The "Soul Hypothesis" (Part 4)

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • Deepak Chopra CoAuthor, 'Super Genes​'; Founder, The Chopra Foundation

Most people relegate matters of the soul to their religion, which is a comforting choice. It's been said that religion is about someone else's experience while spirituality is about your own. The experiences of a Jesus or Buddha were exalted and holy. Attaching yourself to them feels safer than exploring the unknown by yourself. But there are reliable guides to the domain of the soul. As we saw in the previous post, the first step is to go beyond the five senses, venturing into the domain of intuition, insight, and subtle emotions. Each person will be guided differently into this shadowy region of the self, but the Indian tradition (among others) provides us with four broad pathways.

1. Reaching the soul through finer levels of thinking (Gyan Yoga) -- People who are naturally attracted to observing how their minds work tend to follow this path. They value insight, make their own independent choices, and don't accept surface appearances. This implies a bent for psychology, philosophy, and science, fields that depend on confidence in one's ability to use the intellect and to observe the world accurately. Objectivity is an important tool for discovering the truth about spirit. The soul is found by looking deeper into the nature of consciousness as the creator of thought.

2. Reaching the soul through finer levels of emotion (Bhakti Yoga) -- People who are naturally attracted to love and devotion tend to follow this path. Since we all seek to love and be loved, extending that impulse toward God is considered the easiest path. But emotions are changeable and volatile, so there are difficult choices to be made, especially the choice between selfish desires and selfless ones. The devotional path implies a bent for service, but anyone who primarily values feelings and enjoys the self-absorbed state of love will gravitate to this path. The soul is found by increasing steps of happiness leading to profound bliss, one of the primary qualities of pure consciousness.

3. Reaching the soul through finer levels of action (Karma Yoga) -- "Karma" is the Sanskrit word for action, implying that this is an outward path. More accurately, one explores the nature of cause and effect. If I do A, resulting in B, what does that say about how the world works? People who are result-oriented will tend to be attracted to this path; they value change, progress, and personal evolution. For them, spirituality is chiefly about self-improvement. Often they start out acting for selfish reasons, but as they evolve they begin to think outside personal boundaries, confronting the human dilemma and what will bring the most good to the world. The soul is found by detachment, performing actions that are completely selfless, motivated by the desire to evolve, a primary quality of pure consciousness.

4. Reaching the soul through finer levels of transcendence (Raja Yoga) -- In India this path is called raja or the king because it overrules all lesser goals and reaches the ultimate goal as directly as possible. Bypassing thought, feeling, and action, a person meditates upon Being itself. This implies a willingness for solitary self-examination and the discipline to confront any inner obstacle. There are no buffers of enjoyment through love, devotion, relationships, and community, the kind of diversions that the other paths make available. Transcendence appeals to "old souls" who naturally value wisdom, self-awareness, and their own deep inner vision. The soul is reached after countless experiences of the silent domain of Being that is the source and ground state of pure consciousness.

Traditionally, people choose one of these four paths to follow for a lifetime, but modern life has changed that. We all have experiences of subtle intuition and finer emotions. We know what it feels like to go beyond selfish concerns. Most people even report that they have transcended at certain privileged moments into a place that feels touched by God. This implies a kind of mix-and-match spirituality that can sputter out by turning aimless and undisciplined. Yet it's also true that the spiritual journey has a way of sorting itself out naturally, as each individual begins to value and follow the kind of experience that suits his or her own nature. As this sorting out occurs, the journey begins to fall into stages of progress that are fairly consistent from culture to culture. We'll consider these evolutionary stages next.

(To be cont.)