Clarifying the Meaning of Mind, Body and Spirit

Explore the nuances between mind, body, spirit, and soul for spiritual growth. Delve into various philosophies to define these essential aspects.

If the word body refers to your physical being and all of its material acquisitions, how do you define the words mind and spirit? Are there differences between spirit and soul? Most of us have a vague, three-way distinction between mind, body and spirit but it is insightful to know what various philosophies say about them. Having this proper distinction is key to your personal, spiritual growth. Join me as we explore these differences.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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At a cursory level, the various parts of the phrase 'body, mind and spirit' are obvious:

Your body is the intricately, synergistic functioning of all internal systems, like your respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems. Various organs combine to create a system, take your digestive system as an example, it starts with your eyes and nose which spark your appetite, it then involves your teeth, tongue and salivary glands. Your mouth passes control to your oesophagus to move the chewed food down into your stomach. Your stomach is full of acid and enzymes used to further break down food particles into a thin sloppy soup which passes along your small and large intestines to extract all the nutrients. Your body finally eliminates all unusable solid and liquid waste. But the amazing spectacle doesn't stop there, every organ in your body made up of countless specialised cells. Cells, the basic building blocks, come in many, many forms. There are liver cells, lung cells, skin cells, brain cells, heart cells and so on. Countless millions die every second and millions more form inside your body to replace the lost ones. From conception to death, your organs develop, mature, fade and finally die. Not one of us will escape death. Death is the body's final destiny.

Your brain is your body's most complex organ. It has some basic subdivisions which include your primitive, emotional and rational-thinking brain structures. Your primitive brain handles all your deeply unconscious signalling needs. Thank goodness you are not conscious of the incessant transmission noise moving up and down your spine as your brain coordinates things like movement. Just imagine the data flowing to and from your primitive brain to coordinate an action like the threading of a needle. For most animals, their brain's sophistication ends there. Birds, snakes, frogs and other simple vertebrates only have a primitive brain. Very few animal species have brain structures necessary to feel emotions and fewer still can think rationally. Your human brain is the highpoint of brain evolution. Nonetheless, it is still only an organ forming part of your nervous system which is in turn is only one of your body's many systems. So, when you refer to mind in the phrase 'mind, body and spirit' what are you referring to? Your brain? No, not really…

I think the analogy of your smartphone helps differentiate mind from brain. Designers pack thousands of electronic circuits inside your smartphone. Some of this circuitry runs across specially etched boards but most of it is microscopically carved into silicon chips. Wires join boards together to complete your smartphone's hardware design. As sophisticated as the hardware is, it is still useless until you add a few apps. Every smartphone comes with at least one preloaded, specialised app, called an operating system. This app drives the hardware and provides software services to other apps. Whenever I ask someone what the difference is between brain and mind, they usually say something like, "My brain is like my computer's hardware and my mind is like the software that runs on my computer." This is a pretty neat analogy. Although mind is more than mere memory, there is mounting evidence suggesting that consciousness and memory may well lie outside the brain. In the previous episode of Soul Searching, I mentioned Karl Lashley's rather macabre experiments with rats. He, if you remember, was a psychologist and behaviourist known for his contributions to the study of learning and memory. In his experiments, he sought to isolate the location in the brain where memory is stored so Lashley taught his laboratory rats certain routines and then, with a soldering iron, set about burning away a tiny part of each rats' brain, each rat suffering the obliteration of a different part of its brain. The rats that couldn't perform the routines Lashley taught them may give clues to memory's location in the brain. Despite incurring serious physical impairment, the rats never lost the memory of the routines Lashley had taught them. He concluded that memory is not found in any specific place in the brain.

Mind is creative and conniving. When used constructively, it is soul's creative agent giving you co-creative control over your material world. When used destructively, it can be your Achille's Heel, leading to your downfall.

In discussing the concepts of 'body, mind and spirit,' with someone, they'd easily get this far in their reasoning. But here's where things get a bit fuzzy. Let's take the discussion to the next level: If your body is your tangible, sophisticated bag of cells harmoniously working together and if your mind is like a specialised app running inside or outside your brain, then what is mean by spirit? Are soul and spirit the same thing? Are they housed somewhere inside your body, do they exist in an ethereal realm or are they merely unprovable, fanciful hypothesis of the human mind? If spirit does exist, how does it interact with or influence body and mind? We must stop here to think a bit.

Psychology's definition of spirit is very different from religion's teachings about it. Psychology defines spirit as, "the vital principle or animating force within living things; or a fundamental emotional and activating principle determining one's character." We would use these definitions by saying something like, 'She's in good spirit,' meaning that her demeanour is invigorating and uplifting. Religion's definition is very different and there are yet further differences of belief depending upon the religion you consult. Christianity leans heavily on the English word 'spirit' which comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning 'breath.' 'Spirit' has many different meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a supposed, non-physical (subtle) substance contrasted with the (gross) physical material comprising your body. The idea of breath being the essential spirit known as life, dates to the Genesis account of Adam's creation, "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Death is the reversed process of creation; and creation is the reversed process of death. One can only assume that Adam's formation from the dust of the ground is a figure of speech, meaning that God (if there is such a being and perhaps it's just another analogy for universal intelligence) made a body from Earth's elements (the one's we find on Chemistry's Periodic Table). If we had sophisticated enough technology today, we might be able to program and wind up some DNA, pack it in a nucleus, manufacture other essential components, like mitochondria and a semi-permeable membrane and assemble them into the resemblance of a simple bacterium. If we had the knowhow to do all of that at the end of our production process, we'd still at best, only have a dead creature missing a lifeforce. Our creature would then simply follow the natural entropy of all other dead animals. I recently watched live cardiomyocytes beating together in a Petrie dish under a microscope. They weren't any old heart cells harvested from a live heart and grown in the glass dish, these cardiomyocytes began life as skin cells, called fibroblasts. We have the technology today to undifferentiated skin cells and genetically reengineer them into becoming heart cells. It's cutting-edge technology yet we still don't have the foggiest idea what this lifeforce is and how it animates living things. Perhaps 'spirit' is synonymous with our mystical lifeforce after all. It seems as if life (or spirit) is that invisible force that animates cells but we don't know it got there. Did it enter the first cell from outside or was it always an intrinsic part of every cell, inherited from its parent and which simply dissipates when it dies? Spirit, in this sense, means the thing that separates a living body from a corpse—and it usually implies intelligence, consciousness, and sentience. It is an incorporeal but ubiquitous, non-quantifiable substance or energy present individually in all living things. Dr James H. Hyslop, secretary-treasurer of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1919 wrote, "In all the publications of the Society for Psychical Research the term 'spirit' stands for the personal stream of consciousness …"

What intrigues me a lot, is that Earth hasn't seen the creation of life (not that we know of) ever since the first organism popped into existence in the primordial ocean through some mysterious process many millions of years ago. Science suggests that a rich ancient soup had all the ingredients for life and it lay waiting. It could have been a mighty lightning bolt that snapped life into existence or inanimate matter could have jiggled itself together over thousands of years before it came to life and wriggled? It appears that the perfect conditions which existed millions of years ago have abated because we seem to have no evidence suggesting contemporary creation today. Luckily enough, those early organisms had the ability to reproduce, carrying life forward over countless generations of offspring, always ready to adapt to their environment and, over time, to acquire new levels of sophistication. You and I are not unique creations but descendants of those primitive lifeforms millions of years ago. It's all too mindboggling, isn't it?

There is an astronomical theory about the origins of life too. Ever since the discovery of a strange piece of rock found in Antarctica in 1996, named Allen Hills 84001, which had fossilised bacteria that might have originated on Mars, it opened the possibility that life could have originated in extra-terrestrial space and then rained down on Earth where it found its foothold. Scientists estimate that sixty tons of cosmic dust falls to Earth every day and it is possible that the earliest lifeforms came from another part of our solar system as hitchhikers on these particles of space dust. This only deepens the mystery of life which could then have formed as early as the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago. But we must return to our discussion about 'body, mind and spirit' before getting too side-tracked.

If the metaphysical use of the word spirit, as we've learned, refers to consciousness or personality and it is sometimes also used to synonymously describe essential lifeforce, what then is meant by soul? What's the link, if any, between spirit and soul? Latin has two words that are well differentiated: the one we've learned of already is spiritus, meaning breath; the other is anima, meaning soul. Where 'spirit' often denotes lifeforce, personality or consciousness, soul often means some eternal, pre-existing ethereal entity that associates itself with the physical body.

Let's turn to Hinduism to find out what it says about these differences: Atman is a Sanskrit word meaning 'eternal self.' The atman refers to the real self beyond all ego and without karmic effect — an enlightened, higher-self, if you wish to see it that way. The word 'soul' often refers to our true-self or essence which underlies our existence. This understanding of the self-as-eternal supports the idea of reincarnation in that the same eternal being can temporarily and progressively inhabit many bodies. The idea of Atman entails the idea of the self as a spiritual, rather than material being and thus there is a strong dimension of Hinduism which emphasises detachment from the material world in pursuit of more spiritual virtues. Therefore, it follows that in this world, a spiritual being, the Atman or soul, is having a human experience rather than a human having a spiritual experience. Brahman is different from Atman, and is also a Sanskrit word which refers to a transcendent power beyond the universe. As such, it sometimes translates as 'God,' although the two concepts are not identical. Brahman is the power which upholds and supports everything. Accordingly, the universal, supporting power of Brahman at some point becomes the personal power which is the self (Atman). These spiritual philosophies strongly influenced my beliefs about God. For us who were born into the Christian, Jewish or Islamic faiths, God is always depicted as an external Being, a supreme yet discrete entity that lives somewhere out there above the clouds. This external God is different from Braham, which is an all-pervasive supporting power running through everything. The Christian idea of soul is again different from the Hindu concept of the Atman. In Christianity, the soul is seen as a synonym for spirit or lifeforce, which returns to God, from whence it came.

I prefer the idea that soul and God are not discrete entities separated by the vacuum of space but are inseparable, entwined forces. In an episode or two ago, I used the analogy of a pyramid to describe this interconnection. I imagine my highest self (Atman) to be the capstone at the apex of the largest pyramid in Gisa. That single, capping block of sandstone proudly completes the pyramid's structural design as my Atman completes the spiritual design of who I am. The pyramid's capstone brings the four edges of the pyramid together to one point of singularity. One can easily imagine the lines of the pyramid's edges extending through that point of singularity and out into space, forming an inverted, invisible pyramid, signifying our non-material, spiritual self and its connection with the infinite spiritual realm beyond. Atman, in my pyramid analogy, is the capstone (in the physical sense) and the invisible, inverted capstone (in the spiritual sense); Brahman is both the material pyramid (supporting all physical forms) and the infinite, invisible inverted pyramid (upholding all things spiritual.) This conceptualisation is also suggested in the symbolism of Solomon's Temple, where its architecture hints at this Atman/Braham link. In the symbolism of Solomon's Temple, the meeting point between Braham and Atman is the Shakina light, the perpetually burning flame flanked by two angels with outstretched wings in the Holy of Holies. This is all explained in a previous episode of this show.

It is okay to feel mentally challenged by these concepts — it took me decades to bring the puzzle pieces together. But what does all of this mean in a practical sense for you? I don't know because its influence on my life will be very different from the influence it'll have on yours. All I can do is share my experiences with you and it's then up to you to map these into your world and to adjust your personal set of beliefs accordingly. Whilst I have no proof, I do enjoy the idea that there is a part of me which was never born and which will never die. This single idea brings me a lot of comfort. Suddenly, life doesn't seem so short and I am able to ease off on the creation of material wealth, and my consumptive needs for sensory gratification. I found that I have lost much of my fear and panic about the future and so, I live more fully in the present moment. I have learned that I'm not some frail creature, separated from everything else but that I am an intrinsic part of this vast universe and cannot be anything else. I'm very scientific in my approach to life but I'm no longer naïve to the idea that there is more to our universe than science now knows about. I believe that it is our privilege to explore our universe as we do, and I have a hunch that science and spirituality will one day reach consensus over a single explanation of how things work. I'm now 64-years old and my horror about the idea of old-age and redundancy has long subsided, giving way to a serene outlook of the future — what will be, will be. Life is not always easy. Challenges quickly sneak up and try to derail me but it is that inner-knowing that there's so much more to life, that keeps me in an almost permanent state of grace. My only wish for you, and it's a wish that drives most of what I do, is for you to abandon your limiting self-beliefs about your supposed separateness and isolation and to embrace a godlike, timeless and perpetual view of your real self.

I can tell you about this state of grace but I don't have the complexity of language to share how I feel about it. You'll recognise those feelings within yourself as you embark upon your own, private, spiritual journey. Use all the spiritual tools you have at your disposal, including religion and new-age fads, but I urge you to enter into these experiences with eyes wide open and with a healthy dollop of scepticism because there is a lot of flaky stuff out there.

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