Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
— Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
If there is one word that describes me well, it is ‘curiosity’. I always want to know how things work, in all details, especially what goes on behind the surface, how things are connected, what they really mean. And now my attention is captured by the concept of a soul. My own soul in particular, but also the whole idea of a soul, what is it, how does it work, what is the relation of my soul with my body? Can souls be connected (as in family, friendship, marriage, relation with God), does a soul have various parts, or is it just itself, an indivisible unity? Is the soul a space in which ideas live, or is it the source of the ideas? What is a wounded soul? One question bothers me especially: how can a soul influence a body and vice versa, when they are of such different nature?
The more I think about it, the more I realise that the basic working theory that I used to live with, is no longer sufficient. You may wonder why have a theory at all, is life not easier if you are a bit more practical? This may be so, especially when things are all running smoothly. But when things are broken, you suddenly realise their value. As I am going through the motions of psychotherapy, I gain an in-depth experience of the mystery of my own soul, and the reality of quite a few aspects of it, and its connection with my physical life.
There are abundant theories and writings about the topic of the soul. For example Origen’s chapter ‘On Incorporeal and Corporeal Beings’ in his book ‘On first principles’. I discussed it in a group on Goodreads1 where I expressed my surprise at his idea that the sun had a soul. One of the others replied that I might be making too big a distinction between physical and spiritual. He quoted Werner Heisenberg, who said: I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language. Now, this is interesting! Perhaps the distinction between physical and spiritual no longer exists when you take a closer look. This would make the question of how they can influence each other quite irrelevant.
Another insight from science comes to mind: light can be described both as waves or as particles, but not in one unified theory2. It makes me wonder if this isn’t true for how we speak about ourselves too. For we all know what a human being is. But as soon as we start describing, we notice that we really can’t fully capture the essence. This is also illustrated by how the Bible uses the words, as one of the participants in my reading group said: There’s a cloud of words used in Hebrew Scripture for spirit, breath, wind, soul, self, etc. They overlap and differ and one can’t do a tidy one-to-one translation into English or Greek words. Of necessity we are always speaking only about an aspect of our human being. Different viewpoints, but not separate things. All the various words boil down to the same one thing: our human life.
So, what are the practical implications, if any? Well, first it just makes me happy to have an idea that satisfies my long-standing irritation with the question of how body and spirit can influence each other. Ever since I read Dallas Willard’s book The spirit of the Disciplines I have a growing awareness of how much our spiritual life is influenced by what we do with our bodies. It is really clarifying how he describes that ‘becoming like Jesus’, begins with ‘acting like Jesus’, which includes a whole range of spiritual disciplines that Jesus practiced. I have noticed that this really works, and have benefited much from these insights. For example I like to rest in silence before God for about an hour before I start writing, and it always surprises me how the words then just seem to come out of the blue3. I was always amazed at this seemingly magical trick, yet now I begin to see this in a new light. If body and soul are just different expressions of one and the same thing, then what you do to the one, you do to the other.
Do our bodies always directly reflect the state of our soul? Has a physically healthy person always a healthy soul? No, obviously not, the relation is much more complicated than that. On the contrary, there are often huge differences between our outer and our inner life, which causes lots of problems. Therefore, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, wise people of all ages have advised to conform your soul to reality. That’s not just what we can see and feel, but also spiritual reality. And the connection between body and soul helps us understand what we cannot see. Physical events teach us something about the spiritual world. Take for example accidents or diseases. These can happen to us through no fault of our own, and we might need some rest or medicine or a doctor to cure us. This teaches us that the same can be true for things that hurt our soul (yes, looks can kill). In this life we are battered both physically and spiritually. Some of us more in one way, some more in the other. Different, but similar, and equally real.
Can we use this knowledge to heal the soul4, if it was wounded? Can we touch our soul, clean the wounds, apply some medicine? It is an interesting idea, worth exploring. I think it is the basic idea of psychotherapy, and it seems to work. It’s also one of the reasons for going to church. I also appreciate that Jesus told us so explicitly that he came to us as a physician5. It is a good idea to bring your wounds to Jesus, and let Him heal them. No one is closer to us than God. It is sometimes difficult to allow him so near, but his presence is truly a healing touch.
- In this discussion, and the chapter mentioned can be found here
- I have pondered this more often, see Lovely Paradoxes
- I find it very interesting to see that science has affirmed that this is how the brain works best. Something to do with long brain waves. For me this does not dismiss the magic, I am only admiring the beauty of how we are created more: it is in our very nature that we function best if we dare to surrender to something that we cannot control.
- I reflected further on this topic in Healing a broken heart
- Mark 2:17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”