Tag Archives: spirit

The Spirit, Networks, and Emergence

Hello again folks, hope you are all doing well!

Today I want to talk some about some recent pieces that I have read recently. The two pieces in question are really fascinating to think about in the context of an animistic practice.

Both of these pieces come from NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. If you are not familiar with it, I would highly recommend checking it out. There are some great writers over there.

The first piece is by Marcelo Gleiser, and is entitled Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul? To frame this discussion, I start out with a quote from the article;

“The idea that neuroscience is rediscovering the soul is, to most scientists and philosophers, nothing short of outrageous. Of course it is not.

But the widespread, adverse, knee-jerk attitude presupposes the old-fashioned definition of the soul — the ethereal, immaterial entity that somehow encapsulates your essence. Surely, this kind of supernatural mumbo-jumbo has no place in modern science. And I agree. The Cartesian separation of body and soul, the res extensa (matter stuff) vs. res cogitans (mind stuff) has long been discarded as untenable in a strictly materialistic description of natural phenomena.”

I have to admit, I had the same kind of reaction when I first read the title. The world really is a fantastic mix of matter and energy, but these things are interchangeably and so far science has not found what might be called a “spirit particle” or anything of the sort. From what we know of this world, everything is pretty much matter or energy.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons. Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Gleiser says it this way;

“But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

Just as we have unique fingerprints, our brains, their “connectome,” are also unique. Surely, all brains are made of the same stuff, but wired in very individual ways. Recall that our brains are plastic, and mold themselves according to environmental and emotional inputs — the stories of our lives. To this, we must add our bodies and their relation to our brains. For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration as mapped through the complex highways of nerves interlocking all of you.”

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Remember that part about emergent properties and integration, we will be coming back to that.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self.

In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

As Haskell says;

“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. Many of the first fossilized cells of life on Earth lived in integrated bacterial stacks called stromatolites. Today, all major ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, grasslands, ocean plankton — are built on conversations between interdependent partners. Cut these conversations and the ecosystems fall apart. The first artificial cells also have a networked character. When scientists organize chemical reactions into arrays of tiny, interconnected compartments, life-like properties emerge: cycles of protein production, gradients of signaling chemicals, and the ability to maintain a steady internal state. Without the network, the homogeneous chemical soup lacks any tang of life.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge. As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

[Credit: NASA/Suomi NPP VIIRS/Miguel Román/Joshua Stevens]

Thanks for reading!

References/Sources;

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/05/522738015/is-neuroscience-rediscovering-the-soul

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/04/522011396/the-key-to-life-is-the-network


Hugr – Northern Spirit Part 3

As part of a deeper exploration, I will be looking at the pieces of the Nordic spirit in more detail, as I only provided a brief survey here, and here. Really what I want to do here is expand on these earlier posts.

As such, a refresher is in order. Here is a brief introduction from Kvideland & Sehmsdor’s book, which introduces to the concept of the hugr.

“ In Scandinavian folk tradition the human soul is usually referred to as hug(r)…. it refers to the mental life of the individual – to personality, thoughts, feelings and desires. There are various and complex conceptions of the hugr imbuing the greater part of Scandinavian tradition…. It was believed that the hug could affect both animate and inanimate objects – including other people – either consciously or unconsciously. The deliberate manipulation of the hugr is the basis of all magic. The hug can manifest itself invisibly or can take on a shape (hamr). In some instances the shape assumed by the hug has developed into an independent supranormal being, as exemplified by the many traditions about the nightmare (mare).
Other important projects of the hugr include the vordr, which is a kind of presence accompanying the individual; the dream-soul, which leaves the body during sleep; the vardöger or fyreferd, a visual or auditory experience presaging a person’s approach; and the free-soul, which is the soul sent from the body in magic flight.” (Kvideland, pg 45.)

As I talked about in Part 1 of this series, the hugr is the closest thing we have to a personal, “self” spirit. Here, I quote from FFA Part 8, from Sarmela’s work.

““2. The persona soul (ghost soul) is an immortal, personal substance residing in all living things, a psyche or ’genetic memory’ into which a person’s individual spiritual experience is collected. The persona soul resides in the innermost recesses of a person, but during dreaming it may travel outside the body or leave the body when the person becomes ill and dies, and after death it may continue wandering independently in a new form.”

This, in my opinion, is the nature of the hugr. Being that it is the sum total of personality, thoughts, feelings and desires, I would say it is the most likely candidate to live on after the death of the physical body. I would also argue that this concept includes what Kaldera calls “mynd”, the memory as well “thought” proper. There must be overlap between the two categories.Besides, personality and thoughts are often based on past experience, and such experiences are certainly part of the hugr spirit.

Let us look more closely at the folklore, for the many traits of the hugr.

Section 1; The Power of Thought (Kvideland, pg 43)

“If a person sneezed, yawned, hiccuped, or felt a tickling sensation, someone was thinking about him or her. Another person’s hug had entered his or her body. It was considered irresponsible to let one’s mind wander because it could bring harm to someone else. Sickness was often explain as resulting from a hug which had entered the body of a sick person or animal.”

This section of the Kvideland book then offers several different tales and stories that fit under this heading.

For example, if your nose itches, someone is thinking about you.

Also, when your ears ring, someone is talking about you. If it is the right ear, it is something nice. If it is the left ear, it is something nasty.

As has been mentioned, manipulation of the hug is the foundation for most forms of magic in the folklore.  As other examples, the hug could be used to change someones mind, or make someone love you. Also, the power of the hug could be transferred to an object or person by sight, touch or spoken word. There are many tidbits of folklore that deal with such things, and they are often referred to the evil eye, evil hand, evil foot or evil tongue.

Envy (Norwegian ovund) and Longing (elsk ‘love’) are both powerful emotions, and powerful versions of the hugr. Envy had adverse effects on both people and animals, making them sick or otherwise ill. Envy could corrode stone, or even kill a person.  Longing could also make a person ill in body and mind.

Curiously, “knocking on wood” is one of the tidbits listed in Kvideland’s book. When you are talking about something (or someone) you love/hold dear it is good to knock softly on the underside of the table three times. Otherwise, ‘something’ may become envious, and take such things from you.

Another form of the hug is as a messenger. There are numerous tales about the hug of a person appearing to another to deliver a message. Such messages were often warnings, or sometimes even omens of death. They could appear in a lot of forms, the shape of a person, a premonition, or even in a dream. This also spills over into ideas of the vordr and the fylgja, which will be discussed in separate posts.

One of the most curious aspects of the hug is the nightmare. Contrary to popular association, the nightmare was not simply a bad dream. In Scandianvian folklore, the mare often visited at night. The mare is the visitation by another’s hug, and is often described as a kind of weight on the chest. It sometimes has sexual connotations, in the form of erotic dreams. The mare effect both humans and animals.

However, there is also lore that describes the mare not just as a nightly visitation by a wayward hug, but as an independent spirit in its own right. It would seem possible that a hug could be powerful enough to spawn a new spirit, such as the mare. This spills over into more modern ideas such as the egregors and servitor spirits.

Many of the aspects of the hug will be explored as I continue to write for this series. In coming posts, I will explore the hamr, vordr, fylgja and others as well. There is certainly a lot more to explore here, and some ideas I want to flesh out even more.

Sources/References;

Kvideland, Reimund & Sehmsdor, Henning. Editors. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Pgs 41 – 64

Kaldera, Raven http://www.northernshamanism.org/shamanic-techniques/shamanic-healing/soul-map.html

Strömbäck, Dag., from the book “Sejd” (2000 edition), pages 220-236. The Concept of the Soul in Nordic Tradition http://vnnforum.com/showthread.php?t=84650

Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela