What is it that gives us the power to change the world? It is our mind. Ever since its awakening human beings have been thinking, aspiring, exploring, and changing their lives. To scientists this awakening that happened so long ago remains an "unexplainable wonder." Before it, we were innocent and irresponsible like preschool children. But when our minds were set aflame with the fires of thought we were able not only to know ourselves and what was "good" and what not, but also to begin consciously to direct our own evolution. Today this wondrous happening is repeated daily. Parents and teachers light fires when they stimulate imagination and start their youngsters asking questions. Although commonplace, isn't it always a wonder when an idea suddenly comes in and illumines a problem we've been pondering?
Commemorating the original awakening, myths and traditions of the world preserve its importance. The Greeks describe the mighty Prometheus who created men in the image of the gods, upright so they could contemplate the heavens. Regretting that he had not been able to supply them with mind, he tricked the gods and stole their fire, carrying it to mankind in a hollow reed. For this he was punished by Zeus, chained to a rock in the mountains, until Herakles (representing the awakened human soul) eventually set him free.
Tricksters, whether human or animal, have been frequently cast in this role. But why animals? Could it be because they so aptly personify the qualities necessary for intelligent thinking: curiosity, ingenuity, and persistence? American Indians tell of many resourceful spiders, coyotes, and ravens who stole the gods' fire-sticks, and they also tell of the sometimes clownish, sometimes wise kachinas. In India, Krishna played this part to perfection. As ingenious child-savior in the Puranas, and sage-advisor in the Bhagavad-Gita, he brings the "light" which generates constructive and creative thinking. In Norse myths it is Loki, while the Judeo-Christian God casts Lucifer ("lightbringer") from heaven, and had him enter the Garden of Eden as a serpent to offer unawakened humanity — represented by Adam and Eve — the means by which they could become wise as gods. Stories like these are attempts to describe the event that opened our eyes and set our feet on the pathway of progress. It could not have happened earlier, when our brains and psychological natures were insufficiently developed.
"Lighting the fires of mind" is an intriguing expression. Lighting implies the inflaming of that which has the potency to be lit. Fire suggests upward movement, change, combustion, transformation, whether this occurs to heat our houses, cook our food, light our study, or change our lives — and we do change our lives when we change our thinking.
But how exactly does this transformation, this lighting of the fires, take place? Hopi Indian customs provide one explanation. Each year, their holy kachinas descend from the summit of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Halfway down the mountain they meet tribesmen ascending to receive them. Meeting, divine essence blends with human, whereupon the Indians, now clothed and infilled with the radiance of the god that endowed them, return to their village and for the ensuing fortnight live and act as the gods would —bestowing gifts and instruction. When the kachinas depart, the light they brought continues to illumine the minds of all who received it.
Theosophy tells of great-hearted manasaputras or "sons of mind" who 18 million years ago came from their spiritual realms, incarnated among mankind, and instilled in the minds of those who were receptive thoughts that inflamed their mental faculties and, in degree, awakened their spiritual awareness. Doing this, they not only impregnated individual minds, but impressed the thought-atmosphere of the earth with the archetypal ideas basic to civilized life. These ideas embrace the laws of hygiene and medicine, of agriculture, architecture, celestial navigation, metallurgy, the skills of social and political structure, jurisprudence, philosophy, and religion. From then on, these ideas have been part of our moral and intellectual being, providing us with an instinctive sense of what is just and true in all areas of our lives.
What an ingenious way this was to protect their sacred knowledge from the ravages of time that has so mercilessly destroyed all that has been recorded on parchment and stone. The tenuous fabric of our minds endures through lifetimes: storing truths there not only preserves them, but keeps them available to every man and woman.
Under the manasaputras' care and instruction the early races learned much about the wonders of the natural and stellar worlds; learned how to erect cities and lay the foundation of cultured and technological civilizations. Then, when they felt mankind could go on alone, these spiritual teachers withdrew their physical presence, remaining in the wings, as it were, ready to guide with an inspired idea.
But were we ready to move forward on our own? The trials and temptations were horrendous. Some, who remained true to the Great Ones' council, survived and progressed, while others, succumbing to the allurements of the psychic and material world, suffered and learned as a consequence. Fortunately, before the spiritual teachers departed, esoteric or Mystery schools had been established where earnest and aspiring individuals could receive spiritual training and experience. Protected from disturbance within the seemingly solid walls of their pyramids, temples, and underground chambers, candidates periodically underwent initiations that illumined their minds and transformed their lives. Such "schools" have always existed: sometimes publicly known, sometimes not, when their existence was threatened by religious and political persecution. From their ranks and influence wise and caring men and women of various vocations and qualifications have emerged periodically and sought to kindle human interest in truth, encourage independent thinking, and quicken intuition.
But what is the mind that was "lit" so long ago? Most of us would agree that our mind is superior to our brain — though we would acknowledgethat the brain is a most efficient and complicated "computer." Not only does it receive and coordinate the nerve stimuli that come in from our thoughts, emotions, and senses, but also it organizes and displays them for our mind to consider, act upon, save or erase, according to its experience, accumulated knowledge, and insights.
The word mind derives from the Sanskrit manas (as does the word man). Hindus translate manas both as "mind" and "heart," which is perceptive: great thoughts generally combine the wisdom of mind and heart. Webster's dictionary defines mind as that which "feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons." It is also defined as recollection or memory, which recalls the ancient idea that knowledge is within our minds and in the thought atmosphere of the earth. Robert Browning said that to know consists of remembering: of "opening out a way whence the imprisoned splendor may escape," rather than "effecting entry for a light supposed to be without." Obviously, the knowledge here referred to is not the miscellaneous tidbits we store in our brains, but that which is preserved over lifetimes in the higher, spiritual part of our minds.
Philosophically, our individual mind is part of universal mind, the "conscious factor of the universe." Buddhists speak of universal mind as mind essence or pure mind. In this context, lighting the fires of mind is the process by which spiritual thought becomes operative in human minds and enables individuals to think about and understand the underlying principles that govern life throughout the cosmos.
On a more personal level, most of us are aware of the fact that our mind is the center of our human awareness and that it is dual in operation. By it we focus on worldly concerns; or, when energized by the spiritual, we center our attention on thoughts that may put us in touch with archetypal ideas that were implanted in our consciousness lifetimes ago. Instinctively we know we can tap those ideas and that we have the power to shape our lives by selecting what and how we think, as the Buddhist Dhammapada reminds us:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of an ox that draws the wagon.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him. — 1-2, Irving Babbitt's rendition
The "pure thoughts" referred to here may be clothed in words of beauty and truth or left wordless. This was illustrated recently by Bernd Weisheit, a Slovenian correspondent, in his retelling an ancient story:
One evening, Buddha came to discourse but this time something had happened which had never happened before. He was carrying something, a lotus. He came and sat down, but he didn't start to speak. He kept silent. An hour passed and he hadn't uttered a single word, he only looked at the lotus. His disciples were restless. What had happened? He never had behaved in such a way before, but they had to keep silent, they couldn't ask him.
Then Mahakasyapa — Mahakasyapa was a strange fellow. Twenty years he had been with the Buddha, but he never had asked a single question. He always sat under a special tree silently, not speaking. Mahakasyapa laughed. He laughed loudly and everybody was shocked. What will the Buddha say? Buddha looked at him and said: "Come close." For the first time in 20 years Buddha had called him. He went close, Buddha gave him the flower and said: "What I could say in words I have said to the assembly, what I could not say in words I transfer to Mahakasyapa."
Buddha was trying to help his disciples empty their minds so that they could feel That which is beyond mind.
Few of us are capable of thought-less thinking. We need thoughts to organize our lives and communicate with others. But what are thoughts? Theosophical writings refer to them as elemental beings which, when attracted into our minds, become active, attract others of similar nature, growing and developing in proportion to the attention and energy we give them. They can, and often do, determine our actions and shape our character. As the Dhammapada tells us: pure thoughts bless and refine our natures and our lives; inharmonious ones disturb and disrupt our physical and mental health, cause confusion, and lead us astray. We all know how thoughts of fear and anger upset us, and how some thoughts can literally take over our lives. It is by this power that unscrupulous advertisers, or political and religious fanatics, stir people up and, on occasion, drive them to actions they would never have considered "in their right minds."
Can we prevent this? We certainly can. By understanding that we are souls and have the power to direct our lives. Brain, mind, and body are tools designed for our use and experience. Recognizing this, it behooves us to take control, to refuse entry into our mind of every unworthy thought, and also to rely on our own decisions and judgment. The thoughts we receive from others may inform and enrich our lives, but the revelations we gain from our own reflection and experience become part of our self. The "fire" of the Great Ones started us thinking: and by right thinking we can awaken the spiritual potential needed to establish a civilized world.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)
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Have there been moments when your breath was caught,
Your eyes enchanted, and your spirit thrilled
By sudden beauty? By some movement fraught
With revelation — some awareness filled
With wonder, and a magical delight
Beyond the limits of our common sight?
A chestnut leaf, gold-winged, in airy glide,
A kingfisher's electric flash of flight,
The silence of a forest, and the wide
Calm gleam of starshine in the still of night,
Or the sweet rapture of a baby's face
Upturned to watch a bubble's floating grace.
These are around us, these, and many more
Treasures in heaven; so near, had we the key
To open wide the ponderous self-made door,
Locked against Love's transmuting alchemy,
Then would the moment stay, the flash flame glow
Into the Light of Truth . . . and we should know! — M. S. Tustin