Mind, Body and What?
Updated: May 28
Sometimes when we want to make it clear that we are referring to a human being in their totality, we might use phrases like ‘body and soul’ or ‘mind, body and spirit’. But what do these words mean? We may think we know what a body is, and we may even think we know what a mind is (although we might find ourselves having a bit of difficulty if pushed to define it), but what about words like ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’? Surely these are candidates for the vaguest words in the English language, and indeed one might suspect that they are sometimes used by people who have a vested interest in keeping things nicely vague.
In fact the English words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ both have their origins in ancient words meaning ‘breath’, reflecting the observation that someone who is breathing is alive, whilst someone who is not breathing is dead. A dead person may look the same as they did when alive, except that they are no longer breathing, so one can understand how people would have correlated the breath with the apparently departed essence of the deceased, their soul or spirit. Belief in an afterlife of some form or other often rests on the belief that there is something essential within us that animates our body during life and then leaves at death. The rise of materialistic philosophy means that, perhaps, fewer people believe in life after death or in the existence of an immaterial essence within us. ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’ are not part of the (official) vocabulary of western science or medicine.
So perhaps these days it would be better to just talk of ‘mind and body’. But on the other hand, maybe there are important, even crucial, aspects of human beings which the phrase ‘mind and body’ does not grasp. To begin with, one of the common ways the word ‘spirit’ is used, as for example in the phrase ‘fighting spirit’, is to denote something like enthusiasm, vigour, liveliness; we may say of someone that they are a spirited individual, or that they are high spirited. In this sense spirit seems to be used to indicate how alive someone is. A healthy person is one whose body functions smoothly, who is of sound mind, but also one who is quite simply very alive. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a clinician will assess the health of a patient’s spirit by, among other things, noticing their eyes (‘the windows of the soul’ as the English phrase has it); someone with a healthy spirit has sparkling, lively eyes, whereas someone whose spirit is impaired may have dull, lifeless eyes.
Similarly, the word ‘soul’ may still have some value. Think of how it is used to talk about music, and how we might say of someone that they are ‘soulless’. A work of art may be the product of great technique, but if it has ‘no soul’, it will not touch us; a person may say all the right things, but if he or she seems soulless, we will not trust them.
The reality is that the human being is a complex and marvellous thing, and the phrase ‘mind and body’ just does not do enough to capture him or her. In particular if we are considering things like health and well-being, it is crucial that we do not focus solely on the body or even solely on the body and mind (especially if we want to think of the mind as simply a bunch of physical processes in the brain.) We may also need to ask, how is our spirit? What is the condition of our soul?
Spirit and soul in this understanding are not ‘things’. Experiments such as the one conducted at the start of the twentieth century to try to weigh the soul by weighing a person just before and just after death (when the soul, presumably, will have flown) are of course wholly misguided. Spirit and soul are not things to be measured. There is not a spirit inside us in the way there is a pituitary gland inside us. These are words which are not to be taken too literally.
In fact, it is best not to take even the phrase ‘mind and body’ too literally, if by that we mean the mind is one kind of thing and the body another. Where does mind end and body begin? Since the influential French philosopher Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, westerners have tended to think of the body as a physical thing, a machine, inside of which is something else – mind, soul or spirit – the ‘ghost in the machine’. Modern science may have eroded this dualistic way of thinking at least to an extent, but it might be instructive to look at how Traditional Chinese Medicine views the individual, for it has no place for such dualism. Here a person is composed of ‘three treasures’ – Jing, Qi and Shen. Shen, often translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’, is nevertheless not wholly immaterial but simply a more refined form of Qi, just as Jing or ‘essence’ is a more condensed form of Qi. In other words the three treasures are all Qi, which is neither wholly material nor wholly immaterial.
So instead of ‘body, mind and spirit’ we could talk of Jing, Qi and Shen, which in some ways is less misleading, since it does not depend on what turns out to be a false distinction between the material and the immaterial. But the main thing is that, whatever expression we use, we do not take it too literally, and we do not use it to exclude, ignore or forget about any aspect of that marvellous and complex phenomenon, the human being.
Written by Sean