Many years ago, I spent a few autumn weeks in a log cabin near the shore of Lake Tahoe, in northeastern California. The lake was pristine, tranquil, and quite perfect for meditation and pondering the mysteries of life. The dark blue hues in the middle of the lake contrasted with shades of emerald and turquoise along the shore and in the various coves which dotted the shoreline.
Massive pine trees and groves of golden-leaved aspens surrounded the lake, and majestic snow-covered mountains loomed in the background. Immersed in such a beautiful environment, I spent many hours gazing out the window at this awesome natural wonderland.
After a while, I noticed that sometimes the lake was glassy smooth, but at other times, it had little waves and white water. Likewise, sometimes the trees stood still, but at other times they swayed. When the lake was smooth, the trees stood still, but when the lake was wavy, the trees tended to sway. Similarly, the larger the waves tended to be, the more furious the swaying of the trees became. Both, of course, were being affected by the wind.
What is interesting about wind is that, although invisible, it can be perceived by the behavior and characteristics of other objects. Electricity is another example of this phenomenon. We can’t see it, but when we flick on a light switch, we know electricity is present because the bulb illuminates. And if we know our light bulb is good and everything has been wired properly, but the bulb doesn’t turn on, then we know that electricity is not present.
From these examples, we can understand that something may exist even though it is not directly perceivable to our senses. We make specific observations, then come to a general conclusion. For instance, when the lake is wavy, and the trees are swaying, we can logically conclude that wind currently exists. The scientific community calls this process of reasoning inductive inference.
Scientists use inductive inference to formulate many of their theories. After some time, if the theories have not been disproven, they begin to be taught in our schools, and accepted in society as ‘truth.’ For instance, protons, electrons and neutrons are imperceptible to our senses, yet the atomic theory is widely accepted as fact. Similarly, gravity is also accepted as real, but no one has every seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or heard it. Furthermore, archeologists believe that intelligent human beings lived thousands of years ago even though they’ve never seen such a person.
In all the examples above, the object itself is imperceptible to our senses, but it’s existence can be logically inferred through observable symptoms. We conclude that atoms exist by the electrical charges which are produced. We intuitively know that gravity exists by observing the behavior of objects placed in unobstructed space. And, we surmise that human beings lived thousands of years ago from various bones and artifacts which have been found.
In the same manner, we can use logical inference to conclude that we are not these physical bodies, but are, instead, an element of life temporarily inhabiting a material body.
When comparing the differences between a dead body and a living body, the first thing we may notice is that a dead body is completely void of consciousness, whereas a living body is always conscious, to one degree or another. A living human body walks, talks, breaths, eats, sleeps, defecates, urinates, reproduces, and so forth, whereas a corpse does none of these things. Instead, it stiffens up, begins to smell, rots, and decomposes. In fact, the differences between a living body and a dead body are so numerous that even a young child instinctively recognizes them. But, from a material point of view, both bodies contain the same elements. So, what makes them so distinct? What does a living body have which is missing in a dead body?
The obvious answer is that the living body contains the element life. The life element goes by many names—spirit, soul, life force, atma, chi, etc. It is imperceptible to our senses, but easily recognized by logical inference. The ancient Vedic literature known as the Mundaka Upanisad tells us that the life force is situated in the heart and spreads its influence all over the body in the form of consciousness. On the other hand, a dead body is no longer inhabited, or influenced, by the life force element.
For purposes of further discussion, we’ll call a live body ‘Matter influenced by the element life,’ and a dead body ‘Matter by itself.’ But we can’t limit the discussion to live bodies and dead bodies. Everything that exists in this world falls into one of these two categories.
The distinctions between live and dead bodies is easy to determine, but there are many situations where the difference between matter by itself and matter under the influence of life is not so obvious. Luckily, modern science has done the research for us. There are eight major differences that we can examine in detail.
So, let’s begin with the basics. We know that life is imperceptible to our five senses. But life can be perceived by logical inference. The chart below summarizes these differences.
Matter Influenced By the Element Life
- Characterized by metabolism.
- Maintained in a thermodynamically unstable state
- Grows from within by an intricate construction process involving extensive chemical change.
- Displays a highly organized and sophisticated flow of matter.
- Capable of reproduction.
- Strives to adapt to changing situations and actively resists obstacles.
- Exhibits self-induced movement
- Characterized by complex molecular, cellular, and bodily arrangements that have specific form, function, and complex organizational interaction.
Matter By Itself
- No metabolism.
- Predominantly characterized by thermodynamically stable forms.
- Growth occurs only by external accumulation involving no change, or only very simple changes, in chemical construction.
- Displays a simple and unsophisticated flow of matter.
- Incapable of reproduction.
- Characterized by passive resistance to changes or obstacles.
- Moves only when influenced by an external agent or by natural forces.
- Characterized by molecular arrangements that are either lacking in specific form and function, or are very simple with very little interaction.
(Chart copied from “Who Are You: Discovering Your Real Identity,” Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa, Pg. 131)
In my next blog, we’ll examine these differences in greater detail. But, for now, I’d like to conclude by stating that the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us makes a tremendous difference. If we are a chance combination of molecules, gas, and chemicals, is there really any meaning or purpose to our existence? There would be no reason to be respectful or kind to others, no reason to be responsible for or to protect the environment, no reason to be thoughtful, forgiving, or caring.
If we are just a combination of chemicals and we cease to exist when the body ceases, then selfish, hedonistic, self-gratification makes all the sense in the world. If, however, we are not these bodies made up of matter, but an invisible, unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying, primeval living force (as described in the yoga scriptures), with meaning and purpose to our lives, then we have good reason to cultivate a lifestyle which is nourishing to ourselves, our neighbors, and the environment in which we live.