The Theosophical Forum – October 1946

THE PRINCIPLES OF SPIRITUAL TEACHING — Richard Heinemann

No course of action can so quickly antagonize people, or bring their worst qualities so explosively to the surface, as merely keeping your head while they are losing theirs. Since people in masses "think" emotionally (we call this "crowd psychology"), any challenge to the conclusions they have reached seems to them an attack on the worth of their own persons or personalities. Still more to the point: emotional thinking is so self-centered and self-satisfied that a sudden awareness of the mere existence of an opposing idea comes with the wrenching force of an emotional shock. Especially is this true when the opposing idea lies on higher mental or spiritual levels than the one it challenges, for mind and spirit are the great enemies of emotional smugness.

A Jesus always will be crucified, a Socrates always will be sentenced to drink poison, a Christian always will be thrown to lions or crocodiles: that is the natural price one pays for being a Jesus or a Socrates or a Christian. Such persons, by merely standing for the higher truths of being, attract to themselves the resentment of all crystallized minds. Apparently it is necessary for most men to defeat a superior opponent by material force, as a sop to their own egotism, before they can consider his ideas. They must crucify, or at least satisfactorily persecute their savior before they can recognize him.

In the process of learning, it is necessary first for an idea to be presented to the consciousness — that is, it must be able to get a hearing. This does not mean only that the person must be told of the idea (for how many thoughts go in one ear and out the other); it means he must become aware of the idea. In this process of awakening awareness, sometimes the idea is accepted; much more often it stands as a point of irritation in the consciousness. When an irritation disturbs our physical body, our first impulse is to scratch it. When the irritation is emotional, the impulse also is to scratch, and we attempt to do this by scratching out of existence the person or thing that bothers us.

In order to "scratch" the annoying idea, we must turn our attention squarely upon it. This furnishes it the golden opportunity to sink a few roots into our consciousness. However we may abuse the unfortunate person who brings it to us, none the less the idea has been planted as a seed in the very heart of our being. Under proper conditions it may grow — and all learning is entirely a matter of growth. Every happening that in any way touches the idea from that time on will force us to make unconscious comparisons, and on these the seed within us grows. In the course of time, as we destroy one after another form the idea takes in the world outside of us, we become vaguely uneasy. Within us is a stirring; the old, long crystallized ideas gradually become hollow and undermined, till they may be shattered by the next challenge from the outside world — perhaps by the next savior that we stone to death. Then the miracle happens, and like Saul of old we hear a voice that cries (within us): "I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest."

That is why real teachers and real saviors are not concerned about the way people treat them. In their hearts is the knowledge that whether they are well-received or cast out, whether they are praised or persecuted, the people none the less must learn from them. A real teacher measures his progress, not by how easily the people seem to learn, but by how well they learn.

One of the most worth-while speakers in America today — Sadhu Grewal - — paused at the climax of one of his finest lectures to explain: "But lectures like this are not teaching!" His audience, under the illusion that they were actually learning the information being presented to them, did not understand this deep point of psychology. However, if you were to ask those people today what they learned at that lecture (delivered only a few months ago), you would find that they remember practically none of it. Scientific figures show that people remember only three percent of the things they hear at a lecture. Even of this three percent, it is questionable how much is really learned, and how much remains as mere "information."

It is only when there is some point in our own experience that we can use to picture to ourselves the ideas a speaker is trying to present, that we can even begin to understand them. These points of experience are the "fertile" spots in our consciousness, on which ideas may land and begin to grow. In other ideas we may have a cold, intellectual interest, but they do not become a part of us — we do not actually learn them. They may remain in our minds until some experience opens a "fertile" spot for them, but until that time we only imagine that we understand them. It is here, indeed, that we may realize why the same statement or idea will mean different things to the various members of an audience, for each approaches the statement from his particular background of experience, and can understand it only on the basis of his particular points of comparison.

Some teachers have a habit of asking, "Can any one of you give an example to illustrate this point?" This practice is of doubtful value. Not only are the "examples" likely to be far-fetched, but if the student must consciously search for them, they are apt to be nothing but intellectual comparisons. Real points of experience are the ones that leap out and seize hold of an idea as soon as it is grasped by the brain-mind. Such examples certainly should be discussed, but the best practice is to encourage the students to present them spontaneously, just as they come to mind.

Another criticism of the plan of asking for examples is that it keeps the students in a tensed state of mind that psychologists call "voluntary attention." This makes learning difficult, on the same principle that the person who watches his feet is not a good dancer, or the person who keeps his muscles tensed is a poor automobile driver. What is more desirable is "involuntary attention": the kind that is given because the student simply becomes lost in the subject. The mind under these conditions is most receptive; it is absorbed in the learning process, without any sense of strain. In a classroom such conditions can be created only when the relationship between teacher and pupils is entirely natural and spontaneous, and the students can simply forget they are in a classroom.

The spiritual leader, who sees all the world as a school and its men and women as the pupils he must teach, puts all his reliance on the involuntary kind of attention. Where it is not present, he creates it. Those who come to him for instruction he very often drives away, knowing that the more sincere and earnest of them will return again, and that this delay in the instruction will sharpen the attention and arouse an eagerness that will produce something very much like a "fertile spot" in the pupil's consciousness. The eagerness with which a pupil learns has much to do with his ability to absorb a lesson into the actual habits of his thinking.

The true teacher cares nothing for the motives that bring a pupil to him, but is ready to bless any motive that can arouse the kind of attention the pupil must have to make him receptive for the lesson. If a man feels contempt for him, this teacher is not displeased, for he understands that even the contempt may be a tool with which he can drive home a lesson in the man's consciousness. The bishop in Les Miserables was a true teacher when he made something near to a saint of Jean Valjean by allowing him to steal, and then go unpunished with his "victim's" blessing, and the stolen goods as a gift. Jesus left some lesson with every person who came near Him, though in many cases it may have taken years for such "pupils" to begin to understand the lessons. What is most important is that Jesus very seldom taught these lessons by words or preaching, but rather by allowing men to observe the ordinary conduct of His life — and compare it with their own.

The true teacher sets an example, but does not go out of his way to call attention to it. Least of all does he insist that others follow it. He allows everyone to draw his own conclusions, for he knows it is better for a man to do his own thinking, however badly, than to accept without thinking the judgments even of a sage.

Hate, fear, enmity, contempt, doubt, distrust, or self-seeking may be negative emotions, but they do center the attention of the one who feels them on his victim — and if the "victim" happens to be a teacher or holy man, he can use that attention to drive home a lesson. Jesus taught the men who crucified Him, and perhaps of all His disciples none learned more, or had the lessons driven home more vividly than the one who betrayed Him. Indeed, in no other case did Jesus so prove His worth as a teacher as in taking Judas for a disciple and allowing Himself to be betrayed — for He must have known that Judas could learn his particular lesson only by the experience of trying to live with his own soul after the betrayal.

More often than not, the lessons are not learned from one single experience. Knowledge and understanding are results of growth, and are developed by long series of experiences and comparisons. Whether the actions of a teacher will complete the growth and bring the knowledge to full flower, or will merely plant the seed, or perhaps only help to cultivate a seed someone else has planted, must depend on the circumstances and the "pupil's" degree of preparation. The true teacher, understanding this, never grows impatient, and never feels there is any wasting of his efforts.

Very often the finest teachers do not call themselves teachers, or assume any titles that might seem to set them apart. It is told of Socrates that when men asked him to recommend a philosopher to them, he would recommend philosophers, without mentioning himself, so easily did he bear being overlooked. Epictetus taught his followers that when they were among men who were discussing philosophic ideas, they should "remain for the most part silent" — for he desired them to digest the things they studied, and express them outwardly through the effect on their way of life.

Such is true teaching. All else is oratory.


The Theosophical Forum

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