For years I’ve suffered abdominal pain and fatigue, which in recent months have been getting worse. The pain, at least, is traceable to a vascular anomaly near my pancreas. Surgery could correct this faulty pattern of blood flow. Since the aching feels so deep and ominous, blunts my appetite, and is getting worse, it seems time to take the step I’ve been avoiding. A week from today I’ll be going in for the procedure. Soon, a surgeon will be cutting me open.
But is that an accurate description of the coming event? Will “I” be cut open? Or will there merely be a dissection into this body while “I” go along for the ride?
A reader on the other side of the planet from me, Graeme, has been reading my posts and occasionally asking about my use of language. After plowing through a number of recent essays he asks me to explain my “current take on the nature of ‘will,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘self.’” As I prepare to go under the knife, this seems like an appropriate line of inquiry. What parts of “me” will be affected? What parts will remain detached and simply observe?
The body grounds us in our lives. Its hormones and neural impulses determine much of our experience. But we all have the sense of observing the body from a place that’s a little apart. If I stub my toe, there’s a part of me that seems to ‘own’ the toe that gets stubbed. As my abdomen undergoes surgery, there will be a part of me that observes the surgical suite, lapses into the unconsciousness of anesthesia, then awakens in a haze of disorientation. But that part will feel separate from the abdominal region, which the observing ‘self’ will feel as a site of pain after the operation.
What is this ‘self?’ Buddhism and modern neurobehavioral studies tell us there is no central unit that remains stable. Neither through introspection nor neural imaging can we locate a ‘self’ module that holds up under scrutiny. This is considered a key insight of the Buddhist path. I suspect it’s one that comes easier to those of us with so-called bipolar disorder, who realize early on that our ‘self’ is not consistent.
Over the course of days or even hours, my ‘self’ can switch from confident excitement to defeated despair. It might pursue a project ambitiously one moment and abandon it the next. It can feel in love with life in the morning, then look longingly toward death in the afternoon. If the ‘self’ can change so quickly, how can it be considered a fixed and continuous entity?
My personality is coherent in only a few senses: 1. It is centered in a particular body. 2. It constructs an ongoing narrative that links historical experiences. 3. It displays a characteristic set of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive qualities that alternate in strength of expression over time and lend repeatability, if not consistency, to the picture.
The ‘self,’ then, is a set of patterns, linked to events via a narrative, and centered in a body.
Is that all? Just a dynamic mishmash of elements vying with one another in a material organism? What about ‘spirit?’ What about ‘soul?’ Don’t they anchor things more securely?
The Buddha saw no evidence for a ‘soul,’ or essence, that provides a fixed axis about which our personalities revolve. Hinduism, on the other hand, believes the ‘soul’ exists, but not in the way we usually think. If the Buddha was correct, and there is no ‘soul,’ then we don’t need to define the term. But the Hindu notion of ‘soul’ is worth exploring. From that perspective, there is an inner light of consciousness that is built up with layers of mental and physical structure. Working, as is traditional, from the gross to the subtle, some of these layers are: the material body itself, the energy that moves the body, the sensations, emotions and drives the body generates, the mind that builds perceptions and responds to circumstance, the intellect that interprets and guides experience, and the blissful quality that motivates and permeates the whole as pure, nonjudgmental presence.
That presence, then, is the ‘soul.’ But since it is not bound to intellect, mind, and all the rest, it is impersonal. In fact, according to the tradition, it is identical in all beings and pervades the entire cosmos. The traditional way of saying this is: Atman equals Brahman. The individual soul is identical to the universal one. If we wanted to quibble (and why shouldn’t we?) we might wonder if this is very different from saying the individual soul simply doesn’t exist. Which, of course, brings us back to the Buddhist perspective.
No ‘self?’ No ‘soul?’ Doesn’t this paint a bleak picture?
Not at all. What we conclude, if we believe this line of reasoning, is that we are not atomic units of humanity that need to battle it out with all the other atoms. Rather, we are molecules built up of many pieces that connect to a vast (for all practical purposes, infinite) matrix of other molecules. Where the individual starts and stops is not so easy to define. For instance, we think we know the edges of our bodies: but what happens when we eat a meal? When does ‘food’ become ‘body?’ After it is swallowed? After it is absorbed from the intestine? After it is incorporated into cells? Boundaries are blurry and changeable. Or consider our thoughts, over which we claim ownership, but which always derive from language and concepts we absorbed from others. The human being is a small and changeable aggregate, continuous with all the other aggregated processes within the larger whole. We are nothing more and nothing less.
What then of ‘mind’ and ‘will?’ I already defined ‘mind’ in one way above (there are many other possibilities): it is the structural layer that takes sensation, drive, and emotion as input and generates perceptions and responses as output. Sticking with the terminology already laid out, ‘will’ can be viewed as a component of ‘intellect.’ If the latter “interprets and guides experience,” then the ‘will’ is that part which makes decisions about how to interpret and guide. Here’s an example of how this might work in practice:
A married man converses with an attractive single woman who smiles warmly as the two face one another. The man’s ‘mind’ is receiving sensory input in the form of facial and bodily movements, scents, vocalizations, etc. It also feels the bubbling of sexual attraction. It processes all this input in the context of a particular emotional state, perhaps sadness. It builds a percept: attractive, flirtatious, potentially available woman who might offer intimacy that would ease the sorrow. In very short order, the ‘mind’ responds to its perception and generates a subtle deepening of the voice, a warm smile, and a slight shift of posture that brings the man a half inch closer to his companion. The ‘intellect,’ meanwhile, is watching this unfold, taking a bit longer to form opinions and intervene. Recognizing that overt flirtation is considered inappropriate behavior for a married man, the ‘intellect’ weighs the benefits and risks. If it is committed to mainstream values and maintains a grip on the situation (i.e., if it doesn’t allow drives to take over), the ‘intellect’ looks at the long term consequences of an affair and realizes they would not be worth the short term thrill of pursuing a romance. The intellect (rather, the ‘willful’ subunit of the intellect) begins to influence the outcome in a variety of ways. It picks out indicators that the woman might be insecure and needy. It looks for flaws in her appearance. It calls on memories of the wife and imagines how she’d feel if this dance went further. Such cognition then feeds back into mind and colors the percept and response. In this indirect way, the man’s attitude and behavior are changed: the woman begins to look a little less appealing; posture stiffens; eyes glance into the distance. On a more deliberate plane (i.e., under the direct influence of the ‘will’), the man looks at his watch and says he needs to head off to an appointment.
Obviously, all this happens in a way that feels seamless. Unless we take time to tease apart the levels and influences, we aren’t aware of them as we go through life. But the model works reasonably well and can be used to explain variations. The ‘intellect’ could decide to throw caution to the winds. Or it could downplay the situation by considering it harmless fun. It’s even possible for the interpretative function of the ‘intellect’ to feel guilty about errant behavior, while the guiding function plots frank seduction. (That this sort of disconnect can occur is strong evidence, I believe, that the solid, stable ‘self’ is an illusion.)
So if ‘soul’ and ‘self’ are illusory, ‘mind’ a device that constructs experience and actions, and ‘intellect’ an executive interpreter that may or may not intervene, what is a human being?
As outlined above, a human is merely an aggregate. Here we see it comprised of body, mind, intellect, and all their subunits (in other formulations we might pick out brain regions, emotional and cognitive domains, etc.). Somehow this collection of properties arises from that which is most fundamental in the cosmos. With regard to this fundamental substance or quality, scientists might point to physical energy that manifests in various ways (including as matter), while the mystically inclined might speak of ‘spirit.’ The terminology doesn’t matter. If one looks objectively, one recognizes that all systems tell us the same thing: we see a diversity of form that, in reality, reflects a deeper unity of composition. Most importantly, this unity is universal, not individual.
During my upcoming surgery, my body will be physically altered. This will affect how energy moves through it (perhaps simply the kinetic energy of flowing blood, or possibly more subtle currents). My emotions and sensations will no doubt feel dramatic at times, and my mind will use these to build up a sort of ‘movie’ that will make the entire experience feel of one piece. My intellect will be watching, interpreting, and occasionally using its will to effect decisions as needed.
Throughout it all, there will be a part of me that is simply present, resonant and wise. This deepest layer of my human aggregate, if I can keep awareness of it active in the more superficial strata, will help me get my entire composite through the ordeal calmly and, perhaps, with curiosity and gratitude.
So am “I” to be cut open? In some sense, all parts of me will be affected: body, energy, mind, intellect, and spirit. But remember that every human is integrally connected to a web of air, food, water, light, sound, touch, language, gesture, ideas, culture, history, etc., plus whatever fundamental source drives them all. A surgeon’s instruments will reach deep into my abdomen, but “I” am already open.