In Pursuit of the Soul: 
Examining the Catharsis from Life to After-life
M. Sue Benford, R.N., M.A.
History is replete with religious and scientific attempts to define the "elan vital" often held to be a light force defining the soul and/or spirit.  This unseen essence, impugned with mystical healing powers, led to the development of bioenergy healing techniques such as the ancient Chinese Qigong.  Recent experimental evidence may provide a glimpse into the characteristics of light energy involved with alternative healing therapies and, thus, serve to demystify and explain spiritual phenomena such as halos, auras, and incorruptible bodies.
     Who am I?  Where did I come from?  Where will I go after I die?  Will some part of me exist after my death? No greater or more profound questions have ever been posed by humankind.  Even so, neither science nor religion have offered definitive answers capable of assuaging the fears harbored by most of us at life's end. 
    From earliest recorded history, humans have tried to define the "élan vital," or vital energy of life, also known as "prana" by the Hindus, "chi" by the Chinese, and "ki" by the Japanese.  It is this source that is most often associated with the soul, spirit, and mind.  Egyptians believed energy centers produced an etheric force, termed "ka," that linked the physical body to the spiritual world while other cultures ranging from Native Americans to Polynesians to Far Eastern cultures envisioned similar biophysical-spiritual connections which extend human existence beyond the grave. 
A long standing tradition in paranormal and religious literature suggests the existence of an "etheric" or spiritual body invisible to the eye that disassociates temporarily from the body in special states of consciousness (as under anesthesia, hypnosis, meditation, near-death experiences and sleep) and disassociates completely at death.  This etheric body has thus far been hypothetical.
    Modern scientists have repeatedly sought evidence for the substance of spirit.  After Newton published his laws of mechanics, optics, and gravity, he spent many years looking for the living force via the use of alchemy. In the late nineteenth century, prominent physicists, William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, searched for what they called the "psychic force."  Their premise was that a connection existed between the spiritual, etheric forces and the recently discovered electromagnetic waves.  By 1905, electromagnetic signals were recognized as being carried by light packets, or photons, but were not scientifically connected to healing energies (Stenger, 1998).                
Although science initially faltered in establishing a link between light and the etheric force, religions did not.  Numerous prehistoric cave paintings, purportedly created by the first shamans, seemingly illustrate a "halo" around a person's head (Mazonowicz, 1974). The Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical teachings written about 500 BCE, calls these energies the "astral light."  Later, Christian paintings and sculptures show a halo around the head of Christ and other enlightened people.  Similarly, we see this halo on statues and paintings of Buddha, and also see light coming from the fingers of many of the gods of India. In fact, there are references made to the phenomenon of the human energy field or the aura of the body, in 97 different cultures, according to John White in his book Future Science.
    One finds numerous references to visions of light as the source of life in religious literature. One of the earliest written examples comes from the writings of 12th century visionary Hildegard von Bingen. She poignantly describes her visions of luminous objects, as well as other visionary experiences of light (Lerman, 1996).  Centuries later, Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote of death as a diminishing of light and slowing of the "wheels of Being," which could be said to correspond to the body's life energy vortexes, known as "chakras" in Hindu religion.*  Certainly light is cross-culturally held to be the essence of spirit or "God," as is reflected in language such as "divine light," the "light of the Holy Spirit" and "enlightenment." The Bible is full of light imagery**
The history of medicine likewise reflects an early awareness of a connection between light and healing effects.  Hippocrates described a "biofield of energy" that was a force flowing from people's hands.  In 500 BCE, Pythagoras extended this thought by announcing that the vital energy was a luminous body capable of producing physical healing.  In the 1100's, Liebault said that humans have an energy that can interact with someone else's energy, either at a distance or close by and in the 1800's, Mesmer, the father of modern hypnotism, suggested that a field similar to an electromagnetic field might exist around the human body (Alvino, 1996).  Even the Christian
*Be near me when my light is low, When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick and tingle; and the heart is sick, And all the wheels of Being slow..." Lord Alfred Tennyson, In the Valley of Cauteretz, 1847. **Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light." (Corinthians 1:11) "The Lord is the source of my light and my safety, so whom shall I fear?" (Psalm 26:1)
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