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Take a moment to think about thinking. Where do thoughts come from? What are the basic elements of the things that you think? According to Swedenborg, the physical world and the spiritual world interact to form thought as we know it. During his spiritual journeys, he discovered where brain physiology meets the metaphysical. In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests go on a journey to explore this interaction.
[People who talk about thought] do not realize that our thoughts take place in substances that are intricately organized, just as our sight and hearing take place in their organs. They should look at the brain, and they would see a wealth of substances like this. Injure them and you go out of your mind; destroy them and you die. (Divine Providence §314:2)
The point here can be more accurately illustrated by the mutual interaction between soul and body. The soul and the body are two distinct things, yet they are reciprocally united. The soul acts on and in the body but not through it. Instead, the body acts on its own initiative on behalf of the soul. The soul does not act through the body in that the soul and the body do not consult and engage in decision making with each other. The soul does not command or request the body to do this or that, or say this or that with its mouth. The body does not call for or petition the soul to give it, or supply it with, something. Everything belonging to the soul belongs to the body, mutually and reciprocally. (True Christianity §154:6)
In order to try to understand what Swedenborg says about thought and its interaction with both soul and body, we have to go deep into his writings. Fortunately, our studio isn’t far from a great resource: the Swedenborg Library. Director Carol Traveny introduces us to the library, which hosts the largest collection of Swedenborg’s writings in the world.
Dr. Jonathan Rose introduces Spiritual Experiences, Swedenborg’s diary of things seen and heard in the spiritual world and the lessons he learned as a result. Swedenborg’s description in this book of how spirits interacted with his thoughts is the launching pad for this episode.
Curtis focuses on one particular passage from Spiritual Experiences (§2062) that describes how many communities in the spiritual world could influence a single thought. Chara Daum, a frequent contributor to the show, and Chelsea Odhner join Curtis and Jonathan to create a visual representation of how this influence works.
At this point in the episode, Curtis and his guests break down the images and ideas in this passage:
All and the least things are controlled by the Lord, [and] in every idea and feeling there are countless particulars. This morning I was shown plainly that there are countless particulars in every human idea and slightest feeling. In fact, if it is permitted to say something beyond human belief, the circumstance is similar to that of the universal world of spirits: I was having a certain feeling and resulting mental image, almost continuously over a period of time, and afterwards I was shown how many societies of spirits had contributed to the mental image resulting from that feeling, which some might regard as a simple, even most simple idea. (Spiritual Experiences §2062)
Swedenborg is saying that each thought has a huge number of components, like the atoms that make up a physical object. The components of each thought can come from many different spirits or groups of spirits—some of whom might not even be aware that they are doing so.
The societies of spirits nearest by who were contributing to it revealed themselves by actual conversation, claiming that they were the ones who wanted this thing, and were set on it, even explaining for what reason and for what purpose. They did so one after the other. And yet, out of so many thought images of these societies, arising from their desires, longings, and intentions, just one general thought or image came forth within me. How many there were in each society I was unable to learn, but four or five societies, if not more, revealed themselves by open conversation, openly declaring that they had caused it, and even telling for what purpose. (Spiritual Experiences §2062)
When Swedenborg asked spirits how or why they influenced his thoughts, some took credit while others didn’t even mean to share their feelings.
Not quite sure you got all of that? Curtis sums it up in a minute and a half, before digging into the contributing factors to individual thoughts.
Swedenborg’s next insight into the nature of thought comes from later in the same work. With another illustration, we discover how societies work to uncover spiritual secrets.
The panel digs into the confusion and tensions between these various societies. According to Swedenborg, you’re never alone in your thinking, because spirits are with you.
There are societies in the other life of all qualities whatsoever that could ever come into mankind’s thought or desires—into the thoughts, for example, when I was thinking about some matter that was not being uncovered, but hidden in the Word, concerning the ark of Noah. On this occasion there were societies (1) who were pondering nothing else but whether it should be uncovered, (2) whether it is the truth, (3) whether it can be divulged. (Spiritual Experiences §4154)
Here, Swedenborg is pondering the meaning of Noah’s ark, and his confusion connects him with spirits who were wondering the same thing—just as people in this world can spontaneously think or do the same thing. As Chelsea observes, “If you’re having a thought and you think you’re the only one who’s ever thought this, you’re wrong.”
Those constituted the greater part who were conjecturing whether it is, and whether it is so, who were very many societies, especially wondering whether it is so, then wandering off into countless details, or wandering only into irrelevancies, not entering into of what quality it is. There were very many societies of them that were dispersed for they hindered the seeing of what it is, getting stuck fast at every turn in this, whether it is, and whenever they were in this, whether so, they were still in whether it is and whether it is so; therefore they were wandering about like furies on the outermost skin. (Spiritual Experiences §4154)
Have you ever been caught in a mental loop where you keep agonizing over details and can’t make a decision? These societies are in that same spot—and their “stuckness” may sometimes contribute to our own inability to make decisions.
(4) There were many, many societies that conjecture egotistically, one thus, another thus, in long series. (5) There are societies that do not want the truth to be disclosed, some from indignation, that they cannot be the highest, some from unmercifulness, some from apathy, some from the desire that others should investigate the matter from their own effort, as they are doing from theirs. Again others [say] that one should persevere in the attempt, with no other purpose than that of trying, so that the person or spirit will lose hope, be displeased, become angry, and cast himself headlong into every error and insanity. I spoke with them, saying that such a purpose is diabolical, since nothing is guiding the attempts toward some use—besides many other comments about purpose, still others having different views. (Spiritual Experiences §4154)
These are spirits who try to actually block the thought or discovery process or lead you astray. Their goal is just to sabotage people who are trying to accomplish something good, and again, there are parallels to spiritual growth.
(6) But the good want to know the truth. They want to teach it, want it to be opened up to all. They desire nothing more than to share whatever they know, and to free others from temptation and the resulting evil. Thus there are innumerable societies. (Spiritual Experiences §4154)
In contrast, there are spirits that want knowledge to be opened up for everybody, sharing the good and blocking the evil.
Want the CliffsNotes version of this section? Curtis wraps it all up at the end.
I realized clearly, having spoken with spirits about the matter, and it was acknowledged, that a single mental image of falsity engages innumerable societies conspiring together, but all in diverse ways—some directly, some obliquely, some with an evil motive, some with a good motive, some out of malice, some from a good intention, some from ignorance—so that there are innumerable societies that compose a single mental image of falsity, such as those who make faith the essential above charity, or those who place merit in their piety, or in some other way, some in simplicity of heart, some with evil at heart. (Spiritual Experiences §4287)
In Swedenborg’s example, the nucleus is a falsity, but even falsity can have a speck of hope and truth and love.
A person’s opinion or assumed principle is like a nucleus. As long as one is captivated by it, all other things are like rays of various colors that complete the mental picture. This was vividly shown to me, and I spoke with those who had been engrossed in this, with others in that mental image, some in front a little toward the right, some above it at the back, all having different motives, but still conspiring together. This shows how harmful it is when man or spirit is immersed in falsity. (Spiritual Experiences §4287)
This part of the passage is about how a particular idea can keep you stuck in the same spiritual neighborhood. It’s worth the effort to make a change if our assumptions are holding us back. As Curtis puts it, “Don’t be too sure about anything.”
Waiting for the wrap up? Curtis ties it all together once again.
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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