02/01/2008 06:38 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The "Soul Hypothesis" (Part 3)

Most people, one imagines, would be fascinated to set out in search of their souls. But they would be held back by two immediate obstacles. First, we use the word "soul" very loosely, with no specific ways to validate what we mean. Second, the tools for exploring the spiritual domain are limited. Most people only know about faith and prayer, with the recent addition of meditation that still applies to a relative few. Both of these obstacles need to be overcome before one can intelligently experience the soul.

Instead of speaking vaguely about the soul, applying the word to soul music and soul food as easily as to the Holy Spirit, we can bypass semantics. In most traditions east and west, there are three categories of experiences -- or levels if you will -- that demarcate the spiritual domain:

Material or gross experience: This includes the physical world and the five senses, which guide us through that world. Gross experiences are analyzed by the mind in its ordinary operation of thinking, wishing, supposing, etc. The soul barely infringes on the material world, as we well know by the countless hours and days we all spend not even thinking about our souls. What we are concerned with is centered on the ego personality and its agenda. The gains and losses of "I, me, and mine" occupy center stage in everyone's personal life at this level of experience.

Subtle experience: This level of life is accessed through intuition and insight. Here we meet our "better nature," where thinking and feeling expands beyond ego concerns. Subtle experiences often defy logic, and they are scorned by strict rationalists. Yet art being just as real as science, love just as real as selfishness, there's no doubt that subtle experiences are real. Once the mind takes notice and begins to explore its own nature, the journey into the subtle domain begins to be more than incidental. There are intimations of an even deeper reality that is actually organized, intelligent, and powerful. The self we begin to encounter shows itself as being the soul.

Transcendent experience: As experience becomes more subtle, the mind finds itself standing at the boundary of thought, a silent place apparently devoid of activity. To cross over the boundary requires an act of transcendence, or "going beyond," that leaves behind the ego. As long as you have a stake in the material world, transcendent experience remains separate and apart. But an inner impulse wants to transcend, because the mind senses that it is about to find its source. The soul has come into close view, which is one of the most powerful and transformative of all experiences. The starting-point of mind is also the most concentrated location of love, truth, power, and creativity.

In sketch form we now have a map of experience leading from gross to transcendent. Even if nothing more were added -- and there is much, much more to add -- a person now knows how to categorize the bewildering stream of experiences that we are bombarded with every day. In general, people categorize their experiences second hand. Someone else (parent, priest, teacher, friend) has told them in advance what is spiritual and what isn't. But whatever else it is, experiencing the soul happens first hand. You have to notice and give value to something that only you have experienced. Being able to tell that you are in the subtle domain or have crossed over into the transcendent is enormously important. The next thing to ask is "What do I do once I get there?"

(to be cont.)