The Theosophical Forum – April 1944


[Note: page numbers cited for The Esoteric Tradition are to the 2-vol. Second Edition and do not correspond to the 1-vol. 3rd & Revised Edition.]

A large and intelligent audience has followed with sympathy and interest Dr. Brunton's pilgrimage toward philosophical and mystical insight as displayed in the nine volumes which have already come from his pen. This one, The Wisdom of the Overself, (1) completes the exposition given in his earlier volume, The Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga, and represents the culmination of many years of research, study and self-discipline. He says it is a re-statement or living reconstruction of the "Ancient Wisdom" (which we know also as "Theosophy') of the Orient, "whose basic essentials are indeed impregnable and will remain untouched for all time," presented in a form adapted to the present conditions in the West and including time-honored disciplines of a mental and spiritual nature suited to the conditions of Western life. This book, of course, does not cover the whole field but is chiefly concerned with mind and consciousness in the universe and in man. The author writes:

The two volumes now lay before readers a teaching which constitutes an endeavor to acquaint this epoch with the fundamental meaning of existence and which, in such explicit fullness, is for the first time written down in a Western language. An exposition in such an ultra-modern form was until now quite non-existent. . . . Readers may begin to understand better why the earlier volumes had to clear up the intellectual foreground and leave hidden in the background the real goal of all this effort, the Overself.

The Overself is the author's term for the "higher individuality" in man which is a phase of the "World-Mind." It is "that fragment of God which dwells in man."

The reader will find in this book a rich store of stimulating ideas to ponder over and perhaps to put into practice. Although the main principles are not unfamiliar to well-informed students of Theosophy, this reviewer believes that Dr. Brunton's careful analysis of the Mind calls for close study, especially by those who are preparing to discuss with professional psychologists, few of whom possess correct knowledge of the profound psychology of the Ancient Wisdom.

Dr. Brunton unequivocally repudiates all pandering to the vulgar craving for psychic powers and other perversions of Occultism so rampant in this maladjusted age. He claims no authority, saying that the spirit behind his attempt is a humble one though the effort is bold. He professes to be no more than a fellow-student who has had special opportunities to explore and study the scattered and broken fragments of Sanskrit literature which are hidden in Chinese, Tokhari, and Tibetan translations. But he adds "for the encouragement of aspirants" that some of his statements are not only the outcome of his re-interpretations but of "present-day experience," presumably meaning his meditations and application thereof. He pays high tribute to an Asiatic philosopher or teacher he met in the deserted temples of Cambodia and above all to the late Maharaja of Mysore for light on difficult problems. Neither of these, he says, were emotional mystics or mere intellectualist metaphysicians.

He writes for all whose pained observation of, or sharing in, the awful experiences of this war-mangled era and whose desire no longer to suffer blindly have aroused an inner prompting to seek for practical help. He says, "it is the inescapable duty of whoever knows that a higher Hope exists for mankind to speak the lost Word for the sake of those who will listen." But "these leaves are sent out across the window without adolescent illusions about their reception and if a few of them shall flutter down to rest awhile beside a friend or two and remind him of his divine origin and destiny it shall surely be enough."

H. P. Blavatsky must have felt the same when she dedicated her The Voice of the Silence to "the Few", and advised the study of the Bhagavad-Gita and Light on the Path; but owing to the spread of the Theosophical Movement a great increase has taken place in the number of students who can appreciate such teachings. In this volume Dr. Brunton quotes with understanding from The Voice of the Silence and Light on the Path, and here and in his Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga he pays a very high tribute to the Bhagavad-Gita.

So many topics are discussed in this remarkable work that it is impossible to do it justice in the limited space at disposal, but the most important chapters on the philosophic side are those which demonstrate that Ideas not only rule the world but that the universe is made of as well as made by Ideation, an uncomprising presenta-of the Theosophical principle of "Objective Idealism," which Dr. Brunton says has been only half adopted by many Eastern and Western idealists. He calls his doctrine "Mentalism," the antithesis to Materialism, interpreting it as "the fundamental principle that in the last analysis Mind is the one reality, the only substance, the only existence," and that "this entire panorama of universal existence is nothing but a mental experience and not merely a mental representation of a separate material existence." He shows how to "arrive at such conclusions not only by a straight-line sequence of reasoned thinking but also by a re-orientation of consciousness during advanced mystical meditation." According to the mentalist point of view, consciousness itself is an aspect of Mind, and Mind reaches to the highest plane, to the divine, or as we might say, to Parabrahm.

Subsidiary topics discussed in relation to Mentalism include Evil and Suffering; Karma and Reincarnation; War conditions and causes; Death, Sleep and Dreams; Time; After Death states, and others. The state of Devachan is interpreted with profound understanding, and Spiritualism is treated without offence but with well-informed discrimination. "The Mystical Phenomena of Meditation" (which does not mean psychic phenomena) commands an important section of a work like this which is devoted to the demonstration that man is an integral part of a Living, Conscious Universe.

Dr. Brunton introduces his analysis of Mentalism by a study of the extraordinary image-making power of the mind in dreams, which duplicates on a small scale the infinitely greater power of the World-Mind in shaping the Cosmos by Divine Imagination, "God-dreaming," he calls it. In our dreams some unfamiliar part of the mind beyond the ordinary consciousness creates apparently independent beings and dramatises them into living and acting personalities who even argue among themselves. The dreamer accepts such vivid dream appearances as perfectly real and natural, yet they are only mental constructions lasting as long as the Hidden Artificer holds them in his mind! So by analogy we may dimly understand that our waking experience, nay the manifested Universe itself, is the reflexion or activity of a transcendent and eternal Mind. It is only ephemeral in the sense that it is ever-changing. Can we get to know the Hidden Artificer of our dreams, and in that way approach the Overself? Dr. Brunton thinks we can.

Dr. Brunton's methods of self-study and self-discipline have none of the dangers or abnormal practices of so much that passes in the West under the alluring title of Indian Yoga. He takes it for granted that the aspirant for self-knowledge is inspired by unselfish motives, the betterment of his neighbor as much as of himself. The methods are whole-heartedly directed toward wide, universal and impersonal horizons and away from the limitations of the personality, the "under-self" as Dr. Brunton labels it. His technique, if it may be so-called, is aimed to help the student to rise above the need of techniques or any help that does not come from within; and the result in no way impoverishes a life of attainment in the wholesome activities of the outer world. On the contrary, success in this endeavor brings the wonder and glory of the transcendental consciousness into all the doings of this workaday space-time existence.

The acquisition of even a high degree of mystical vision must not be regarded as an end in itself. This mistake has often been made by many who have made some progress behind the veil; and in regard to "heavenly visions" of saints and yogis it is well known that some celebrated mystics had none and yet were more advanced in spirituality than others who had plenty. Many of the latter, Eastern as well as Western, suffered from the extremes of rapturous ecstasy and dreary dryness. The author remarks that "an unbroken serene assurance of the divine ever-presence is immeasurably better." Nature hurls the self-absorbed mystic back to the world every time he tries to disregard it and remain permanently in his trance, for we are here "in the flesh for instructive experience, not for stultifying desertion," and it is "only in the fully-awakened state that the widest consciousness of reality is attained." The mental blank that is associated with much of trance-yoga (such as that of the Indian yogis who allow themselves to be buried alive for months) is valueless. As Dr. Brunton says, "they leave the idiot in full possession of his idiocy, the self-deceived in undisturbed proprietorship of his illusions," and he shows that while a well-considered system of thought and meditation leads through "authority, logic, pseudo-intuition and mystical experience," the latter must always be checked by "reason" which he defines as "the active functioning of human intelligence stretching from the practical-scientific pole to the abstract metaphysical one." Otherwise it will prove sterile and lead to no worthy purpose. The right combination provides a trustworthy spiritual background to rest on in daily life, and especially in unselfish, impersonal service to others. He says, "In striving for the triumph of Good instead of letting contemplation die with itself he must let it fertilize his deeds," and when he aptly quotes from Light on the Path, "Seek the way by retreating within," he immediately adds the balancing precept, "Seek the way by advancing boldly without."

The author criticizes those who regard waking life as an evil or an illusion, declaring that it is only in embodiment that achievement of our highest destiny is possible, even though it take many incarnations, for "The Spirit of Heaven must descend to earth and enter through the door of the body and be a welcomed guest whilst we are fully awake." The descent of the higher consciousness, the "Over-self," into the personality is not an emotional disturbance but is quiet and untheatrical. The Power which is behind the universal life can only inspire the personal life of man if he obeys the ancient teaching "Thy will be done," and in order to enter the sacred union with the Cosmic or Divine Will "every illumined religious, mystic, and philosophical teacher has voiced the need of self-surrender." All this is, of course, good Theosophical doctrine.

Instructive and interesting chapters in this book deal with a knowledge of the deeper reaches of consciousness which can be studied through control of the mind in sleep and dream. Have we not all wondered why we must spend nearly one third of our brief lives in an unconscious state? But it would seem that it is our own fault. During sleep we can if we will take a wonderful journey within ourselves. When the writer of Job said that "in a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men ... he openeth the ears of men and sealeth their instructions," (33, 15) he was repeating what the wise have always known; but not all have been able to interpret the saying. Dr. Brunton follows the mind as it penetrates in sleep to states of consciousness unknown to the waking personality but which need not remain unknown to the earnest student. The training is of course all done by the student himself; all that another person can do is to give a few simple directions and warnings. Dr. Brunton quotes from the Sanskrit Tripura: "Unbroken supreme awareness even in dream is the mark of the highest order of sages," but he encourages those who are not of that class but who are only beginners in self-training and self-discipline by saying that flashes of insight may come at any time if they are sincere and hold to the highest ideals of morality. In this connexion he adds that "the real altruist who does not primarily seek his own happiness finds it, while the intense egotist who is always seeking it, never finds it." And in regard to the higher knowledge and wisdom obtained in sleep he says:

Thus the sleep state, which is so devoid of light and significance during the present psychological state of mankind, becomes full of both for the developed man.

In many places in his The Esoteric Tradition Dr. de Purucker discusses the subject of sleep and dream, chiefly in connexion with his profound analysis of the Theosophical teaching that the universe is in all its reaches strictly a manifestation of Mind, "embodied Thought." (p. 180, etc.) In an unpublished lecture by Dr. de Purucker given on July 28, 1940, he said that in order to speed up his evolution by more fully understanding the nature of his own being man must learn to be fully conscious during sleep, and ultimately through the change we call death. I quote from my own notes: "We men are not truly alert to what is in us and what we can do. ... First learn to be fully awake when you are in the Jagrat state — the state we are in now, physical wakefulness. . . . Then learn to carry that self-conscious state of awakening with you when you are asleep. Thirdly, and highest, learn to be self-consciously awake after death. . . . Consciousness is a continuity, but we have not taught ourselves to be self-consciously awake when we sleep, or self-consciously awake when we die. But it is in you; it is in you for the asking." Dr. Brunton's teaching of the close resemblance between sleep and death is in perfect accord with that of Theosophy, so often emphasized by Dr. de Purucker because of its great importance.

In his chapters on methods of meditation in waking and in preparing for mind control in sleep, Dr. Brunton quotes the Buddha's teaching about making the mind "flexible" through exercise; and the exercises he recommends are perfectly natural and sensible and have no resemblance whatever to the dangerous breath-control, hypnotic, or other psychic methods unfortunately associated with the word "yoga" because of the perversions spread so widely in the West by charlatans and money-makers. It is no crime to wish to prove for oneself the existence of other planes of being or of the psychic faculties in man. The effort, however, forcibly to crash the gate into the astral world, to gratify "occult" curiosity by getting out of the physical body and traveling around, and so forth, shows an entire misapprehension of the kind of knowledge which is desirable. It likewise reveals an absolute ignorance, however well meaning, of the unhappy possibilities which lie in wait for the rash invader who crosses the threshold without the protection which surrounds those who have proved their right to enter and who have necessary business in the unwholesome regions of the lower astral light.

In his instructions to the beginner in meditation Dr. Brunton warns the aspirant not to be carried away by various wonders that may occur, for they are only incidentals, fugitive and fragmentary. "The Ultimate has no shape, size, color, or voice whatever." This is well known to students of true occultism. More than sixty years ago William Q. Judge in his Letters That Have Helped Me warned the devotional members of the Theosophical Society of these "lures," as he called them, saying:

There are so many, many of these things. Often they result from extraordinary tension or vibration in the aura of an aspirant of pure devotion. They are himself, and he should be on his guard against taking them for wonders. . . . They are like new lights and sights to a mariner on an unknown coast. They will go on and alter or stop. You are only to carefully note them, and "do not wonder or form association."

The Wisdom of the Overself closes with a noble chapter on the practical aspect of the philosophy and the need of attaining some measure of self-knowledge. Dr. Brunton claims that there is a master plan behind the universe, and that in the present death pangs of the old order, when we are striving for higher values, a nobler conception of life can be found if men will only grasp the opportunity. In regard to what he calls "insight," a word he uses to designate the highest faculty of the mind, higher even than intuition, he writes in eloquent terms:

Whoever believes that the awakening of insight is something which affects the intelligence only, believes wrongly. For with it there is a simultaneous awakening of the finest qualities of the heart. Indeed, in this transcendent sphere to which the philosopher penetrates, thought and feeling are inseparable. Compassion is released automatically along with the mental insight itself. One and the same Mind is the inner nature of all men. This is why he who realises it for himself throws down the hard barrier which isolates the "I" from the "you."


1. The Wisdom of the Overself. By Paul Brunton. E. P. Dutton, New York. 463 pages. $3.75. (return to text)

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