from The Theosophist Sept 1969

The Unreality of Ideas

Hugh Shearman

It becomes necessary from time to time to question habits of thought which have long been assumed to be basic and unquestionable. This has been happening in the world of philosophical studies during recent decades. Metaphysics, for example, is almost entirely our of court now. One might say that it is out of fashion, but it is something much deeper than fashion. We have come to see that statements of a universal nature cannot be treated and talked about as if they were material objects or "things" and that, if there is a transcendent reality, it cannot be used as a premise in the sort of syllogistic argument which we might validly pursue about things that are not transcendent.

Since this change has taken place in the climate of thought, we cannot ignore it in the Theosophical Society. It may often be convenient to go on using the old expressions, the old forms of worlds, but we need to come awake to what we are doing and saying. We cannot effectively address ourselves to the twentieth century if we go on using not only the language of the nineteenth century but also the values and assumptions associated with that language.

A glance through a fairly typical issue of the regularly published journal of one of the larger national sections of the Theosophical Society provides quite a number of statements and expressions which raise these questions of meaning. Thus it is said that in the Theosophical Society "we are concerned with principles and not with personalities". Is this really true? Can we, for example, be concerned with brotherhood and not with brothers? Is there brotherhood apart from brothers?

Again, there is a reference to "the ideas of the Adepts". Is it really true to assume that, if somebody is an Adept, he will have what we call ideas or will be an exponent of ideas?

Or we come on the words" Theosophical ideas". In such a connection, ideas probably mean to us images of the truth. And if Theosophy or Theosophist are concerned with truth, surely our business is not with the accumulation or diffusion of ideas but rather with the dissipation of ideas so that truth itself may be known.

Of course it may be said that if we first give people ideas about truth they will presently find their way through those ideas to the actual truth. But is that really how human nature works, and do people often find their way to truth through ideas?

Then we read of people having "a lively exchange of ideas". When one is present at the sort of occasion that is referred to in this way, one often realizes that very little is exchanged. One sees a group of people taking part in a discussion. Each of those people is enclosed in a structure of ideas, images, opinions, conclusions, value judgments and so on. Peeping our furtively from inside these structures, they each try to maintain their own structure as intact as possible but try to make dints in the structures of other people. To be fair, if there is real goodwill, people are sometimes lifted a little a little our of their structures and are temporarily united in partially forgetting those structures. But in a few hours' time, if not sooner, they are back inside them again.

The things that we call ideas, even when we are referring to them in quite a favorable sense, are instruments of defence enclosure and evasion. They are images of truth which are used as substitutes for and defences against truth itself. To say this is not to condemn them, still less to be free of them oneself. They are part of Nature, part of life, and are there for a purpose. They are an index of the incompleteness of our own reality; and if we examine them in that light they can tell us quite a lot about ourselves.

It is a pity if we make our own unreality still more unreal by regarding our idea as something other than they are, imagining that they are goals of attainment, final regards of commendable endeavor. They are heavy luggage. Sometimes one is, as it were psychically aware of this in other people. Unhappy individuals walk along the streets of opinions and ideas, as if they were walking inside their own coffins. They would certainly be happier without these structures. That is the happiness which our nostalgic eye sees in childhood. And in our lucid moments we become aware of similar structures hung around our own personalities, closing us in with an almost physical presence, waiting till we develop the courage to claim our freedom.

Sometimes it is believed that it is somehow more meritorious to utter large rhetorical generalized statements, to speak of freedom, honor, beauty and so for the, than to be concerned with mere "things". Some are prepared to imagine that to become rhetorical or metaphysical in this way is somehow to use the "higher " mind. An experience of higher consciousness beyond personality, a glimpse, for example, of what in Theosophical literature is sometimes called causal consciousness, will at once dissipate this notion that generalized statements emanate from a part of our natures that is much "higher" than the factual material mind. What we are seeing in such a case is only the "lower" mind making images of qualities which it attributes to a higher order of experience and treating them discursively as if they were "things".

After all, thee is no such "thing" as truth, beauty or goodness or any of those other generalities in which rhetoric delights. They have no existential reality. Like the term brotherhood, each may be a valid classification of certain kinds of particulars which have been observed by individuals, but they have no validity when largely or completely dissociated from particulars. And when such terms are used there is often far more dissociation than people like to admit.

On the emotional side of life there is an activity which we call sentimentality. In sentimentality, emotional activity goes along more or less parallel to real human situations without achieving actual contact with them or any effective commitment or involvement in them. Similarly there is a kind of sentimentality of the mind in which large generalized statements are made without achieving any practical or effective contact with actual situations.

There is another sense in which, for some, "ideas" have seemed to have a great reality. Dr. Arundale, when he was President of the Theosophical Society, used to like to quote the lines from Rupert Brooke:

There the Eternals are and there
The Good, the Lovely and the True,
And Types, whose earthly copies were
The foolish broken things we knew;
There is the Face whose ghosts we are'
The real, the never-setting Star;
And the Flower, of which we love
Faint and fading shadows here;
Never a tear, but only Grief;
Dance, but not the limbs that moves;
Songs in Song shall disappear;
Instead of lovers, Love shall be;
For hearts, Immutability;
And there, on the Ideal Reef;
Thunders the Everlasting Sea!

This is an expression of a great and ancient tradition. What Brook was referring to was much the same as Plato's archetypes, universals which are embodied in every particular. But if we live in a world of particular and speaks its language, it is only through the particulars that we can know any other world.

It may be noted in passing that the mysteries have always taken as their starting point, not a universal or an idea, but a particular, a "thing". In the Christian mysteries, for example, we are concerned with body a blood, bread and wine, not with some hypothetical generalized quality or idea such as love or life. When some members of the Theosophical Society have at times tried to devise ceremonial procedures based on ideas rather than on things, the results has not been very effective. However it may develop into ideas, a mystery had to begin with a thing.

In the larger sense of the word "idea", there is what may be called a yoga of ideas. When we look at it more closely, however, jnana yoga is not so much a yoga of ideas as a yoga of the dissipation or dispersal of ideas. What the practitioner of this kind of yoga may be said to do is to keep tidying up and amalgamating small concepts and ideas into larger and more comprehensive ones. In the end he will have created one vast concept or idea which contains the whole universe. He then achieves Samadhi by dropping that idea, so that nothing remains but the real.

It has been said that a true philosophy is one which gives such an account of life and the universe that, if it were true, everything would be exactly the way it is. Presumably when one achieves such a philosophy one can then abandon it, since one would no longer need it for any purpose.

What picture, what "idea", does "book" Theosophy give of the philosophical and psychological problems that we have here been reviewing?

Mind, we are told, is universal. Indeed we can see it operating all through Nature, giving to all organisms and to all the structures of matter their wonderful functions and patterns. It is this diffusion of mind through all things which provided the basis for "natural theology", by which people have tried to infer the reality of God through a study of the works of His hands.

We humans, however, have separated ourselves from Nature. In doing so we have each appropriated to ourselves a portions, as it were, of that mind, we think of "my" mind and "your" mind and "his" mind and so on. This segregation is functional. It fulfils a purpose in the scheme of things. It is a means by which a creative consciousness is brought to birth in levels of Nature where mind could otherwise operate only unconsciously and to a pattern. In all Nature there is an "unconscious" which is an undeveloped "conscious", and it is through the human mind that the transformation of this vast potential takes place.

Once the separate human individual is established, with what he believes to be "his" mind, fulfilment for him lies in the direction of opening our that mind till once again it is one with universal mind, mind without frontiers or segregation. In The Voice of the Silence there is a description of one who has completed the course of human experience, a true Adept in living; and it is said that "his mind like a becalmed and boundless ocean spreadeth out in shoreless space. " Such a one does not need to entertain "ideas", exercise choices, convert others to opinions. For him the knower, knowledge and the known are one, as Patanjali explains (I, 41).

But we in whom mind is still only a segregated fragment, dominated by the illusion of our separateness, can form no true image of that higher order of consciousness. All ideas of wholeness which we form with minds which we imagine to be "ours" are necessarily more or less untrue, for we treat as a "thing" that which is no "thing" and regard as object that which, in our sense of those terms, is neither subject nor object.

If for us they are poetically evocative, those images of a higher order of consciousness can have their value. But they cannot be finalities. It cannot be demanded that they should be consistent with another. And they cannot be upheld as definitive and authoritative statements of "truth" or used as foundations upon which systems of thought or belief may be built.

The language which we use is the product of our existing limitations of mind and it cannot effectively be used to describe an order of experience which outpasses those limitations. All statements imply their own values and are relative to the circumstances of their origins. All words carry a mass of conscious and unconscious background assumptions.

It is probable where Theosophical literature is most concerned with universal principles, as it was particularly in the last century and in the days of the Founders, that we are most likely to misunderstand it. Safety lies in dealing with "things" and with that which existentially is. It is things that are the beginning of the road to true fulfilment, and not some image of what fulfilment is going to be like when we arrive there.

In some poetic sense these images - which form a substantial part of Theosophical literature - may be helpfully indicative but, if they are cherished and made into an authority, they become a device by which we try to prevent life from having its way with us,, and thus we prolong our pain by remaining "unredeemed". Seemingly secure in our castle of ideas, conclusions and "teaching", we can too easily turn our backs on life's readiness to welcome us back into itself.

We cannot instantly waft ourselves our of the world of ideas, but , if we can become increasingly aware of their unsubstantial nature and, if not of their unreality, at least of the very relative and qualified nature of their reality, we become more and more open to what really is, and interpose fewer and fewer opacities between mind and reality.


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