Body, Mind, and Soul
Swedenborg describes a complex relationship between our body, mind, and soul—or, as he describes it, our inner spiritual self and our outer natural self. This relationship impacts everything about our spiritual growth and development both in our lives on earth and in the afterlife, starting at the moment we’re born.
In Western culture, we often think of our spiritual lives as defined by a decision to believe—and live according to—a specific religion or set of principles. For Swedenborg, a spiritual life is something that all conscious beings have as a birthright, simply by virtue of having been born into this universe.
From the time we’re born, we start to learn things about the world and have experiences. As children, we’re very self-centered and materially focused because we have to be in order to survive. But as our minds develop, we are presented with choices: we can break out of our self-centered shell and start to develop love and empathy for others, or we can remain focused on our own needs and never grow to be more than what we’ve been. If we do choose the way of loving others and acting for the greater good, then what we’re manifesting is divine love: we become a conduit for the type of love that God has for all of creation. This, Swedenborg says, is the source of our spiritual life, which is true life.
The Inner Self and the Outer Self
The difference between the outer self and the inner self in Swedenborg’s writings is what you might guess from reading the words. The outer self is the material part, the body and all of its impulses and cravings, but also the things that our body does: the way we speak and act and affect the world. The inner self, on the other hand, contains what we think of as the mind: it’s the part of us that thinks, intends, feels, learns facts, comes to conclusions, and decides what to do in a given situation. But the inner self is also our spiritual nature, the part of us that connects to the Divine—in short, our soul.
If everything works as it should, then the inner self becomes a vessel that gradually fills with divine love, which in turn allows us to put divine love into action in the world. However, just as a cup can be filled with all types of fluid, our soul can also be filled with either positive or negative spiritual impulses:
The Lord has foreseen and arranged matters in such a way that the more we derive our thoughts and intentions from heaven, the more our inner spiritual self opens and takes shape. This is an opening to heaven all the way to the Lord, and a taking shape in accord with the priorities of heaven. In direct contrast, the more we derive our thoughts and intentions not from heaven but from the world, the more our inner spiritual self closes and our outer self opens. This is an opening to the world and a taking shape in accord with the priorities of this world. (New Jerusalem §43)
If we continue to close the door on heaven, we open ourselves to the influence not only of the world, but of hell itself, which is inhabited by souls who are completely driven by hate and a desire for material pleasures. It’s not a one-time choice, though: our orientation can change throughout our lives as we consciously choose to act in either loving or hateful ways. Even after we die, we can continue to learn and grow and strive to become better people; it’s only after repeatedly and consciously making hateful choices, and refusing to change even when confronted with the consequences of our actions, that we become permanently mired in hell.
The Will and the Understanding
The inner self has two parts. Writing in Latin, Swedenborg called them voluntas and intellectus, typically translated into English as will and understanding, or sometimes volition and discernment.
These two parts of the mind correspond to the two fundamental aspects of God: love and wisdom, which Swedenborg describes as emanating from God the way that heat and light emanate from the sun. Just as love is an emotion that drives us, the will is the part of our mind that moves us to act, the part of us that intends for things to happen. The understanding is the part of our mind that thinks and comes to conclusions; if it is open to heavenly influences, then the conclusions that the understanding reaches are true and wise in that they reflect the way the universe actually works.
In spiritual growth, the will and the understanding work reciprocally. For example, if you know intellectually that you should be kind to people even when they’re rude to you, and you force yourself to act lovingly even when you’re angry, eventually you’ll find that your will “catches up” and the loving emotions come. On the other hand, if you truly want to grow but you don’t know how, your understanding can help you find ways to do it.
To read more about how the mind and soul relate to spiritual growth, see our page on regeneration.
For more on how the body, mind, and soul work together, check out our short videos “The Grand Spiral of the Mind” and “Getting the Inner and Outer Mind to Work Together.”
In our bookstore, Douglas Taylor’s The Hidden Levels of the Mind provides an excellent overview of how Swedenborg’s writings on the mind can be applied to spiritual growth.