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From Issue One, August 2010 « Previous Article Next Article »

Listening to the Soul

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From the upstairs room where I write, I look out on a broad, tree-lined, quiet street, which runs down to a rocky bluff and the shipping channel. Although I can’t see the ocean—except for the slightest glimpse in winter, when the leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees behind the big summer homes across the street—the ocean is close enough that on warm evenings when we sleep with the windows open and the wind is just right, I can smell its briny fecundity and hear the deep-timbre clang of its bellbuoys. This, the world I inhabit , I know foremost by my senses.

Yet most of the time, I am not as conscious of the complete, perpetual flood of sensory cues that envelop me. With my sight alone, it is as though I am nearly blind except for the most dominant patterns that evolution and enculturation have determined are vital. And despite the tea of impressions that do steep in my conscious awareness, I remain oblivious to the unconscious filtering my neurophysiology is taxed with as it captures, for example, the transformation of sunlight refracted through the dense, golden foliage of a birch tree at the peak of autumn. This phenomenon is enough to be bring me up short, gasping and transfixed by the banquet of light—mindless in that same moment of the level of oxygen coursing in my bloodstream when I inhale with awe and the singularity of the impression becomes fixed in my memory, such that it may never be lost, until perhaps my last exhalation at death.

Most of the time, it is enough for me merely to enjoy the sensual feast. Whether my mood is expansive or dark, whether I am alert with excitement or dulled with fatigue, the show that takes place in the theater of my mind never ceases. Too often, I give the show’s magnificence little thought at all. I give little credit to the vast assemblage of interior psychic cinematographers and stagehands laboring to ensure that I see the performance through to its end. Four billion years of planetary evolution and four million years of species evolution are funneled through the narrow aperture of every moment we are alive in an attempt to ensure that we not only stay for the end of our own feature run but also be inspired to add progeny to keep the theater packed with feature runs throughout time. In this new millennium, however, there is reason both to suffer grave concern and to take heart at the prospects of how the grand show may ultimately turn out.

Seeded in the cataclysm of the Big Bang, we are the offspring of a physics that begat chemistry, which in turn begat biology. The journey has been at once perilous and miraculous. If we think of the universe as the evolutionary story of a single cell, its nucleus was supercharged by unfathomably powerful quantum dynamics that radiated outward for a subatomic fraction of a second before sparking the sheer magic of a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction, a second-stage ignition, boost the trajectory  deeper into evolutionary space. It’s what propelled us to the edge of biology some two billion years later. The leap from physics to chemistry was surpassed by the leap from chemistry to biology. Life arose out of inert elements in a scalding  soup that eventually evaporated, cooled, and surrendered terra firma, launching the grand journey of single-celled organisms toward a culmination of squalling human infants in birth, which continues to this day in Bali, Bangladesh, Boston—indeed, worldwide every day.

The theory of evolution is a conceptual model that explains this relentless march from ooze to empire as fundamentally about one thing: adaptation. Looking back, we are forced to conclude that adaptation has been nothing short of inspired. For billions of years, life progressed without a hint of human intelligence, and then, somewhere in the last few million years (some make a compelling case for self-reflective consciousness arising only a few thousand years ago), conscious intelligence as we know it today in our species appeared on the evolutionary stage.

Adaptation is one of the most deeply ingrained impulses in all life forms. From a species perspective, it can be likened to a quest for immortality, as the threat of extinction goads. For our part, Homo sapiens have come to value intellect as our divining rod—and by all evidence, at the exclusion of other evolutionary capacities we possess. But a deep study of evolution shows that avoiding extinction requires an adaptive responsiveness that utilizes the capacities of the entire organism. To borrow from Taoism, the art of adaptation is a kind of supreme balance of flow. Anything that threatens an organism’s cyclic perpetuation over the long term gives extinction the edge. So when we overvalue intellect, as evidenced in our growing enshrinement of technology, a risk without historical precedent is posed to our species.  

“We have been brought to a historical moment in which we can’t possibly live or survive if we go on pretending the mind and reason and technological progress are enough. Clearly, they are not enough,” warns Andrew Harvey, scholar and contemporary mystic. His alarm, shared by countless worldwide, is triggered by the damage we are causing to our planet’s ozone and climate, our forests, rivers, and oceans, and ultimately our own human affairs—all because of the growing hubris of our intellect. From physicists to philosophers, psychologists to psychics, and scientists to spiritualists, citizens throughout the world are beginning to apprehend that what is ultimately needed now is “a leap into a different kind of consciousness,” as Harvey and others put it.

“The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe,” writes popular science author Tor Norretranders in The User Illusion, a fascinating layperson’s guide to consciousness. But this is exactly “what we are consciously trying to do with the artificial lives we live in our technological age,” he points out. We stand at an imperiled point in time, when we threaten not only ourselves with our technology, but all life on the planet. If the tragedy of 9/11 taught us anything, it is that we are all—everywhere—vulnerable. We are all susceptible to the threat of extinction in a world where the prevailing consciousness believes we can disrupt the balance and flow of life with impunity because we have technology—intellect—on our side. But evidence to the contrary is mounting at a staggering rate. Like a thermostat that needs to be reset on a furnace burning out of control, we need to reset, in fact to radically realign, the encultured hierarchy of perceptional cues we presently heed. Clearly, there are set points we are missing.

Jung sounded a cautionary warning at the beginning of the twentieth century when he wrote, “I am not denying that great gains have resulted from the evolution of civilized society. But the gains have been made at the price of enormous losses, whose extent we have scarcely begun to estimate.” According to Jung, the crucible of our fate is marked by our living in a greatly “dispirited” age, in which the guiding symbols we were once beholden to over the long journey to greater consciousness have lost their power. Our “angels have fallen to earth from the skies,” observed Jung. This dispiriting loss and growing disorientation, he argued, is a result of losing our connection to more ancient, more intimate associations of mind. Our remedial solution has been a growing dependence on the discipline of psychology to ameliorate the wounds of our psychic alienation. But will psychology alone be enough to rebalance the flow of life?

Politicians make hay with constituents by proclaiming “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” But isn’t it wiser to temper this view with the wisdom that any loss of connection to soul is the greater tragedy? Taking the long view of our story, bookended by ooze at one end and empire at the other, it is instructive—indeed vital—to remember that the calling of a soul consciousness has lifted us at least as high as the calling of the mind. If we are to avoid extinction, if we are to secure a healthy adaptive strategy in this perilous new age, we need to address the rebalancing of soul and mind.

We need to learn anew how to listen to the soul.

Chris Langton, a leading scientist in complexity theory, speculates that perhaps in the future, “science will become more poetic.” We can only hope. We might turn to Marcel Proust, literary explorer of perceptual acuity, who famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in having new eyes.” Pablo Neruda intimated such wisdom of rebalancing soul and mind in his poem “Keeping Quiet,” in which he says:

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing, 

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

This “huge silence” forever awaits us—if we but listen. It is in that silence that we begin to sense the voice of the soul, a reverberation arising from life everywhere, which harks back to the earliest shuttering pulsation at the distant edge of time. We honor it when we stand in awe at sunlight radiating through golden autumn leaves, without a need or even an impulse to filter our impression through the words of the intellect. The voice of the soul is primordial. If we are to succeed in adapting to the challenges of this dispirited age, it will come by listening more intently to what the soul in its wordless silence has to tell us.

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  • Neon1 Oct 06, 2010

    Indeed… What is needed now is “a leap into a different kind of consciousness,” There is no other way to insure the survival of the human species. I believe that we will see such a leap occur soon because more than just the leading edge of this kind of consciousness is already in place and because the immediate need for it to occur has already arrived.

    I noticed something missing from your fine article, which the title encouraged me to find; a greater emphasis on what or who it is we should be listening to—this entity called soul. Having myself had mystical experiences, which have satisfied my need for a definition, I continue to find other explanations quite fascinating and would have enjoyed yours.

    I also noticed an indication of a common and continuing thread of backward logic in the conversation concerning the evolution of human consciousness that always disturbs me; the suggestion of the need to return to the mythical theos in order to balance our current fascination with logos. Does a child need to return to an infantile state in order to become a juvenile? No, of course not! The completed stages of the evolutionary progress of each new human, while being incorporated somewhat, need to be jettisoned or they will become characteristics of known psychological pathologies.

    Which brings me to the remedial use of psychology to ameliorate the wounds of our psychic alienation. Psychoanalysis is the logical tool to aid in the repair of a psyche in the logos stage. Recently the use of psychology has expanded to aid in the repair of the psyche that had been diagnosed as pathological but is now understood to have had intense spiritual or mystical experiences, which have affected its balance; experiences that are not pathological, but a clear indication of the more expansive state of the leading edge of mystical consciousness. So, rather than having drawn an arc with ooze at one end and empire at the other, shouldn’t empire have been placed somewhere in the middle of the arc while it continues to swing in its path toward holos?

    Alchemy is obsolete and is behind us now. Religion is obsolete, but is long past due to be set aside. The conventional practice of psychology will become obsolete as it becomes unnecessary. This slow evolutionary progress from magos through mythos through theos through logos and painfully on to holos indicates a clear danger to our successful evolution. Why do we insist on clinging to them as an infant clings to its mother’s skirt?

    It’s time for us to evolve!

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