The Theosophical Forum – August 1938

NATURE STUDIES: XIV — H. Percy Leonard

The Heresy of Separateness

"Although undivided, it appeareth as divided among men." — Bhagavad-Gita, chapter xiii

The soul embodied in a human form is subject to the sway of the illusion of separateness and personality, and so powerful is the deception produced as to impose even upon those who have penetrated somewhat deeply into the study of their own natures. It is comparatively easy to conceive of universal life sleeping within the stone, dreaming in the plant, half waking in the animal, and reaching full self-consciousness in man; but to apply this theory as rule of practice in our daily life is quite another thing. This much at all events is plain, that in proportion as we dwell in thought among our bodily sensations and material things, so does the fallacy of separated life fasten its grip upon our minds; while in so far as we ignore the sense-impressions and allow the mind to wander forth and blend in sympathy with life expressed in other forms, do our confining walls expand and set us free.

A life of freedom from all selfish care, and that supreme, impersonal serenity which knows no ebb or flow, would seem to be of such transcendent worth as to attract all men in their pursuit, and yet we find that very few have entered on the quest. The vast majority are willing victims of the glamor of that pole of feeling, known as pleasure, and they spend their time and energies in a mad chase upon its trail. Time after time they find that every mounting pleasure is succeeded by its dull recoil, just as a swimmer is upborn upon a wave only to plunge the deeper in the trough behind; and yet so strongly does the charm allure that till the winter of old age chills their desires, they lavish all their powers upon the hopeless chase.

According to some keen observers, pain as well as pleasure wields a fascinating power over deluded man and though the notion may at first be scouted as absurd, it is sufficiently arresting to challenge our inquiry. Everybody must have observed how the mind in leisure moments will drag the memory of a long-forgotten grievance from its hiding-place and will revel in the sense of injury and of morbid self-pity which the recollection affords. In fact it is only when the last bitter drop has been drained that the ancient sorrow is cast aside, and even then the mind is just as likely to select some other painful memory on which to brood as a pleasant one. The flattering compliment, the acrimonious attack; the rosiest prospect we have ever seen, the worst of all the nameless terrors which have chilled our blood; our deepest loves, our most intense dislikings; both the pairs of opposites are conjured up and galvanized to life once more, for both are equally effective to focus our attention on the point of personality and to counteract that yearning for expansion that would set us free.

As prisoners long confined are said to cling with fond affection to their old familiar cells, so do we crouch within the personality and oscillate between the poles of pleasure and pain; we hide behind our prison walls and fear to venture forth and enter on the larger life that lies beyond. It is said that when the poet Wordsworth was a boy, he was sometimes so overwhelmed by a sense of vastness and expansion that as he walked to school he would reach out his hand and touch the nearest wall or tree, that from the shock of contact with material things he might recall to life his fading consciousness of personality. Most people who have wandered lonely among scenes of an unusual grandeur and sublimity must have had a similar experience, and the alacrity with which they plunge into the social whirl on their return to common life is prompted by no other motive than to revive the line of demarcation of their own familiar egotism which had grown a little blurred by lack of contact with their fellow-men.

Some men on reaching this stage in their evolution are strong enough to grapple with their personality and by determined effort force it to take its proper place, that of a willing servant with no other aim than to subserve the interests of the soul in everything relating to its daily life among material things. For others less heroic there remains the method of self-conquest by a gradual subjugation. The personality is stinted by degrees and not permitted to appropriate such large supplies of mental substance and of vital force to foster its unbalanced and unnatural growth; for as the personality is made the subject of our constant thought so does it fatten and increase, while as we cease to feed it and engage the mind in wider fields, its independent life begins to weaken and its fierce, insistent self-assertion to decline.

Silence has always been commended by the sages as a specific agent to dissolve the crust in which we are confined; but silence from the Theosophic point of view means vastly more than to refrain from uttered speech, an exercise of little value if the mind is not restrained as well. Intense activity of mind may coexist with vocal silence, and the creative mental force may spend itself in weaving pictured webs of thought in which one's virtues and accomplishments stand out in brilliant contrast with the somber background of the failings of our fellow-man. But to control all exercise of thought, to still the vehemence of our desires, and by a steady effort of the will to rise into the outer quiet where all mental agitation dies — this is an enterprise to tax our loftiest powers. In the deep hush of that eternal silence the confining shell that rings us round disintegrates and vanishes away. There the harsh voice of criticism never comes to drive us back to shelter in our fortress of defense. There no impinging wave of love or hate revives the sharpness of our boundary-line, and thus insensibly it melts away and sets the prisoner free, a pure, impersonal force in Nature that has found its way to liberty at last. The home from which we started and to which we must return is nothing other than the boundless Vast itself, the freedom of its ample spaces being gained by the mere breaking loose from the inclosing walls of personality in which we are confined.

[Conclusion of this series]

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