from The Theosophist Jan 1963
Using our Theosophies
While the word Theosophy is sometimes used to indicate something that can never be expressed in words, some ultimate spontaneous wisdom that is universal and innate, inseparable from an ultimate Reality, it is also true that most people inside the Theosophical Society and many people outside it have their own Theosophies, little private collections of hypotheses, hopes and values, which they use to explain life to themselves.
In the Society a number of very impressive Theosophies have also been offered to us by past and present leaders of our movement. All of them have been splendidly comprehensive, offering principles which include and respond to a great range of our experiences. They have differed greatly in character according to the temperament and circumstances of those who have expounded of detail, but being fully in accord upon broad principles.
From these Theosophies that are available, most members of the Theosophical Society try to quarry Theosophies of their own, selecting teachings and ideas that seem important or congenial to them, leaving others largely aside. Some thus compile for themselves explanations of life and its problems which have great lucidity, great fluency and ingenuity.
Sometimes it has been and adverse criticism of members of the Society that they can be so volubly explanatory. To anyone with a deep distress or conflict, explanations inevitably make an unsympathetic impression. An explanation alone never goes to the heart of any human situation. Thus, for example, the young woman whose baby daughter was born a week after her Air Force husband had crashed in flames, and who then had thrust upon her a careful exposition of the doctrine of reincarnation, was revolted by it and never wanted to hear more about it. Apart from material aid, one can help a person in hard or tragic circumstances only according to the measure in which one would be capable oneself of facing and coping with a comparable tragedy in one's own life. Explanations are a secondary and often dispensable form of help.
There is, of course, in all of us a feeling of satisfaction in possessing an explanation of the things that happen to us. At the same time this has its dangers. For instance, in so far as we possess a satisfactory explanation of things, we have a half unconscious reluctance to let ourselves stray into fields of experience or into human situations to which our explanation does not seem quite comfortably or adequately to apply.
Moreover the thing that can be dealt with in terms of explanations and words is necessarily a thing objective and apart from ourselves. Although words are, at a certain level of experience, a means of communication, they can at another level be a means of denying communication, a means of keeping people and experiences at a distance from ourselves, a way of refusing to let ourselves be committed. So often one can escape the vital issue if one will only keep on talking!
An explanatory Theosophy, then, has this possibility of being used negatively as a defence against experience, a refusal to grow. And in saying this we are treading a narrow path; for it is possible also to tumble into another kind of negativity and talk ourselves to a standstill by busily explaining the inadequacy of explanations.
The real question is: Can an explanatory Theosophy, such as any simple student of modern Theosophical literature may build for himself, be used positively and creatively?
We have seen that a major effect of explanation is to separate one from the thing explained. I can describe some thing; therefore it is not I, it is something other then I. It is apart from me; I can look at it, mentally if not physically, and I can talk about it. The power to explain or describe is a power to know ourselves as separate from something.
In what field of experience or human need is it, then, useful and creative to know ourselves as separate from something? Surely it is in the field of our mental and emotional states, or unstable urges of various kinds, our prejudices and our greeds.
At first this seems simple and obvious. Most people who have Theosophies of their own have, for example, somewhere in those Theosophies a hypothetical explanation or description of such an emotional state as anger. They can perhaps say: "Now, look, anger is arising in me. But anger is only a vibration in my emotional nature. I am not that vibration. I am only a spectator, an onlooker."
This can be very useful. If a person can be sufficiently self-recollected to take such an attitude, he will find the observed emotional state losing much of its energy, and he will not perhaps make as big a fool of himself as he might otherwise have done.
But this is only a beginning, for nearly all our disturbed states have roots that go deeper still, roots of which we are unconscious. The conscientious Theosophist who applies to himself this method of self-observation generally finds that, although he gets results from it at first, he comes presently up against something that evades him, something that seems stubbornly irreducible.
This elusive frontier that sets itself to our endeavors at self-mastery consists of those urges and tendencies in us of whose very existence we are still unconscious. We have not yet even begun to imagine that they are not ourselves. When we thought that our pure and impersonal "I" was austerely acting as a silent watcher while we observed a condition in ourselves, those other unconscious urges were actually there too, forming part of that "I" which was not really pure or impersonal at all.
What resources does our descriptive Theosophy hold for us to help us in the further task of winnowing out these unconscious factors and enabling us to know ourselves apart from them? Obviously a mere stolid perusal of books will not help us, nor a grinding repetition of the explanations we already have.
A Theosophy must have more in it than mere verbal explanations. It must have its appeal to the heart, its imaginative or romantic aspect. However sound and steady it may seem to be structurally, it must have the resilience and elasticity of something that is organically alive. If it has this, it has also the power to cast a certain light beyond the frontier to which the explanatory intellect has so far plodded its pedestrian way. This light enables us to go ahead of our own mental vision. It casts a certain penumbral illumination across the frontier of the unconscious in us. We may call it, perhaps, the light of intuition. The unconscious bias in our mental and emotional natures leaves its imprint upon our conscious acts; and it is this factor of intuitive imagination which from time to time enables us to perceive and recognize that pattern and know its source in ourselves, rendering conscious and objective and observed something hitherto unconscious. In due course the explanatory mind will able to have some kind of external and objective evidence that the promptings of intuition were true and creative. But the intuition must first be followed and acted upon before that evidence can be seen.
It is only when this deeper self-discovery is begun, and we begin to separate ourselves not only from the overt disturbances in our natures but also from hitherto unconscious forms of bias, that the real path of occultism may be said to open.
In the Theosophical Society there seem to be distinct stages at which members find their Theosophy growing somewhat stale and dead for them. The first is when, having acquired a Theosophy of sorts, we use it only as an explanation of other people and do not turn it searchingly upon ourselves. The second is when, having turned the light of our descriptive Theosophy upon ourselves, we come to the end of its merely explanatory capacities, because we apply it only to aspects of ourselves which are to us overt and recognizable. If intuition carries us over this barrier, there are other stages still lying ahead where the richness and the call of far frontiers may again die away because we fail to let go of the form and trust to the life at various further levels of their manifestation.
It is quite right to begin with an explanatory Theosophy, to argue out the case for and against reincarnation and all the rest of it. But this is the beginning; and if we use the results of our study at each stage to open up the narrow is imperceptibly transformed into a living organism and then into a living power. And each stage of this transformation of our Theosophy and of ourselves has to be lived through and completed, with no depreciation of the early stages or false claim to achievement of the later ones.
When a great teacher was asked whether it was not false to imagine that we could use a method devised by the descriptive or argumentative mind to free ourselves from the limitations of that mind, he said that it was as if we used a stick to poke a fire, knowing that in the end the stick itself would be consumed by the fire. In this spirit, then, we may use our structural or descriptive Theosophies, knowing that they carry esoteric or mystical or subjective implications which can find fulfilment only when they stir up the kind of fire in us that will destroy not only those structures and descriptions in their present sense but will also destroy much that we now look upon as our very selves.
More Hugh Shearman