion, we feel that our soul is who we really are, undeniably important even if always hidden.

To begin to make sense of this, we can look to the major spiritual traditions for guidance on questions of the soul. All religions propound notions of soul, of levels of soul, and of corresponding levels of experience. Soul serves as the bridge between Heaven and Earth, and is thus central to all spirituality. Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the ancient Greeks view the soul as a composite, incorporating various levels or parts. The lower level exhibits similarities to our physical body. Higher levels are progressively more refined, with the highest approaching God. Christianity speaks of the carnal, natural, and spirit bodies. Islamic Sufis call the parts nafs, ruh, and sirr. The Hindu soul has etheric, astral, and causal bodies, while Judaic Kabbalah teaches of the nefesh, ruach, and neshamah.

Buddhism, on the contrary, denies the concept of an eternal, individualized soul. However, Buddhism does include some soul-like ideas, such as the collection of aggregates, or skandas, which bear a person’s karma into future lives. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the most advanced practitioners can attain the Rainbow Body, which enables the person to exist in a body beyond the physical body.

A detailed comparison of all these systems of the soul is better left for an academic thesis. Here we shall focus on distilling those aspects of soul that may be held as common to some or all of the great religions and spiritual paths.

We begin by noting that the various levels of soul interpenetrate and influence each other. The fully evolved human comprises an organic whole, with all aspects integrated. So we must start with the physical body and all its marvelous subsystems, which interact with the foundational part of the soul.

Our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, while driven to a large degree by our physical body, are made of the basic substance of our soul-body, the sensitive energy, which we discuss in detail later. We learn from the traditions [1] that this energy, ordinarily an amorphous cloud, can be accumulated, organized, and blended with higher energies until it forms the first body of our soul. This inner body or soul-body is said to be similar in shape to the physical body but composed of a more-refined substance. Although not born with our inner body complete, we can create it through spiritual practice. Sufi, Taoist, Hindu, Judaic and other teachings relate this level of soul to the breath, and in particular to the life force within the air that becomes available to us through energy breathing. The sensitive energy in the soul-body keeps us grounded in the present moment in our physical body. So whenever we work to be present in our physical body or breath, we are, in effect, working to create our soul-body.

To form our soul-body, our sensitive energy needs to be organized into the shape of our physical body and blended with consciousness, an energy qualitatively different from the sensitive energy. The sensitive energy provides a scaffold or matrix for consciousness to take root in, while consciousness shapes the sensitive energy. Without the support of the sensitive energy, consciousness, pure awareness, comes and goes with no stability. Practices requiring conscious presence in the now lead primarily to frustration unless thoroughly grounded in physical sensation.

Through presence and meditation, conscious energy gives us a place in a higher world, which we experience as stillness or silence. Consciousness opens us to the timeless, the always present now. The traditions teach that when our practice reaches the stage in which we always dwell in consciousness, then this inner vehicle of soul reaches completion.

Christian [2], Judaic and other traditions tell us that we receive the highest part of our soul, our spirit, as a gift at birth. This, our unique individuality and freedom, emanates from the Divine Will. However, we soon lose contact with that innermost part of ourselves. To bridge the gap to our ordinary awareness and to enable its action in this world, our spirit needs the vehicles of the soul-body. Through dedicated spiritual practice to form and purify this lower part, our spirit can return in service to the Divine as a particle of the Great Purpose. We move toward our spirit through prayer, deep meditation, equanimity and, at the ultimate stage of the path, through surrendering our will to the Divine Will. The perfected will is the “I Am” of the individual wholly and freely given to serving God and neighbor.

At the earlier stages of soul development, we experience our spirit through the medium of conscience [3], prompting us toward responsibility, toward right action, toward love, and toward constant inner work. We can serve the whole by inner and outer responsibility on our own scale. The Great Purpose, Who is responsible for the whole cosmos, remains inscrutable. But conscience translates It to our local situation. To hear conscience with clarity, we must be inwardly free. Egoism, self-centeredness, attachments and identifications garble the voice of conscience. Our spirit thus depends on the inner soul of consciousness to provide a base for the return to freedom from the tyranny of the small self.

The art and science of soul formation, along with the service enabled thereby, encompass the whole broad realm of spiritual practice. If it is true that our soul is unformed and incomplete, then it becomes an overarching imperative that we should do everything in our power to pursue the spiritual path, the way of inner completion, love, and service.

[1] J. G. Bennett, Deeper Man (Santa Fe: Bennett Books, 1978), p. 177

[2] E. Ferguson, Ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997) Vol. 2, p. 1081

[3] Halevi, Zen be Shimon, The Way of Kabbalah (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1976), p. 168


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