If we take the words of Moses from Genesis 1:27 at face value, that:
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female created He them.
And we suppose that furthermore the Nicene Creed was justified in asserting in 325 C.E. that the nature of the said God was a hypostasis of three aspects—the consubstantial entities of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit—then we might expect an analogous tripartite reciprocation in the Creator’s product; an implicate trinity in the essence of Man himself. We shall designate these aspects of the human being Body, Soul, & Spirit, and examine their respective natures.
The physical body is ultimately a mere constellation of atoms, even mineral in nature. Hindu philosophy calls this annumayakosha or “food-sheath” & alchemists call this principle “Salt.” Indeed the figs & sprouted lentils that we eat at High Noon on Monday have dissolved & reconstellated by midweek as fingernails or a liver cell. These diverse atoms of nitrogen & carbon are fungible, interchangeable like nickels—one five-cent piece is no better than the next. Only the pattern of their constellation has real significance. What constellates them?
This perficient formative force is what we might call the second body: the vital or etheric body, which Hindu philosophy calls pranamayakosha—”prana-sheath”—referring to the concentration of life-force that permeates all living beings. Paracelsus called this aspect the “archeus.” This is the subtle energy that organizes & animates the basically inert substance of the physical body, patterning it into thigh-bones, eye-lashes & whiskers. We do not perceive this sheath with our five senses, yet we know it patently by its effects. Were we to find ourselves in absence of its effectual power, it would certainly go amiss—in fact we wouldn’t be around any more to notice. Instead the atoms that were our erstwhile constituents would be recycled & reconstituted (or reincarnated) by another etheric body—a geranium, for instance, or a toadstool, perhaps depending on our peculiar karmic affinities. Many dishes, one table, as Hamlet reminds us:
“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
“What meanest thou by this, Hamlet?”
“Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”
We can observe that the body, although it displays an extraordinary intelligence in its design & function (just imagine if you had to orchestrate peristalsis in your guts, or grow your own fingernails) nevertheless lacks consciousness. This is to say that the body is aware, but not reflexively self-aware. The soul, conversely, is the very kernel of our ordinary consciousness. Alchemists referred to this aspect as “Sulphur.” The soul houses the I, the ego, the feeling of self within a larger diffuse awareness. We might also call this aspect of the trinity “mind” or “heart.” We must respect the fact, however, that these are figurative designations, as a literal interpretation of the former (i.e. mind) would encourage a confusion with spirit, while a literal of the latter might suggest body, as the heart is indeed a physical as well as a spiritual organ. Comparing the body & the soul: if the body is the temple & spine the altar, then the soul is the oblation.
The condition of consciousness or self-awareness that characterises the soul hinges on an interplay of knowledge & ignorance. Like two opposing currents that meet in a dynamic eddy at the mouth of the Dardanelles, we can imagine that knowledge & ignorance confront one another as opposing counterparts. In this way, they form the experience of consciousness at their moot. Obviously consciousness requires some knowledge or awareness because otherwise we wouldn’t call it “consciousness;” instead we would call it “ignorance.” Nevertheless, compete knowledge is apotheosis; it entirely transcends everything ordinary in annihilation, googled up by a plenum of still white light. Our consciousness depends therefore on traces of ignorance, lesha-avidya as these are called in Sanskrit. These “faint remains of ignorance” enable an individual to maintain practical aptitude:
Before enlightenment—chop wood, draw water
After enlightenment—chop wood draw water
…and try to hide your ecstasy so people won’t notice you’re nuts. Imagining again the tides at Hellespont, where the waters of the Aegean confront those of the Sea of Marmara, the rip-tide represents the experience of consciousness, where two conflicting aspects of the self encounter one another. From one side we can imagine the advancement of the exclusive & delimited ego-self while from the other approaches the complementary inclusive & infinite universal one—both aspects (in varying proportions) constitute the soul’s experience. The former struggles upwards from the Darwinian world & the latter streams downwards from spiritual heights. At every point of intersection between these two tides, we find the experience of consciousness in an individual soul.
As another analogy for the soul’s experience, we could picture for ourselves the interplay of light & darkness: in pure light there is no sight. Neither is there in complete darkness; sight depends on the contest of these two phenomenal forces. As Johann von Goethe observed,
Colours are the deeds & sufferings of light
…in its crusade against the benighted gloam. Similarly, all-knowingness must assume a gown of ignorance to create the experience of a conscious soul. Science, consciousness, & conscience—omniscience & nescience commingle and these phenomena arise therefore.
The spirit transcends all of our ordinary concepts. It represents the polar opposite of the body; against all the latter’s definitive qualities, the former presents the sublime unfathomable antipodes. We might imagine that incomprehensible Pleroma willingly partitions itself into myriad reflections, like so many shards of a divinely-shattered mirror. The movement of the spirit represents the Logos, the Word, the archetype, which The Zohar calls Adam Kadmon—”Adam the Original,” who contains implicitly within all subsequent iterations which today appear as individual human beings. We cannot actually speak of the spirit because by nature it represents the counter-pole of our ordinary objects of thought, inquiry, & perception, to which our language refers:
If you can talk about the Tao
Then it’s not the Tao
The very first line of Lao Tzu’s timeless masterpiece reminds us of our incapacity. This is precisely the impetus for apophatic theology, also called via negativa, which acknowledges the paucity of our concepts & resigns itself therefore to describing God by indicating what She is not:
Hebrew theology speaks of the Tetragrammaton, “the ineffable name of God,” יהוה.
Similarly, the Roman philosopher Tertullian writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself.”
Also Hindu philosophy speaks of the Absolute, called Brahman, as nirguna, “without qualities,” & the Upanishads apophatically describe Brahman as “neti-neti,” “not this, not that.”
We will never grasp this numinous presence through our conventional mode of thought because this usual way of knowing depends on the interplay of knowledge & ignorance—clear white light, conversely, is sheer infinity, awesome, sublime, & incomprehensible. The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus describes this condition in The Enneads when he writes:
Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul…To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One.
Only consciousness that is absolutely pure of all superfluous & circumstantial impressions can transcend itself & apprehend the spirit.
The soul is but a drop of what the spirit is the unfathomable ocean. Alternatively, we might imagine a candle before us:
The body is the wax & wick,
The soul the flame, a light.
The spirit is not the light of that particular flame, but rather the luminosity of light itself.
“Turn on the light.” Somebody flips a switch & an incandescent bulb crackles into activity.
The bulb is the body, a container
For the glowing coil of the soul within it,
And the irradiant presence that fills the auditorium: the Light is the spirit.
The body is mortal
The soul is undying