THE ORIGIN & ANATOMY OF THE HUMAN SOUL
by Simcha Gottlieb
“Even within apparently inanimate matter,
such as stones or earth or water, there is
a soul (nefesh) and spiritual life-force”
Shaar HaYichud v’HaEmunah, Chapter 1;
Etz Chayim, Shaar 50 (2:10)
“And G-d Almighty formed man from
the dust of the earth; and He breathed
into his nostrils the breath of life (nishmat chaim).”
“The heart wants what it wants.”
UPDATED AND EMENDED JUNE 4, 2010
What moves us and motivates us? Who are we, really, and what drives our desires? Am I simply a featherless biped, a fortuitous collection of molecules and cells subject to random reactions, or is there something more, some mysterious and perhaps magical essence at the core of my identity?
More to the point: why do we ask such questions, and do the answers matter?
As singer-songwriter Paul Simon once wrote, “the thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” Better, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But there are certain ideals humans tend to hold in common. Health is one: we want to feel good, physically and emotionally, at least. We want more pleasure and less pain. As we mature, our conception of what is pleasurable becomes more refined, and the focus of our desire evolves. We want to feel loved, and to give love; to feel secure, and to serve others; to be understood, and to understand.
So we draw maps of reality to help us figure out where we stand, and how to get from here to there. We seek out a user’s manual for this self-conscious machine we find ourselves inhabiting.
There are many such conceptual models, some devised by intuitive sages, others by methodical observers of the natural world. It’s become popular in today’s multicultural milieu to say that all the traditions, wisdoms and religions bespeak the same truths. In my experience, that’s a partial truth that can easily miss the mark. Though I try to follow the advice of the Avot of the Talmud – “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone” – when it comes to fathoming the anatomy of the human soul I’m inclined to rely on a source that has proven unimpeachable. The core information for what we call soulsculpting was downloaded by Moses on Mount Sinai. The elucidation and practical application have been developed over several millennia, and have found their most elegant expression in the Kabbalistic/Chassidic philosophy of Chabad. Our toolset has been informed by some of the more intelligent and successful educators, healers, trainers and poets with whom we’ve been privileged to learn, from various disciplines and schools of thought. But it’s all measured and validated, to the best of our ability, by the yardstick of Torah’s inner wisdom.
A central principle of this map of the soul is based on an extraordinary distinction drawn between human beings and every other aspect and detail of the created universe. In the Biblical creation story, it’s all about the power of the Divine voice. G-d “says” let there be X, and there is X. Of course, G-d doesn’t have a larynx and vocal chords or lips, teeth and palate – this is strictly a metaphor for a creative process that is by definition beyond our ability to understand (yet which we are hard-wired to want to know!) The mechanics, if you will, of the creative power of Divine “speech” is the subject of countless volumes of mystical philosophy, and way beyond the scope of this essay. The relevant point here, as it pertains to the art of soulsculpting, is that the world and everything in it comes into existence by a process that is something like speech.
Everything, that is, except for the human soul. But we’ll get back to that.
What is speech? Simply put, it’s what you need to do to communicate with someone other than yourself. However profound or important my ideas and desires might be, if I’m by myself there’s no need to speak. But if I’m with you, well, if I don’t speak (or at least find some way to gesticulate my meaning) I might as well be all alone.
So when G-d decides he’d rather not remain alone in His utterly simple, infinite, undifferentiated Oneness, he “speaks” the universe into existence. (Why, you ask? Don’t ask. Let’s just say for now that like little Simba in The Lion King, he just can’t wait to be King.) Let there be light; let there be distinctions between things – day and night, upper and lower, land and sea; let there be planets and stars and fishes and birds and four-legged critters and creepy-crawly things that would make people go “eewww!” if there were people – but there aren’t any people. Not yet.
One more thing about all this creation going on. This gets a little tricky for a minute, so bear with me. All this stuff that G-d is creating (and by the way, He’s creating it continually and intentionally in every moment, which is an important and powerful idea, though not of immediate concern to us just now) has a certain simplicity to it. The kabbalists explain this by saying that the inside and the outside of the thing are right next to each other; or in more philosophical terms, the cause and effect are seamlessly connected. Take for example, let’s say, your average yellow-bellied sapsucker busily sucking the sap from the birch tree in your back yard. She’s got a physical body (very pretty – you could Google it if you like) and an animating life force that keeps her little heart thumping and her wings flying and her beak pecking. What we’re told in the mystical books about her and (almost) every other thing in the world is that when G-d says, “Let there be a yellow-bellied sapsucker” He creates the body (the outside) and the life force (the inside) all in one sentence (so to speak.)
Human beings (as I’ve already hinted) are not like that. The human body is “spoken” into existence pretty much like everything else; but the human soul is something else again. Look at the Biblical narrative: Adam’s body (we are all Adam, and he is all of us) is formed first. And it lies there, quite literally like a lump of clay, until a second, entirely separate event: G-d “breathes into his nostrils the breath of life.” That word “breath” – nishmat – is essentially the same word as one of the names of the soul: neshama.
In other words, the human body and the human soul are not seamlessly connected in the same way as the physical and spiritual aspects of other things in the universe. In fact they are very separate. Which is why humans are so prone to inner conflict – and why we are capable of extraordinary accomplishments that no other creatures can achieve.
Getting back to our metaphor of Divine speech as the catalyst of creation, there’s a different metaphor that represents the nature of the soul: Divine thought. The nature of the soul is described in Kabbalah and Chassidic literature as alah b’machshavah – ascending in thought.
As we’ve seen, speech is what you need to do to relate to someone other than yourself – to communicate from the inside, outward. Thought is entirely internal, introspective – and when we’re thinking deeply, profoundly, our thought ascends toward its source in the innermost, deepest, highest levels of consciousness. Speech is how we interact with the outside world; thought is how we connect with who we really are inside. Speech requires the medium of the body; thought is mostly about the soul.
Happy, healthy, successful people are people whose inside and outside are aligned. Illness, misery, and confusion are often a sign of conflict between who we really are and the way we imagine we need to present ourselves to the world around us – a disharmony between body and soul. It’s as though we are cut off from the highest, deepest part of ourselves and stuck in some alien external place where we feel we don’t belong.
Knowing more about the nature of the soul, understanding the dynamics of how our inner and outer parts can mutually nourish and respond to one another, we can not only overcome personal conflict – we can help harmonize and unify the world at large.
We call this world, all too casually, the universe; but in fact it’s most often far from unified. The material world as we know it tends to obscure and even deny the existence of its inner spiritual dimension. Our job here is to turn that darkness into light – or even more powerfully, to demonstrate how the apparent darkness and the hidden light are truly one. Every move we make in resolving our own conflicts and harmonizing our inner and outer lives is another step toward manifesting that harmony in the universe – in a very real sense, bringing heaven down to earth, and vice versa.
In forthcoming installments of The Origin & Anatomy of the Human Soul – stay tuned – we will further explore the structure and the functional dynamics of our inner landscape, including:
Five Dimensions of the Soul
Right, Left, and Centering
Panning for Gold in the Stream of Consciousness
Kindling the Divine Candle
Harmonizing Heart and Mind: What’s Love Got To Do With It?