You have a soul, you don’t have a soul… It’s the wrong premise, with all the wrong words in it, starting with “you” and “have” and “a.” Whatever soul is, I don’t think it’s personal, owned, or singular.

As a decent translation of the Pāli “anatta,” the absence of soul—or however we translate attā—is a characteristic of all conditioned things. This is because philosophically soul means “individual essential nature,” and has to be eternal and unchanging to make any sense as a concept. If an essential nature were changeable, how could it be truly the essence of a thing or being?

But in daily practice, we’re not philosophers, and don’t use the word that way. Soul is something you express, something you feel, something you know when you know it. I think in daily usage it means deep, heartfelt, connected with life, real. So of course we feel that sometimes, and it’s worth cultivating in order to feel it more. Soul is wholesome. The mistake the Buddha pointed to was appropriating the feeling of aliveness as personal, owned, and singular: me, mine, it. To think that the way we perceive things now somehow defines them, and the world, forever. So the phrase that accompanies insight in the suttas is “Everything that has a beginning has an end.” If something appears in your awareness, it will shortly change or vanish. If we know a thing’s history, we know that it wasn’t always the way it is now. No thing or entity behaves differently than this. All of the narratives both political and spiritual systems promise us are eternal truths are projections of temporary feelings and experiences onto the idea of the eternal.

There is a spiritual intuition of vastness, timelessness, boundlessness touched by meditators and mystics, and the experience is real and transformative, but it doesn’t need the concept “eternal” in order to be transformative. These are experiences of soul in the ordinary sense: profound depth and realness. There’s no need to project our insecurities about mortality onto the cosmos. Impermanence and selflessness are intertwined characteristics of all things, along with unsatisfactoriness, and it is the daily reminder of Dhamma practice to give attention to these markers of reality as they shimmer all around us. Especially when we notice ourselves wishing it were different.

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