The Theosophist Dec 1967
Why occultists contradict one another
Once we have pursued theosophical studies beyond the scope of a particular book and, above all, beyond the range of the output of any one author, there are certain conclusions that we cannot evade or ought not to evade. One is that a good many statements made in this literature are in conflict with the findings of contemporary science. Another is that on certain matters of some apparent importance the writers contradict one another.
Classical examples of these conflicts and contradictions are the conflict between Madame Blavatsky and T. Subba Row on the classification of the higher "principles," the conflict between Madame Blavatsky and A.P. Sinnett on the place of Mars and Mercury in relation to the earth's scheme of evolution, the clashes between the physics of The Secret Doctrine and the physics of modern science, the absence of correlation between the "occult chemistry" of Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater and the atomic structure described by science, the apparent contradiction of C. W. Leadbeater by himself with regard to the dense physical or "etheric" nature of life on Mars, and so on.
Towards these and similar contradictions one finds certain attitudes being taken. Some people ignore them. Some make efforts to represent them as very much less emphatic than they are. Some try to develop sophisticated reconciliations. Some set up some standard of orthodoxy - such as the Mahatma letters, The Secret Doctrine or the teachings of contemporary science - and reject as heresy all that does not conform. Sometimes such rejections have been expressed in decidedly emotive and depreciative terms.
What is lacking in all these attitudes, that are taken towards the contradictions of occult literature, is a just appreciation of what Occultism seems to present us with the paradox that, if they do not to some extent contradict one another, occult writings cannot be true or at least cannot be truly occult. In fact it is right that there should be these contradictions.
The word "occult" has come to have a debased currency and is used nowadays to refer to that great variety of activities which Madame Blavatsky classified as "Witch-of-Endorism" - anything from the morbid excitements of black magic to the innocent joys of having one's afternoon cup. But originally the occult was that hidden aspect of life which is concealed from us by the fact that it belongs to an order of experience and a quality of living wholly different from those we conventionally and superficially know.
To enter upon the occult, what we have hitherto regarded as the self has to be abandoned. "True Occultism or Theosophy", said Madame Blavatsky, "is the Great Renunciation of Self, unconditionally and absolutely, in thought as in action".
What has hitherto given coherence and continuity to this personal self, which is abandoned in the achievement of the occultist, is mind. Personality, of course, has other ingredients - a physical organism, memory and a capacity for repetition, rather like the principle of the conservation of kinetic energy, and a variety of defensive and acquisitive reactions - but mind is the supreme factor.
In unconscious Nature, mind is universal and operates on and through organisms which are unconscious of it, providing their lives with a controlling pattern and, in effect, telling them what to do in the context of the whole. In most of us, who have emerged from unconscious Nature, mind has become personal, so that we thing of "my" mind. But in the occultist, mind is once again experienced as universal. In the ultimate achievement or fulfilment of the occultist, "He standeth now like a white pillar to the west, upon whose face the rising Sun of thought eternal poureth forth its first most glorious waves. His mind, like a becalmed and boundless ocean, spreadeth out in shoreless space".
That which had hitherto been fixated to or identified with a particular personal organism has now been consciously liberated into the whole. What had been "a mind" or "my mind" has once more become Mind.
It is the personally fixated mind - "my mind" or "your mind" - which is the "slayer of the Real". And it is this mind creates the predominantly dualistic assumptions upon which we base our values, our intellectual criteria, the very language that we speak. The operations of this mind are based upon dualistic attitudes such as either-or, accept-reject, for-against, yes-no, and so on. But the occult is a denial of these basic assumptions. It is another and basically non-dualistic order of experience in which mind is liberated from the tyranny of choice and self-defence. It cannot be expressed in the language which has been created over thousands of years by the intercommunication of personally fixated minds.
The experience of the true occultist is grounded in those states of consciousness which lie beyond the mind as we know it. An occult experience essentially involves the release of life or of consciousness from imprisonment in or identification with this personal organism and from the personal mind associated with it. But such an experience usually also leaves some kind of image in the mind; and, since the experience itself cannot be described or communicated, it is often the image that is described, the secondary aspect of the experience standing as a substitute for the primary.
Such an image reflects, on the one hand, the personal mind in which it creates itself and, on the other, the occult experience to which the individual had opened himself. The image may take the form of something that can be described in visual terms or it may take the formless form of some kind of concept. This image may point towards the truth which gave rise to it, but it is not itself that truth.
Robert Bowen recorded Madame Blavatsky as describing the experience of the occultist in the following terms:
"As one progresses .... One finds conceptions arising which though one is conscious of them one cannot express nor yet formulate into any sort of mental picture. As time goes on these conceptions will from into mental pictures. This is a time to be on guard and refuse to be deluded with the idea that the new-found and wonderful dull and unsatisfying, and finally fading our or being thrown away. This is another danger point, because for the moment one is left in a void without any conception to support one, and one may be tempted to revive the cast-off picture for want of a better to cling to. The true student will, however, work on unconcerned, and presently further formless gleams come, which again in time give rise to a larger and more beautiful picture than the last. But the learner will now know that no picture will ever represent the Truth. This last splendid picture will grow dull and fade like the others. And so the process goes on, until at last the mind and its pictures are transcended and the learner enters and dwells in the World of No-Form, but of which all forms are narrowed reflections".
The only reason why an occultist will attempt to communicate such images or pictures is that they may evoke a response in others in the forms of an intuition of that level of reality which the occultist himself had reached in the experience which gave rise to them. The purpose of this communication is not to convey information to the mind. As Madame Blavatsky told Bowen, with regard to the pictures and images embodied in The Secret Doctrine, "If one imagines that one is going to get a satisfactory picture of the constitution from its study. It is not meant to give any such final verdict on existence, but to lead towards the Truth".
That which the occultist tries to communicate is really incommunicable. He is trying to clothe in mind-stuff an experience of reality which is above or beyond mind level. He is trying to put into the idiom of a more limited order of experience something which belongs, at least in part, to a higher and wider order of experience. The language is not available, and the picture that is offered to others is inevitably incomplete, impressionistic and even quite misleading. It can happen to one person to discover that it would be possible for him to describe his experience in several different ways, each of which would seem verbally to contradict the others. This was a problem whose challenge and frustrations were keenly felt and often referred to by the Theosophical Society's late President, Dr. Arundale. How much more, then, are contradictions liable to occur between the accounts that two or more different people give of their experiences.
The dualistic rational mind insists that either this must be true or that must be true; but, in the case of experiences of the deeply occult, the point of reconciliation is above the level of that mind. And in these "existentialist" days, when the ideas of such a thinker as Kierkegaard are so widely acknowledged with respect, we ought not to find it strange or uncongenial to imagine that life or truth is not such that it can be brought within the scope of a rationally consistent system.
A difficulty which people feel with regard to accepting the presence of the suprarational factor in many occult writings and descriptions is that some of these descriptions seem to be concerned with matters lying entirely within the scope of ordinary rationality - descriptions, for example, of life at distant times and places. Such descriptions are factual, and surely the facts must be either true or not true. But it is never really as simple as that. In the process of obtaining such descriptions, an individual is understood to ascend, as it were, into a suprarational world and then come down into some part of the "rational" world perhaps remote from him in time, space or magnitude. Quite apart from the modifications that may take place on the journey there and back, what aspect or cross-section of that other scene, remote in time or space, will be brought back?
If we accept, even if only by way of hypothesis or of analogy, Madame Blavatsky 's assertion that the idea of a fourth dimension is "a sound intuition", then any three-dimensional scene or event would be, as it were, only a cross-section of a four-dimensional reality. We like to imagine that the scene or event that we see, and as we see it, must be the only real event, that our particular version of eating a meal or catching a train is the only authentic "this". But what of all the other cross-sections, each perhaps "this to some body else? And may not the clairvoyant sometimes pick up a cross-section unthinkably different from the one we believe in?
So in reading the writings of occultists we have always these two difficulties. First the experiences that are recorded are likely to have a suprarational element in them and are certainly likely to be very different from what we imagine them to be, even when they appear to be well within our critical scope. And secondly the occultist in attempting to communicate his experience will always be limited by the language available to him, by his own personal idiom and medium of expression and by the contents and limitations of his own mind.
The second difficulty extends to include the occultist's whole mode of expressing himself. It is difficult in many cases to make out how much of what has been written is a record of actual experience and how much the expression of mere opinion or received belief. This was Count Keyserling's objection to Rudolf Steiner. Writing in his Travel Diary of a Philosopher on the lucidity of Bishop Leadbeater's occult writings, Keyserling said, "He is the only one who observes more or less scientifically, the only one who describes in simple straightforward language. Furthermore he is in his ordinary intellect nor sufficiently gifted to invent what he claims to see, nor like Rudolf Steiner to elaborate it intellectually in such a way that it would be difficult to distinguish actual experience from accretions. "
This objection which Keyserling made to Steiner's writings is one that could be raised with regard to many others, certainly including Madame Blavatsky. In her case in particular it is very difficult to distinguish how much she knew from her own experience and how much she spoke from opinion or prejudice or hearsay. It would seem that one would need to consider the whole literary out put and life-work of an occultist, his whole life story, as constituting one qualitative expression of his total experience. There is surely a sense here in which one could apply the aphorism of Marshall McLuhan that "the medium is the message".
In occult studies we are concerned only in a secondary sense with information or facts or principles and our primary concern is to achieve an altered quality of consciousness by passing through the image presented to us by the occultist to the experience which gave rise to that image. We must regard his writings therefore primarily as a work of art from which we may gain inspiration and only secondarily, if at all, as a source of information. If we want to know about physics and chemistry or about the past history of mankind, we must go to science, history and archaeology expressed in our own accepted idiom. Occultism is neither an extension of science nor a substitute for it. It is an attempt to convey and to evoke experience.
"Science" means, of course, different things to different people. Recently an eminent physicist, Professor Hermann Bondi, declared in a popular television lecture in Britain that science is not concerned with "facts". This is probably the last thing that would have been admitted by most of those nineteenth century scientists whose sayings and writings were the subject of such frequent and indignant comment from Madame Blavatsky.
Indeed in a limited sense scientists today have in practice outpassed some of the limitations of the "either-or" operations of the mind. In the nineteenth century, if a theory was advanced, the inevitable reaction of scientists was to regard it as either true or not true. Today, however, a theory is not a conclusion; it is an instrument. One simply applies it to see what it will reveal, not primarily to find out if it is true. And scientists are quite prepared to proceed in this way with several conflicting theories at the same time, knowing quite well that none of them is likely in the end to record the whole truth about any research problem.
In the same way the student of occultism must be content to use the various occultism, the various theosophies, that are available to him, not demanding that they shall be consistent with one another or with the pronouncements of science. His purpose is to open himself to that Real whence all true occultisms or theosophies arise, not to form a fixed and constant opinion or system or opinions. Indeed he knows that if a group of occultists were all to be consistent with one another in what they said there would be something false or shallow about their teachings, since their point of convergence or reconciliation would then be under the low ceiling of the rational world and not in the world of the suprarational.
Although every occultist after his fashion asserts the reality of the suprarational, it is probable that only a touch of direct experience can give anybody a practical conviction that it is a factor that must be taken into consideration. Many, who study occult literature and would accept the reality of this factor in theory, sturdily ignore it as a source of illumination in any problem or seeming conflict of authority that they encounter.
But the Theosophical Society is founded upon the principle that experience may be communicated within it in an atmosphere of sympathy and eager fraternal interest, without any principle of heresy or any rule that such communications must be consistent with one another or with any body of received doctrine. So we are free to use any communication of occult experience made by any other member or lay aside any that we do not wish to use. Actual use is, of course, the purpose of it all, not the provision of talking points or the formulation of opinion.
More Hugh Shearman