June 2015 Newsletter
The following articles are reproduced from the June 2015 Newsletter to members. Non-members may or may not be able to relate to the contents.
Inspired Living: the Basis for Understanding
International President, Theosophical Society
In recent years I have done a fair amount of travel. Because my travel has been primarily for the TS, it has given me the opportunity to meet and share with people who are attracted to a process of conscious unfoldment. The focus has not been to close a deal, make a sale, or persuade someone to think or act a certain way. It has been to explore things of meaning and address some of life’s problems.
A fascinating insight for me has been that the problems faced by those engaged in a spiritual path and the problems faced by those who have no concept or idea about spirituality are the same. Everyone is trying to find ways to deal with the basics of food and shelter; everyone is concerned with the countless changes they face each day, from weather to finances to the changes in the body that come with growth or aging. At some point everyone has to come to grips with death and dying; and everyone is looking for love — to receive it, to give it, and to understand it.
What is different for the spiritual seeker? The difference is not in the problems themselves, but in the attitude of mind in approaching them. In normal living we try to fix problems or overcome them. In some sense we behave as though they were our adversary. For those in whom some sense of a deeper possibility is dawning, the goal is not to conquer, but to understand — to arrive at that depth of vision that sees the pattern embracing all in a greater life.
There is an aphorism in conventional wisdom that tells us ‘knowledge is power’. It is a statement that has a certain appeal because it seems to accord with our daily experience and common sense. Every time we learn a new skill, or apply some new piece of information we influence our environment for better or worse. If your car is broken, you can read a manual and fix it. If your body has problems, you can read, or talk to a doctor and learn about a medication or exercise. If your mind is uneasy, you can gain some knowledge about a breathing or relaxation technique. At these levels ordinary knowledge is effective. When we begin to ask deeper questions such as ‘how do I experience Oneness, or peace, or even happiness?’ something more is needed. As our focus shifts to deeper levels of being, conventional knowledge is ineffective.
In normal speech the term knowledge can mean a variety of things — from the address of the neighbourhood grocery store, to the data from a physics experiment, to a description of the astral body. Although different in content and quality, the process for gaining knowledge is the same. The organs of sensation convey impressions to the inner man. In the view of contemporary science the nervous system reports to the brain. In the ageless wisdom tradition, which acknowledges the primacy of consciousness, the process has a greater range. The Jnānendriya-s (organs of knowledge) transfer our perceptions to ever deeper layers of our being. What begins as a physical impression becomes a sensation, then a feeling, then combines with thought. The distinguishing characteristic of information is that no matter what the subject, information does not transform. It is at best a mental phenomenon.
For those who are consciously engaged in a process of self-transformation there is a hierarchy of perception in which normal knowledge is the first step. The unfoldment of consciousness moves from knowledge, to understanding, to wisdom. Knowledge is the builder. It gives structure and is a function of mind. Understanding gives meaning to the structures that the mind builds and is a function of buddhi, the spiritual intuition. Wisdom is like space, which contains all things, defines all things, but cannot be identified by any or all of it. It is the nature of reality. In Krishna’s words, ‘Having pervaded this universe with a fragment of myself, I remain’. We experience wisdom as the perception of reality. The prayer of many is ‘From the unreal lead me to the Real.’
The present need for most of us is to move beyond the information gathering tendencies of mind to the deeper function of a mind illumined by buddhi. Only this mind reflects the spaciousness, creativity, understanding, freedom, and compassion that characterize an inspired life. Information gives structure and is a mental process. Understanding is a function of the spiritual intuition, buddhi.
In the world of western classical music the Stradivarius violin is considered a name that stands above all others. What makes this instrument so special? Careful analysis has shown that the materials used in making the violin were of the highest quality. The masterful combination of those materials by the Stradivarius family created an instrument that produces the finest sound. However, even a Stradivarius cannot make music unless it is carefully tuned. Once tuned it is still useless until it is placed in the hands of a genuine musician. The development, tuning, and highest use of our vehicles, particularly our mind, is like this. The materials are like knowledge. In order to create a useable instrument they must be of the highest quality, but materials (information) alone are not enough. They must be combined into structures capable of producing a pure sound. The conceptual structures of the theosophical teachings fulfill this function. However, even this does not suffice. The instrument must be tuned and then placed into the hands of the musician. The disciplines of profound study and meditation are the way our minds are tuned, but it is only then that the spiritual intuition can make its presence known. The building and tuning is a mental process. The playing is the function of Buddhi. Having done the disciplined work of preparing the mind, we have done all that is personally possible for us to do. The next, and sometimes most difficult step, is to let go of personal effort and allow the Higher Self to play through us. This is the work of a lifetime.
Part of the purpose of the many spiritual disciplines of the world is to foster the experience of this descent of the Higher Self. Depending on the tradition this experience is named differently. The close association of this experience with the teachings and practices of the various religions and spiritual traditions give the impression that it is something only available to the profound devotee, or spiritual professional. The fact is that everyone, without exception, has some familiarity with this state of being. Who has not had the experience of watching the sunset on some particular day and feeling overwhelmed by a sense of beauty, serenity, power? Or, the experience of losing all awareness of oneself in watching the spontaneous joy of children at play, or birds in flight. At these times our normal process of analysis and examination is momentarily suspended. After the fact we find ourselves describing these moments as times when we were happy, peaceful, joyous, or content, but these are after thoughts. The precipitating factor for this experience is that for a moment we find release from our normal preoccupation with ourselves. We are temporarily relieved from the endless fascination with our problems, our numerous wants, our likes and dislikes. In that moment the light of buddhi has an opportunity to shine on to a mind that has briefly become like a calm lake, unruffled by the constant waves of self focused thinking. Even though the experience is fleeting, in that brief moment we understand. We understand what is peace and what it means to be genuinely happy. We sense the presence of an all embracing, omnipresent love. At some time in life something like this occurs for everyone. Often the desire to reproduce this experience is the reason for involvement in a spiritual path.
For many the desire to repeat this momentary experience of selflessness becomes a driving concern. Spiritual traditions around the world call for devotees to make pilgrimages that duplicate the journeys of their founders. Devotees are encouraged to wear certain clothing, perform rituals, go to special places, speak certain words with the hope and intention that in doing it they will experience what the great teacher experienced. Even outside of religious traditions we behave in a similar way. The problem for us is that these experiences are not the result of any outer conditions, and cannot be induced by following a formula.
A woman once told me a story of a vision she had of hell and heaven. In the vision of hell she was shown a table piled high with food. Every imaginable delicacy was on the table — only the finest food. There were people sitting around the table. The odd feature of the people was that they had very long arms that were unbending. When they would pick up the food they could not bring it to their mouths. With no elbow to bend, try as they might they could not feed themselves. So, in hell, even in the presence of the most exquisite and nourishing food, the people were starving, angry, and desperate.
Then she was shown a vision of heaven. In heaven she saw the exact same table filled with the same abundance of food. Around the table were seated people with the same features as the people in hell — long unbending arms. The difference in heaven was that here, instead of the futile struggle to feed themselves, the people were using their long arms to feed each other.
On occasions when I have shared this story I have sometimes been told that it is a lovely story, but in the ‘real world’ it is not practical. In this ‘real world’ where every one is looking out for one’s own interests it is the selfish who are fed while the kind ones starve. Both as a fact and as a basis for action this point of view is not accurate. As a practical matter, acts of kindness, compassion, love, honesty, generosity are like food that every person craves. In their presence we flourish. In their absence we develop a taste for low quality substitutes — junk food like conflict, constant excitement, addictions to substances or relationships. These low quality inputs have the effect of either numbing us, or exciting us into a state of forgetfulness. The depth of our need to connect with others as a natural expression of our inner nature is masked and temporarily forgotten. In the presence of someone, or some place in nature that allows us to encounter the experience of love, compassion, etc., we are moved and remember.
From time to time we come across the term ‘vicious circle’. It is a term that is frequently encountered in the field of economics, but it is also the basis for countless movies and cartoons. So, for example, a man comes home. He is angry about something at work. His dog comes to meet him at the door. In his anger he kicks the dog. The dog runs away from the man and chases the cat. The cat runs away from the dog, and in running knocks over a candle. The candle sets the house on fire. The man becomes more angry. Vicious circle describes a situation in which the apparent solution of one problem creates a new problem and increases the difficulty of solving the original one. A most profound example of this negative feedback loop is found in the Buddhist teaching of the Twelve Nidana-s, also called the twelve interdependent links of origination. It is visually depicted in the Wheel of Life, or Bhāvachakra. In this understanding of the vicious circle, the first link, ignorance, inexorably leads to all of the others, which ultimately include birth, sickness, old age, death, and rebirth into the repetition of the cycle. It is a description of the mechanism of Samsara.
Just as there is a vicious circle, there is also a ‘virtuous circle’ — a condition in which a favourable circumstance gives rise to another that subsequently supports the first. So, as an example, we meet someone who lives an inspired life — someone who is kind, loving, patient, and generous. In their presence we become aware of how deeply we respond to these qualities. We feel it as a need. This awareness awakens us to the presence of these same qualities within us. We understand our own nature more deeply. This leads to an expanding capacity for kindness, love, and compassion on our part, which in turn leads to a greater understanding, which leads us to live in an inspired way — an expanding spiral of inspiration, understanding, and increased capacity to serve.
There is the potential for a new mind within us — a mind open to the understanding that comes from inspired living. It is not the mind of any individual, but that greater mind within which we all ‘live, move, and have our being.’ Just beyond the walls of self-absorption that form the boundaries of our normal world, lies something greater, a new world whose expanse and openness embrace all beings. It is our job to remove these barriers.
We shall celebrate Wesak Day on Monday 1 June at 11 a.m. Although the actual Wesak Day this year has passed, we believe there will still be a tremendous outpouring of beneficent forces on 1 June 2015 as millions of people, a great portion of the world’s population, will be celebrating Wesak on that day. This, we understand, is in line with the law of nature that divine forces will take advantage of great congregations of devotional people as useful channels for the outpouring of blessing.
As we normally do, we will have a talk giving a detailed account of the esoteric Wesak Festival including a video recording made by an Australian TV station of pilgrims gathering at the legendary Wesak Valley. Members who have attended this talk previously may be interested to know that we will be showing new slides indicating what could be the actual location of the Wesak Valley which was previously thought to be in the vicinity of Mount Kailas. We will then have group meditation for 49 mins. A vegetarian buffet lunch will be served thereafter. Come and join this spiritual celebration on Monday, 1 June 2015, at 11 a.m.