The following are just some thoughts on the different natures of self and soul.
By “self” I mean ideas like will, conceptions, immediate desires, etc., and by “soul”, our spiritual nature, love, virtue, true happiness – realities that are a bit more difficult to pin down and agree on.
I think that only self has the power to act, and only soul possesses power in its own being. That is, if self is like a lantern of iron, the soul appears as the light within. The lantern can be open or closed, but illumination is dependent on the light – and happens as a consequence of the light’s nature, not by any intended action.
In order to develop spiritually, the relationship between these two elements must be worked out; and I’ve found that in the development of the self, people seem to go through distinct phases. Some linger in these phases more than others, and some stop altogether. There are essentially four of them at the beginning.
In the first phase, the individual is fairly unconscious of their soul, and ascribes whatever they feel of it as relating to the self. In consequence, they look only to their selves for their goals and desires, even if they rarely feel fulfilled in accomplishing them.
In the second phase, the individual becomes aware that they have a soul, and that its ways and needs are of a different nature than the self. Self is very direct; it wants a thing, so it reaches for it. The soul is quite indirect; it seems to prefer situations and qualities that cannot be directly manipulated. The things that make the soul happy are not always easy to figure out, and can be damnably hard to predict or repeat. For example, there are circumstances which can lead to an ineffable feeling of happiness, as though a gentle light were lifting you up from underneath, pushing the substance of your being out beyond the confines of ordinary life. What leads to this feeling is often beyond calculation, and one may spend years persuing it in vain.
At this stage, when one has become disillusioned by the promises of self and wishes to capture their “ineffable flame”, self is often seen as the enemy: an obstruction and barrier to the truth of one’s soul. The natural reaction is to wage war against this hateful self; to beat it into submission with the cudgel of moral authority (as virtue is often given as the path to clarifying the soul) and fear of consequence if the individual should fail. After all, what if the barely-glimpsed soul is lost to the mire of selfishness and vanity forever!
The paradox of this stage is simply, who is waging that war? It is the very same self. Thus the self, arming itself with a sense of moral authority, pounds on its own head. Yet this can be quite fruitful, as it will eventually become educated, and learn through experimentation which paths attract the soul and which repel it. An uncouth self can learn about refinement, enforce this message by dint of will, and end up in a much purer state than when it began.
In the third phase, the self has become fairly well educated. At this point it is no longer abhorred, and may feel an overweening pride at its accomplishments. By this time it may have acquired knowledge, refinement, honesty, forbearance, nobility, and even a bit of modesty. But none of these qualities can compare to their truer manifestations in the soul. That is, the soul’s nobility is more of an undeniable light, which has the power to transform hearts; while the self’s nobility, albeit a beautiful thing, may actually result in envy or causing others to feel ashamed. In brief, soul inspires, but does not measure.
These self-related forms of virtue, while excellent in themselves and a great step on the way to their true realities, can themselves become a barrier and a stopping point. Take humility, for example. One cannot truly strive to become humble, because striving seek for improvement, whereas humility – by its nature – sees itself as ever poorer. That is, the more humble a person is, the less humble they believe themslves to be, because that is just what humility is. So how can one strive for humility if the act of striving to better humility is the same as gaining distance?
The solution is that real humility can only be gained in the presence of something greater. And that greater that something, the deeper our instinctive humility, if we judge it fairly. One can think themselves extremely knowledgable if surrounded by children; but when they meet a true master, their own knowledge must convict them of certain ignorance in comparison.
This leads to the fourth phase of the self’s journey: it must stop focusing on its self. In the first three stages we found it indulging itself, belittling itself, and improving itself. In this stage it must set its sights higher, and in consequence recognize the truth of its own low estate. That is, that its beauty can never compare with the soul’s radiance; that its very substance is like ash next city of pure gold. That the noblest action of the self is to step aside, and stop blocking the light.
The best achievements of self are like shadows being cast on a wall, while even the efficacy of those shadows is a product of the light behind.
But one will find that this light does not grow brighter just by holding one’s breath and waiting. Turning toward the soul, because it is such an elusive thing, does not yield to just picking a direction. Soul must be kindled, the infant light sheltered, the growing blaze fed, and the resulting light permitted to escape freely. How are these things to be brought into the field of choice and action, where the self can accomplish them?
It happens in the same way that one lights a candle, or quenches one’s thirst: the self must carry the individual to where the soul may be kindled, and then remove itself from intefering with the process. To seek knowledge, the self must labor, enroll at the university, attend the classes, and then cease its own clamoring and listen and pay attention. It must pay heed to the teacher, and not argue every point based on what it thinks it knows.
In short, the role of the self is like that of a horse: it conveys the soul to its destination, on and on, as far as the two may go. It must reach the point that the journey and the destination are the only realities worth mentioning, and not the skill and endurance, or beauty and elegance of the horse.
And of all the places that the self can lead the soul to, God – through the Manifestations of God, and They through Their Revelation – is the greatest of all.