Category Archives: Process Thought

The Tyranny (and Salvation) of the Clock

The New York Times just ran an utterly fascinating opinion piece, exploring the sociological and psychological dimensions of our battle with time and the response of procrastination. I’ve meditated quite deeply and personally on these questions and challenges for most of my existence—and the number of unfinished drafts here on WordPress and other writing ideas floating in my mind for decades are testament to the living reality of these issues in my life.

A few responses:

1) I love the phrase “passive obstructionism” as it applies to procrastination.

2) The disciplined, regimented approach to productivity—discussed and partially ridiculed in the column—while it is generally anathema to my default, relaxed style, has been a blessing to me. Since I returned to full-time work this summer—with the especially regimented schedule of a secondary school (life is measured out in eight 42-minute increments!), I have been reenergized and refocused, more productive and more fulfilled in terms of a sense of purpose. The great irony is that I’m writing this reflection while home today with a sick child and therefore not tied to the yoke of the clock. And I encountered the article that inspired this post because I was browsing Facebook more thoroughly than I have done in the last six weeks. Such browsing is a habit I have generally not missed in my new existence but I’m now aware of how I have indeed had less time for reflection and personal writing. So, an occasional release from a tight schedule can bring some good, but it’s likely the case that having such a regimen as the norm is better—for me—both for daily fulfillment and also for more productive “downtime.”

3) Many ideas here are particularly relevant during these Days of Awe, since so much of the author’s focus here is on the guilt and shame associated with procrastination and our society’s responsibility for fostering that mentality. Much to ponder there.

4) The classic rebellion against the tyranny of the clock (that predates the literary examples in the column) is an ancient gift from the Jewish tradition that comes every 7 days: SHABBAT.

May this coming Shabbat—Shabbat Shabbatonim (the Sabbath of Sabbaths), the Day of At-ONE-Ment—both allow us to escape the pain of time’s oppression and also re-empower us to embrace the peculiar miracle that is time: Let us recommit to maximize our fleeting moments in this world so that we can accomplish our greatest aspirations and fulfill our creative potential with purpose; let us recommit to interact with each other (interpersonally and societally) in a synchronized fashion that enables us to relate with others in time; let us relieve ourselves of the torment that comes both from seemingly unending deadlines but also from the shame and self-deprecation that we inflict when we believe we have “failed” to win the battles against those (often self-imposed) pressures; let us attain the wisdom to know when “getting it done now” is what matters most and also when it’s important to just be present in the moment and less focused on beating the clock. And let us allow the coming sacred day and our own work of t’shuvah (turning) make us whole once again in our messy time-bound journey through life.

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Face to Face on Purim

“Face to Face on Purim”
Rabbi Rick Brody

The apparent silence of the Divine, such a prevalent undercurrent
in the Purim story of Megillat Esther, is written into our very faces. Our hiding behind masks at this holiday alerts us to the holiness beneath the surface.

There is a very beautiful Chasidic teaching from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827), the Ropshitzer Rebbe—in his collection the Zera Kodesh (Holy Seed), vol. II, p. 40a—that I find very compelling as we prepare for the holiday of Purim. Reb Naftali shares two insights that I find relevant. (You can click here for the entire text.)

  1. AlephThe letter Aleph consists visually of a letter vav (the main line that runs diagonally from the top left to the bottom right) and two letter yuds (the small extensions that branch off to the upper right and lower left).

    YudVavYud
    In gematria, the ancient Jewish system of assigning number values to each letter (Aleph = 1, Bet = 2, etc.), the vav (= 6) and the two yuds (10 x 2 = 20) total 26, which is the same value we achieve when we add up the 4 letters of the traditional name of the Holy One,
    Yud Heh – Vav – Heh (10 + 5 + 6 + 5).

    The “hidden” message that emerges from this connection is that the letter Aleph is not even just an abbreviation for God’s name, but is identical in value to expressing God’s name. (But, of course, the Aleph is silent! More on that below.)

  2. The letter Aleph offers another stunning image when we identify its various parts and use a little more creativity. The part that looks like a vav can be compared to a nose, and the two yuds can be compared to two eyes. It’s somewhat of a cubist rendering, but if you tilt your own head to the left and use a little imagination, you can see the contours of a face—two eyes and a nose! In other words, not only is God’s name expressed in the letter Aleph, but it also appears imprinted onto every human face


The amazing thing about both
the Aleph and the human face
(when it’s not depicted with a mouth, as is the case in the description above) is that neither makes any sound. Each one is silent. But a face still has so much power—to gaze, to emanate humanity and divinity, to be in relationship with another, to indicate the presence of soul. How much more significant is that power when we see it as the letter Aleph, the silent letter that mystically expresses God’s name and therefore the Divine essence.

See if you can spot the face in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

See if you can spot the Aleph in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

For me, this teaching is an inspiration and a challenge to see God’s presence through active engagement with a face, be it our own or that of another. That engagement can be “pre-verbal,” freed from the complications of language and all the noise we create with our mouths. At our core, we are Aleph, a pristine essence that surely needs sounds added to it in order to participate fully in this chatty world, but that when standing alone—silently—might bring us closer to God. In recent days, I have looked into the mirror to behold the Aleph on my face, God’s imprint of Self that reminds me of being part of something greater than my own individual life. And then I try to see that same holy manifestation in every other human being I encounter.

On Purim, we cover up our faces and we make a lot of noise. We act as though we are fleeing from the holiness of our silent faces, afraid to rest content with the divinity that surrounds us. Like Esther, we hide. So too, in the Book of Esther, God is hidden, never being named or appearing as a character. Indeed, the Rabbis point out (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 139b) that in the Torah, God says, Anochi hasteir astir panai—“I will surely conceal my face” (Deut. 31:18)—and suggest that this verse is an allusion to God’s absence from the Book of Esther (note the word play with hasteir astir).

But Purim is all about the world being upside down, about things turning out in precisely the opposite way from which they were planned. Through the irony of God’s silence and absence, the Book challenges us to apprehend God’s presence in a complicated world. In reading a story that is so focused on outer beauty, we remember to look deeper into the hidden Godliness that is imprinted on all of our faces.

Perhaps the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas--maybe in sacred paradox--the mouth is closed!

Perhaps, in these two paintings by Fedro, the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas–maybe in sacred paradox–the mouth is closed!  (“High Time“)

When we pretend on Purim to be running from ourselves and from God, we are actually challenging ourselves to run towards God. We can think of it as running in a circle—eventually we catch up to our starting point! By devoting so much joyful energy one day of the year to run and hide, we empower ourselves to move that much closer all the other days of the year towards the holiness of our silent faces. We get closer to the holiness of the Aleph that is God’s name, silently present—just as God’s name is never uttered in the recitation of the Megillah but is still so palpably close; if only we truly look at one another.

This artist, Jerry Schwehm, brilliantly reveals the Aleph most recognizably among the images here–by relying on the face-to-face encounter of two individuals to give the sacred letter its discernible shape. (“The Kiss”)

Chag Purim Sameach—Have a Joyous Purim!

AND DRINK UP!

————
Thanks to Rabbi Or N. Rose, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and Rabbi Adam Stein–for text, graphics, and inspiration–and to the cubist artists whose work is featured here, courtesy of Google’s image search and the linked websites.

Self-Actualization: Parashat Bo

Self Actualization: Parashat Bo

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The key to bringing about redemption is in the taking hold of it, making it our own.

When do we truly have control in our lives? A recurring word in this week’s parashah draws our attention to this question. In Exodus 12:2, the word lachem (“to you”) appears twice: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” Lachem essentially denotes the possessive form. The whole notion of “possessive” suggests independence, autonomy, sense of self, ownership, control. These are all qualities the Israelites lack; they are enslaved. They lack the freedom that possession implies. Their first possession, their first gift–with the designation of “the beginning of months,” rosh chodesh–is not a physical gift but rather something that exists in time. Why is this God’s first step towards granting freedom to the Israelites?

S’forno, a medieval commentator, paraphrases God’s instruction: “From here forward, the months shall be yours, to do with them as you wish. But, in the days of enslavement, your days weren’t your own, but were for the service of others and their desire. Therefore, ‘it is the first for you of the months of the year’–for in it, your ‘discretionary existence’ began.” S’forno is emphasizing the elements of choice, independence, and freedom. He understands that God is saying, “Your time is now your own.” Freedom begins with being able to order and define your own reality. Control of your calendar can have a profound effect on that sense of freedom. This is not just a technical change of using a new system of dates. God is offering the gift of a completely new orientation to time as something personal, intimate, free. “It’s your to do with as you wish.” You can now begin participating in the redemptive process, breaking free from the yoke of oppression. Your oppressor will no longer define you. Through your control of your sense of time, you will begin to construct your own freedom.

What comes immediately after this commandment? God shifts from speaking only to Moses and Aaron and now gives the two brothers instructions of what to actually tell the Israelites. What is the first thing the people will all hear regarding this month? “On the tenth of this month, they shall take for themselves (lahem)–each person–a lamb for his household, . . . a lamb for his house” (Ex. 12:3). When Moses and Aaron deliver these words to the Israelites, presumably they will change lahem (“for them”) into the second person plural, lachem (“for you”), reintroducing this same word that carries the message of freedom.

The Israelites will begin to learn the importance of their taking possession of something for themselves. This process begins with the ownership of time, but the first piece of information the Israelites hear as a whole is much more practical, more tangible. You will take a thing into your possession, a lamb. Why not “time?” Although God had shared this concept with Moses and Aaron, this idea is still too abstract for a slave mentality. The Israelites are like children. They’ll need some “time” to absorb those more complex ideas–they need to start with more concrete actions. Note that the lahem in verse 3 is superfluous. God doesn’t need to say, “they shall take for themselves, each person, a lamb.” The text could just as easily have read, “They shall each take a lamb.”

Why the addition? This is the first commandment being prescribed to the Israelite nation as a whole. This begins their relationship with God as a commander. This begins the end of their subjugation to human taskmasters and enslavers. They now have the opportunity to begin to act in service of God and holiness, rather than–as S’forno said–the whim of other human beings. And if we read Sforno’s interpretation closely, we can understand that God is giving the Israelites the opportunity to make this action personal. Presumably, God is allowing for them to decide even if they will do it or not.

This is the beginning of freedom, and the Israelites’ relationship with God, even though based on commandment, will also be based on the recognition of free will, of human autonomy–something that they have not experienced under Egyptian rule. Lahem (“for themselves”) highlights this idea. We can compare it to the use of the possessive in some more famous Biblical passages, most notably when God says to Abraham, “Lech l’cha–go to a place that I will show you.” The l’cha is superfluous. God can just say Lech (“Go”). But God says, “Get yourself to a place that I will show you,” or as some creative interpretations put it, “Go into yourself.” There is an experience of self-affirmation, followed by deeper self-discovery, when God frames commandments in this possessive way. The Israelites, like Abraham was, are about to begin a journey of self-actualization.

It is fitting that this Shabbat and our reading about the Israelites’ empowerment to take ownership of their freedom falls right before we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The ideal of self-actualization was central to Dr. King’s vision of completely throwing off the shackles of oppression. May we all continue to find the ways to make freedom truly our own, to grasp it in its tangible forms, and to commit ourselves to being active players in the redemptive process–for ourselves and for others.

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, and the Quest for Wholeness

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, & the Quest for Wholeness

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The National Pastime and the start of our Torah both capture our imaginations with their celebration of the idea of return to our primordial home.

The 2012 Major League Baseball postseason has, so far, been nothing short of spectacular in terms of drama, heroics, and very balanced competition. Today is the eve of the second pair of “final games” in the best-of-five, first-round, “division series.” In the 18 years since the start of the division series format, never before have all four match-ups gone to five full chapters. These games are reminding baseball fans why they love this sport and are injecting great spirit, excitement, and joy (and disappointment) into fan bases in cities across the country. Indeed, as I am finishing this post, the Yankees lead the Orioles in a tight 2-0 score a little more than halfway through the game.

Today is also the eve of Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath on which Jews throughout the world celebrate the sacred narrative that contemplates the origins of the universe, of humanity, and of meaning–and their relationship to the Divine. We read from the very beginning of the Torah, the parashah known as B’reishit, also the name (“Genesis,” in English) for the first of the 5 Books that comprise the foundational text of our people.

Baseball fans who appreciate the majesty of the Biblical tradition and its influence on world culture are likely to delight in the pun that appears in the title of this post: We can say that the Torah (in its most common English translation) asserts itself right off the bat (another pun, intended) as a treatise on the holiness of baseball. Its initial words are “In the big inning.”

So, as baseball teams march closer towards the end of their pursuit of a championship and our global Jewish “team” begins its annual journey through our sacred writings, I’d like to reflect on the majesty of this sport and relate it to Torah. How can some of baseball’s qualities inform our quest for meaning and inspire us in exploring our own big innings–and beginnings?

First, I should make clear that I have no intention to attempt to prove that there is anything inherently religious, divine, or magical about a sport. It is a game and it is rooted in competition, a feature of reality that often stands in contrast to cooperation, the latter usually and rightly considered the more proper feature in manifesting holiness . But I do believe that the basic structure of baseball and the way it has evolved, especially in the American imagination, lend itself very well–not unlike Torah–to analogies that we can apply to life more broadly, with uplifting results.

The primary poetic feature of baseball that makes it fit for religious interpretation is the manner in which a team scores. Unlike the two other main approaches to competition–the linear, battlefield approach (one team or player attempts to invade or conquer another’s territory), or the acquisitional approach (opponents are both attempting to reach a goal simultaneously and the victor is the one who gets there first, thus claiming that ground exclusively for herself or her team)–baseball’s approach is restorative: It’s about return, about coming home. Literally, every score in the game is completely the result of a player starting out in a given spot, journeying outwards, and completing a successful circuit (usually with the help of teammates), returning safely to the place of origin. Yet, the safe return bestows upon the team a new status–the accomplishment earns the reward of a run, a unit of transformation that becomes the building block of victory. The only trick is that this team also must play the foil–it must attempt to prevent its opponent from achieving a higher number of successful returns home.

Note that there is no conquest of “foreign territory” and no stealing of something that the other party in the journey has any access to. A runner ventures away from home but for the purpose of making it back. The journey is driven by the idea that the return will elevate the runner and his companions, that–to borrow basic language from this seemingly universal literary device–it will signal some growth or maturity to a new level of being, a greater understanding of self, and a greater fulfillment of purpose that benefits the collective.

These elements lead us to some of the critical features we find at the very beginning of the Torah. The most prominent theme of homecoming is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their idyllic starting point, the garden of earth and vegetation that exists outside of time (note that baseball, inside its pastoral boundaries, has no clock!). The real challenges to the heroes begin after their acquisition of knowledge, which sends them into a life of toil and hardship and a hope of a future return to the Garden. Our sages teach that our experiences of true joy and connection, most notably under the chuppah at Jewish weddings and in the shelter of Shabbat, are the glimpses of eternity that the Garden symbolizes. They are our homecomings.

Our story has an earlier hero, the Creator (God). We learn nothing from the Torah text of a starting point or home for God. Some theologies might speak of God’s home “in the heavens,” but the Torah tells us that the Creation story is one of the formation of shamayim va’aretz (heaven and earth). God created it All, we are led to believe. The mystics suggest that at the real “beginning,” God was The All, existing before (outside of) time–in absolute, undifferentiated unity. Somehow (here is where mystery reigns), God developed an identity that was separate from something else. The Singular became Plural. And it was from this differentiated plurality that God, still fundamentally singular in Godself, began relating to that which was “not God” and shaping everything that remains “not God.” Yet, for many, the goal on our spiritual journeys is to reunite with that which is fully God, to come home to the Place of wholeness. In fact, the Rabbis of antiquity refer to the Eternal as HaMakom (“The Place”), suggesting that Divinity is the destination of our journeys.

We come upon the Divine journey amidst that which is not Divine in the cryptic and often overlooked second verse of the Torah (i.e. Genesis 1:2), which tells us of the “stuff” that God starts with. We don’t know if these materials existed eternally–either alongside or potentially even preceding the Creator who is the subject of our story. But we do learn that the problem God needs to “conquer” is one of Chaos (tohu vavohu), the unformed nature of this proto-creation. It is all potential, with no defined identity of its own other than being “not God.” God’s own pursuit of home, the Place (“within” God) of Divine wholeness, is challenged by these forces which, like the defenders in baseball, have no coherent goal of their own other than to foil the pursuit of the “other” (in this case, God). God the Creator (somewhat different than God, the Absolute Timeless Unity) has taken on a distinct identity, like a player who separates from her team to begin her journey to “create a run.” The journey takes stages–three bases or six days. The final base and the final day of the process is one of culmination, of return to the whole. We call it home. Or we call it Shabbat. It is a place of transformation and elevation, of complete safety, of the flourishing of our entire being, the emergence of soul.

We, in our journeys, imitate the Divine Creator by making our way through the elements that in their very nature conspire to thwart us. We exercise ingenuity and creativity to find ways to thrive in spite of our obstacles, and our passage through dangerous territory makes our homecoming all the sweeter. Each little return, especially each Shabbat, is an opportunity to feel more connected to a greater collective. It gets us not only a little closer back to the Garden of our human beginnings (big innings), but also engages us in the Divine homecoming, the cosmic repair to the original unity that existed before time.

Beginning my 40th Year: Drinking or Pouring?

March 22, 2012

How do we “number our days? How old am I?

If we focus on looking behind us, I am 39 years old today (i.e. I have completed 39 years) — according to the Gregorian (solar) calendar. My Hebrew (luni-solar) birthday was 10 days ago, the 18th of Adar. I didn’t remember to mark it!

If we focus on where we’re headed, I am “beginning my 40th year” today. The Chinese do it that way, don’t they? While not for personal age, Jewish counting often works this way, too. The sabbatical year and jubilee (in the Torah) are for the 7th and 50th year (respectively), and a baby boy is brought into the covenant through circumcision once he has begun his 8th day, i.e. 7 days after he was born (not after the completion of 8 days). So, too, our counting of years for our calendar (whether it’s 2,012 years or 5,772 years) is predicated on assigning the first number (Year 1) to the very beginning of the entire counting, not at the completion of the first year — which is why new decades, centuries, and millennia begin after completing the year with the zero in it. Remember all those “naysayers” who insisted that the millennial celebration should be at the end of the Year 2000 in anticipation of January 1, 2001? Well, their logic only works if the celebration is about the completion of a unit, as opposed to entering the final year of a unit — as is done with the sabbatical and jubilee (entering the 7th or 50th year).

Is one way more western and the other more eastern? Is one approach more concerned with completed results, conservatively or pragmatically choosing to “cash in” on what’s already been stored away — while the other is more concerned with a dynamic process, ambitiously and daringly looking ahead to that which is not yet completed? Is one the result of a Greco-Roman, closed, left-brain, scientific approach while the other is a result of an eastern, right-brain, open-ended approach that emphasizes looser integration into porous clusters of meaning?

Some Jewish customs work in what we might call the “western” way. The age of “adulthood” comes at the completion of 13 years (and a day) for boys (12 and a day traditionally for girls) and there are plenty of Torah-based laws that involve the age of fruits, livestock, and people. Are those ages always based on the number of years already completed? If so, it seems our tradition has elements of both approaches, even before being influenced by the Greco-Roman West.

So, is it more Jewish (or more sacred) to look at what part of the journey we’re embarking on rather than what part of it we’ve completed? Is one way more positive or optimistic and the other more negative or pessimistic? Or is it about pragmatic versus hopeful? Or some other polarity of approaches to encountering reality?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Bill Cosby is attributed with answering,

It depends on whether you’re pouring or drinking.”

As we “number our days to attain a heart of wisdom” we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what we are doing. Are we pouring or drinking? Some of both, surely — but which are we doing more? Giving and serving or taking and consuming? Stripping away the already guaranteed portion from the cup of our lives, clenching what’s already there out of fear of it falling out of our grasp? Or adding more possibility to a mysterious cup of potentially overflowing bounty, not knowing — or even worrying about — when we will stop pouring, when (or if) the cup will run over? To borrow images from Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages) 2:11, are we like “a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop” or like “an ever-flowing spring,” ma’ayan mitgabeir, a porous vessel that is open continually to the entry of new water, new contributions to an ever-changing flow of possibility?

Obviously, one approach sounds more poetic, romantic, adventurous. Surely we need both. A holistic mind (and therefore soul) is the result of a well-balanced cooperation between our left-brain and right-brain functioning. But in my writing, my imagining, and my yearning, I aspire to the poetic.

Am I 39, focusing on the years I have already counted, or am I 40, entering — pouring and being poured — into the next, uncharted gradation in the unfinished vessel of my life journey? I’ll let the left-brain authorities like the Social Security Administration be the cistern and focus on the years I have already accumulated. I — in my “right mind” (pun intended), even though I am not left-handed — will be the ever-flowing spring and pour into Year 40.

So may I now start studying Kabbalah?!

New Ways of Understanding Soul

New Ways of Understanding Soul

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Soul is not some thing, no “stuff” that is (temporarily) attached to (but fundamentally separate from) my body. No, soul is the totality of my body, all its experiences, and all the meanings it both internalizes and externalizes — through both my brain (my inner life — my impressions, my sensations, my feelings, my cognition) and my self’s interaction with the world “outside of me” — my relationships to others, my deeds, my communications, my contributions to a greater whole.

People are fond of quoting C. S. Lewis as saying, “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Also popular is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quip that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I think that simply throwing around these pithy statements as wisdom actually reduces them to pablum. We need to examine them. Both of them trouble me. While I think there is truth in these words, I do not think they tell the whole story; at the least, they are misleading, suggesting to the naive reader some kind of mythical narrative about a soul (or spirit) that lives eternally, enters a body — or, better, takes on a bodily form — and then maintains a conscious existence after it “leaves” the body — or “sheds” it, like snake-skin (some contemporary critics of classical theology derisively refer to this presumed process as a “soul-ectomy”!) — leaving it behind as an ultimately irrelevant tool that mainly obscures our awareness of a deeper, disembodied truth. I see some elements within this narrative that meaningfully characterize our experiences and our place in the Cosmos, but I think there are also aspects to this narrative that themselves are obstacles to enduring meaning.

Teilhard de Chardin’s statement is more troubling. Am I, at my core, not a human being? As I will discuss below, I believe I start out entirely human, and my journey of self-conscious interaction with the world outside my human body opens up a process of “spiritual” or soulful growth, discovery, and becoming. But the human experience isn’t “part” of my journey — it is my journey; it just happens that this journey extends beyond the limitations of my physical human body. But all of my experiences are physical — or at least are necessarily mediated through the physical (this view fits in with a current outlook in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind called “nonreductive physicalism”). Without my physical brain, “i” will lack the apparatus to have conscious, subjective experiences. I will “live on” in ways that I believe are part of the soul-process, but I do not expect to have awareness of that life.

I am a human being. Or, more appropriately, I am a human becoming. It’s the becoming that I think we tend to identify as “spiritual,” but I fail to see how that quality has a fixed essence that could be described as a “spiritual being.” It is certainly more a process than an entity. But more to the point is that it requires the body. There is no spirit that is me that precedes my body. Rather, that quality of transcendent becoming, that sense of participating in something greater than “me” is one that emerges from the reality of our bodily existence, a reality at the core of our being/becoming, of our sense of self — and not one I wish to undervalue.

I believe there are levels of self and that indeed we are restricting ourselves if we confine our understanding of self to be synonymous with our bodies. Clearly, Lewis is worried that people see the soul as something “smaller” than the self-defined-as-body, contained by it, subservient to a “greater” self that possesses a soul. It seems right to want to debunk this misconception. But it also seems dangerous to want to dismiss the fundamental role that the body plays in defining and constructing self, in making me me. And I believe that level of reality precedes that of soul. I believe there is a “me” that is smaller than my soul — a “me” that mediates between what seems to be a completely inner life of mind and an outer world that we touch through our bodies and that in turn touches our bodies and, in rapid succession, our minds. Soul is a process that encompasses all these other processes and that begins with the body.

The metaphor of an ecosystem is instructive here. It seems that much of the quest for meaning, particularly within religious contexts, involves an effort to transcend that sense of “small self” — an individual tree, for example — and become fully in touch with the greater self that is not just an intermediary, but rather the great forest itself, the entire system. But the system, as grand and impressive and awe-inspiring as it is, consists of the individual trees. You can’t have a forest without them. They comprise the whole, each one playing a vital, necessary, and sacred role. There is no “other side” where we can arrive by climbing a ladder of enlightenment, transcending the role of being a singular tree to simply being the entire forest. Rather, we are constantly becoming more and more of a tree, and that becoming contributes more and more to the becoming of the forest, of which we are a part.

I start out as a body. The problem is that I am not really an “I” yet. I am “mere fluid,” a clump of cells, a mass of tissue, and ultimately an intricate network of physical processes that is ready to engage the process of interaction with the world that will give birth to new soul. That new “soul” will interact with the wider soul-process to which it contributes and with which it grows, evolves, and becomes.

My soul doesn’t “live” inside of “me.” My mind lives inside of me. (Some philosophers of mind wish to talk about “mind” the way I am speaking of “soul,” as extending beyond the body. I find it helpful to distinguish between the two and keep “mind” as the “inner life,” with “soul” being the resultant interactions between these various networks of inner lives.) It dwells entirely in my network of nerves (my nervous system) — the mode of communication of sensation — which is headquartered in my brain. My soul, however, is the sum of all that is “me” (bodily, including my brain) and all of the extensions of me beyond my bodily definitions. It is “me plus.” I cannot contain it — I am subsumed within it. And it depends on me, on the entirety of my bodily existence. My body is a necessary predecessor to my soul, just as it is to my mind. The soul emerges as a result of the body’s obtaining of consciousness (mind) and its interaction with its environment — which not only reacts to and is transformed by its interaction with such a conscious body but simultaneously engages in a partnership wherein it exerts influence on that very body and its mind. This mutuality, this complex of interactions, this ecosystem, is the matrix in which soul “lives.”

There is no “part” of me that is not “part of” my soul. My soul continues to grow and evolve, throughout my biological epoch and forever after as my legacy. It doesn’t “go” anywhere — it doesn’t “leave” my body. It is always extending beyond my body through the world of meaning, impact, and influence. This quality, in theory, my body shares with all of physical existence. What most physical bodies lack, however — as far as we know — is the internal experience, the consciousness that allows me to identify myself as a subject. It is this quality that we are referring to when we speak of subjective experience. If “i” have no subjective consciousness, then it seems i am not (directly) involved in a soul-process. And what if there is no external consciousness to have an internalized awareness of what “i” have done, my influences, my legacy (e.g. if I were alone on the proverbial desert island)? Does that absence also negate the soul-process, or at least suggest that the entire process is completely terminated with my bodily death (or however else my consciousness ceases to function)?

Perhaps it is more helpful to say that we participate in our souls. These souls include our body, the entity that has a sense of self, a sense of participating in the activity of soul-ing. It can be correct to say that “i am a body” — “i” as small self that is physically bounded; and that “I am a Soul” — “I” as larger Self that emerges from the interaction between my “self” and the world, especially those “parts” of the world that consist of other “i” entities, other selves that comprise the ecosystem.

The degree to which we enhance our own consciousness and our interaction beyond our bodies is the degree to which we participate in soul (and that participation is still morally neutral, filled with potential for good, evil, or nothing). So, I’m not really any more comfortable saying that I am a soul that has a body than I am saying that I am a body that has a soul. I might be comfortable saying that “my soul” emerges from my body’s participating in a greater whole and that with that emergence, my soul becomes the “greater I,” “greater” than the “i” that is my body, continuing its existence — through meaning — even after my body has decayed. Rabbi Brad Artson has offered his own contribution to the conversation, shifting towards classical Biblical language and claiming, “You don’t have a nefesh; you are a nefesh.” Note that he does not echo Lewis by adding the qualifier, “you have a body.” I believe that the nefesh Artson is referring to—in keeping with its Biblical meaning—is the totality of processes that “i” experience that lead me towards “I” (or it might be “I”). This idea is not the same as what English speakers or translators tend to mean when they speak of “the soul.”

I don’t believe that this “greater I” has consciousness separate from the consciousness that my body experiences — at least I cannot conceive of such a consciousness. But I do believe that the “greater I” that our ego-selves, our individual trees, seek to know or commune with — the totality of the forest in which our individual trees participate (“foresting”) — may be the goal to which we aspire during the quests for meaning throughout our bodily human existence. So, yes — “I” am a soul, and that soul consists of the bodily “i” that is an integral part of that soul-process. And my body will sometimes know or commune with that “I” during its existence. And yes, “I” will continue to exist even after my body no longer does, but “i” won’t know about it, and as far as i know, “I” will have no knowing at all without my conscious body. It is thus my opportunity and my obligation to get my conscious self, my “i,” to know the “greater I” of my soul-process — that which “i” am creating and that emerges from my completely human experience — as much as possible during my limited time of human consciousness. This is my time.