It is difficult to find a universally agreed definition of what spirit is, as the term is used in different contexts to mean different things to different religious institutions. It can be used in the sense of vivacity – as in “he came in this morning in high spirits“. That isn’t what we are referring to here.
The word “spirit” comes from Latin meaning breath in the sense that living beings are observed to breathe and must thus contain a “spirit“. Check out the Tarot card on the right – the Fool is a symbol for the life breath. It usually carries the notion of being a non-physical or non-corporeal entity which enters our physical bodies at birth and exits at the time of death. In the same way that emotions were seen to be the mechanism to enliven and move the rather “dumb” physical body, the spirit is seen as being an essence that provides the virtues and moral codes to provide direction over the thoughts and emotions coursing through our being.
There have been attempts to weigh the body at the time of death to determine if the soul has weight. Any experiment claiming to show a weight change has been discredited and modern technology has failed to find any change at all at the time of death. If the “soul” or spirit is truly non-corporeal, we would not expect it to have any physical mass or weight, so this experiment is pointless.
Emotions are closely linked with to the physical body. Measurable chemical and hormonal flows and electrical responses can be seen in the body when we are experiencing emotions (such as fear, anger, love). Thus we can say that emotions are closely linked to the physical world.
Thinking and imagining is not physical. There may be electrical neural activity in the brain and the exchange of chemicals across synapses, but the images and thought patterns do not physically exist anywhere. They do not have mass, and we do not get heavier the more we know!
We are using the term Spirit and Spiritual here in the sense of the most noble and pure human aspirations. Animals do not display these traits. These are qualities and principles that we feel when we are still and quiet with a fully alert brain and the Central Executive Network is engaged. Some people may describe it as a feeling of youthfulness or of being alive.
In his book Igniting Inspiration, John Marshall Roberts lists a number of other common synonyms for “spirit” that some people may prefer to use. This list includes: mojo, essence, universal goo, self, ghost in the machine, quantum field, higher self, life force, breath, vital force, energy, intelligence, Tao, chi, being, nothingness, the great void, eternal self, higher consciousness, my happy place, juju, animating force.
In Christianity, the white dove is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, a pure and harmless creature delivering a message of peace – sometimes with an olive branch shown in its mouth. It may be a co-incidence, but some depictions of a white dove descending from heaven have a similarity to a pulsating five-pointed white star (more like the picture of the dove on the left), an image which appears in the third eye (the kutastha) during deep meditation as a result of the pituitary gland releasing serotonin into the brain, stimulating the optic nerve in the process. I don’t know how many readers have experienced this, but the resemblance is uncanny.
We can recognise our “spiritual qualities” as being the purest and highest expressions of our more familiar desires. I have summarised some of the ways that spiritual qualities express in terms of higher physical, higher emotional and higher mental activities in the table below.
Hopefully most of these “higher” activities will be familiar to us, even if they are not commonly seen in everyday life. We should all recognise that we have the ability to do these to some degree. These “spiritual” qualities are not something that some people have and others don’t. We all have them; just some people are better at expressing them than others, and some people use them more frequently than others.
Animals do not display these qualities. Stretching, yoga poses and acrobatics are not a requirement for survival. We don’t observe animals doing acrobatic feats for fun (though perhaps dolphins jumping out of water may be a form of play). But in humans, these physical activities are important for the maintenance of a healthy body and for exercising the sense of balance and proprioception. Developing the sensory area of the prefrontal cortex increases blood flow and keeps the area healthy and invigorated, which in turn is beneficial for the other higher executive brain functions. If the physical brain areas of the prefrontal cortex are not used, just like everything else in the physical body, they will start to degenerate. Proper physical exercise increase activity in this brain area and lays the foundation for using the other faculties of the prefrontal cortex. This is why most Yoga schools include proper physical exercise as well as meditation. If you don’t keep the physical brain in condition, it will wither away and deep meditation will not be possible. Meditation alone is not sufficient to keep the physical brain in prime form.
Emotions such as compassion and humility are not ones found in the Limbic brain – these emotions are learned and developed through life experiences. Mental abilities such as re-framing (looking at problems and situations from different viewpoints) again do not come naturally – they need to be learned and developed during ones lifetime. Being accepting of diversity seems to go against the instincts of the Limbic brain, which is to fight off anyone who is not part of the tribe (ie in olden times they could be a threat to the food supply, or could “taint” the bloodline). Fighting for a cause such as protesting against whaling is again not something that our Limbic brains are concerned about as it has nothing to do with us or our survival. People acting this way are looking beyond themselves considering the wider ramifications for other humans, other animals on the planet, and the planet as a whole. They are using their higher brain functions.
12 Habits of Exceptional Leaders
An article entitled 12 Habits of Exceptional Leaders (Dr Travis Bradberry) recently came to my attention. Compare these 12 behaviours with the spiritual qualities above (aspects of the higher brain):
- Effective communication
- Adherence to the golden rule – treat others as you want to be treated
- Sense of purpose
The conclusion we arrive at is that these “soul qualities” or “spiritual qualities” are actually the expression of our higher brain functions. Whether our life’s learning survives death in the form of a non-corporeal soul and gives us a head start in a future existence is much harder to prove, but that should not discourage us from maximising our potential and using our higher brain abilities in this life. Based on this definition of spiritual qualities, consider the following topics: