Wednesday, May 5, 2010

For UU Salon - Soulfully Agnostic

So the question of the month at UU Salon is What is a soul? And here is my attempt to answer.

Short version: ye gods, I have no idea.

Longer version:
I think I can say that I am truly agnostic on the subject of the soul. Central to the question of the existence of the soul is the idea of life after death. It’s sort of the big granddaddy of religious questions. I can’t say without a shadow of a doubt that I do not believe in life after death, but I see no compelling reason to believe in it either. I find the idea of reincarnation to be really beautiful and compelling. I hope it’s true, but hoping never made something so, especially in metaphysics.

In favor of the soul, most western and many eastern religious and philosophical traditions posit a belief in souls. Is there something in human nature that makes so many different points of view converge on the idea of the soul, or are we all just sharing a need to believe we don’t end when we die?

I don’t know about the soul, but I sure feel like a have a self, a meness that separates me from everyone else. Buddhism tells us that this is an illusion*, that we are the convergence of a multitude of connections and happenings in the universe and create our selves for a brief moment. I also find this to be a beautiful idea and much easier to swallow than reincarnation. Not to get all Our Town or anything, but if this brief flickering life is all we get each moment of it becomes so much more precious. Elements of the universe come together in just such a way as to make each of us possible for just a moment before they recombine to make something else. Each and every one of us, then, is a miracle self, a conscious and improbable little piece of self-awareness. Each person seems so much more precious and irreplaceable when I view them through this lens. It makes me feel grateful for my life that I get to experience it and realize how lucky I am to even be.

To some extent, I think the question of the soul puts the emphasis in the wrong place. To me, the most sacred moments are not about the individual, but about connection. Connecting to another person, to Nature, to a sense of the divine, these are the moments that give us meaning. Giving birth, falling in love, prayer and meditation, helping others, all of these make our lives better and richer in a way that focusing on my soul never has.

I know this is pretty scattered and all over the place, but it is a big question.

*Buddhists can feel free to correct me if I have gotten this wrong. I’m still learning.

1 comment:

  1. "I don’t know about the soul, but I sure feel like a have a self, a meness that separates me from everyone else. Buddhism tells us that this is an illusion"

    Well, I'm not a Buddhist and I don't play one on TV, but I have been reading a bit about it and having a lively long-distance dialogue with my Episcopalian mother on this question. I had the occasion recently to ask a Buddhist cleric about the matter, and she put it this way: Not that the world is somehow imaginary; it’s simply a way of saying that our perceptions of it are very idiosyncratic and not very reliable. Thus, it’s important not to get attached to those perceptions. But perhaps I wasn't completely understanding her, either.

    Anyhow, very nice post. Thank you.