City without Walls

By Elizabeth Duffie

A letter in a women's magazine tells of an experience a reader had on thinking very intensely about something she deeply wished would occur. To her "great astonishment" that very thing happened at once! Many of us have found just the opposite. Though we may have strongly wished for some greatly desired object or event, nothing ever materialized.

We often talk about wishful thinking as though it were something which blows from our minds like a colored soap bubble and as easily dissolves into apparent nothingness. But can we so simply write off our thoughts, our wishes, and those fleeting phantoms of imagined ideas we call daydreams? Good, bad, and indifferent, they rush in and out of our teeming brains, apparently from nowhere and largely unsummoned by ourselves. Indeed, some of them seem so utterly foreign to what we esteem or hold dear that we find it hard to believe we are really thinking such things!

In Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, I came upon a most relevant sentence on this subject:

Every man has a thousand vicious thoughts, which arise without his power to suppress. . . . as he is purely passive in his assent, he is no more to be blamed for his errors than the governor of a city without walls for the shelter he is obliged to afford an invading army.

But are we, in our individual minds, really a "city without walls"? Are we passive in our assent and not responsible for those thoughts which seem to come to us out of the blue and which we recognize as errors — and yet we still think them?

There are people who are often deeply perturbed by their admittedly dreadful thoughts and do not know how they should act in the face of their own particular invading army. Why are we always prepared to accept the credit for our good thoughts, but are unwilling to admit any kinship with the bad ones? They are all ours in the sense that we have in us something akin, some nourishing soil to which they are attracted, in which they can take root and grow. They may not originate in our minds, but it is up to us how we receive them and how we send them forth.

Our knowledgeable ancestors held that nothing in this living universe can be banished or canceled out into sheer nonexistence and that even thoughts, equally partaking of the universal nature, are real, imperishable, and eternal. Hence it is not easy to dismiss our responsibility even for those elements we regard as alien changelings which invade unasked the wall-less city of our mind. Human thoughts constitute so large a family, is it any wonder that many look like strangers as they stand once more at our door? Yet we find them there, and whether we are their parents or only foster parents, we must do something about them.

When we let these thoughts that come to us go off again, they are impressed by the stamp of our individuality. We impart to them a quality they did not have when they first visited us. When we send them winging on their way, if the propulsion is weak they will not have the same force as the ones that spring from our mind robust and vigorous. It is solemn to reflect that though we will never be able to follow them into the new human homes that may take them in, yet we will, through the quality of our mark upon them, somehow influence other people.

Which is worse, one could ask, to just harbor wicked thoughts or to allow them to develop into actual wicked acts? Perhaps we may look upon the deed itself as the end of a thought, bringing it to its logical conclusion. Its energies are then spent in giving birth to something on the outer plane of existence. Every thought is like a blueprint, and on the field of action the blueprints are tested and their value established. But a thought that is left free as a traveler in space is untrammeled by such an embodiment and can very well have more lasting power than an act. The winged seed seeks that ground where it may best grow to maturity, and the winged thought is no different.

Our greatest wrong, then, in sending out a strong negative thought may well be that it may invade other human territory where the governor of the unwalled city has so little native strength that he will not be able to deny it entrance and will weakly give it welcome. The following from the Letters of Lafcadio Hearn makes this point very clear:

The idea is this: Do not be angry or indulge secretly any wicked thought! Why? Because the anger or the wicked thought, though secret and followed by no action, may go out into the universe as an unseen influence and therein cause evil. In other words, a man might be responsible for a murder committed at a great distance by one whom he does not even know. Weak, unbalanced minds, trembling between crime and conscience, may be decided suddenly to evil by the straw-weight of an unseen influence.

If we have the strength of character, we can learn to face squarely the unwanted thoughts, acknowledging what they are and whatever affinity we may once have had for them, and send them off cleansed and refined. We should approach them in the same way in which we try to look at the phenomenon of evil in our midst, conscious of it, seeing it, yet not feeling it, which last would be a kind of attraction in itself.

Much more powerful than negative thinking are those good impulses which flow from a spirit of altruism. The inspirations of genius, the loftiest products of human creativity — these too come to those whose minds are large enough to hold and transmit them. Nothing of the earthly quality can hold a spiritual thought's impulse in check. It hurtles through and around our minds. We have no way of knowing how far and fast the seemingly insignificant yet truly unselfish thought can travel and bring benefit to all. It is much more potent than the earthbound selfish impulse. Unhampered and unclogged by reason of its spiritual nature, it can, like some beneficent Puck of the human mind, "put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes."

Are we not like the blood corpuscles of the human circulatory system in our thought-relationship to the essence of mankind, always trying to enter that great unity of humanity's real heart? In the multitude of cells a single one seems like nothing, and yet it is everything in its larger ramifications, for the aggregate of all the individuals determines the over-all quality of the whole.

From life to life, as the right hour strikes for the right problems to be put before us, our past thoughts and deeds influence our attitude. Thus our thinking truly shapes our destiny. And on the larger scale, it is up to us, in sending out our "invaders" into humanity's great city without walls, to select a spiritual and altruistic quality, so that our contribution to the growth of the entire system will be the best we are able to make it.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)


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Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive: we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unraveled.
To be honest, to be kind — to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation — above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself — here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. — Robert Louis Stevenson