Monday, August 20, 2007

The Soul Continues

Chris re-poses the Ultimate Question:

I may not have sovereignty over my nervous system -- my brain. I may not have control of my thoughts or feelings. This is the case in narcissism or depression or any number of other illnesses.

I may not have sovereignty over my body. This is the case for everyone. You get sick, you age, you die. It's especially pronounced in cases of disease, like cancer, where your own cells rebel and try to kill you.

But, you say, I'm have sovereignty over my soul. What's that? If it's not my body and it's not my nervous system, what is it? What control do I have over it? What can I do with it? How does that help me take responsibility for healing myself if I can't think properly or walk properly?

In short: If depression destroys who I am, how am I to be held responsible for anything? I'm not even there any more.
Now, Chris, you have slacked on your study of Buddhist philosophy. Of course you do not have control over your thoughts or feelings, or body or nervous system. What you do have--and literally thousands of years of study have established this--is the ability to watch them.

Gracious. Have you, Chris, never heard of the basic Vipanassa meditation, "I have a body, but I am not my body"? "I have emotions, but I am not my emotions"? "I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts"? This is elementary!

Your fundamental Zen meditation, moreover, is the question you have just implicitly asked, "Who am I?" If you have the capacity to observe the agitations of your brain, your body, your nervous system, your emotions, then obviously your Self must transcend all of these things.

Now, of course this capacity to observe, like any other skill, must be practiced. The assumption that we are our bodies, that we must completely identify with every passing thought or feeling, takes a good long time to overturn, when we have grown up in a culture which does not question it. Thoughts and feelings are enormously powerful. But they are as waves in the ocean; the ocean itself is another thing entirely.

Lest any of you start ranting and raving about Primitive Superstitions, Godless Barbarians or Alien Mindsets, let Pretty Lady hasten to add that both modern quantum physics and modern neuroscience are beginning to converge upon this viewpoint:

That acts of the mind affect biology is firmly established in research that is still in its early stages, but the research has enormous therapeutic implications. “Most of that work has looked at the immune system and found many positive changes in it,” says Smalley. “We are going to do empirically sound studies that look at how mindfulness causes changes in the brain.”

One of the experts in this field is Jeffrey Schwartz, a research professor at NPI whose work has shown how positive thinking can permanently alter neural pathways. “A change in perspective is a uniquely human capacity, and the regular paying of attention determines not only how the brain works but also how genes express themselves,” he says. This power, adds Schwartz, can be demonstrated by the “Quantum Zeno Effect,” named after the Greek philosopher Zeno and introduced into science by a group of physicists in 1977.

The phenomenon means that a simple act of observation freezes a quantum system — brain activity, for instance — and suppresses certain transitions to other states, including gene expression. “Quantum physics asserts that all causation does not lie in matter,” says Schwartz. “Physics doesn’t integrate this with the brain, but we’re bringing a new form of causation to science. It’s a major paradigm shift of Copernican magnitude.”

So, in answer to your question, "What is the soul?" Pretty Lady hazards the hypothesis that the soul is the part of you which transcends the physical and the temporal; we postulate its existence based upon overwhelming empirical evidence that the mind does not appear to be bound by these things.

In short, to begin the process of healing, the only thing a person must do is to pay attention. Belief is not required; control is not required. You are There, Chris. All that is required is that you notice.


Chris Rywalt said...

PL sez:
If you have the capacity to observe the agitations of your brain, your body, your nervous system, your emotions, then obviously your Self must transcend all of these things.

We converge on our differences here.

I think you make a logical leap here which can't be justified except by faith. The fact that I can "observe" the actions of my body says nothing about the existence of my soul; and I can't actually "observe" the workings of my nervous system since observing those workings is part of that working. Brain examining brain -- a strange loop.

As far as empirical evidence that there is a soul, I'm afraid I still haven't found any. Any pointers off in this direction -- especially ones involving quantum physics -- have turned out to be false leads, usually caused by misunderstanding. Robert Anton Wilson was fantastic at this, alas.

I'm not saying that there is definitely no soul; not at all. I'm just saying reliable evidence for its existence hasn't turned up yet. We just don't know.

What being depressed did to me was convince me that I am, in fact, entirely my biochemistry. There is no me, because what I think of as me can be swept away more easily than a Tibetan sand mandala.

Anonymous said...

And that's all there is to you, Chris??

Blimey, no wonder you're so unhappy. Believe me or not, my heart aches for you.

Chris Rywalt said...

To be honest, I don't know for sure that's all there is to me. Maybe there's a soul in here. I kind of hope there is some essential me that will go on. I'm not sure why I hope that -- and some days I suppose I don't -- but I try not to conflate wishful thinking with actual proof.

Desert Cat said...

I suspect if I went through your depression, I'd come away with a rather different view. See I deal with mild, chronic depression and intermittent anxiety/panic attacks of the purely neurochemical imbalance sort. When I observe my emotions and my mood failing to line up with my observable conditions, it alerts me to the fact that my brain chemicals are trying to take me for a ride again. I detach my awareness from my emotions, in much the same way that Pretty Lady describes. It's not always easy, but it is possible.

In that mindset, who I am is not what I feel. What I'm feeling is like a recording being played on a stereo--an unpleasant and sometimes agonizing song. But it is not me.

It is frustrating, because I used to be able to rely on my feelings as a sixth sense for what is what. More often than not now, they are completely wrong, so I just unplug that input.

Once having done so, I begin to look for causes and take positive steps to balance again. (paragraphs deleted) I won't take up space here to go into the details of my toolbox.

When it comes to physical ailments, I agree with PL's take also. Someone once noted that I seemed to be more observant/aware of my physical body than the average person. But I don't think it is a particularly difficult thing. I'm beginning to believe a lot of this Buddhist stuff is just the result of practical commonsense observations.

Pretty Lady said...

I think you make a logical leap here which can't be justified except by faith.

Perhaps so; but I also postulate that faith is not only a rock-bottom requirement for healing, but that there is a concrete, meta-mechanistic reason that faith is necessary, which goes beyond the notion that God designed it that way as a sort of 'nanny-nanny-boo-boo, ain't gonna tell ya,' the way some Christians seem to believe.

Simply, if our mind is at the root of causality, or at least a participant in such, as quantum physics suggest, it is therefore necessary to open a gap in the mind in order for preconceived notions, and thus physicality, to be transcended. If the mind has created this physical world, it has done a very thorough job. Thus, opening that gap for the introduction of miracles is not a common occurrence, and requires some conscious participation and training on our part.

Desert Cat said...

"Faith", as is so often misinterpreted, does not mean "laddy dahdy I buh-leev!" "Faith" as it is meant in a biblical sense is a potent creative force. Speaking what is not as if it is, in order to bring it into being.

Big time stuff.

Maybe quantum physics will be able to explain it someday.

Anonymous said...

Buddhism has a concept of non-atman, no individual soul.

I bring this up not just in relation to this post, but as a general question.

With the non-atman concept how, who, what re-incarnates and carries Karma?


Chris Rywalt said...

Karma as you mean it -- probably -- is a Hindu concept, not a Buddhist one. So you're mixing your religions. Buddhist karma -- according to Wikipedia -- is more specifically concerned with your current life and actions and how they affect your future.

Apparently at least some Buddhists believe that humans are formed from five skandas which come together at birth and fly apart at death. This page lists the five skandas as "body, feelings/senses, perceptions, habits and inclinations, and consciousness."

Which, now that I read it, is probably one of the best explanations of what happens when you die I've ever heard.

Anonymous said...

Buddhists believe in Karma and re-incarnation.

What re-incarnates and carries that Karma without a soul?

If there is just this one life why bother with religion or meditation or enlightenment if death ends it all.

How can there be a wheel of life without a soul.

I don't think that Buddhism teaches that we are a random creation of the 5 skandas at birth.


Chris Rywalt said...

TL, I recommend you start with Wikipedia's entry on Buddhism and take it from there. The short version: Your idea of Buddhist beliefs is simplistic. I find mine is, too. It's way more complex than I thought.

Chris Rywalt said...

In particular, this page covers what you're asking about.