By Robert Frager
I died from the mineral kingdom and became a plant;
I died to vegetable nature and became an animal;
I died to animality and became a human being.
Next time I will die to human nature and lift up my head among the angels.
Once again I will leave angelic nature and become that which you cannot imagine.
According to Sufi tradition, we have seven souls, or seven facets of the complete soul. Each represents a different stage of evolution. There are the mineral, vegetable, animal, personal, human, and secret souls, and the secret of secrets.
The Sufi model of the souls is one of balance. According to this model, spiritual growth is not a matter of developing the higher souls and ignoring or even weakening the lower ones. Each soul has valuable gifts, and in Sufism, real spiritual growth means balanced development of the whole individual, including body, mind, and spirit.
There are many systems and disciplines that focus on the bodyâ€”sports, martial arts, healing techniques, and a variety of other physical disciplines. Modern education focuses almost completely on the mind. Many spiritual disciplines stress spiritual principles and practices, yet they ignore mind and body. In Sufism, all of life is part of spiritual practice. Family, work, and relationships provide as much opportunity for spiritual development as prayer or contemplation.
The Arabic term for soul, ruh, also means "spirit" and "breath." The Koran (15.29) reads, "I have fashioned him (Adam) and breathed into him of My spirit (ruh)." The highest level of the soul, the secret of secrets, is a spark of Godâ€™s spirit.
Each facet of the soul has its own dynamics, its own needs and strengths. At different times, different souls may be dominant. Knowing which soul is most active is important information for a Sufi teacher. For example, a dream that comes from one soul will be interpreted very differently than a dream from another soul.
When the naturally healthy dynamics of the soul shift to one extreme or another, what is healthy can become toxic. For example, curare is a wonderful heart medicine, but it can also be used as a deadly poison.
If we are concerned about some of our souls and ignore others, we are inevitably thrown out of balance. For example, if we ignore our vegetable and animal souls, we lose touch with the fundamental needs of our bodies and put our health at risk. (A classic example are stereotypical computer programmers who are so involved with their demanding intellectual tasks that they eat junk food and suffer from chronic lack of sleep and exercise.) If we neglect our secret soul and the secret of secrets and disregard our spiritual needs, our spiritual health suffers. Many people lead lives that are rich in material success and worldly activity, yet they are spiritually malnourished. Ideally, balance of all seven souls brings about balanced health and growth and a rich, full life.
The Mineral Soul
The mineral soul, the ruh madeni, is located in the skeletal system. In the diagram of the seven aspects of the soul, the mineral soul is adjacent to the secret of secrets, which is the place of the pure divine spark within each of us. The mineral world is close to God; it never revolts against divine will. Wherever a rock is placed, there it will stay eternally unless some outside force moves it.
Just as our physical skeleton remains hidden inside the body, there is a hidden, inner structure in our bodiesâ€”the mineral soul. If someone asked for a description of your mineral soul, you probably would not know how to begin. Yet what is difficult to know, what we frequently take for granted, often is of great value.
Imbalance in the mineral soul can manifest as either extreme flexibility or extreme rigidity. We say that people "have no backbone" or are "spineless" if they are too easily swayed by influences around them. They find it hard to stick with anything or to hold a positionâ€”physically, mentally, or emotionally. One example of a lack of solid structure is the jellyfish. The boneless jellyfish is a highly successful life form that has survived and flourished for countless millennia. However, it is completely at the mercy of the tides. We would be violating our basic physical structure, which gives us the capacity for independent movement, if we behaved like the jellyfish.
The other extreme is someone who is "fossilized," calcified or unbending, rigid and unyielding, incapable of responding flexibly and appropriately to changes in the environment. Some people are "stiff-necked," too proud to bow their heads, while others are "thick-skulled," or unable to take in new information.
One definition of neurosis is to continue doing the same thing even though it does not work. Some people are so rigid that they cannot change to save their own lives. Some people know they are going to die of smoking but they canâ€™t stop.
The Vegetable Soul
The vegetable soul, the ruh nabati, is located in the liver and is related to the digestive system. It regulates growth and the assimilation of nutrients, functions we share with plants. This is a new function, evolutionarily speaking, as the mineral world has no need of nourishment. In other words, there is a soul in us that is like the soul that God also gave to plants.
When we were in the womb, we functioned mainly from the vegetable soul. We were rooted to our motherâ€™s uterus by the umbilical cord through which we took in nourishment. We developed and grew larger, and that was just about all that we did. Our functioning was essentially the same as that of plants.
There is tremendous intelligence within the vegetable soul. We generally overlook this intelligence because we place so much value on the abstract learning of the head. But no matter how many college degrees we might earn, we still donâ€™t know how to digest a peach or a piece of bread. We donâ€™t know how to make hair grow on our heads. These kinds of basic physical functions are all carried out through the age-old wisdom of the vegetable soul.
The Animal Soul
The animal soul, the ruh haywani, is located in the heart and is connected to the circulatory system. Animals have developed a four-chambered heart and a complex circulatory system that distributes blood throughout the organism. (In reptiles, the circulatory system is not yet fully developed, and the reptile heart has only three chambers. As a result, their capacity for movement is inhibited, and reptiles require warm weather to be fully active. The more developed mammalian circulatory system holds heat better, and this allows mammals to be more active in all climates.)
The animal soul includes our fears, angers, and passions. All organisms tend to move toward whatever is rewarding (passions) and to move away from (fears) or push away (angers) whatever is punishing, toxic, or painful. For years, behavioral psychology has concentrated on these fundamental responses to the world in studying the effects of reward and punishment.
As psychology has gotten more complex, we tend to forget the power and universality of the two basic instincts of attraction and repulsion. Even an amoeba will move away from a drop of acid placed on a microscope slide or move toward a drop of nutrient solution. If a single-celled organism has these responses, every cell in our bodies must have the same capacity.
These instincts are basic to self-preservation and species preservation, which first appear with the animal soul. In plants, the instincts to reproduce and survive are severely limited. They are built into the structure of the plants and are relatively rigid and unchanging.
The behavior of animals is far more flexible and responsive to the environment. The instinct for self-preservation moves us to avoid what is painful or dangerous. Plants may put forth seeds and orient to the sun, but there is no passion in the plant kingdom. Within the animal soul, passion is rooted in the reproductive instincts. In addition to sexual desire, it is the matrix of love and nurturing.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has devalued the body and the functions of the animal soul. Traditionally, it is considered unfortunate (if not outright sinful) to have a body, and it is even worse that this body of ours contains so many drives and instincts, fears, and passions. The drives of the body are considered antithetical to the development of the soul.
In the Sufi model of the seven souls, all souls have to be healthy for the individual to develop as a whole human being. We all have passions, fears, and appetites, and these are useful, functional parts of us. However, they should not dominate our lives. The animal soul needs to be in balance with the other souls, not in charge. When that balance is attained, a well-developed animal soul is an invaluable asset to our health and well-being.
The Personal Soul
The next facet of the total soul is the ruh nafsani. The personal soul is located in the brain and is related to the nervous system. Just as the development of the heart and circulatory system distinguishes the animal from the plant kingdom, the development of a complex nervous system distinguishes humans from animals. This highly developed nervous system brings the capacity for greater memory and for complex thinking and planning. The intelligence of the personal soul allows us to understand our environment far more deeply than the capacities of the mineral, vegetable, and animal souls.
It also allows us to respond more effectively to the world around us. We can plan ahead and create mental models of the possible effects of our actions. For example, in one classic psychology experiment, dogs were shown a bowl of food on the opposite side of a chain-link fence. If the fence was short, the dogs quickly and easily went around it to get to the food. As the fence got longer, the dogs had to go farther and farther away from their goal to get around the fence. When the fence section became quite long, the dogs remained rooted to the spot directly opposite the food and tried to dig under the fence.
That problem poses no difficulty for humans, including relatively young children. Because of their inability to form complex mental models, animals tend to seek immediate gratification and to be dominated by short-term motivations. The development of human intelligence has allowed us to plan far ahead and to function much more effectively in the world. As a result, humanity has become more and more powerful, dominating all other species.
The personal soul is also the location of the ego. We have both a positive and a negative ego. The positive ego organizes our intelligence and provides our sense of self. It can be a force for self-respect, responsibility, and integrity. On the other hand, the negative ego is a force for egotism, arrogance, and a sense of separation from others and God. The positive ego is a great ally on the spiritual path. It can provide a sense of inner stability during the ups and downs that inevitably occur on the spiritual path. The negative ego is an enemy. It distorts our perceptions and colors our relations to the world.
One of the major distinctions between the negative and positive egos is that the positive ego is our servant and the negative ego constantly tries to be our master. Like a donkey, the ego is meant to work for us, but all too often we seem to be carrying the ego on our backs and serving it.
The Human Soul
The ruh insani is located in the galb, the spiritual heart. The human soul is more refined than the personal soul. It is the place of compassion, faith, creativity. In one sense, the human soul includes the secret soul and the secret of secrets. It is the place of our spiritual values and experiences.
Creativity and compassion first occur at this soul level. The brain, which develops in the personal soul, is like a computer, involved mainly with storage and manipulation of data, but not with the creation of new information. Creativity happens in the heart. It is unfortunate that our educational system has become so focused on the development of intellect that little attention is given to the development of the heart, which is nourished by the arts and by worship, love, and service to others.
The heart intelligence of the human soul and the abstract intelligence of the personal soul complement each other. Thinking is concerned with impersonal, logical analysis. The heart adds compassion and faith. Combining the two leads to better judgment. The head knows what is most effective, while the heart knows what is right.
Intuitive intelligence functions without the conscious use of reason. This form of intelligence is nourished by faith in God or in the existence of a larger reality; awareness of the external world and inner awareness developed through self-observation, contemplation or meditation; and compassion and a resulting sense of attunement with nature, animals, and other people.
The Secret Soul
The ruh sirr is the part of us that remembers God. The secret soul, or inner consciousness, is located in the inner heart. This soul is the one that knows where it came from and where it is going. One Sufi teacher writes, "The inner consciousness is that which God keeps hidden, keeping watch over it Himself." Another comments, "The body is completely dark, and its lamp is the inner consciousness. If one has no inner consciousness, one is forever in darkness."
Before our souls incarnated, God said to them, "Am I your Lord?" and the souls said, "Indeed, truly." The soul that responded was the secret soul. The secret soul knew who it was then, and it still knows. For millennia, the secret souls lived in close proximity to God, bathed in the light of Godâ€™s presence. Only on incarnation into this material universe did we lose this sense of connection.
The Secret of Secrets
The sirr-ul-asrar includes that which is absolutely transcendent, beyond time and space. This is the original soul (ruh) that God breathed into Adam, that is, into humankind. It is at our core, the soul of the soul. It is the pure divine spark within us. For this reason, our image of what it is to be human needs to expand. We are not merely thinking animals, nor are we only our personalities. We are the divine encased in and intermeshed with the body and the personality. Our capacity for spiritual growth and understanding are virtually limitless.
The Sufi master Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani explains the relationship between the human soul, the secret soul, and the secret of secrets:
God Most High created the holy spirit as the most perfect creation in the first-created realm of the absolute going of His Essence, then He willed to send it to lower realms . . . to teach the holy spirit to seek . . . its previous closeness and intimacy with God. . . . On its way God sent it first to the realm of the Causal Mind. . . . As it passed through this realm it was given the clothing of divine light and was named the sultan-soul (secret of secrets). As it passed through the realm of angels . . . it received the name "moving soul" (secret soul). When it finally descended to this world of matter it was dressed in the clothing of . . . coarse matter in order to save this world, because the material world, if it had direct contact with the holy spirit, would burn to ashes. In relation to this world, it came to be known as life, the human soul.
Sheikh Muzaffer used to say, "Within you is that which completely transcends the entire universe." Each of us has within our hearts that spark of God that cannot be confined within us or contained within this world or the thousands of universes that make up the whole of physical creation. That is also us. We all need to remember who we really are.
Robert Frager is a professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California. He holds the PhD from Harvard University and has studied modern Japanese spirituality, Zen Buddhism, Yoga, Sufism, and mystical Christianity as a colleague of the Dominican theologian Matthew Fox. This article is extracted from his most recent book, Heart, Self, & Soul: A Sufi Approach to Growth, Balance, and Harmony (Quest Books, 1999).