Meditation & Health #18-Exploring the Mystery of the Soul
Exploring the Mystery of the Soul
By Zhu Yu & Jiahui
Concepts such as the body and soul as opposing entities and the distinction between the past, present and future could simply be illusions brought about by our consciousness.
Does the soul exist? Is the concept of an immortal soul merely wishful thinking, or is it the truth? How is the soul connected to flesh and blood?
Does a Soul Have Weight?
The nature of the soul has fascinated many scientists through the ages. In the early 20th century, an American medical doctor, Duncan MacDougall, conducted experiments to support his hypothesis that “the ‘soul’ had mass, and when the ‘soul’ departed the body, so did this mass, leaving the soulless corpse ‘a soul lighter.’”
He calculated the weight of patients immediately before their imminent death and immediately after, and found their weight decreased by approximately 21 grams. He deduced that 21 grams was the weight of the soul. The results of his study were published in American Medicine and in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
Though the study was criticized as lacking scientific rigor, it nevertheless sparked worldwide interest in exploration of the soul:
Does the soul really have mass or weight?
If it does have mass, does that mean that it is a form of matter?
If the soul is matter, what form does it take?
How has it remained undiscovered by man?
More recently in 2010 Lisa Rundall, a quantum physicist at Harvard University, announced that after nine years of countless experiments and extensive research, she and her team of experts had found evidence of a fifth dimension which would support the existence of the soul.
Assuming there is a soul, what is its relationship to the body? Some believe that the body and soul are inseparable; when the body dies, the soul ceases to exist as well.
This notion contradicts studies on near-death experience (NDE), a personal experience which encompasses a variety of traits such as out-of-body sensations, feelings of serenity, security, love and acceptance, flashes of life, and the presence of a light.
Some patients who were rescued by doctors from the brink of death described passing through a long black tunnel, at the end of which they saw a light. Others reported that an illuminated being conversed with them, helping them to recall and evaluate all their past deeds.
Some felt themselves floating upwards as they watched the doctors trying to save them and their loved ones shedding tears. These scenes were described in vivid detail – detail which was corroborated by eyewitness accounts. Hence these studies gained much attention and led many to believe in the existence of the soul.
Dr. Raymond Moody, a medical doctor who has worked as a forensic psychiatrist and who holds Ph.D.’s in philosophy and psychology, is a prominent figure in NDE research. He explored many stories of people who died and returned to life in his bestselling book Life After Life. In 2010 in another book, Glimpses of Eternity, he explored “shared death experience,” recounting his personal experience during his mother’s passing and detailing the stories of people who had shared in their loved ones’ journey from this life to the next.
According to many religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Judaism, the soul reincarnates after death. In Tibetan Buddhism, the rebirth of “living buddhas” has a 900-year history. Living buddhas leave behind information about the time and place of their next rebirth.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many theories regarding the whereabouts of the soul. One of the most well-known classics of Buddhist literature is Bardo Thodol, known to the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Guru Padmasambhava. After one’s death, the consciousness will leave the body and exist in ethereal form in an intermediate state, where it is neither attached to nor constrained by any physical form. Bardo Thodol provides precise explanations as to what the ethereal form experiences in this state, as well as how it enters into a new life. To Buddhists, death is a precious opportunity for the sentient being to move toward a Heavenly realm of rebirth rather than fall to a lower realm.
Another set of scriptures provides Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings on rebirth into a mother’s womb: The 56th fascicle of the Maharatnakuta Sutra explains how, when a sentient being is rewarded with a human body, the consciousness takes entry into the mother’s uterus and undergoes the stages of fetal development. It is fascinating that these descriptions from 2,000 years ago match observations by modern scientists made using sophisticated technology. This spectacular discovery has led many to wonder if the soul or ethereal form could be more than just a religious belief.
Can the Past Also Be the Present?
Many scientists believe in reincarnation and have spent years studying it. One of them was Dr. Ian Stevenson, an esteemed psychiatrist from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, who spent more than 40 years studying over 3,000 cases of children.
These children, aged four to 10, remembered the details of their past lives, including their names, the names of their family members, their lifestyles and even their exact addresses. Some children even recalled how they had passed away, and their exact last words. Incredibly, their past-life memories were validated by Dr. Stevenson.
Columbia- and Yale-educated psychiatrist Dr. Brian L. Weiss, author of Many Lives, Many Masters, created waves of influence within the medical community through his contributions to the study of reincarnation. He had been treating a patient named Catherine with hypnotherapy when she started recalling her past-life traumas, traumas which seemed to be the cause of her recurring nightmares and chronic anxiety attacks. Through subsequent hypnotherapy sessions, Dr. Weiss discovered that Catherine had 86 past lives. His findings were so controversial that he expected he would have to quit psychiatry once the book which documented his research was published. His later books draw evidence from a wide variety of cases to demonstrate the existence of the soul and reincarnation.
Dr. Weiss opened a new frontier in both psychotherapy and past-life research, connecting patients to their past or future lives with hypnotherapy to treat their physical or mental illnesses.
Love and Goodness: Origins of the Soul
Dr. Weiss believes that emotions of love and goodness – compassion, mercy, sympathy – are the origins of the soul. They are the soul’s purpose. Spiritual cultivation helps us find that origin and fulfill our life purpose. The development of the soul is strongly correlated with our pursuit of pure goodness and the avoidance of evil, a journey that guides our soul to perfection – at which point it no longer needs to reincarnate.
Past, Present, Future
Modern quantum theory has broadened our horizons: Concepts such as the body and soul as opposing entities and the distinction between the past, present and future could simply be illusions brought about by our consciousness. The material world may be nothing more than a projection of our consciousness, changing as our knowledge and perception change. When we purify our minds, the illusion that the body and soul are discrete may disappear.
Albert Einstein pointed out that time is a misconception: The past, present and future coexist. Buddhist scriptures such as the Flower Garland Sutra and Diamond Sutra also remind us that time is illusory; the Diamond Sutra states: “Past mind cannot be enlightened; present mind cannot be enlightened; future mind cannot be enlightened.” The famed “Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment,” a series of thought experiments in quantum physics, also argues that every choice we make in the present can influence both the past and the future.
Mission of Every Birth
It is possible that neither the body and soul nor Heaven and Earth are opposing entities. Perhaps everything we perceive is created and destroyed within the mind, an illusion of the consciousness.
Perhaps the “soul” is a consciousness that seeks to ascend through giving and receiving love. Seizing each present moment and contributing to the betterment of self and all of humanity may be the mission of every birth in the course of the mysterious adventure we call life.