Today I'd like to raise the question of whether we possess a soul and, if so, what this soul might consist of. Perhaps a good way to begin is by elimination - if we determine what is not a soul in us, then what remains we may presume to be a soul.
We have already spoken at some length (see 'tearing down the ediface') about the nature of thought in relation to being. We determined that thought, excluded from the vital present (as past and past projected into the future) cannot approach or explain being. We further noted that individual thoughts cannot be said to originate in a unified consciousness but, rather, are the manifestation of a multitude of often conflicting little 'I's. Therefore thought cannot be a manifestation of the soul.
We know from mainstream religious texts that the soul is supposed to be somehow independent of the body - the soul being immortal and the body being mortal. But before we begin speaking about the independence of the soul from the body, we should first be clear about what we mean by body. Clearly the obvious physical form cannot be the soul because it decomposes upon death. But religious and mystical traditions also speak of a so-called subtle body - the body kesdjan of the Gurdjieffians, the astral body of the Yogic traditions.
Secular philosophy supports the possibility of a subtle body - for example, Heidegger's extension of feeling - when I write with a pencil my experience of being extends to include the pencil, it is as though I am writing with my finger. But if the pencil breaks I am suddenly aware that I am holding a tool - it is no longer a part of me and my being shrinks back into the confines of my physical form.
Pseudo-scientific arguments can also be raised - for example, the phenomenon of Kirlian photography, which appears to capture energetic fields around living organisms (many examples can be found on the web). One might also argue that Neurological speculation supports at least the possibility of something like a subtle body - I am thinking particularly of amputees who retain a sensation of their missing limbs.
But even if we accept the existence of a subtle body, and I'm not sure that I do (the jury is still out!), can this be said to be identical with the concept of the soul? I don't think so.
Because it seems that such an energetic body would still be fundamentally corporeal, although of finer matter than the physical body, and also cannot be considered as wholly independent of the body. Taking the case of Kirlian photography, for example, there are numerous examples of broken leaves whose missing parts are completed by the energetic field - but we don't see photographs of energetic fields without leaves at all. So, even assuming the existence of a subtle body, we must nevertheless conclude that the soul is something other.
Hence the soul is not synonymous with mind nor body (neither gross nor subtle). One can exclude the emotions on the same grounds as the so-called subtle body - that they are not sufficiently independent of either mind or body to be considered as the soul.
According to religious traditions it is the soul that is unaltered by death, that survives death. So the question must be asked: what is there in me that is unaffected by external circumstances? Death, surely, must be the greatest physical-emotional-mental trauma that an individual ever encounters - so if there is nothing in me that can withstand day to day stresses, nothing that can resist the hypnotic sleep of contemporary existence, then what in me could possibly withstand death?
If I am honest I will admit that there nothing in my being that is sufficiently impartial to be a 'soul' in the traditional sense of the word. I react to everything around me - anxiety and tensions plague the body, the emotional and mental states can be rocked even by receiving the mildest of insults. And I will also admit that when I strip away all that is not the soul - all the thoughts, emotions, physical manifestations - I find nothing beneath them.
None of this, of course, proves the nonexistence of the soul. What it does establish, however, is that evidence of the soul is not forthcoming. Therefore one of the following statements must be true:
(1) the soul is nonexistent
(2) the soul is imperceptible and, therefore, for all practical purposes nonexistent (unable to be consciously acted upon)
(3) the soul is currently imperceptible and exists in embryo - or, in other words, is able to be consciously acted upon or cultivated in some sense.
It is the last of these three statements that is reiterated in the esoteric subtext of major religions and I would argue that esoteric traditions, in general, share a common aim of 'growing' souls from embryos - "struggling to make a soul", as Orwell says. The Sufic allegory of the two rivers can be seen as an extension of this idea - one river pours into the ocean, the other into the void. For a time, a finite time, the rivers run parallel and one may cross.
If the soul is nonexistent then the question of being is only another abstraction without practical use. Likewise, if the soul is imperceptible for the duration of our lives, then we are helpless to effect any change by direct action. Therefore the hope of the individual lies in the last statement of the three, that we are born with a soul in embryo - and that by certain methods that embryo can be cultivated into something resembling the religious definition of a soul.