Opting Out and Opting In

Hugh Shearman

As the writer came down to breakfast one morning, his affable host said, "How is your lower quaternary this morning?"

In Theosophical literature we are given many descriptions of the invisible anatomy of humankind, how we function "inside" and how our psychological nature is structured. We are told that the really important aspect of our inner anatomy is above or beyond the mind which animates in such detail this outer personality. From time to time that supra-rational inner nature projects into this physical world a personality, which is thought of as consisting of four components and so is described as a quaternary.

Chief among these components of the personality is what we call the mind, which consists of a gathering of memories and images from the near or distant past. It is through the mind that consciousness is focused and so there is for each personality an identification of consciousness with personality. This gives rise to an obsessive conviction that each personality or quaternary is a "me". Who else or what else could one be?

This pattern of belief is imposed on all our personal thoughts, actions and relationships. It is almost impossible for us to think of any other state of affairs. All the past is felt to converge upon "me" and all the future to proceed from "me" of for "me". Past and future are seen, even though they are for the most part obviously nothing of the kind.

As well as being a quaternary of four components, the human personality has a four square quality in another sense. While consciousness is entrapped within it, focused through the separate personal mind, identified with this separate entity. It is the prisoner of a world of opposites which its own mode of thinking creates.

The basic pair of opposites consists of self and not-self, "me" and all the other objects, organisms and personalities which constitute environment. From this primary pair of opposites there arises a veritable forest of secondary opposites, failing into the two classes of, first, those which seem to favour, extend and perpetuate "me", and secondly, all that is anti "me", all that threatens, curtails or obliterates "me".

Whichever way we look in this four-square situation, everything seems to have its opposite. Joy is linked to sorrow, pleasure to pain, action to reaction. Our personal lives are spent in a perpetual struggle to grasp to ourselves what is pleasant and to counter what is unpleasant. We have our moments of success in this, but then some opposite thing always intervenes.

We see this in the restless world of politics. Oscar Wilde once wrote that "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the country at which humanity is always landing". Every political party represents itself as being a travel tickets for at least a part of the journey to that agreeable country; but Utopia tends to vanish or go wrong as soon as we land there, if we ever do. Even when a political party claims a total monopoly of the political travel industry, this disappointing outcome seems always to occur. And in our more private and personal pursuits of happiness the same result ensues. We are confronted by something opposite to our hopes and intentions.

Four is the number of imprisonment and restriction. We may remember the place where the Lady of Shalott was incarcerated in Tennyson's poem: "Four grey walls and four grey towers/ Overlook a space of flowers". Yes, there were flowers, but she was not allowed to look directly our of the window at the real world. Or we may recollect the lines in Keats's poem: "And there I shut her wild wild eyes with kisses four". Somebody asked Keats why the knight-at-arms did not give the lady "kisses score". Keats replied that we must have moderation in all things. But some prompting of instinct or of intuition makes us think of four as the number of enclosure.

This four square character of human experience comes to be deeply felt by thoughtful and sensitive people and arouses in them a profound sense of frustration. In 1956 Colin Wilson, then still a very young man, published his widely acclaimed book The Outsider. It was about many well-known people who had felt themselves to be to some extent aliens in this world and who were groping for some way of dealing with it or opting our of it. Some had tried to sketch out the problem in novels they wrote or in other art forms or in the philosophies they propounded. Some had ended in suicide or had done some other self-destructive thing. All shared something of the feeling of the person who said, "Stop the world, I want to get off". Or of that other person who said, "Included me out".

The secret and often unexpressed desire of the individual to opt out of the miseries, conflicts, contradictions and brutalities of this world becomes projected from private psychological life into public life. Psychologists can show us how transfers of patterns are made from inner feelings to community life, but they cannot tell us how we can effectively opt out.

The reason why we cannot find a way to opt out is that we bring to the problem of opting out the very kind of thought that has created the world we want to opt out of. The very notion of opting out is itself one of a pair of opposites, and the language we use to discuss it is created by dualistic thinking. So what answer to this deeply felt human problem can we elicit from somebody described as a Theosophist?

In theosophical literature there is another term which offsets or complements the lower quaternary. We are told a "higher triad". This name is derived from the idea of a further three components of our invisible anatomy at a supra-rational level; but, while a quaternary or square presents a symbol of confrontations, imprisonment and dualistic thinking, a triangle offers a symbol of the integration of opposites and the opening of a unitive awareness.

If we let the two points at the base of a triangle represent a pair of irreconcilable opposites, the apex of the triangle represents the integration of these opposites. There is a dissociation of consciousness from identification with either and a perception of them as essentially one. This is the symbolism of the pyramid, the church spire or the mountain top of mystical experience.

The triangle which may symbolize the resolution of a particular conflict of opposites is not necessarily an equilateral triangle. It could, for example, be a scalene triangle, leaning over to one side. And the apex of the triangle is not a compromise or a middle point. It is reached by a move into another dimension, above and beyond the plane upon which any pair of opposites may be thought of as existing in perpetual confrontation. This implies a dissolution of that kind of mind and thought which has hitherto caused consciousness to be focused into a dualistic perception of our world.

When we speak of "mind" we imply dualistic thinking and the mind that analyses, compares, chooses and allocates approval and disapproval, the mind whose Cartesian thinking has laid the foundations of modern science. That kind of thinking still has and probably always will have its uses at a certain level of existence; but even science is moving away from it a little, particularly in physics. That sort of thinking, when treated as a final and primary source of truth, and accompanied by the habits which it creates, destroys our capacity to respond psychologically to reality. It has had its function in human evolution, but that function has nearly completed its period of usefulness for some people and becomes something of an impediment to that which has to follow. It was not for nothing that H. G. Wells entitled his last despairing book Mind at the End of its Tether and that Madame Blavatsky recorded the truth that mind is the "slayer of the Real". For the Real is one and can never be accepted or accommodated by a mind that identifies itself with a separate part and sees all else only as related to that part.

The personal mind consists of its own contents, all organized round an image of separate selfhood and all rooted in the past. Liberation from the burden of the past is not the end product of any process, but there is a progressive factor in the wearing down of those barriers and proclivities and propensities which have accumulated in the past and are still, largely unconsciously, shaping our present personal selves, our attitudes and decisions.

The mind of dualistic thought cannot be stilled or discounted by any process of its own devising. It is only by "grace" that a pure consciousness, unconditioned by which this brings are profoundly destructive for nearly everything that we have built up and cherished, and the effects of its revelation are cataclysmic for the personal life we have hitherto lived. The newly discovered thing is not the opposite of anything and nothing can confront it as "other". There is nothing that we can opt out of. By losing ourselves, or rather losing what we had thought were ourselves, we opt in.

Glimpses of that free world come momentarily to some, and these are always moments of crisis. In the illuminating comments which have been sometimes printed with Light on the Path, a description is given of the experience of a person for whom this first glimpse has come. "A sense of blankness falls upon him which makes the world a waste and life a vain exertion - The oscillation between pleasure and pain ceases for perhaps an instant of time, but that is enough to have cut him loose from his fast moorings in the world of sensation. He has experienced, however briefly, the greater life, and he goes on with ordinary existence weighted by a sense of unreality, of blank, of horrid negation".

Only when the image of separative personal selfhood is dissolved can that first glimpse of a wider life be recognized as the dawn of a new freedom. In this, self is not obliterated, for every individuality has its place in the living economy of the whole and does not need to assert itself or fear a lack of recognition. With liberation there must surely come the capacity to grasp and use "that power ... which shall make him appear as nothing in the eyes of men".

Dr. Shearman, a member of the General Council, is the author of The Passionate Necessity , Modern Theosophy. etc.
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None, God included, can destroy himself because of the antinomy involved in the notion of acting upon oneself.

Sankara on Bhagavadgita 2.17