The doctrine of Cycles is emphasized in Theosophy, as it is so many-sided and so far-reaching in its application to all phases of life and to all conditions of matter. A cycle means a ring or "turning." It is not a closed ring; rather, it is a continuous rounding course, advancing on a rising level. Cycles may be likened to a circular stairway, where, in going up or down, we are always above or below the level of the preceding step or round. Another example of a cyclic course is seen in the thread of a screw, which winds around and upward from the point. A more typical form of the enlarging circle is found in the widening spiral of the common snail-shell. This type is symbolic of the evolutionary progress of all things; and not least of all, it symbolizes the natural expanding life-course of us human beings, as we return to Earth, again and again. We follow an absolutely universal
"law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature. An alternation such as that of Day and Night, Life and Death, Sleeping and Waking, is a fact so common, so perfectly universal and without exception, that it is easy to comprehend that in it we see one of the absolutely fundamental laws of the universe."
— The Secret Doctrine, 1,17
There are cycles within cycles. Man — both the individual and the race as a whole — though evidently rising and falling in lesser cycles, yet is ever becoming more aware of what is within his own nature as well as what is without him. While he is exploring widening fields of the material world and its forces, he is also becoming more at home in a grander range of humanhood.
The doctrine of Cycles was taught in one of the profoundest and at root oldest of all religions — Vedantism — and its importance was recognised throughout the ancient world. The Greek philosophers also taught it in their time. But the West lost sight of it in the narrow, dogmatic teachings of later centuries. Now, however, in the wider range of scientific findings, the recurrence of events and of conditions stands out in bold outline. Leading minds are observing and analysing the statistics of wars, of business eras of activity and depression, of the appearance of great men, of the rise and fall of arts and sciences, of earthquakes, epidemics, wet and dry seasons, of the rise and fall of nations, of sun-spots, etc., etc.
H. P. Blavatsky states that of old the learned soothsayers and augurs held the same place now taken by historians, astronomers, and meteorologists. A true knowledge of the relation of cycles in the realm of Nature to periodic events in human affairs enabled them to forecast important events with certainty. She also points out, in The Secret Doctrine, Volume I, page 646, published in 1888 — when no one thought of a World War:
"It is neither prevision, nor prophecy; no more than is the signalling of a comet or star, several years before its appearance. It is simply knowledge and mathematically correct computations which enable the Wise Men OF THE East to foretell, for instance, that . . . Europe in general [is] threatened with, or rather, on the eve of, a cataclysm, which her own cycle of racial Karma has led her to."
The Wise Men referred to here are a superior body of men, members of the great White Lodge, which has been active in all ages, and whose verified records of events and of human evolution go back to the night of time. These noble men are the Mahatmans or Masters of Wisdom whose training in true Occultism enables them, individually, to read in this racial history the larger truth that "that which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been." (Eccles., iii, 15)
For centuries, the Masters have utilized the last quarter of the hundred-year cycle as a favorable time for making special efforts to awaken men to their own spiritual nature. Moreover, it was known, that near the end of the nineteenth century, several important cycles would end and new ones begin. Then there would follow a period of change and transition in every line of thought and activity — the period we are now in. Evidently we are being challenged to understand the finer forces of our own nature, as the next step in human progress.
The Masters, always timing their work in harmony with natural law and with human conditions, sent their Messenger, H. P. Blavatsky, to found the Theosophical Society, in 1875. She came to restore to the West the forgotten philosophy of life which, alone, could save our modern civilization from disaster. It is noteworthy that this work, starting with a new spiritual cycle, has succeeded, for the first time, in carrying an active, organized body of Theosophical students from one century into the next. The significant fact is that the Theosophical Movement has steadily grown in strength and influence, while the old order of things, in general, has been and is rapidly changing and passing away. The teachings of Karman, Reincarnation, Cycles, the Divinity of Man, etc., have permeated the thought-world and are common topics everywhere. Moreover, various intuitive scientists are openly recognising, in the truths of the Ancient Wisdom, the unifying link between man and the Universe, of which he is an inseparable part.
Cycles are so common that we take them as much for granted as we do the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the solid earth under our feet. Every heart-beat repeats a small cycle of activity and of rest, the rhythmic inflow and outgo of the blood-stream never ceasing while life lasts. In this momentary cycle, an incoming tide of vitality pauses at flood, only to surge out again. It is a miniature copy of the great cosmic sweep of worlds and of Universes, coming into being, reaching their apex of manifestation, and then dissolving in the ocean of Space, for a cosmic rest, and then another, grander round. The Ancients summed it up: "As above, so below."
Every tick of the clock rounds out a tiny cycle of seconds, which make up the minutes whose recurrence marks the hours, which, in turn, expand into the rhythmic tide of light and darkness in day and night — wheels within wheels. The orderly round of days makes the weeks, which grow into the months and years and centuries. There is an endless succession of cycles within cycles of time, from the moment up to the majestic sweep of Universes coming and going in their cosmic "turning."
Nature continually repeats itself, and follows the lines of least resistance in doing things over and over in aiming at perfect work. The ocean tides ebb and flow with clock-like regularity. The birds time their migrations to and fro with the seasons. The sap in the orchard-trees rises for the annual growth of leaves and buds and flowers and fruit, and then goes down to rest again. Each year the returning seasons repeat the unfolding picture of winter's cold, of spring's awakening, of the summer's ripening growth; and then the harvest-home of autumn completes the yearly cycle of change, of progress. The return of New Year's day finds everything different — all men and things have moved more or less along the common pathway of Life. Our growth, our evolution, does not go forward like a train on a straight track. We progress along a spiral path, ever returning toward a past circuit of our experience, but always bounding the curve in another, broader sweep. Even our Earth, following the Sun in space, traces a spiral journey onward.
The mere infant creeps but slowly through his tiny daily cycle. But on the whole, he moves on, leaving the small circuit of infancy to merge into the larger course of childhood. The child's returning birthdays find him with a stronger body, a livelier mind, and a dawning moral sense. Thus the individual life-journey moves on and on through the varied "seven ages" which Shakespeare pictures. Helpless old age is but the twilight period of one earth-life. Meantime, the Inner Man, in gradually withdrawing from this plane, is preparing to emerge in the dawn of a new spiritual cycle in the invisible realms. For life itself is continuous; and the real Self, which shows forth on Earth when we are at our very best, is vividly conscious and at home during the after-death cycle of peace and bliss and rest. The deathless Self ever ingathers the essence and meaning of all our earthly experiences, and assimilates them during the mystic journey after death. Thus with each "return" to Earth, we come enriched and enlarged by all we have gone through, both when imbodied in flesh and when free to soar.
"Evolution is but another word for cyclic law." The opportunities of these continued turnings and re-turnings enable us to bring forth and express the intellectual and spiritual faculties which are wrapped up within us. In the millions of years since we had the gift of mind and had free will to act, we have gone up and down on an enlarging spiral pathway of experience in good and evil. The karmic result of all this is reflected in our character, in our conflicting aspirations and desires of today.
Habits make character; for each time we do a thing it makes a deeper impression, so that we instinctively repeat it over and over. Sometimes a weakness which seems to have been conquered, reappears in a different form. For instance, a harmful appetite may give way to some other indulgence, or it may appear as selfish ambition or as self-righteousness. Our habits return again and again, helping or hindering us up or down in our career. But the stumbling-blocks we have put in our own pathway can be turned into stepping-stones, when we will to use them in that way. Instead of vitalizing a weakness by fighting it, we may use mind and heart and hands in some noble substitute. The returning impulses of gloom or anger or jealousy, or what not, may be connected with and finally replaced by the opposite emotion. We can start a new cycle at any time, to overlap the old one, just as a new and wider horizon opens up before the mountain-climber as he ascends.
The present is a significant time for all of us, individually and collectively. A dawning spiritual cycle is already overlapping the passing darkness of crass materialism. We have the privilege and the responsibility of working with the rising tide of spiritual force to make real progress and to help others. In the ebb and flow of human affairs there are periods of advancement and of retardation. Knowledge of cycles and of self, enables one to work with the progressive forces, and to avoid wasting energy when things generally are at a standstill. Now is a time to act nobly, courageously, and with trust in our own birthright of Divinity.
How often has archaeology uncovered evidences of mankind's return to locations where superimposed cities, each in its turn, had arisen, flourished, and were buried under ages of dust? Whole civilizations have also cycled through their rise, development, and decay. The classical story of "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" tells of familiar examples. Furthermore, the archaic records tell of many others, prehistoric eras of great racial attainment and decay. Visible evidences of these unknown times are seen in the strange archaeological remains in Central and South America and elsewhere, and in those more recent finds in Central Asia, Crete, Egypt, etc., that speak of the mighty past. Theosophy adds that no historical civilization has yet attained to the splendor reached by the Atlanteans. However, the same Egos who lived and loved and wrought and suffered throughout forgotten ages are evidently reincarnating again today.
The rapidity with which the modern world is re-discovering and reinventing, along every material line, points to recovery of former knowledge by the incoming souls. The average children are born more conscious than were their forebears; and our modern youth takes to the unfolding marvels of aviation, radio, etc., as matters-of-course. The savage races are mostly the degenerate and dying remnants of great civilizations. They too, will disappear as races. But the reincarnating Egos who lived as different types of men during the various racial periods, will cycle back, each in a time and place karmically suited to his own further progress.
The Theosophical history of mankind places our present humanity in the Fifth Race, somewhat past the mid-point of the great cycle of our earthly existence. The four earlier Races rounded out their careers on different continents, each only gradually giving way during the ages in which the next one was forming, until the final cataclysm ended the closing cycle. The Bible pictures a closing scene in the story of Noah and the flood — an event in racial history which is repeated, under various names, in the teachings of all great religions. A vague knowledge of the existence of the last two continents, Lemuria and Atlantis, survives in the myths and traditions of all peoples. Plato's story of "Atlantis" relates to one of the last great remnants of the submerged continent to which we give that name.
In line with the foregoing evidence of the rise and fall of continents, Science is proving that similar changes are even now going on. For instance, parts of the American coasts are slowly rising and other parts are going down; the Himalayas, and California mountains, etc., are steadily rising. Moreover, recent North Pacific soundings reveal, not a level ocean bed, but a striking area of mountains, valleys, plateaus and plains, not unlike our familiar continents. Geologists agree that practically all present land has been submerged at some time. As for the four great Ice Ages and other cyclic cataclysms, evidence of their recurrence is geologically recorded by the Earth itself.
That Races, civilizations, nations, and men have come and gone, again and again, in many lesser cycles within the greater round of continental spirals, is merely one example of the universal law of repeated imbodiments. This law of Cycles is interwoven and interactive with the laws of Karman and of Reimbodiment. Man is especially affected by the spiritual, psychic, and moral cycles, and these, collectively, make up the individual, national, and racial cycles. Thus, as there is a close relation between the affairs of men and the operations of Nature, we see why, in this modern world of unrest and all-around transition, there are corresponding cyclic upheavals and distubances in the forces of Nature.