In a world where short-lived physical enjoyment is the goal, and accumulation of material goods the means, we should expect that people are at least happy some of the time. Yet the reverse seems true – restlessness and frustration are all too common and the world now seems unable to produce sufficient resources to support our increasingly materialistic lifestyle. Our existence as spiritual beings is an idea that stands in need of investigation. If true, our happiness may lie just beyond the range of the senses, and meditation may just provide the means to achieve it.
The word ‘soul’ is an English version of the Sanskrit word atma, which means ‘the self.’ The atma is the source of consciousness in the body. The body is a complex arrangement of chemicals, none of which are conscious. The body is the unconscious, external covering of the conscious soul.
The brain is an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull and it functions as the coordinating centre of sensation and nervous activity. But since scientists cannot adequately explain how unconscious chemicals become conscious, they admit that consciousness, as a phenomenon, must be considered separately from the functions of the brain. That is why ‘Consciousness Studies’ has now become a distinct area of scientific research.
It has been shown that the consciousness has the ability to observe distinct, remote phenomena without the intermediate brain and senses. In laboratory experiments, detailed drawings and designs were viewed and reproduced by the subjects at a distance of several miles from their targets. The results all point to a conscious observer that exists outside the brain. No one is quite sure how that works, but the phenomenon has been investigated for two decades now.
Consciousness is a symptom of the soul, and the soul is conscious. The soul is the life within the body, and its power pervades the entire body. The soul is the ultimate level of the self and the real perceiver of the world. The soul enters a bundle of cells at conception and when it departs from the body – when the soul and the body separate – we call that death.
Actually, it’s the other way round: you don’t have a soul. Rather, you are the soul and you have a body. You’re not a human being that has spiritual experiences; you’re a spiritual being that has human experiences. But to answer your question – yes, everyone is a soul within a body, including every animal and plant.
If it’s true then it makes an enormous difference. Thinking of yourself as something you’re not is unhelpful, especially in the long term. It’s like turning left when you should have turned right: every mile further down the road you go you’re more lost.
If you are actually much higher than the physical body and mind then you won’t be able to find physical pleasure satisfying. You’ll always be looking for something more, buying more and working harder to get money to buy it. With limited resources on the planet we could all do with less stuff – and more real happiness. So thinking of yourself as a soul could immediately help you and help the planet.
When the pleasure is material it’s temporary, it has a beginning and an end, and it results in frustration. Because of this, material pleasure can never lead to a sense of fulfilment. We’ll always be left wanting more – and that’s a shame, because there’s a much better way to be happy. The Bhagavad-gita says that we’ll be happier enjoying a permanent pleasure that comes from deep within and which doesn’t depend on external things.
Happiness is something we experience in different amounts, and much of what we call ‘happiness’ is simply the temporary relief of suffering. That’s a poor form of happiness. But there’s more, a happiness so great that it goes beyond any delights of this world – an ocean of happiness compared to a puddle – wouldn’t you like to experience that? The Bhagavad-gita offers the alternative: a world beyond our perception, a world in which we can experience something called ananda or ‘bliss.’
It begins with meditation, the gradual drawing of our consciousness away from the mundane and temporary to the transcendent and infinite. Meditation can be done at any time and in any place, but the easiest method is to begin each day with a dedicated period of meditation.
Meditation means to hold one thought within the mind for a period of time; to deeply contemplate it, even to become absorbed in it to the exclusion of all other thoughts. The original yoga texts say that the mind is constantly fluctuating from thought to thought. One thought leads to another, and another – a chain of thoughts. These thoughts come from sensory stimulation from our current environment, or they can come, unexpectedly, from incidents in our past lives.
The total effect is like ripples on a lake of water. The yogis say that the bottom of the lake is where you have dropped a precious golden ring, but the constant waves of thought prevent you from seeing any deeper than the surface. Meditation stills the waves of thought and allows you to see your deeper self.
Our life is a spiritual journey. That’s what we’re made for. It’s not just about getting educated, working, having a family and then dying. So every day we need to take a few small steps along that journey. That way, as life goes by, we’ll become spiritually awakened. But our tendency is to do things that really don’t help us on that journey.
Our minds are always dragging us here and there and we fall prey to bad habits. Meditation helps us to be peaceful and brings our lower self – the mind and senses – under the control of the higher self – the soul. When that is done we lessen the risk of committing unhelpful actions and we become spiritually stronger.
You can do that, of course. You can find a method of meditation that works for you. In an increasingly noisy world, where every bleep and ringtone is a clamour for your attention, there’s great value in just switching everything off and listening to the silence. Your mind needs a break sometimes. You might even want to extend your silence over a weekend in the country. The sages say that the sound of birds is very good for helping the mind be peaceful.
However, you may be interested to know that the classic texts on meditation don’t actually recommend silence as an active meditation. Mantras are said to give us access to the greatest silence: the transcendental platform that is illuminating, all-blissful and permanently free from noisy distractions. That’s why classical meditation mostly prescribes mantras. They are not ordinary sounds, and they lead the mind to the greatest peace.
There’s an old poem that says that your mind is like a mirror. You look in the mirror but it’s grimy from many layers of dust, placed there by your actions over many lifetimes. You can just about see your own reflection, but only very dimly. The mantra works by gradually cleaning your mind of all that dust, enabling you to see yourself as you truly are. That’s why the process is called self-realisation.