The intermingling of cultural and religious traditions taking place today is exerting a profound influence on our thinking and mores. Just as Western methods and thought habits have left their energizing and often disruptive mark on the Orient, just so has the influx of Eastern ideas and rituals affected the thinking and habitual attitudes of thousands throughout Europe and America. As a result, huge cracks are forming in entrenched attitudes. In the West this is due to exposure to the philosophical and psychophysical disciplines of India, Tibet, China, and Japan; also in part to the growing interest in the rites and sacred lore of traditional peoples of the Americas, Australasia, and Africa. Even though the accent is largely on the "occult arts" (the mere overlay of genuine occultism), already a distinct change is taking place. From being strictly matter-dominated in outlook, we are coming to recognize spirit/consciousness/energy as the causal basis of all life, from the microworld of the atom to the macroworld of the cosmos, and all in between.
The entry into Western thought, from the 1780s on, of the profound metaphysical scriptures of the East was effected in the main by British civil servants in India. They were encouraged by the then Governor-General, Warren Hastings, to study Sanskrit and allied languages so that they might better understand what moved the Hindu soul. So impressed were a few of these officials that they began to translate the great epics of India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, especially the Bhagavad-Gita, as well as the Upanishads. In 1785 Sir Charles Wilkins published the first English translation of the Gita in London — incredible that we in the West have known of its existence for little more than two hundred years. With similar translation work in process in France and Germany, the philosophic treasury of the East gradually infiltrated the thought consciousness of the Occident.
At that time there was a rather sharp demarcation between the scholarly elite and the great majority who were academically untrained and therefore remained largely unaware of the intellectual and spiritual impact of these emancipating ideas. The dissemination of theosophy from 1875 on, along with the publication of inexpensive editions of the Gita and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, was the needed catalyst to leaven the popular as well as the scientific and philosophic thinking of Western culture.
Nowadays the concepts of karma and reincarnation, the oneness of man and nature, the physical world as but a transient appearance of the Real, and the possibility of communion with the source of Being by anyone willing and able to undergo the discipline — all these are becoming a familiar part of Western thought. With hatha yoga, meditation techniques, and other Oriental methods of self-culture rapidly being adapted to the Occidental temperament, one can only agree with W. Q. Judge's prophetic comment that a type of "Western Occultism" is already in the making.
There are both positive and negative aspects to all of this, as is only natural with any innovation, particularly of spiritual and intellectual import. Some of these may not be easy to distinguish, as their side effects may take years to become fully apparent. Just because a teaching or ceremonial is old or hails from the Orient is of itself neither a warranty nor a denial of its spiritual worth. Hence, everything we see or hear must pass the test of our inner touchstone. This will be increasingly necessary in the future as the longing for self-transcendence exercises the minds of a growing number of earnest seekers. Among the multiplicity of courses in self-culture being offered today in seminars, workshops, and retreats, a good many hold out the promise of self-transformation in weeks. All that is required, we are told, is to sit for so many minutes and recite a mantra or listen to a tape recording with a subliminal or overt message, and peace of mind, relaxation from tension, oneness with cosmic consciousness, and restoration of bodily health will be ours!
Perhaps this is because a number of present-day gurus have found many in the West looking not so much for a means of turning inward as for a type of religion that will improve the externals of living. The real question is: What is the motive behind the urge for self-transcendence, for self-identification with our source? Should we not offer something of ourselves for the privilege of "serenity, peace of heart, oneness with the All"? No one can know the inner motivation of another, but we should examine our own motives as far as we can determine them. What stands out in much of the current absorption, not only in imported Oriental systems but also in Occidental self-actualization programs, is the "for oneself" approach — a trend that is diametrically opposed to the path of compassion.
It is well to recall that in the ancient Greek Mysteries the stages of the initiatory process were variously enumerated, often broadly as three: katharsis, cleansing, purification of the soul; muesis, testing or trial of the candidate, to prove integrity of motive and firmness of will; and third, if successful, epopteia, revelation, i.e., "seeing" behind the veil of nature. Always the character had to be shaped in accordance with the noblest ideals; nothing was gained without sacrifice. Except the seed of self die, the soul-plant cannot take birth.
True occultism — which is altruism lived, combined with knowledge of the inner structure of man and the universe — demands of its followers complete purity of thought and of deed, and the utmost in self-mastery. In the esoteric cycle of learning and discipline, the neophyte is enjoined first to absorb as far as he is able the ideal of self-forgetfulness and love for all beings. Only after he has thoroughly understood that thought for others before oneself is expected of him, is he permitted to direct his attention to high philosophy: "Live the life, and you will know the doctrine." Before entering upon any specialized training program we should examine our inner motives to be certain that the course we have in mind is one our higher self would approve.
Self-transcendence, if it is to be lasting, is not obtained by external means alone. It occurs without formality, in the still recesses of one's inmost self. Moreover, as the teachings and the path they illumine enter ever more deeply into the core of our being, we progressively grow and learn. No exoteric training in self-transformation can match the inner transmutation of soul quality that takes place in the silence, the effects of which endure beyond death. They endure because they are registered in our spiritual nature.
To work from without inwards may produce certain results fairly quickly, but as they seldom reach higher than the mental and emotional aspects of our nature they will be short-lived. When our thoughts and feelings are other-centered, they build solid spiritual character traits that will outlast the cycles. Simply put, when our primary concern is wholehearted devotion to the ideal and practice of brotherhood so that eventually it is universally lived — if we can cling to this goal, it will be our lifeline to esoteric reality.
Ideas such as these give a fresh perspective on many trends that are gaining popularity. Yoga, for example, is almost commonplace in the West, hatha yoga in its simpler forms being the most popular. Yoga means "union," from the Sanskrit verb yuj, "to join, to unite, to yoke." It referred originally, and still does in its pure sense, to the quest for union of the soul with the divine within: the unio mystica or mystical union of the early Christians and medieval mystics who sought to attain unison of soul with the Divine or God-image within.
There are many types of yoga, and these appeal to different temperaments: bhakti yoga, "yoga of devotion"; karma yoga, "yoga of action"; jnana yoga, "yoga of knowledge"; and others. The path of raja yoga (see Bhagavad-Gita 9:2, the first line of which reads: rajavidya rajaguhyam, literally "royal knowledge, royal mystery") is the "royal or kingly union" of the personal self with the illumined self. It is of small consequence what path we take outwardly, so long as we set our inner goal on the highest within. "In whatever way men approach me, in that way do I assist them; but whatever the path taken by mankind, that path is mine.'' (Ibid. 4:11; Judge recension, p. 24)
Today in the West there are many practitioners of yoga whose goal is to restore physical health and alleviate, where possible, some of the unusually stressful conditions people are experiencing in these crucial times. We would be well advised, however, to stop short before undertaking sophisticated breathing and other techniques that could, if unwisely pursued, interfere with the proper functioning of the pranas. Prana is a Sanskrit term for the five or seven "life-breaths" that circulate through and maintain the body in health.
The Chinese for centuries have taught that sound physical and psychic health depends upon the balance of yin and yang. If one, however unknowingly, upsets the natural rhythmic flow of the ch'i — their term for prana — through the twelve primary meridians or energy channels of the body, imbalance of the yin/yang may result. In other words, when there is interference with the natural lines of force, a misalignment of pranic balance may occur, often with serious consequences. Rather than concentrate on the psychic and physical aspects of the constitution, far better to focus attention on the spiritual and higher mental and moral faculties. When inner balance is achieved and normal health measures are observed, the physical will in time follow suit (unless, as may happen, stronger karmic impediments must be worked through).
Much emphasis also is placed on finding one's inner center, and rightly so. This centering of oneself is a private individual process of "self-naughting," self-stripping, as the mystics call it, emptying the nature of externals and becoming one with our essential self. It may take a lifetime, or several lifetimes, to achieve in fullness — no outer circumstances will be as effective as "losing the self that we may find the self."
Since the 1960s groups have sprung up all over the world sponsoring self-transcendence courses that offer various methods of achieving alternative states of consciousness: how to rouse the kundalini or "serpent fire" seated near the base of the spine; how to activate the chakras, how to meditate by focusing on a triangle, candle flame, crystal, lighted bulb, or by repetition of a mantra. These and other psychophysical practices are carried out in the hope of attaining nirvanic consciousness. I would not advocate any of these methods, not because they are essentially faulty, but because they can prove deleterious on account of our ingrained selfish proclivities.
Today the hunger for new and better ways to live is very strong. People long to find meaning in a seemingly meaningless succession of crises and are experimenting with alternative routes, anything that is different from what they grew up with. This is part of the spiritual and psychic awakening going on worldwide, but to adopt without careful screening any method of self-development, especially those that promise instant results, is a high-risk venture. Where there is instability in the character (and who of us is perfectly pure in heart and in motive?), the invasion of our psyche by baneful influences from the lowest levels of the astral light could be detrimental both to physical and mental health. Besides, concentration of mental and psychic energy on the transient elements of the nature has the drawback of diverting attention away from essentials to externals. This cannot have the beneficial effect that the altruistic and nonself-centered approach of raja yoga has on the aspirant. All of this is old wisdom which many today are beginning to intuit and apply to their lives.
In the Bhagavad-Gita there is a phrase: atmanam atmana pasya — "see the self by means of the self." This may be interpreted in two ways: see the limited self, the personality, by means of the glowing self or atman within; or, see the atman within, the light of the true self, by means of the awakening personal self. The ideal is to have an unimpeded flow of energy, of consciousness, between our atmic source and the personality. When we seek first to offer ourselves to the noblest within, we quicken the fires of our highest chakra, the atmic center, which in turn will radiate its influence on all the other chakras.
Viewing the seven principles of the human constitution as a pillar of light, each principle being sevenfold, supposing we try to reach to atman, we may fairly soon reach the subatman of our psychic center. But if we have concentrated too pointedly on that level there is every possibility with certain natures, not only of becoming deflected from our goal but, unhappily, of getting our principles out of alignment.
If without strain or any sense of pride we offer ourself deeply and sincerely in the service of our inmost self, then the light from the highest atman — the atmic subprinciple of our atman — will illumine our whole being from above downwards. We will remain in alignment because our psychic and intellectual and other centers will be irradiated with the supreme atmic light, and there will be a transforming influence on our lives.
The popularization of meditation practices in the West has had certain positive results and helped many to handle their deep-seated anxieties. Stilling the mind and calming the emotions for a few moments every day is therapeutic: by deliberately dropping our worries, we become free inwardly and can refocus ourselves for our life's task. On the other hand, high-powered promotion of meditation may be self-defeating. For example, one is put off at the start when money is charged for a mantra that purports to raise one to cosmic awareness. No one needs a mantra in order to lift his consciousness unto the hills of the spirit and receive the benediction of momentary communion with the highest within.
There are ways and ways to meditate, and ways and ways to attain a higher awareness. When we become inwardly still, our inner voice may be heard in those quiet yet clear intimations that move the soul. Every night upon retiring we can open the way for the intuition by stripping the nature of all resentments and irritations, ridding the heart of all arrogant and unkind thoughts and feelings about others. If we have slipped a little during the day, let us acknowledge it with the will to do better. We then enter into harmony with our real self, and the consciousness is freed to go where it will. This is a mystery which we do not really understand, but the wonder is that in the morning we wake up refreshed in spirit, with a new and warmer feeling for others, and often with answers to perplexing questions.
To follow this simple practice is restorative on all planes, and we will be adding to rather than detracting from the harmony of our surroundings. Whatever course of self-betterment one pursues, sacrifice is required: we cannot hope to gain access to the higher realms of being if we have not earned the right of entry. Only those who come clean of anger, resentment, and selfish desire are fit recipients of the keys to nature's wisdom. To expect otherwise is to run the risk of opening the door to elemental forces of a low kind that may be difficult to eject from the consciousness. Prayer, aspiration, meditation are effective in that they set up a vibratory response throughout all nature; the more ardent the aspirant, the greater power do they have to activate noble (or ignoble) energies both within the individual and in the auric envelope surrounding earth.
True meditation is true aspiration, a "breathing toward" the divine, an elevating of the mind and heart toward the highest and, as such, is as essential for the soul as food is for the body. If we would orient our lives toward the light emanating from our inner god, we must aspire; but let us be careful in our intensity not to be led into blind alleys of a self-seeking nature which tend to focus attention on our own advancement, our own stature and achievements. After all, where we stand — spiritually or otherwise — is of small moment compared to the quality of our contribution to the whole. The real issue is: Are we giving the best of ourselves to this world so that we bring warmth and courage instead of chill and gloom to our surroundings?
Meister Eckhart, 14th-century mystic, whose purity of life gives luster to his instructions and sermons even today, put it eloquently:
If some one were in a rapture like Saint Paul's, and there were a sick man needing help, it would be better to come out of the rapture and exercise practical love by serving the one in need. . . .
In this life no man reaches the point at which he can be excused from practical service. — Sheldon Cheney, Men Who Have Walked with God, p. 194; cf. Meister Eckhart, A Modern Translation, trans. Raymond Bernard Blakney, p. 14
The finest type of meditation is a turning of the soul toward the light within in aspiration to be of greater service, without exaggerated longing for some special revelation. Any method of meditation that helps us to lessen our self-centeredness is beneficial; if it increases egocentricity, it is harmful.
It is indeed our duty to search for truth, wherever it may be; also, to use our keenest discrimination in every circumstance, appreciative of worth yet alert for falsity, knowing that every human being has the inalienable right to follow the path which seems best to him. In reality, the only pathway we can follow is the one we unfold from within ourself as we seek to evolve and self-become what we inwardly are. Just as the spider spins from itself the silken threads that are to form its web, so do we unfold from the depths of our being the very path that is ours. Our challenge is to heed the mandates of our inner selfhood over and above the external pulls; if we don't, we hurt ourselves — and others too — until we learn. At times those mandates call for a quality of self-discipline and courage we are not accustomed to, and the sacrifice of things we hold dear. But all that is offered in sacrifice is as nothing compared to what we in our innermost self long for.
The most fruitful meditation, therefore, is an absorption of thought and aspiration in the noblest ideal we can envision. We will not need to worry about specific postures, techniques, or gurus; there will be a natural inflow of light into the nature, for our inner master, our real guru, is our Self.