Lighting the Fires of Mind

By Nancy Coker
[From a talk given Nov. 3, 2006 at Theosophical Library Center, Altadena, CA. ]

The powerful and suggestive phrase “lighting the fires of mind” refers theosophically to the awakening that happens to all beings as they evolve and mind becomes increasingly enlightened. It implies that mind has the potential to spark into a blaze, moving from a literal understanding of the superficial aspects of life to a discernment of more profound principles.

What, though, is mind? The myth that postmodern culture tells itself is that mind and self-reflecting consciousness are functions of a brain that evolved from matter through a process of natural selection. Theosophy’s story is that the human mind is a function of spirit, a ray of the divine mind. William Q. Judge put it this way: “The Manasic, or mind principle, is cosmic and universal. It is the creator of all forms, and the basis of all law in nature.”* In other words, having a brain is not the same as having a mind.

*“The Synthesis of Occult Science,” Echoes of the Orient 1:197.

Mind or consciousness is hard for us to picture, but we easily call up images for fire: the fires of devastation, those of sacrifice and purification, of passion, lust, and creativity. The Olympic torch held high may remind us of working together in peace and harmony but also symbolizes the eternal flame within each of us. From a theosophical perspective we have within us many terrestrial and celestial embers from this eternal flame: not only those of creativity and passion, but also of divine wisdom. In The Voice of the Silence H. P. Blavatsky refers to a “golden fire, the flame of Prajna [wisdom] that radiates from Atman [our inner divinity].” This spark of wisdom not only lights up our being but, according to one Hindu source, allows “atman to realize itself for what it is, and so to abide in this state as in a dreamless sleep.”* This implies that the ability to know one’s self, to be self-reflective, is a quality of the most ethereal, divine plane we can imagine — that this most important human characteristic, self-awareness, is inherent in divine nature.


We are the children of this “golden fire” but too often feel disconnected from it and need help making it real in our lives, nurturing it to birth on this material plane. Have you ever had an experience you couldn’t express in words, or an idea that you couldn’t adequately convey? It’s as if there’s a chasm between the thought plane and the physical plane that can sometimes be very hard to bridge. Mythologies around the world tell of an infant humanity who couldn’t link these two planes except in the most rudimentary fashion, and so help was given, often symbolized as a gift of fire; we find these stories in the Americas, Polynesia, New Guinea, China, and Africa. To those who would believe these accounts are only about the discovery of physical fire, Blair Moffett points out that

For traditional peoples light, fire, and sun are words that have always had a double meaning. While they certainly stand for the physical things named, they also and more importantly stand for the spiritual reality behind these. Fire is the illumination of consciousness or direct knowledge. . . . Sun refers to the spirit of the sun: the source of the life and light and fire of knowledge in our system. — Sunrise, Nov. 1979, p. 47

In such tales the gods are often tricked into giving the fire of mind to mankind. The trickster-hero may be an adult or child, a rabbit, coyote, raven, spider, or even a god. In Greece the titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, and in the Norse Edda the solar god awakens human intelligence in three progressive stages. In Genesis the light of mind is awakened by a serpent, later identified with Lucifer, literally “light bringer.”


Surrounded by the Olympian gods, Prometheus prepares to animate the first man

Much is gained with the awakening of mind, but innocence is lost along with what was once an easy communication with nature — and we become exiled from a paradise we’d never been fully aware of. People often mourn this loss of innocence, but while it’s appropriate for young children and perhaps even infant humanity to be innocent and ignorant, it’s inappropriate and even dangerous for adults. We’ve all heard the story of Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and waking from their childlike dream-state. What I find intriguing is that this was not a one-time event: we continually fall back to sleep, moving through our days on cruise-control, and need to be shaken out of our dream-time — perhaps that’s the real value of eating an apple a day!

We might ask ourselves: Are we sleeping when we should be awake? And if so, what do we do about it? G. de Purucker tells us:

In proportion as you ally yourself with your own inner god, with the fountain of divinity which is constantly pouring through your own inner being, does your consciousness ascend and expand in power and reach, so that with inner growth comes expanding vision on the one hand and the expanding consciousness to interpret that vision on the other hand. — Golden Precepts of Esotericism, p. 16

With our expanding vision also comes a responsibility to share what we see. As we delve into the many meanings of myth and story, we begin to realize that we are participants in them. At some time we each play the part of Lucifer or Prometheus. When we move from ignorance to knowledge, we light up and can then share the light with others. We recognize that spark lighting up whenever we suddenly grasp something significant that’s been eluding us. For a short while I was a literacy tutor to an adult who lived in my rural neighborhood. The day she learned that letters had predictable sounds and that she could figure out words like solving a puzzle, her face was aglow. And so I gave her a new word to sound out: three little letters, C-A-T. Over and over she said them, first to herself, then out loud. Say it faster I prompted, and suddenly C-A-T became cat. There is an enormous gulf between C-A-T and cat, and my friend lived her whole life on the other side of that chasm till she was handed a few clues. I couldn’t make cat out of c-a-t for her, she had to do that; I could only hold the fire of my mind close to hers.

In its lowest or most immature aspect the human mind is self-reflective but dependent on physical senses. This monkey-mind takes information from the eyes and ears and manipulates it: it contrasts and compares and determines preferences. It repeats and replays information over and over to itself. This lower mind understands facts and details, it counts, plans, makes lists, and calculates linearly and sequentially. Think of how literal children are with their attention to the tiniest, most superficial detail. This is due, in part, to their immature ability to generalize or think symbolically and abstractly. It’s very difficult to speak of abstractions like justice or beauty to a five-year-old (though by the time they’re twelve, they’re happy to lecture us on the subject of justice!). As the mind matures, it learns to reason and think logically — but this is still mainly about manipulating sensory information. Reason and logic, often seen as the acme of human development, are an important achievement in our evolutionary progress, but they can be cold, mechanical, life-killing processes.

And so we meet another chasm. Spirit expresses itself through higher mind, and if there is no bridge to these higher parts, if mind is captivated by the garish neon light of the outer world, the inner fire-light of spirit penetrates our nature only through smoke and fumes. Shut off from our spiritual source, we then feel exiled, isolated, and uninspired. To grow spiritually we need to offer the kindling of lower mind to the flames of spirit and higher mind, our seat of compassion, universal principles, intuitive awareness, higher consciousness and understanding. Higher mind has many gifts for us.

But what are we doing with our gifts? The awakening of mind brings us the ability to discover new choices, to reason and think logically, and also to think imaginatively, to conceive of a different future. Our evolving being has spent a small eternity operating out of instinct and automatic processes to finally blossom into a being who can think creatively and make independent choices — and what do we discover? We realize that we are mostly egocentric and usually absorbed by petty things. What an awakening. Judge explained it this way:

Self-consciousness, which from the animal plane looking upward is the beginning of perfection, from the divine plane looking downward is the perfection of selfishness and the curse of separateness. It is the “world of illusion” that man has created for himself. . . . The “eternal pilgrim” must therefore mount higher, and flee from the plane of self-consciousness it has struggled so hard to reach. — Ibid. 1:197-8

So here’s the paradox: it is essential for the parts of our nature that are on automatic pilot (essentially sleeping) to become attentive and self-consciously aware. It’s a wondrous feat, but it’s also the beginning of moral selfishness since it allows us to see ourselves as separate from the whole, as distinct individuals with wants and desires that may go counter to what is healthy for us or for the rest of life. This egotistical self-absorption is simply one stage in our evolution, a temporary downside with an important upside. It is simply one state of our ever-unfolding inner nature.

The world we live in, awake or asleep, is largely one of our own creation. From outer to inner, from mental to emotional to physical, we are constantly altering our center of awareness. In the morning we wake from one kind of reality into another. During the day we can be so taken in by the surface reality of our lives that our whole being becomes absorbed in the daily drama without our questioning it. So the image of lighting the fires of mind and waking up isn’t just about mythical stories of infant humanity or how we wake up each day, but how we need to practice waking up hundreds of times each day.

Just as a flame is in continual motion, all the constituent parts of our being are in constant flux. We are an interactive field of forces; we are like rivers of consciousness with every aspect of our being continually flowing. We can picture our bodies as dynamic fields of energies that, to a certain extent, we direct with our minds. Sometimes we’re aware of this, most times we’re not. The spiritual path is about becoming more and more aware. Emerson, a man whose mind was surely on fire, put it this way in “The Scholar”: “For as the solidest rocks are made up of invisible gasses, as the world is made of thickened light and arrested electricity, so men know that ideas are the parents of men and things.” And just as mind has a higher or inner aspect as well as an outer or known aspect, fire too is perceived as having a concealed aspect as well as a
revealed one, layer upon layer of which we are learning to wake up to.

We sleep till we wake, but even then we’re not finished waking up. What can we do? Perhaps help each other wake up — holding the wick of our consciousness close when someone is struggling to see more deeply, we more than double the light for both of us. Opening to the light of the other’s perspective, we are both warmed. Throughout history there have been those who experienced and knew the true nature of mind. Holding our mind-wick close to their flame often and long enough can help us gain a sense of what it’s like for those who have had their minds catch fire, even if only a little. We live for those rare moments when, as Emerson says in “The Oversoul,” “this deep power in which we exist, whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.”

Our minds are sparks from the divine fire — may we each become a jet of flame.

(From Sunrise magazine, Spring 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)

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There is an inner rhythm which sets the normal beat for human growth. We need to respect that rhythm in ourselves, our friends, and in the children with whom we live and work. Healthy babies grow from one phase to another in a predictable way. Human beings have to learn to crawl before they learn to walk. And when we’re ready to crawl, we’ll find every chance we can to crawl and crawl and crawl — and we don’t want people to stop us from crawling, and we don’t want people to hurry us to walk. — Fred Rogers