Psychism, with all its allurements and all its dangers, is necessarily developing among you, and you must beware lest the Psychic outruns the Manasic [mental] and Spiritual development. Psychic capacities held perfectly under control, checked and directed by the Manasic principle, are valuable aids in development. But these capacities running riot, controlling instead of controlled, using instead of being used, lead the Student into the most dangerous delusions and the certainty of moral destruction. Watch therefore carefully this development, inevitable in your race and evolution-period, so that it may finally work for good and not for evil. — H. P. Blavatsky
Today there is a proliferation of techniques for exploring and developing the abilities latent in every person, whether stemming from traditional sources or modern research. Books, tapes, researchers, and teachers hold forth the promise of achieving personal growth, health, happiness, success, powers, and enlightenment through a great variety of means. Many open minds recognize that, in the West particularly, we have been needlessly self-limited and that ordinary people are capable of what heretofore was considered extraordinary or impossible. At the same time we are beginning to realize ever more strongly that oneness is the fundamental reality, whether in the human, global, or cosmic sphere.
Clearly our ordinary awareness, focused on the physical world, is only one aspect of our consciousness. When viewed as our only mode of existence, it tends to limit us to a very narrow field out of the totality of who we are. Considering each person as a spiritual consciousness-center expressing itself through a material form, human development means the purification and training of our intermediate nature so it can transmit undistorted the consciousness of the divine self and, in the process, evolve toward divinity. Our spiritual and divine aspects are relatively immortal, while less evolved aspects including emotions and the lower mind disperse after death. This situation has important implications for what traits and skills we decide to cultivate. Because psychomental and astral powers do not survive intact from life to life, remaining merely as influences and tendencies, to spend our lives perfecting such abilities is ultimately futile. On the other hand, spiritual attributes such as love, intuitive perception, universality, and compassion are not only the most powerful intrinsically, but also the most important to human evolution since they represent permanent growth.
Throughout the ages people have sought to bring forth more of their inner potential, using in this quest many types of meditation as well as yogic, mystic, ascetic, and other practices. Concentrating the mind, becoming unattached psychologically to objects of the senses, penetrating beneath the superficial material aspects of oneself and the world, as well as special techniques belonging to various schools or traditions, often result in such phenomena as visions, voices or sounds, stimulation of the chakras, out-of-body experiences, speaking in tongues, trances, ecstasy, communication or merging with other "beings," and feelings of union with spiritual reality. These may be inevitable and natural byproducts of a given state of human evolution, but more commonly they are induced by stimulation of psychophysical triggers. For example, specialized breathing, chemicals, or sensory deprivation or stimulation can produce temporary changes in consciousness or its content, but these do not reflect the spiritual condition of our everyday self. There is a marked contrast between such transitory manifestations and long-term inner development.
These peripheral experiences, however, are often considered the sine qua non of personal evolution. Mistaking the by-products of growth for growth itself is illustrated by a statement of R. Gordon Wasson:
The advantage of the mushroom is that it puts many, if not everyone, within reach of this state without having to suffer the mortifications of Blake and St. John [of Revelation]. It permits you to see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life, to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say) to know God. — The Road to Eleusis, p. 19
Yet it is the very "mortifications," intelligently chosen and applied, which lead to permanent transformation of self, the real process of growth from the individual's starting point to a more universal one, not the visions and supersensory experiences that many seekers experience on the way to their spiritual goal. The noble eightfold path of the Buddha, for example, which is his basic recommendation for spiritual growth and enlightenment, emphasizes a way of living, thinking, and contemplation to be practiced with discipline and mindfulness of the inner goal and compassion. Artificially induced states may be indistinguishable from naturally occurring ones, but inner growth represents a way of life, not isolated experiences.
Many mystics and spiritual teachers have held that abnormal phenomena and powers are actually one of the greatest stumbling blocks along the path of spiritual development. St. John of the Cross, for instance, held that these phenomena, whether acting on the physical, mental, or spiritual organs of perception, distract the aspirant from his search for God and often engender spiritual pride and attachment. Such experiences can be addictive, leading the searcher away from the spiritual and back to the phenomenal and egocentric. They may also unbalance and deceive the aspirant who takes his experiences at face value or uses their content as a guide. Phenomena may come either from God or from the Devil, to use Christian parlance, and it is impossible for even the most sincere recipient to distinguish at times the one from the other. They may even be entirely imaginary or self-induced, as St. John of the Cross points out regarding interior voices:
I am appalled at what happens in these days — namely, when some soul with the very smallest experience of meditation, if it be conscious of certain locutions of this kind in some state of recollection, at once christens them all as coming from God, and assumes that this is the case, saying: "God said to me . . ."; "God answered me . . ."; whereas it is not so at all, but, as we have said, it is for the most part they who are saying these things to themselves.
And, over and above this, the desire which people have for locutions, and the pleasure which comes to their spirits from them, lead them to make answer to themselves and then to think that it is God Who is answering them and speaking to them. — Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk. 2, ch. 29, sec. 4-5
Generally such experiences originate in one's own being, and few can distinguish with certainty whether these are coming from the spiritual or from the limited mental/emotional and psychic parts of themselves.
There are, moreover, positive and negative forces in nature on every plane of existence. Those transcending the physical world generally enter the astral or psychic plane — a slightly more ethereal form of matter which contains influences and entities ranging from the most degraded to the very lofty. This so-called astral light, the astral body of the earth, is the medium for transmitting forces between more ethereal planes and the physical world, as well as being in its lower reaches the region where people's concreted lower psychological energies (kama-rupas, "shades," or "spirits") remain to dissipate after death. It contains the impress of all the thoughts, feelings, and actions of humankind since the dawn of time. These akasic "records" exist in this more tenuous astral atmosphere which penetrates every portion of the earth and of the individual lives composing it. Impressions are drawn to individuals by affinity and similarity of vibration: all of our thoughts and feelings come to us through this medium, and are thrown back into it again after they have been used.
Most people, unused to functioning self-consciously in the astral sphere, are even more likely to be deceived by appearances and become confused there than in the physical world, where confusion and lack of self-control are common enough. Doorways once opened into inner realms can be difficult to close if unwanted forces and beings impinge on the searcher. Only those who have completely mastered similar aspects of themselves can control and judge correctly these nonphysical forces and entities.
Centuries of denying occult forces and planes of existence have left Westerners ignorant of the inner aspects of nature and man, and in many cases unable to evaluate accurately the consequences of their actions in these realms. There is danger in adopting indiscriminately on an experimental basis very powerful techniques, some of which may contain destructive elements even in their native setting. In the words of an Eastern proverb, only a spider's web separates white magic from black: the same training, techniques, and abilities are used in both cases, the only differences being the motive, uses, and results of development. Along these lines H. P. Blavatsky warned her students about the ignorant use of meditation techniques:
Genuine concentration and meditation, conscious and cautious, upon one's lower self in the light of the inner divine man and the Paramitas, is an excellent thing. But to "sit for Yoga," with only a superficial and often distorted knowledge of the real practice, is almost invariably fatal; for ten to one the student will either develop mediumistic powers in himself or lose time and get disgusted both with practice and theory. Before one rushes into such a dangerous experiment . . . he would do well to learn at least the difference between the two aspects of "Magic," the White or Divine, and the Black or Devilish, and assure himself that by "sitting for Yoga," with no experience, as well as with no guide to show him the dangers, he does not cross daily and hourly the boundaries of the Divine to fall into the Satanic. — Collected Writings 12:603-4
Spiritual literature and traditions emphasize the importance of competent guidance in self-development. For millennia there have been centers of high spiritual learning all over the globe. Said to have been founded several million years ago by divine beings in conjunction with the most spiritually advanced of mankind, these Mystery schools have served several functions: to preserve through increasingly material eras the wisdom of the divine instructors of early mankind; to benefit humanity as a whole by providing a source of spiritual and intellectual light and a link with the spiritual forces of the planet and cosmos; and to help those whose inner strivings, aspirations, and self-transformation allow their personal evolution to be quickened by training through systematic methods.
We know very little about the teachings and methods of the ancient Mysteries. The oldest records — generally in veiled language — go back only a few thousand years, and most of the institutions we know of had become secularized and degenerate to various degrees. The theme of these schools was the second birth, the bringing forth of the inner spiritual person freed from thraldom to the physical body and lower psychological nature. Doubtless various means were used to stimulate and accelerate spiritual unfoldment, including many of those coming increasingly into vogue today. At the same time these public Mysteries, though shrouded in secrecy, were not necessarily the esoteric Mysteries, which might or might not be connected with an exoteric site.
The inner Mysteries were the training ground of the few who wished to consecrate their life to spiritual development, and had the dedication and ability to do so. Here the emphasis was on becoming rather than on a particular visionary experience, altered states, psychic powers, or communication of intellectual knowledge, though these were doubtless involved. The quality of the individual and his ability to transcend the limited aspects of himself or herself was the determining factor. These inner Mysteries have never disappeared and are said to still function actively, though secretly, all over the earth. They are found by individuals whose evolutionary development, high moral character, and selfless aspiration bring them into sympathetic inner, and perhaps outer, contact with those forming this ancient spiritual network.
As in the ancient Mysteries, the heart of human evolution remains the second birth: the growth of the everyday self until its limitations are utterly transcended and it is self-consciously reborn. Each person must decide what the appropriate role of various techniques is for him or her in this process. We need to ask ourselves, however, what we really want and how it can best be achieved. For many the criterion is "does it work?," not whether their motive or the ultimate result is universal and constructive. Often people are searching for more powerful tools to achieve the same limited and sometimes destructive ends. Self-oriented methods, however useful, are an expansion of egocentric, worldly concerns into other realms of being, and as such are not means to inner growth. Even seeking spiritual development to escape "the wheel of existence" or for our own gratification is ultimately an expression of selfishness and egoism, though on a more spiritual plane. It is easy to become caught up in the glamour of supernormal abilities and states both as ends in themselves and as means to personal powers or success, material or spiritual. But human development is a matter of inner discipline and growth, which in its early phases may or may not result in phenomenal signs, psychic powers, personal success, or dramatic alterations in our state of consciousness. It ultimately depends on the accomplishment of the outwardly unspectacular tasks of daily life, on shaping our character, and on making altruism the basis of existence. In this context the various powers and states of consciousness will in time evolve forth naturally.
Today assimilation of a broader range of knowledge from Oriental and traditional sources is beginning to affect many Occidental disciplines, and at the same time psychic faculties are becoming widespread as more people find themselves developing such abilities spontaneously or with relative ease. If we can realize that attaining nonordinary states and powers in and of itself is not an emblem of inner growth and progress — that the path to becoming truly human, and ultimately godlike, is made of compassion and of centering of consciousness in the more universal aspects of ourselves while making the everyday ego our servant instead of our master — then the entry of new-old practices into modern life may herald a return to the more spiritual atmosphere of the inner Mysteries that influenced so beneficially certain civilizations of ancient times.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)
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Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind. — Albert Schweitzer