THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 12, October, 1953
(Pages 556-560; Size: 14K)


[Article number (23) in this Q&A Department]

HOW can we get away from the past, in that the past determines the present and in so doing determines the future as well? It would seem to be a vicious circle. When can one best give a new impulse to a cycle?

(a) If the past is a conglomeration of blind forces uncaused by man and beyond his control, most certainly we are the helpless victims of a "vicious circle." And so both the determinists and the predestinarians would have it. It is evident, however, that the questioner doubts the full validity of such claims, for he adds: "When can one best give a new impulse to a cycle?" -- the implication being that man is capable of initiating impulses. That we are affected by causes set up in the past is both natural and indisputable. But whether or not we want to "get away" from what is vaguely and mysteriously called "the past" depends on the nature of the causes now bearing fruit. Thus the question is not, "Does the past rule us?" -- but, "Can we rule the past?" Though Theosophic tradition supports the premise that man is capable of molding his future, it is not to be supposed that he necessarily does. To the extent that he is moved by uncontrolled "instincts" and "basic drives," he represents the higher animal, with which orthodox psychology has been so concerned. Only to the extent that he is a conscious modifier of the thoughts which enter his brain and the actions to which habit moves him does man show a "higher intelligence."

Even though the force of well-established habits can be great, the very power of choice and will in "a new impulse" is an aspiration, and needs to become a cycle of aspiration. Thus the idea must first be formed and nurtured; with a clearer conception of the implications involved in a change, the auspicious occasions for emphasizing the new line of action will become apparent. In the final analysis, we are Karma. The more that we are self-conscious agents in this capacity, the less will the past hinder our future. Thus "karmaless" beings are those who are working with an unhindered, assisting past.

(b) The question assumes that things just happen with no conscious being as the cause of such happenings. But though our past thoughts and acts do determine what we are going to meet in the present, we need not let ourselves be carried so much by the tide that the past will also determine the future.

If we look at Karma as what we are making all the time instead of what we are receiving, we might more readily see how this vicious circle in which we seem to be involved can be broken and a new direction given. Every moment brings opportunity for a new and better impulse to a habit or trait of some kind. Each one must at some time or other feel an urge to do things a bit better than he usually does them. This moment, for him, is the moment of new impulse. This, for him, can be a rising cycle -- the promise of a "golden age" in the midst of a dark one. Of course, there are times when one may feel especially the surge of energy from all of nature, as at the New Year, but though at such times it may be easier to make a "good effort," the tide of energy will ebb unless our central source of strength is within. We must not wait, therefore, just for such times.

(c) Obviously, if we believe that the past determines the present and the future, then the past, for us, does determine the present and the future. However, if we propose as a corollary that it is our interpretation of the past that determines the present and the future, then we are granting man the power of "Free Choice," restricted only by his power to modify his environment. A behavioristic psychologist or a deterministic philosopher may point to certain stimuli in a person's environment, showing that definite, characteristic responses follow. But notice, if we grant man the power of free choice, these characteristic responses are nevertheless the results of choices the man himself has made, producing tendencies, as contrasted with some other possible response. The behaviorist and the determinist can only point to certain average "tendencies" in human behavior and not to determinism.

The position that man is able to interpret and modify his environment admittedly rests on the assumption that man has the power to choose. This cannot be "proved," but if man can not choose between two alternative courses of action, how is it possible for him to even take time to consider the alternative? A singularly characteristic ability of man is the "power" to hesitate.

If man cannot choose, why are his standards of morality continually changing? Perhaps changes in most societal standards of morality can be traced to definite occurrences in the history of that society. Certainly with the individual, however, the moral standards of that individual within a single lifetime are not constant, even when the mores are.

(d) It is true that the past determines the present, but present what? The events, yes, but not our present attitude toward the ever-shifting panorama passing in view. The ever-present continually gives birth to the past. No outside power in the universe can determine a person's choices in the present. And as Theosophy teaches that there is no outside force in the universe, that all is One, then man himself is That, the One Power to shape his own destiny.

With Theosophy, a man learns to observe the workings of his own nature, and if he notices defects, the cure can be applied to the cause. Events in our own lives can teach us about the past. That is, if we apply the ideas of reincarnation and Karma. And as things happen to us in the present, we can see something of the future. Actually, the effort should be made to be continually conscious of opportunities that occur every moment, not of how well our "cycle" is progressing. While many people desire to see immediate results, a true student knows that attachment to results will only bind him. Results may indeed come in the future, perhaps lives from now, but useless it is to worry and wonder when.

Why does the statement, "The mission of the Soul is work," strike a discordant note with us, and why has play come to be at odds with work?

(a) This problem seems to be a result of our own attitudes toward our duties. Sometimes we dislike effort, yet, in many cases, our jobs may be very interesting, pleasant, and a joy to spend our time at.

It might be noted that the dictionary defines play as "opposed to work." But is this the only way we can define work? Is it not, among other things, an exertion of physical and mental powers for the accomplishment of some object -- a form of progress? Possibly the difference between the two is the point that work is action with a purpose.

(b) The whole question of individuality and personality is involved in the statement. In what part of our nature does the "discord" inhere? The individuality, surely -- the permanent portion of our nature -- cannot look adversely upon its own mission. Perhaps we could paraphrase a statement from the Gita saying that what is work to the personality is play to the soul, and yet that what is play to the personality often makes work for the soul. That is, what needs to be done to fulfill the soul's mission is easy of fulfillment for the soul, for it enjoys doing what must be done. But what the personality delights in -- fulfillment of desires and passions -- is difficult for the soul to endure, if the ego thus sees vital time and energy being wasted.

Failing to see the value in all associations and experiences, one begins to live only according to his likes and dislikes; he considers what he likes "play." What he dislikes to do is "work." But once a person begins to really perform actions from the mind and soul plane, he begins to see the specific potential value in any particular action. As he acts on this basis he begins to gain a joy in his work that most people might consider to accompany play.

(c) Part of "growth of soul" would seem to be a learning to like work. If work cannot be eliminated from life or made the responsibility of a particular group of people (either is proven historically impossible), then the only solution is a change of attitude.

All of nature is continually working. The lower kingdoms have a duty to perform and its continual performance makes life on this earth possible. Animals enjoy a play which is always constructive, i.e., in furtherance of the purpose of life. It is said that the Masters also do not face the problem, for they find recreation in "work."

Man is the victim of his wants and needs because the awakening of self-consciousness has forced him to pick his own way through life, and though he does not see the reality in all things, yet anyone who is aware of a need to the extent that his will is moved has no great difficulty in putting aside his personal wants in favor of a larger necessity.

(d) Does the statement that "the mission of the Soul is work" strike a discordant note with everyone? Certainly there must be many to whom the statement is a challenge, a call that appeals directly to that nameless something that craves fulfillment, and which can only be satisfied by losing itself in work, the work of the Soul.

Is there something special which we set aside and label "soul work," apart from any other kind of work? We can no more separate the work of the soul from every thought or deed of ours than we can separate the Atlantic from all the drops of water that make it up. The work of the Soul would seem to be, then, the exact thing that is the reason why we are here -- to learn through experience so that we may reach "conscious godhood." To those who look with distaste upon the mention of work in connection with the Soul, and who would seek to avoid such work, we can only say to them "stop everything; go out of existence, for that is the only way such work is to be avoided."

Perhaps the "discordant-note" aspect of this question is due to a misunderstanding by most of us as to the meaning of work. We usually think of arduous effort, which nevertheless may be terminated periodically so that we may "rest," and play, and work again. But this is another phase of separateness, the "unforgivable" attitude.

How can one maintain a willing attitude towards others and at the same time avoid having people take advantage of him?

Each has his duties in life which to him are challenges and sacred lessons for the soul. Such become known to a man when he begins to see the Path and his own position in the procession upon that Path. The messengers, however, while leading each to study his own inner self, still left no doubt but that the fuel for the inner altar is to be gathered by each one for himself.

A willingness to help others, an unsuspecting, trusting attitude, can certainly at times be turned by others toward their own personal selfish ends. In this day and age, such a reaction is not unexpected. But what after all is the calamity in having others "take advantage" of our friendliness? Compare the Karma of one who only offers friendliness, and one who is offered friendship but abuses the offer.

Of course, many people mistake an easy-going, friendly attitude as a weakness, and if a firm but polite stand is never taken on a matter of principle, they may be encouraged to continue along this mistaken vein. Sometimes students of Theosophy feel that they must go through life without antagonizing people. But it must be that, inasmuch as some events in our lives are important steps in the soul's evolution, friction and difficulty will for a time ensue.

Does a friendly attitude necessarily imply being a person with no backbone? One can show others that he is perfectly willing to be helpful, but that he is not to be taken advantage of.

Most of us, it would seem, are too concerned with the "moral evolution" of others. We must try to remember that Karma is a good adjuster. Just as when we do something wrong we can be sure to feel the consequences, so it is with another. If he is trying to avoid responsibilities we can be sure Karma will soon place him in a situation where he cannot escape the assumption of his own responsibility.

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(November 1953)
[Article number (24) in this Q&A Department]

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