The Theosophical Forum – July 1940

"FREEDOM OF THE SPIRIT" — Irene R. Ponsonby

Readers who appreciated his article 'Is There an Unconscious?' in The Theosophical Forum for April, 1940, will welcome this book, The Meaning of Happiness (1) by Alan W. Watts.

Periods of transition, of regeneration, such as the present cycle, test the fiber of human integrity. It is not remarkable, therefore, that psychological unrest and conflict work mental and physical havoc in the lives of an increasing number of men and women every year. And each year new efforts arise to combat the evil. For the most part, Psychology has man sitting on the fence besieged by the importunity of such terms as 'the two moralities,' 'neuroses,' and 'reflexes,' the 'acceptance of or escape from life,' while he tries to figure out just what he can or cannot tolerate in his life.

Why are so many of these movements which seek to eradicate the general misery failures in their own field of action? Because only those whose teachings are based on a recognition of universal law touch the hearts of men and heal the conflict. And all the time evolution takes care of the demons: the gods share man's association with divinity by invitation only — Man can redeem the whole by wholeheartedly identifying himself with the things he is proud and happy to cherish; the rest is best ignored.

This problem is not a new one nor is it unique to the West, though the above expressions are typical of the attitude and approach of Occidental thought. For ages the spiritual energies of the universe have delved into the material sphere and worked for the evolution of its manifestation. Now the tide of life has turned; involution of matter has begun, and in the consequent evolution of spirit, unification and universality become the keynotes of progress. That composite entities should be opposed one to another is inevitable, but conflict of self within the composites themselves points to inherent weakness of fiber. Has the product of self-consciousness, the human soul, become so matter-enthralled in the realms of the descending arc that even egoity is jeopardized?

The East promulgated a solution of this problem ages before the advent of Western civilization. The seven stages of Yoga and Gautama's Four Verities and Noble Eightfold Path are but three of the least misunderstood doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism treating of self-conquest. Due partly to this misunderstanding, but especially to the fact that the esoteric keys are unknown to the West, these great tenets have scarcely benefitted the average man. Will the teachings of Eastern and Western Psychology taken together be more successful? Will they point to a primitive and universal source of Religion?

The Meaning of Happiness is a stimulative study of the quest for freedom of the spirit in modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East. Replete with fine material, the book "does not name a single thing one can do in order to be happy," but in living words "quite clear to the 'man-in-the-street' but utterly obscure to the philosopher" it reviews in seven chapters the pertinent aspects of ancient and modern thought as introductory to the central theme and final chapter, 'The Love of Life'. Believing that the simplest truths have to stand on their heads, as in a paradox, before we recognise them, the author shows us the fundamental simplicities of life as in a mirror, and phrased with originality of perspective and color — a setting in which the depth and glow of the grand tenets of Religion are enhanced. Here are a few ideas which set the reader's thought vibrating.

. . . if our eyes cannot see themselves, how much less can that something which looks through the eyes see itself. (p. xxiii)

The beauty of life is not in any of its stages but in the whole movement from birth to death, p. 53)

Centuries of civilization have orphaned us from nature both in and around us. (pp. 65-6)

The modern Westerner is apt to make a God of his ego rather than an ego of his God. (p. 74)

. . . the free man is so filled with gratitude to life for the freedom to be all of himself that he joyfully renounces it. This is where true freedom guards itself against abuse, (p. 195).

The heresy of separateness and man's relation to the Universe are effectively discussed from many angles; so are the nature of the ego and the principle of duality. There are interesting comparisons between ancient and modern Psychology, in the course of which the several schools of the latter and their exponents receive just apprisal. In this context the author states:

In the West psychology is a new science; in the East it is very ancient, and in fact it is not correct to speak of Oriental philosophy at all, for in no sense is it philosophy as we understand it. Essentially it is neither speculative nor academic; it is experimental and practical, and is much closer to psychology than philosophy. (p. xv)

The Religions of the East postulate a composite universe and man, at least fivefold and more generally sevenfold in constitution, and they define for each of these centers or egos its particular sphere of consciousness. Therefore, while aptly describing the applicability of the Eastern teachings to human needs, Psychology seems too limiting a term for so comprehensive a system of Cosmology.

Some of Alan Watts's comments on Christianity are so arresting that they merit further elaboration; however he maintains:

Christianity is our traditional faith; it is in our blood and bones. Therefore it is possible and very desirable that the wisdom of Asia and the psychology of the unconscious will bring its treasures to light again and interpret them in a way that will give us an altogether new zest for it.

And then he explains that Christian symbolism had no real meaning for him until he had studied the religions of the East, though he considers that the result would have been much the same had he read "Eckhart, Augustine, a. Kempis, Berdyaev and others of their caliber instead of the sages of India and China." (p. 137)

Be that as it may, it is the phrase 'traditional faith' that intrigues this reviewer. Humanity today is the ward of the ages, having expressed their racial and religious impress life after life through the cycles. Yet the individual is cognisant of inherent leaning towards one or another of such impresses. True, the die of our present cast is welded by Christianity — into its sphere we have been drawn by karmic attraction — but can the earlier and possibly stronger impressions of the past be entirely ignored? Surely the impact of such past experiences penetrates deeper than blood and bones. We prefer to believe that a heritage of the Wisdom-Religion of the ages stirs in the hearts of men of many varied creeds and some day they will claim this as their 'traditional faith.'

Here a necessary distinction should be drawn between Religion and religions, between those great movements that imbody a cyclic impetus toward racial evolution and the numerous lesser efforts of a religio-philosophical or psychological character which arise as sincere but not always wise response on the part of earnest individuals to existing conditions. The former are causal in origin and effect; the latter are the product of transition, and seldom outlive the age that bred them. The persons of the great founders and the universality of the doctrines of the former point undeviatingly to a College of Sages and Seers, to a Mother-Source of Truth; whereas the diffusiveness of the latter contributes to their undoing.

Had this distinction been recognised by the author of The Meaning of Happiness, bona fide Theosophy, as the modern expression of "the essence of all Religion" and "the most serious movement of the age" would have received its due in this otherwise fine survey. In addition some aspects obscure in Alan Watts's interpretation of the sublime teachings of the East would have been revealed to add their power to the beauty of this book. Verily, "the freedoms of the spirit are not attained by violence of the will but by an infinite patience of the imagination."


1. Harper and Brothers, New York. 200 pp. $2.50. (return to text)

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