In Defense of the Soul

In her new romantic comedy, 2 Days in New York, musician, actress, and screenwriter Julie Delpy proclaims, “You know why I don’t believe in the soul? Because the soul would probably mean an afterlife.  And if there was something, my (late) mom would have tried to communicate with me somehow . . .”

Then she goes on to explain (approximate words):

If you live your life with one person only, one day they’ll be gone or you’ll be gone. And one of you will be left all alone in the cold world.  .  .  . So I guess, in the mean time we can try to do all the growing up we can. But I believe in the end, at the core, we all stay the same. So before that sad ending that awaits all of us, maybe we can share beautiful, ephemeral moments with the people we love.

And with that rather bleak assessment, Delpy gives away her character’s fundamental philosophical and metaphysical position: There is no soul, there is no meaning or purpose to life, only “beautiful ephemeral moments with the people we love.”

Like most children of postmodernity, I used to subscribe to similar sentiments. It wasn’t my fault. I grew up in a liberal secular household where the deepest dimension of the self was considered to be simply the ego, our psychological personality.  There was no discussion of the soul. And as far as life itself, well, I guess it was what you made of it. Both at home and in my progressive education, we were never taught that there were deeper domains of ourselves or of life itself.

Like many others, I encountered those deeper domains outside of the shared values and cultural agreements of my early life. Like young people often do, I experienced temporary mystical breakthroughs that revealed a completely different order of being than what I’d been taught. Eventually, and after much sacrifice, I realized that there was a Self way beyond the confines of the psychological personality—a Self that unlike the ego, had no beginning and no end. This changed my perspective and my life in the most extraordinary way.

When you have the good fortune to awaken to that which is infinite, not only as an intellectual recognition but as a palpable lived experience, it continues to affect the way you perceive reality in the most profound way imaginable. Before an experience like this, it’s easy to wonder whether there’s any rhyme or reason to life and death, to this very moment that we find ourselves in the midst of. But after we’ve seen beyond the veil of materiality and temporality for ourselves, we know without any doubt that it means something to exist.

Awakening to the infinite sooner or later brings us face-to-face with our own soul. And the soul has many dimensions. In my understanding, it is different from that infinite, timeless, formless Self that we awaken to in profound spiritual revelation. I describe it as the deepest part of the self that’s still personal. It is a metaphysical self-structure that is the receptacle of life’s deepest wounds and greatest glories. It is that part of ourselves that carries the momentum of our past, which we experience in the present as inclinations or tendencies, both positive and negative.

That’s why some people seem to be born with fears and traumas that defy explanation. Or why others enter into this world with gifts and capacities that they have not been taught. Most importantly, it is the state of our soul that endows us with capacities for good or evil—capacities that come from a deeper source than those that are merely psychological in origin.

All the world’s great wisdom traditions have insisted that higher human development is dependent upon the cultivation of the soul. Prayer, meditation, and most forms of spiritual practice are focused upon developing ourselves at this deep level. That is why giving attention to the state of our own souls is of such profound importance.

The problem is, if we live in a shared cultural context that doesn’t recognize that such a thing as the soul even exists, how can we seriously believe that deep and profound change is possible? We can’t. And that’s exactly why Julie Delpy’s character said with such conviction, “I believe, in the end, at the core, we all stay the same.”

But she’s wrong.

We don’t all stay the same. It actually is possible to evolve and develop in the most extraordinary and meaningful ways. Our history—religious, political, and cultural—is rich with exemplars of men and women with highly evolved and powerful souls. Spiritual heroes, political visionaries, and cultural luminaries—men and women with big hearts and big minds who made it clear through their own example that to live purposefully is inherently meaningful. The energy that drove their lives and their achievements has left a lasting impression on all of humanity.

There is indeed a similar spark within each and every one of us. Even though it too often remains unrealized, it is ever-pregnant with our own latent potential to evolve. This spark is a tangible manifestation of that infinite and primordial energy that has been driving the creative process from the beginning of time.


Explore this topic further with Andrew Cohen and integral philosopher Ken Wilber during a free virtual dialogue exploring "the nature of the soul" on October 20th. Register here.

Image: agsandrew/

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