What Do We Mean by “Body-Mind-Soul-Spirit”?
Copyright (c) 1996 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.
It is now becoming something of a cliché in various circles of modern life—from religion to psychology to holistic medicine—to use the nifty phrase “body-mind-soul” or “body-mind-spirit” when referring to our totality as a human being.
But what do we mean by this phrase? What is the “body”? What is the “mind”? What is “soul”? And what is “spirit”? If we are not careful, each of these words can be used so glibly that the wondrous reality denoted by each term is ignored and neglected.
I submit that we need a much fresher, deeper understanding of each component of our totality so as to help us awaken from the somnambulist trance of ordinary, unenlightened consciousness —lest we all fall into a limbo of mediocrity.
Let’s start with this aspect of ourselves we call “the body.” From the usual viewpoint, the body is this fleshy, bony “thing” that we awaken to each morning. We wash it and brush its teeth, we walk, drag or drive it around through the day to the various places we need to go, we (hopefully) give it adequate exercise, we shovel (hopefully) healthy food and liquids into it, we let it relieve itself of accumulated wastes. We might allow it various forms of pleasure (ranging from nature walks to ecstatic dancing to massages and other delights, depending on one’s fancies). Finally, we lay it down to rest at night in sleep. For too many doctors, the body is coldly viewed as merely a biochemical machine, needing to be fixed when it breaks down (usually by pumping drugs into it or invading it with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—such interventions often quite helpful, even life-saving, but also far too often an inappropriate way of dealing with the roots of the problems). From a mercenary point of view, the body is just a skinbag of water (comprising two-thirds of the body), plus carbon, calcium and other materials, with an overall cash value of about $8.
But now, from a more “up close” biological viewpoint, the body is this utterly marvelous, living assemblage of exquisite organ systems, whose simultaneous, relatively-smooth functioning is a major miracle. Consider this: what is the fantastic Power that fertilized a pinpoint-sized egg cell in mama’s womb and grew it for nine months into a fetus—unfolding 10,000 generations of genetic memory, and differentiating this single little cell into various kinds of cells such as muscle cells, nerve cells, blood cells, and so forth? What is the Intelligent Power that then brought this organism from the womb into the world, since which time it has grown from infancy into childhood into its present adult form of about five or six feet tall, comprised of some 75 trillion cells for the average body (155 pounds)? Incidentally, the configuration of these approximately 75 trillion cells is rather unusual: only about 3.4 trillion cells are tissue cells, and another 31.5 trillion cells are native non-tissue cells, mainly in the form of erythrocyte red blood cells (~28.5 trillion), plus platelet cells, white blood cells, lymphocytes, macrophages, and other reticuloendothelial cells. Beyond all these native cells, our bodies contain, on average, about 40 trillion foreign cells, mostly bacteria in our colon. As scientists like Robert Krulwich have pointed out, "there are more bacteria in you than there is 'you' in you.... Aliens from outer space might conclude that humans are just one big chain of microbe hotels."
Each of our native cells is on average 1/1000th inch in diameter, ranging from tiny platelets and red blood cells to much larger neurons, some of which are huge. Each of these cells is awash in a sea of water inside and outside, with a miraculous membrane of phospholipids. Each cell is made of a number of atoms equalling approximately 10 to the 27th power--one thousand million million million million! Each cell makes some 2,000 proteins per second—and, given that each protein is comprised of a few hundred amino acids—we see that each cell is selecting 500,000 amino acids per second, organizing them, joining them, checking them, and shipping them.
And of the various kinds of cells, consider the electrically excitable nerve cells or neurons, the core components of our brains, spinal cords, and peripheral nerves. Running through the body are a million miles of nerves (each made of vast numbers of neurons), a total length 40 times the circumference of the earth. Some 200 billion neurons are found transmitting information in our central and peripheral nervous systems. The brain alone has ~100 billion neurons. Our body's neurons mostly process information either in an outgoing or incoming direction, with many neurons in the brain functioning interneuronally in both directions. Each neuron has from 1 to over 1,000 dendrite "branches" and axon protrusions culminating in synapses, across which "synaptic gap" flow a variety of neurotransmitter chemicals to the receptors of other neurons. (We have up to 500 trillion connecting synapses in our central and peripheral nervous systems.) These neurons and their neurotransmitter chemicals allow us, along with the mystery of consciousness (see below), to receive various sensations (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile and kinesthetic sensations, sense of balance, etc.), build up perceptions out of these sensations, experience emotions, make value judgments, think thoughts, contemplate plans, store and retrieve memories, and enact motor behaviors with the body.
On another level of the body, what is this Intelligent Power that is right now beating “my” heart, pumping blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels (roughly 55 million gallons pumped in a lifetime), oxygenating tissues, growing hair, digesting food (even the junk-food some people gorge on), eliminating wastes, managing the 22 internal organs, growing/renewing 600+ muscles and 206 bones, operating the lymphatic system, and so on ad gloriam Dei?
Biologists, chemists and physicists know that this wondrous body is composed of, as mentioned, some 75 trillion cells, each in turn composed of various molecular substances such as DNA and RNA which, in turn, are composed of zillions of atoms (circa 10 to the 27th power) which are composed of countless subatomic “particles” which need to be more accurately designated “wavicles” because they are mysteriously both discrete and also diffused in spacetime (defying all Western logic). Moreover, modern physics has shown us over this last century that the atoms which constitute our bodies are largely (99.9999999999999%) composed of empty space filled with mysterious energy! On the bodily, physical level, we are a play of light, more akin to dreamlike no-things than “solid somethings.”
Turning to that aspect of ourselves we call “the mind,” we find the psyche actually ranges from “lower mind” computational functions all the way through the “higher mind” function we might call the “powers of the soul.” The former, which can be categorized as the “normal mind,” consists in 1) perceptions which organize raw bodily sensations due to various kinds of bio-electro-magnetic vibrations into familiar entities such as recognizable colors, sounds, tactile and kinesthetic sensation, smells and tastes, movements, processes, places, objects, persons, etc.; 2) scanning for relevant, meaningful data in one’s environment or within one’s own memory banks or reservoir of knowledge; 3) value judgments and emotional reactions—the former basically dividing good-bad, appropriate-inappropriate, the latter dividing into emotional charges associated with like and dislike, attachments and aversions, and all the permutations thereof: joy, elation, euphoria, delight, fear, anger, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, trauma, shock; 4) memories of a constructed past; 5) anticipations of an expected future; 6) abstract “philosophical” concepts about the world and the meaning of certain events; 7) linguistic mental processing structured by grammar and syntax, deployed either to speak or understand speech; 8) mathematical mental processing; 9) dreaming, daydreaming, fantasizing, modeling, planning or creative “channeling” of new ideas.
Associated with both the lower mind and higher mind (see below) are some rather wondrous, "extraordinarily ordinary" powers of consciousness that most folks simply take for granted. For instance:
• Neuroscientists (psycho-physiologists) are entirely unable to satisfactorily account for the subjective, “phenomenological” experience of seeing color, hearing sound and music, and feeling emotional states such as “love,” “happiness,” “sadness”—merely in terms of neuronal processes in the brain. Such physiological states can be correlated with these subjective experiences, but descriptions of physiological events cannot adequately account for the extremely vivid immediacy and emotional richness of these “noetic” experiences. This phenomenon—better to say “noumenon”—fascinated the eminent Canadian brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, who raised these philosophical issues back in the 1970s, issues that have never been adequately accounted for by neuroscientists, asserts a contemporary philosopher of science and consciousness, David Chalmers.
• Notice how mysterious it is that efferent impulses are initiated and enacted, such as suddenly having the mental idea, “I am going to move my left hand,” and then executing this as an actual physical movement of the hand in a feat of, literally, “mind over matter.” The late Roger Sperry and Sir John Eccles, Nobel laureates and fathers of the modern field of neuroscience, always reminded their reductionist colleagues in the field (from Francis Crick to Daniel Dennett, et al.) that we don’t have a clue how such efferent impulses are launched in the “silent area” of the neo-cortex. There is simply no satisfactory way of explaining these initiatory mental events in physiological terms. Again, there may be neuronal correlates for these mental events, but it is foolish to claim that the brain matter itself launches the efferent impulses.
• Notice the strange, wondrous ability to switch attention from one sensory or cognitive input to another. For example, you can switch your auditory focus from one sound to another sound. This is the “cocktail party phenomenon”: you can inwardly “elect” to listen to one conversation over another and then switch back and forth if you choose. Or notice how you are able to switch your kinesthetic focus from one body sensation to another, say, from sensations in your left hand to those in your right hand. Such subjective switching occurs through a mysterious inner “attuning” process whereby you suddenly isolate one input as “figure” while all the other massive sensory information instantly becomes “background.” But precisely how do you do this? No neuroscientist has the faintest clue how you initiate these changes, though scientists can observe with their PET-scan technology various parts of the brain lighting up when you do this.
• The multi-faceted phenomenon of memory continues to be quite mysterious in important aspects of both storage and retrieval, for both short-term “working” memory and long-term memory. For instance, despite recent findings that regions of the bilateral parahippocampal cortex and pre-frontal cortex are involved in encoding sensations, experiences and ideas into lasting memory, no one “knows yet what prompts the greater mental activity that seems to cement something in memory. We don’t know the source of those small differences in neural activity,” as one science journalist has observed.
• Witness the positive and negative effects that mental visualizations and intentions can have on biochemical processes in the human body, especially neuropeptides and the immune system. This anomaly has ushered in an entire field, psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI; also known as “mind-body medicine.” This is, truly, another form of “mind over matter.”
• Most recently it has become clear that our minds are synchronized, with brain cells flickering in time with a regular electrical oscillation or gamma wave, occurring among widely dispersed neuron cells throughout the brain with no apparent spatial pattern, and much too rapidly to be explained by far slower neurochemical reactions. Moreover, these gamma waves issue from each neuron's supposed "inputs," not its output areas, and there are inter-neuronal interconnections among these gamma-producing "inputs/outputs," suggesting the existence of an altogether different set of neuronal networks than our longstanding brain maps show; hence, current brain maps cannot explain consciousness. Finally, as Stuart Hameroff argues, trillions of computations per second are occurring in the extensive circuitry of the micro-tubule "scaffolding" that underpins each neuron, meaning that the brain's processing speed is likely 10 to the 28th power operations per second, fully a trillion times faster than is generally thought.
• The bottom line is that almost nothing is known about how our brains “produce” consciousness. The idea that neuroscientists are just several years away from explaining consciousness in terms of material brain processes, or anywhere close to creating “self-aware” or even just “sentient” robots through a successful Artificial Intelligence (AI) program-- is utter fantasy.
(Note: the above section on powers of consciousness is adapted and excerpted from my larger essay on Consciousness, posted at the Science & Spirituality section of this website; see that original article for more anomalies and for endnote references.)
Now, there is a “higher-mind” or what might be called the psychic “soul” aspect to our personality or consciousness which deserves to be distinguished out from the “normal” or “lower” mind. Some of this entails simply going more deeply into aforementioned aspects of certain normal mind functions, such as delving so deeply into memories that, with or without the aid of hypnosis, one taps into full-blown past-life memories. Or else going so deeply with certain kind of creative visualization and/or creative channeling that one begins to access information from paranormal psi sources in what has been termed ESP or extra-sensory perception. This can take the form of
(“seeing” distant places, without the use of eyeballs and normal light-refraction off visible objects), telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition (“knowing aspects of the future”), retrocognition (“knowing aspects of the past”), discernment of discarnate “subtle-plane” personalities (ancestors, ghosts, devas, spirit guides), etc.
At this higher-mind or psychic level it becomes obvious that we are each more than just a distinct, discrete “bodymind”—rather, we are souls or personalities (personal consciousnesses) that evidently don’t ever die and can have access to states of “nonlocal consciousness” that deliver paranormal forms of information about other places on earth, other planets, other (subtler) planes or realms of being, other time-periods for these locales, and so forth. And, along with this paranormal power of knowing or information-collecting can come paranormal powers of doing such as healing and remotely influencing beings, objects, the weather, destiny—either for the better or worse. This last area, of course, is the domain of white magic or black magic.
As souls, we are capable of a much wider array of experiences than when we are identified merely with bodily and lower mental aspects of being. We can associate with multiple levels of manifestation, from the earth planes to the highest heavens, and all kinds of subtle realms in between—pleasant or unpleasant.
Despite all the amazing powers of the mind and soul it must be realized that mind and soul are not continuous, they routinely go to utter oblivion during the deep dreamless sleep state and during certain kinds of trance state (the Hindu/Buddhist formless nirvikalpa samadhi or Catholic “pure Divine rapture” states), as well as in states of coma. So the mind and soul are not “ultimate.” They are still limited phenomena involved with the manifest play of space-time and passing experience.
Beyond the changeable dynamics and manifestations of body-mind-soul is changeless Spirit or Open Awareness. If we are to use the word “Spirit” carefully and strictly in a meaningful way, in line with what so much of the Perennial Wisdom “Great Traditions” would suggest, we can say that Spirit is the domain of authentic spirituality, beyond mind and magic, beyond space-time, beyond structure and parts, beyond energies, no matter how subtle, celestial or heavenly, and beyond any form of egocentricity or selfishness.
The various Perennial Wisdom Traditions would say that Spirit is none other than the God-Self, Absolute Awareness, the Supra-personal or Meta-personal Reality—certainly not “impersonal” (!), since this Reality is the Source and Substance of all persons. This is what has been named Atman-Brahman (the Supreme Self-Reality), Buddhata (Buddha-nature), Shunyata (Openness-Emptiness), Dharmakaya (Truth Body), Dao (Source/Way), Purusha (Divine Person). This is the Divine Self-Nature, the “I Am That Am,” sheer Isness-Aliveness-Awareness, what Hindu Vedanta tradition calls Absolute Being-Awareness-Bliss (Sat-Cit-Ananda), what Jewish mysticism terms the Ain Sof (Ein Soph, Boundless Divine No-thing), what Muslim Sufi mystics call al-Haqq (the Divine Truth) or Dhat (Absolute Essence).
Being truly Absolute, nondual or non-relative, there is only one Spirit or Awareness here, Infinite and Eternal. This is the One Spirit that wondrously, magnificently conjures up the cosmic play of multiple phenomena, the one Spirit that dreams this Divine Dream of a universe. This Spirit, in truth, is the One Actor playing all the “soul-roles,” the One Self displaying as all selves, the One Being manifesting in the disguise of all beings.
In sum, while there are many souls, there is only this one, nondual Self or Spirit or Divine Reality, call THIS whatever you wish.
That this God-Self or Buddha-Nature can emanate a world of such endless variety—from the subatomic quarks to the periodic table of chemical elements to complex molecules to living cells to large cell-clusters-in-the-form-of-organs to the bodies composed thereof (from worms to whales to humans) to the various conscious minds and souls associated with these bodies—what a wonder! What a fantastic, amazing wonder!
Let all body-mind-souls praise this single, nondual God-Self from Whom all blessings flow and from Whom all beautiful and bewildering manifestations emanate. Allelujah! Alhamdulillah! Jaya Jagadeesha Hare!
[For follow-up reading on awakening to the nondual Divine Self, you might wish to read essays in the Nondual Spirituality section such as
Our Real Nature.]