Birth is the beginning of the process of incarnation — but only the beginning. Incarnation continues through the entire length of a human life, through birth, childhood, adolescence, full manhood, ripe maturity and on into old age. This is a revolutionary idea, running counter to present scientific theory, but on the basis of the Ancient Wisdom-Teaching we say that it is the missing key in the science of psychology. This is not an empty assertion. It can be tested. Study any course of descriptive psychology and then apply, as an interpretation of the mass of factual material gathered, the principle that there is an inner source of energy, the motivating, selecting, building factor working from within outwards, pushing towards outer expression in the body and the brain, in successive tides of ever increasing power. The student who is willing to follow this theme through in a logical course of study will no longer be content with anything less to explain the mystery of the physical, mental and moral growth of a tiny human seed into a man who towers above the mere animal world.
Leaving aside entirely the biologic view that the body is the man, and that psychological growth to adulthood is merely a building up of continually more complex reflexes — leaving this fantastic view aside, we still find unsatisfactory the generally accepted idea that a soul, God-given and newly made, enters the body at birth or at some vague point thereafter. What is this soul they speak of? What relation has it, if any, to the psychological and so-called hereditary traits that so soon begin to manifest in the child? Does this soul play a major or only a minor part in the formation of character? How is its influence exerted throughout the life? The student of true psychology will want answers to these questions. He does not want to abandon the idea of a soul in man, but he asks that its nature and functions be consistent with the observed phenomena of the various stages of human life. He would be even better pleased if he found that the existence of this soul explained more reasonably than any other theory these same observed facts.
Now the Theosophical philosophy, far from denying the existence of a soul in man, says that there is not only one but many. It describes man as a sevenfold being, his many parts ranging from pure spirit to physical matter. H. P. Blavatsky's Key to Theosophy (pp. 90-92) gives an excellent explanatory Table of what is known in Theosophy as the seven principles in man; and with a preliminary study of this Table the diagram used by Dr. de Purucker in his Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, ch. xviii, will be intelligible. The author here shows that each consciousness-center can be divided into an ego-aspect and a soul-aspect, the soul in each case being the carrier of its corresponding ego-self.
Below is appended a simplified Table listing these egos and souls. It is drawn from the more complicated diagram in Fundamentals, but it should not be taken dogmatically, since no diagram tells all the truth but rather suggests some viewpoint to be studied. It is introduced here because useful to illustrate the present theme.
Divine Ego Divine Soul or
Spiritual Ego Spiritual Soul, Buddhi
Fruit and Seed of Manas
Human Ego Higher Human Soul
Lower Buddhi and Higher Manas
Personal Ego Human Soul or Man
Manas, Kama, and Prana
Beast Ego Vital Astral Soul
Kama and Prana
Body Physical Soul or Body
Sthula-sarira and Prana
Now it is obvious, if we accept the doctrine of reincarnation, that all these ego-souls have been associated in a previous earth-existence. Death is a dissolution of these factors. Reincarnation is the process of their reassembling. Is it any wonder then that the new-born infant is unable immediately to entertain this august assemblage in its entirety? Is it any wonder that Incarnation must be progressive, each ego awaiting its appointed time to manifest its powers in the growing child?
But here we cannot help but ask the question: Is man then one or many? The answer is, He is both, just as the solar universe is one and yet many. The Divine Self is a central sun that gives light and life to his whole kingdom, this light shining progressively less and less brightly as we come down the scale of "selves" to the physical body. This is not to say that the lowest in the scale are heavier with "sin" or are of their inherent nature evil. It indicates rather a logical provision of nature, namely that Divinity can contact the outer world of matter only by means of a ladder of life, each rung of this ladder being composed of living creatures in a descending scale. Thus these ladders are all channels of communication. Man is such a ladder of life, and it is by means of this descending or ascending scale that he is able to touch the fringe of divine things. Ultimately also it will be the means by which the spirit can become incarnate here on earth.
Now I have spoken of reincarnation as a reassembling; but it would be more accurate to say, following the idea set forth in our Table, that reincarnation is a reissuing of a chain of selves, each of which builds its own soul-vehicle by a process of reassembling that vehicle's former life-atoms; and death is then the ingathering of this chain of selves and a dissolution of the life-atoms which formed their bodies. The self in each case is the center or knot of consciousness, and an indivisible; the soul or carrier is in each case a composite, its atoms stamped with the attributes, high or low, that formed the character of the individual in his former life. These attributes are not dimmed nor worn away by death. Each atom bears its indelible stamp like an imprint in stone.
When the child's body is born we can say that the first step of incarnation has been taken, the first step in the "enfleshing" of an invisible entity. To be sure the body is not an ego, but it is listed on the ego-side in our Table because the diffuse life of its purely physical atoms cohere about some vague center which suggests the first glimmer of a consciousness-center. Is it then merely this vague body-ego — a congeries of conscious and cohering atoms — which takes the first step in incarnation? In one sense, perhaps, yes. But it must be remembered that there is, running through and threading together all these selves of man, what is sometimes called the Sutratman or Thread-Self. It is this Ray from the Divine Self which energises all the centers and marshalls them into co-ordinating activity in earth-life, so that even in the new-born body, gasping to catch its first breath of life, there is the finger of Divinity.
One often feels around very small children an impalpable radiance. It is the light from the Divine Ray; for heaven does lie about us in our infancy. Traherne, the mystic of the seventeenth century, even recalls that as he lay in his cradle he seemed to himself to be "an inward sphere of light, a vital sun." He tells us how he lost all memory of this during his childhood and youth, but found it again as a young man when in a state of rapt meditation.
However, this radiance from above-within is more like a reflexion in the child than as yet an actuality. Shades of the prison-house begin to close only too soon; and the actual incarnation of this Divine Ray comes only as the consummation of a fully developed human life.
Almost immediately, albeit imperceptibly as day follows day, we see before our eyes the marvel of the growing infant-body. But it is more than a body, for already from within a second center is stirring — the Beast-Ego we must call it if we are to follow our Table above. It is in any case an elemental being that has been ushered in, a being which knows with unerring instinct how to build with symmetry and beauty. Unless stamped too heavily with an unfortunate past physical karman, it exhibits the charm and comeliness of all Nature's new-born creatures.
The small child, let us say until the age of seven, entertaining as yet only this elemental Beast-Ego, nevertheless shadows forth the possibilities of the egoic center next higher in the scale. Yet so far its reactions are chiefly instinctual, as are those of an animal. While it does not as yet show forth some of the less noble traits that the personal ego later brings in, when its time to incarnate comes (bringing with it its karmic load from the past), neither, on the other hand, does it yet exhibit deep intellectual power, altruistic impulses, profound emotions, compassion and pity. It is artless, trusting, guileless, without thought or care; its troubles are soon forgotten; its emotions but of the moment.
The reactions of the small child have been studied exhaustively by the psychologist, who often bases the entire superstructure of the unfolding life upon these first years, considering them of vital importance, since they determine, he thinks, almost entirely the trends and biasses, the habits and inhibitions of the mature man.
The Theosophist also considers these years important, but for a very different reason. He does not ignore the antics, pretty or otherwise, of this elemental being, and he recognises how deeply impressions may be stamped into its plastic soul-substance. But more than this, he recognises these early years as a time of preparation in which a vessel is in building ready to receive the Personal and later the Higher Human Ego. He knows that as each Ego works through the one below it in the scale, any harms done, any habits formed of an unfortunate nature, will inhibit the action of the next incarnating entity. But however many impediments are put in the way, it is also the teaching, and one which psychologists would find useful, that the Ego can override these stumbling blocks and often does, through the power of the spiritual will; for that will is always there to be called upon, an inexhaustible reservoir of strength and power.
It is obvious that the earliest years of the child's life are the easiest to understand. Differentiation and complexity belong to a later period. Aldous Huxley remarks in his Ends and Means that there has been evolved during the past twenty-five years an excellent system of nursery training, but that the educational methods beyond the nursery have not followed suit. This suggests that the psychologist and child-trainer have mastered the technique of handling the elemental child, but have not yet the clue to the mystery of a further step in incarnation, when the Personal Ego, overshadowed by the true Human Ego, and laden with its freightage of past lives, begins to take possession of the inner citadel.
The Personal Ego, we learn, is dissolved at death; that is, its soul-aspect is dissipated into its component atomic particles, all of which are stamped with their own particular characteristics, called skandhas. The kernel of the egoic center itself is indrawn at death into its parent, the Higher Human Ego. Now at that point in the reincarnation when the body is sufficiently developed for the incoming of this Personal Ego, there are drawn to this focal point of energy all the skandhas of the last life, or possibly lives. Little by little these are inbuilded into the invisible center, like living building bricks gradually shaping as the lower psychological nature. It is usually between the ages of seven and fourteen that we see traits of character suggested — at least those lesser traits that characterize what we often speak of as "just human nature." To the Theosophist these years are of great importance, since it is at this time that a first check can be put upon those tendencies and weaknesses of character which, if allowed to wax too strong and take too great a hold of the inner constitution, can become a dominant factor in a man's life.
The Personal Ego is not in itself evil, but it is primarily self-centered, and out of its interest in self are likely to arise all the faults which are so unreservedly recognised as undesirable: self-indulgence, deceit, hatred, anger, jealousy, and the like. It is no wonder that the adolescent is not understood today. The child himself does not know whence comes flooding in upon him this new tide of temporarily unassimilable forces. He does not know that he inherits from himself, and that the things he finds cropping up in his nature at this time, that seem to invade his inner stronghold like unbidden guests, are actually members of his own household perhaps returning from some long forgotten past. Unfortunately, too, his parents are no more aware than he is of what is taking place in their child. How often one hears parents speak almost in awe of the masterful creature, who but recently they had known as their "little son," now passing entirely out of their limited range of understanding — theirs no longer.
Behind the Personal Ego is the Human Ego, as said. With its incoming are ushered in the first higher mental faculties which bring in their wake responsibility, the power of choice, the will to create, and all the concomitant dangers, joys and sorrows. It is often said that this Self begins to incarnate at about the fourteenth year. But here one must again emphasise the word begin. Each step in incarnation is progressively more complex than the last. The body is most easily brought into being because the physical plane is its natural home; but the invisible entities in man have each to provide for themselves channels of communication with the outer world. They are not native here. They must send out tentacles, as it were, to make contact with a plane more material than their natural habitat. Time is needed in the process. So the incarnation of the Human Ego is a gradual process which continues — or should continue — through the remainder of the life. And rarely, even when the full span of life is run, is this wholly successful.
It is with the ushering in of the Human Ego that the truly higher human qualities begin to manifest. Chief among these is altruism. And though it is the mark of the highest type of mature human being, it is not too soon to begin to stimulate an admiration and love for this quality in the young person just growing out of adolescence. To speak of it as merely "enlightened selfishness" is to deny, or at least to confess one's ignorance of, the existence of a spiritual nature in man. Perhaps the most alarming result of the last century of materialistic thinking is this pernicious teaching, in which altruism is explained as having its first beginnings in the pleasant physical sensations of the babe-in-arms, who wants to bring about or prolong such pleasurable moments. Step by step, however, as he grows he is supposed to learn by a series of associative experiences that sometimes temporary sacrifice of a wished-for thing is desirable, so that, thereby gaining the good will of others, in the long run he may obtain their favors. (1) Ostensibly, they say, he learns to look for no immediate reward for his good works, but tucked away in his "subconscious" is the awareness that he is really bettering himself!
The fact is there is no relation at all between the gratifications of sensations of the small child and the selfless actions of the mature man who brings happiness and peace to others regardless of the suffering it may cause himself. Evolution, whether of the race or of the individual, follows one law: It proceeds, not from below up, nor yet simply from above downwards. It is a twofold process. Involution and evolution take place co-incidently. We see the body building up from below, to be sure; but it can only do this because invisible spiritual factors are involving in matter at the same time. The body would not exist were it not for those same inner powers These misconceptions as to the nature of altruism and the like all spring from a training in materialistic evolution which looks for the origin of all things ultimately in the mire.
In the normal human being the Human Ego should have relatively fully evolved by the time one reaches the prime of life. The higher skandhas should by this time have been drawn back magnetically to their originator, holding within themselves what might be called residual experience — all that was implicit in them from former lives. One reaches the peak of attainment at this time. His character is established, his capacities have flowered. It is almost as though up to this time had been a sort of recapitulation of the achievements of the past, and that from now on new ground must be broken. It is a time when men ask: What next? I have arrived. Is there anything further? Theosophy answers: What about the Spiritual Ego?
It has often been said that the latter half of life is the richer half; that here we have ripened judgment, a seasoned sympathy for the frailties of human character, a benignity and a serenity as though, having pierced life's illusions and found them bubbles, we have arrived at a juster sense of values. But how seldom is this the case! As the powers of the physical and lower personal man begin to wane, as the flesh becomes more refined and the clamor for sensation is stilled, often there is an emptiness and a sense of futility, and at best man finds himself slipping into a sort of automatic repetition of what he already has done and been, and as the years pass he sees this mechanism imperceptibly slackening until by the age of three score years and ten he becomes but a feeble echo of his former self. At worst he finds this sense of futility too much for him and he simply "cracks up'. (2)
But middle life need not be an impasse. The spiritual resources as yet hardly tapped are inexhaustible. Physical energy has to be replaced by the energy of the spiritual will. More truly than at any other time may we say that all the life up to this point has been a preparation. The ideal state is where the body, emotions and mind have been trained in a healthy discipline, having been recognised as handmaidens of the spirit. In proportion as this has been done, to that extent is the way open for the incarnation of the Spiritual Ego. This is the supreme goal of our humanhood. We are, as a matter of fact, not yet fully humanized. But we cannot expect to accomplish this complete humanization in a few short lives nor yet in many. Probably some of our reincarnations are merely times when we automatically go through the round of birth, growth, maturity, old age and death, carried along in the grooves of a long-established habit, little realizing that our purpose is to prepare for the incarnation of a god, the god within our own being. It is not enough that this god is free and active on its own high plane. Of what avail is that to the lower struggling elements in the human constitution? Here on this earth the Incarnation must take place, and not until the race as a whole has accomplished this, will our perpetual round of earth-lives cease. So we can count as lost that imbodiment that does not leave a record of some effort made to prepare for this sublime event.
We cannot always judge where the leap ahead is being taken. A man of successful well-balanced life that flowers to his complete satisfaction in middle age may not have gone as far as one who has seen the god-like vision within, and leaping too high in trying to make it his own has failed and suffered defeat. His effort is not lost and will return in another life as a larger increment of the will to succeed, while the former successful one may find himself saddled in another life with a strange inertia which he cannot shake off.
It would be a study in itself to discuss how this effort can be made. The Wise Ones of all lands have shown us the way, but their words often seem too simple to bother with. They are the pioneers of the race who will not let humanity rest until it awakens to a realization of its inevitable divine destiny.
1. See, for instance, The Psychology of Abnormal People, by John J. B. Morgan, Ph. D., Longmans, Green and Co., 1937, pp. 252-4. (return to text)
2. Gerald Heard quotes Jung in his Man the Master who states that a large number of his patients are drawn from men over forty, who are restless and dissatisfied in spite of their achievements. These he calls second adolescents who, if they are able to attain a second adulthood, will emerge as a new type whose greater evolutionary growth will mark them as natural leaders of the race. (return to text)