Copyright © 1965 by Theosophical University Press.
Question — I have been trying to reconcile the idea that to really know a thing you have to experience it, with the problem of good and evil. None of us goes through life without making mistakes, and experience does seem to teach us faster than anything else. My question is this: why don't we go ahead and do all sorts of things so as to get the experience over with?
Comment — You mean, just disregard the principles of right and wrong, and give vent to every impulse in order to get experience? You would be surprised how many sincere persons develop such an attitude, particularly in the fields of inquiry which may be termed "occult." But it is a twisted concept, and against every decent instinct of man. While it is true that the broad standards of right and wrong often vary depending upon the customs and conditions of different peoples, the age-old principles of morality have always been and remain today the foundation of progress. If we lived only one life on earth, there might be some justification for this attitude. But when we consider the larger perspective of the soul's pilgrimage through a series of lifetimes, we realize that such a rationalization could easily lead into avenues of conduct that are counter to the purpose of evolution.
For ages all of us have been exercising our free will and thus have set in motion all sorts of causes, some of which we have already encountered as effects, and others are still to be met. In any one life we shall be faced with the type of opportunities we need in order to build our character, and therefore we don't have to rush out and seek experience so that the soul can grow. We never have to make a situation to experience, never. The inner laws would be working inside out if that were the case. Everyone knows inherently the difference between right and wrong, between following a good impulse and an evil one. Nevertheless, because we are still very imperfect, the human part of us tends to justify our actions when we deviate from a sound basis of ethics.
In the old days our forebears found no difficulty in distinguishing between what was good and therefore of God, they said, and what was evil and therefore of the Devil. In some ways there was a healthy austerity in their stand, which we might well emulate in principle, for it brooked no compromise with what one knew to be wrong.
Today, however, through the impact of world-wide relationships and the more conscious participation in the suffering of others, we have come to realize that good and evil, while distinct and separate as end products, nevertheless blend so gradually the one into the other that we are at times hard put to say where evil stops and good begins, where falsehood ends and truth remains, where white is still white, and not a dismal gray. Our vision of basic issues has become blurred because we seem unable to fix a firm dividing line between what is right and what is wrong. Somehow the wide bridge of right principles seems to have so narrowed that man has all but lost his footing.
Often too we participate ignorantly in situations without any conscious recognition that we are doing wrong. It is only later, as we run into trouble, that we begin to recognize that we acted wrongly, or at least unwisely. Then if we are again faced with a similar situation, we can either profit by our past experience and act with a little more wisdom; or we can succumb to the tendency to act as we did before, even though we know better. If we do that, then the voice of conscience will go into action and say: "No, this is wrong." If we don't listen to it, but go ahead anyway, that is where the battle begins.
Question — Do you mean that your conscience won't work unless you've already experienced a thing before?
Comment — Our conscience cannot give a danger signal unless we have experienced something in the past that made us suffer and therefore left an impression of warning in the soul, which now the conscience is trying to recall to our waking consciousness. But right here is the difficulty: it is true that the soul must learn all the lessons this earth has to teach, but that doesn't mean we should deliberately follow the impulses of the lower material self in order to evolve. To follow that procedure would be to ignore not only the voice of conscience but the divine spark that is trying so hard to awaken our spiritual intuitions.
Question — There might be circumstances where we would go through all kinds of things but learn very little from them. If we committed a serious mistake, wouldn't we sooner or later have to recognize it as such before we would get any conscience reaction?
Comment — If you didn't learn the lesson, your conscience would not be ready to warn you. Until we gain the knowledge and understanding that an experience calls for we don't really learn, nor will we have the benefit of guidance from the conscience reaction as you put it. Just going dumbly through an experience doesn't help very much. We have to react with some sort of recognition of what is good and what is bad: but that does not mean we should go after experiences just so our conscience will tell us in the future what not to do.
We have a large area in which to exercise our initiative in the natural affairs that life places before us. In the soul of each one of us is a vast reservoir of experience — all of which has created the potent atmosphere of plus and minus in which we now find ourselves, but which in the future can be all plus if we handle it properly. It is what we do with that load of responsibility now that will create, or fail to create, a stronger voice of conscience; or, if you like, a stronger link with our higher self. We learn when we have suffered hard enough to want to change the course of our thinking, and not go on in the same old way.
Question — Do we have to experience the same thing we did to someone else? If I kill a man, do I have to be killed in order to realize I did wrong and shouldn't kill?
Comment — I am glad you brought that up. It is true that we cannot do unto others a negative thing and not have it react upon ourselves. But that does not mean that the old Mosaic law of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" always works out in that literal manner. The original intent of that maxim is sound and basically true, but we do not have to suffer the identic reenactment of an experience. In other words, we may not have to have an eye taken out if we take out the eye of another, but the quality of the experience of losing an eye will be ours. Do you see the difference?
You kill "X," let us say, in anger, or with malicious intent. It does not mean that "X" is bound to kill you in some future life. However, you will have to endure the quality of agony that you caused him to suffer when you willfully took his life. You may now or in the future lose your life by accident or by the deliberate act of someone, but it need not be "X" who brings that about; it may even be a quite impersonal thing such as a tile falling on your head. If you are sincere and truly regret the act, then when the effect catches up with you, the reaction to the original cause will be felt, but not necessarily physically. The principle of cause and effect holds absolutely, but its expression may shift from the physical to the mental or other planes of consciousness. Nevertheless, each one of us must meet the full reaction of wrongdoing by undergoing the quality of suffering that we bring upon others. We all know that mental and psychological pain can be far more severe than physical pain; it may be too that the reaction to a former transgression may be absolved in a moment of intense suffering, or in a flash of recognition — which is rarely physical. Once the quality of past error is fully experienced, the impress on the consciousness is so deep that the voice of conscience would almost shout should you again be faced with a similar temptation.
Question — Are those who deliberately run after experiences, even when they know they are doing wrong, starting a chain-reaction that sooner or later will reflect back on them through suffering?
Comment — Those who deliberately choose to commit wrong know better. When they flout the warnings of their conscience they are compromising their own souls, and are making an entirely different kind of karma from the one who ignorantly participates in wrongdoing. They will, in time, suffer horribly in realization. The field of subtle temptations ranges anywhere from the simple white lie to murder perhaps, including every type of indulgence.
Question — But isn't it rather ticklish to attempt to judge any person, because how could you tell what motivated his actions, what was really the impulse behind them"
Comment — Certainly we should never judge the motive of another, nor can we evaluate his progress by our standards. That is where so much of our pain and heartache arises. We would have to put ourselves in the shoes of another before we could possibly know how we would walk his pathway. We do have the responsibility, however, to discriminate between right and wrong action, and it is quite possible to discern in degree the quality of thought that prompts an act. But we cannot know the inner motive of others, especially of one who may by strong aspiration have brought upon himself great outer obstacles which he is finding hard to surmount. You remember the warning of the old sage: "Don't shrink from the beggar's robe, lest it fall on your own shoulders" — the principle being that we all have karma to work out now and in the future, and we can never tell when the wheel of life may find us underneath instead of on top, or vice versa.
We grow slowly, and life is such that we attract what we need — not always what we want — all of which adds to the treasury of our permanent self. We are very old individuals, and our experience accumulates as we go; and the law of attraction and repulsion operates so accurately, with such perfect delicacy, that the quality of thoughts and feelings that we have in any lifetime will in the future bring to us exactly what the reincarnating ego requires to complete and extend its growth up the evolutionary ladder.
Put simply, when we follow a line of conduct that is not upright or on a level with our own inner standard, we are going backwards; and this a hundredfold if we attempt to fool ourselves into believing that we "need the experience" in order to evolve. We learn from failure, yes; and the experience of pain gives sensitivity and wisdom to the conscience. But we should have done with continued descent into materiality and be up and on with the cycle of progress toward spirituality.
Question — If we grow through suffering, wouldn't all of us have to go through some pretty rough times if we ever want to change belief into knowledge?
Comment — The opportunity to transform belief into knowledge need not mean suffering always, but could be something wonderful. To have the right attitude toward everything that comes to us is wonderful. That's why I keep hammering at the idea that there is no good or bad karma — it is all opportunity for the soul's expansion. What we today may think is a terrible karma, to somebody else may be just the opposite, because that person has the right inner attitude and sees the events of his life in perspective and therefore understands them.
It all ties into the statement of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita: "And even those also who worship other gods with a firm faith in doing so, involuntarily worship me, too, albeit in ignorance." That doesn't mean that everyone must accept Krishna as his God. What it means is that we shall all ultimately find truth, the real universal truth. If we are sincere we shall attract in some lifetime the opportunity to confirm or deny our belief, and thus come nearer to the truth which is One — Krishna, Buddha, Allah or whatever term applies. Then belief will have become knowledge.
Question — Wouldn't this kind of thinking and acting have two goals? First, to attract experiences of the right quality; and second, to strengthen our ability to act according to what we may know, and not only believe? In other words, from crawling we really start to walk?
Comment — Yes, walking more strongly, more firmly on the true path, because we are utilizing what life has given us to know. By doing so we more potently attract that which will help us enlarge our beliefs and in time transform them into knowledge — all of which will leave its impress on our character. But keep in mind always the basic coloring that motive gives to our aspirations: if we are learning and searching for truth for ourselves alone, that is one thing; but if we are pursuing that search that we might be more helpful members of the human race and thus able to share by example rather than merely by precept, then we will find "knowledge springing up spontaneously" within ourselves.
Question — The more you think about this, the more difficult it is to analyze where belief leaves off and knowledge starts. Perhaps what we think are mere beliefs might really be recalling knowledge?
Comment — Exactly, and you will remember how Plato speaks in his Dialogues of the soul's re-collecting or reminding itself of its former knowledge, his idea of "reminiscence," the re-calling of the higher knowledge that has been stored up in the character in previous lives. It is important to be alert to this process. It may be that your experiences will not give you the opportunity to confirm your belief before death; but nothing is lost, because you will automatically draw to you the very conditions and contacts that will extend your present knowledge.
For example, what started you in this life searching for the answers? Perhaps it was an article which sparked a totally new line of thought; or you contacted an individual who without conscious effort changed your destiny; or some revealing incident may have tapped your latent strength. So in the future, whatever the outer cause, gradually karma will crack the shell of inertia and give you more and more opportunity to catch up with your innate knowledge. None of us reaches maturity at a given period, and I do not mean physical maturity; I refer to that point in this life where we catch up with ourselves from the past, and start to become more consciously allied with our true self. This attraction comes about naturally so that what we are becomes revealed to us, and then not only are we more sensitive to the prickings of conscience, but our intuition, an aspect of our higher self, makes itself known, and undeniably so.
The knowledge that you brought with you will penetrate ultimately your brain-mind consciousness. If the knowledge is there and our aspiration has unlocked the door to it — provided we don't delude ourselves by our ambition to know more and more with our mental processes alone — then the intuition, the voice of a higher consciousness, will act as a working instrument together with the voice of conscience. Now our conscience never tells us what to do, any more than the daimon of Socrates told him what to do. Its job is to warn us when we step over the fine line of right thought and right action. The reason our intuition doesn't speak to us oftener is that we, with our anxiety to collect brain-mind facts, simply don't give it a chance. Yet that intuition will not fail to give us guidance when we allow it to have stronger reign in our lives.
There is nothing fantastic about it, for when we have our consciousness targeted in the right direction, with the right quality of thought, we catch that glimpse of eternity that enables the soul to follow its natural pattern of growth. Then as the line of recognition between belief and knowledge becomes ever more sharp, and our discriminating ability becomes more clear, we may attract just the type of experience that will impel us to pledge ourselves, wholly and completely, to the benefit of others.
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