THEOSOPHY, Vol. 51, No. 12, October, 1963
(Pages 341-346; Size: 17K)


[Article number (12) in this Q&A Department]

There seems to be a new spirit in the air, a sense of urgency and apprehension, which has become prevalent only since the last world war. This new restlessness, considered in relation to the explosive world situation, makes evident how essential it is for Theosophical ideas to gain greater currency. It is therefore a bit disheartening to realize that while there are usually one or two newcomers at each Theosophical meeting, very few come back for study. Why do these ideas so often fail to "catch on"? Is there some element in the present world atmosphere for which we are not adequately providing?

Before it is possible to come to any decision concerning the adequacy of the usual presentation of Theosophical teachings, it would seem necessary to examine the nature of the "atmosphere" spoken of by the questioner. It is immediately apparent that this new air of seriousness has several aspects, not all of which are especially positive. There is, for instance, too much seriousness (almost grimness) in most people's search for amusement. In order to understand the state of mind which gives rise to this search, it is important to realize that the word "diversion," both etymologically and in reality, signifies a "turning away from." But from what? Certainly from the tedium of daily life, but is that a sufficient answer? What causes the tedium, the boredom?

The French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, speaks of a certain "ebbing of life's tide," a severing of "the nuptial bond between man and life," and ascribes this phenomenon in part to man's perverse interpretation of the ancient statement, eritis sicut dei: "you shall be as gods." The statement was not meant as an injunction to build huge, frightening cities or to send rockets into space; it was not, that is, an injunction to conquer nature but rather to become one of her creators. Further, it seems clear that this misinterpretation has been quite willful -- just man's timid reaction to his intuition that any serious attempt to make himself godlike entails not only a tremendous exertion of the will, but an enormous responsibility as well.

If all this is true, one may perhaps be allowed the mischievous suspicion that even some of the most respectable and complex of scientific enquiries smack of escapism; at any rate, most people's urgent pursuit of diversion certainly does. As Marcel so beautifully sums it up: "The ego is without any doubt faced with a dilemma: to fulfill itself or to escape. Where it does not attain fulfillment, it is only conscious of itself as of an unendurable gaping void from which it must seek protection at any price." This search for protection has in recent years extended far beyond the mere search for amusement; it has invaded almost every human enterprise. The blandness we see in the popular arts, the political crafts, the workings of corporations, the products of factories, the creations of modern architecture, etc., all represent one gigantic diversion -- a huge but flimsy contraption set up to distract our eyes, to keep us from having to face that horrendous yawning void, which is ourselves.

All these considerations may help us to understand a few of the elements which go to make up the general "atmosphere" of our times. It is at once obvious how greatly a knowledge of basic Theosophical concepts would help to relieve this present spiritual crisis. Aware of these concepts, men would be conscious, not of a void, but of a plenitude; they would see man, not as an aggregation of particles, but as an immortal pilgrim, eternally evolving. Therefore it is indeed somewhat disheartening to see how few working Theosophists there are in contrast to the number of people who have at one time or another come into contact with the Teachings. Some people, of course, consider it just a sophisticated form of "diversion" to make the rounds of lectures and exhibits, to increase their store of curious bits of information -- in short, to be "in the know." It is doubtful that such people are capable of understanding the real implications of Theosophy, since basically they do not want new understanding.

On the other hand, it does not seem very useful in this short space to discuss all the things we can do nothing about. Of course, it is partly the newcomer's own fault if he doesn't get the point of what is being said, but a far more important matter to consider at present is to what degree it may be our fault as well. The importance at this time of an honest self-examination cannot be exaggerated, since unless mankind is given some basic principles and is persuaded to turn toward life instead of away from it, our whole civilization is destined for insanity and destruction.

The notes which follow, of course, represent only one student's impressions, and should be considered simply as a jumping-off place for the reader's own thoughts:

First, there are some simple, almost mundane, matters which, if attended to, would help greatly to establish a rapport between the newcomer and the Teachings. For one thing, the newcomer probably assumes that the person giving a talk from the platform is an authority on Theosophy, in much the same way that a priest is an authority on church doctrine. Accordingly, if the talk is rather vague (and it is hard to avoid vagueness in the short time allotted the speaker), the newcomer is likely to think that Theosophy itself is vague, just a collection of unproved theories with little bearing on reality. It would seem essential, therefore, that the speaker should make it quite plain at every meeting that those who have platform assignments are only students, more or less progressed, and that anything said represents just the sketchiest outline of that immense body of knowledge for which the works of H. P. Blavatsky serve as an introduction.

Yet the reiteration of this fact would not constitute a justification for sloppy delivery; even if the newcomer intellectually accepts the speaker's status as humble student, it is difficult for him to avoid having an adverse emotional reaction if he is subjected to repeated mistakes in simple grammar, poorly-expressed ideas, etc. Most likely a person comes to a lecture with the vague hope of being inspired, of finding solutions to his deepest problems; yet he might feel reluctant to ask real questions if the person to whom he would address them appears even less informed than himself. We are speaking now only about appearances, true! but the sad fact is that people base most of their judgments upon appearances; and when it is really so unnecessary to give a poor impression, why not improve our English and our delivery and give a better one?

A subtler problem lies in the difference in mental rhythm between the Theosophist and the newcomer. The latter, who is probably thoroughly steeped in the worldly "atmosphere," is likely to be intellectual, skeptical, and impatient; the older students, on the other hand, are familiar with the basic postulates and know just how the meetings are run. There are some real potential dangers in this situation, one of which is that the older students, when speaking of what they consider self-evident truths, will make a general statement and then forget to back it up. Sometimes, for example, the subject of reincarnation is introduced in a parenthetical and most unconvincing manner; or else a term such as "Atlantis" or "Atma-Buddhi-Manas" is mentioned and not pursued. Such occurrences are likely to make the newcomer classify Theosophists as cultists. All statements need to be painstakingly supported, and even then they should not be labelled "proven," much less "self-evident." Dogmatism simply has no place in Theosophy.

Another danger -- also the result of carelessness -- is that the newcomer's question will be misunderstood by the lecturer. This happens fairly frequently, and seems to result in part from the fact that the questioner is speaking from the context of his own experiences, and is using his own terminology (i.e., non-Theosophical terminology). It therefore would seem essential that the lecturer listen closely in an effort to grasp the real intent behind the question, not in order to get involved in personalities and answer the questioner instead of the question, but simply in order to understand exactly what the question is. Furthermore, in giving an answer, it is important that the speaker attempt to create a bridge that would in some way bring the newcomer into a real contact with this living philosophy. Practically speaking, this would at least imply translating the teachings into the questioner's own terminology.

In relation to this matter of translation, it is important to sense the full quality of the modern "atmosphere," and to determine in what ways it is different from that of 1888, the year The Secret Doctrine was published; for it may be that some of the arguments of that time no longer need to be made. For example, it is sometimes disconcerting to a newcomer to hear attacks levelled against scientific and religious materialism, attacks which carry little weight since they apply primarily to nineteenth-century science and religion. And it is all the more disconcerting to him since he did not come with the slightest desire to hear attacks, applicable or otherwise, he came to learn about Theosophy.

The works of H.P.B. are obviously essential, but as has just been shown, it is possible to use them in a wrong way. There are other wrong ways as well, one of which brings us to the subject of originality. As an approach to this subject, we might consider the delivery of the Three Fundamentals, since they are given at almost every meeting. The familiar exposition of them (in S.D. I, 14-17) is extremely powerful and enlightening, to be sure; but is it not true that the constant repetition of the exact wording of some of H.P.B.'s phrases has, for most of the audience, greatly reduced the significance of those phrases by turning them into catchwords? What we need, it seems clear, is not a greater cleverness, or knack for thinking up ingenious applications; rather, we need to internalize the Fundamentals, assimilate them; for, once they are part of ourselves (or better, once we are part of them), we will naturally speak in our own voice, drawing examples and analogies from our own experiences. Then our words, even if they are not the best of words, will be alive and ring true.

In fact, doesn't everything at last depend upon how much and how consciously we are in love with this wonderful philosophy -- if love is the feeling of awe one has when confronting a pure essence, an essence independent of the words which clothed it when it was originally presented to us? And in the most practical terms, if Theosophists themselves do not seem enthusiastic about their own philosophy, how enthusiastic can we expect newcomers to be? This enthusiasm, of course, must be based on more than intellectual delight; if there is not an ardent love-affair between ourselves and this essence just spoken of, we are not likely to find the courage to be truly honest; that is to say, we will tend to be swayed by that "atmosphere" of escapism which dominates our civilization. There are disturbing evidences of such influence even now. Certain subjects never happen to get mentioned, it seems, or if they are, it is in a frustratingly general and antiseptic way. Young people especially can have difficulty attuning themselves to the philosophy if an important aspect of their lives (and one which may represent their only experience of human warmth in this loveless world) is referred to by the speaker in a forcedly off-hand manner, given a Sanskrit label and stuck into a list of "lower" principles (namely, number four). As a result, young people may get the impression that Theosophy has little to do with their own lives, true though it may be in its statements about the Universe.

Perhaps, then, a solution to the problem can be found as we strive to gain increasing intimacy with the spirit of the teachings, for out of that process will come the courage to be in all ways honest, and to recognize the simple fact that we are engaged in a battle. This is not just a metaphor, and we romanticize the nature of this battle only at our own risk. There is no romantic throb about it. In fact we may very well be losing it; for our foe is nothing other than this insidious, formless, ubiquitous "atmosphere," which has come in order to murder the heart of man. There is hope only if we change our lives, only if we recognize that as students of Theosophy we must prepare for the coming cycle, not just wait for it (although the term "student" may be somewhat misleading if applied to many of us, since it implies the act of studying). These words sound harsh, perhaps even rude. They were not meant to be, but were spoken out of the stark certainty that right now a great deal is at stake. Yet if they must be considered as rude, let them at least have the effect of a rude awakening.

Perhaps this is asking too much. After all, we're only human, aren't we? ... But there is no other way: we must change our lives, turn ourselves toward life, and, taking the position of the soul, radiate outwards from that effulgent centre. Only then will we overcome that man-made void which threatens to engulf us. Only then will the battle be won.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


If we make and keep ourselves ready and fit, we shall be used as occasion and fitness permit. We are dealing with minds, not persons. The Soul, being conformed to the mind, reacts upon the whole nature. If, as persons, we could all look at the world of ideas in that way, we would learn more, gain more discrimination, and be more useful to others. The right start is everything. If this is gained and held, then all that each one does carries him and others in the right direction. In this Work, natures are intensified, good and bad come to the surface. The "cleaning-up" process is gradual and each must do his own work of elimination where such work is seen to be needed. The barriers to help from Masters are in ourselves and nowhere else. We can only use our opportunities and knowledge to the best possible advantage and continue to do so, if we would not ourselves fall short of the requirement of "the Law of Laws -- Compassion absolute." 


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(November 1963)
[Article number (13) in this Q&A Department]

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