With the spiritual awakening that is taking place, there is an urgency to probe the deeper and normally unconscious levels of the human psyche. At one end of the spectrum we find brilliant thinkers, in every discipline of inquiry, breaking the matter barrier and exploring new dimensions of awareness, of soul/mind/body interaction. Their goal is to develop a new model for man as a planetary being in a universe recognized as his native home. Along with this is a grassroots cry for recognition of earth as our mother, for an ecology of mind and spirit and body, for acceptance of holistic approaches to healing and medicine along with enlightened care of the aged, ill, and dying, and also of the mentally and emotionally disturbed. At the other end of the spectrum, purveyors of psychic baubles lure thousands with glamorous offers of "a direct route to ultimate power" and the like.
In the middle range is the rapidly increasing number of individuals and organizations sponsoring all manner of retreats, seminars, and workshops in psychophysiological practices: withdrawal of the senses, self-regulation procedures, cleansing of psychic blockages, energizing techniques, dream evaluation and control, stress and tension management, and scores of "therapies" as experiential aids to participating in alternative levels of consciousness. Many become confused and are unable to recognize that which is of permanent value.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed: as long as we are attentive and responsible, and test by our inner touchstone the truth or falsity of whatever comes before us, there is no real cause for fear. But it is imperative that we keep the reins of decision in our own hands and discover for ourselves in which direction this or that "path" or "promise" or "initiation" is leading us: to emancipation of the soul, or to vanity and worse confusion of goals. To be sure, at every frontier there are perils, and where the frontiers verge on astral planes of our constitution and that of our globe, the greater is the need for vigilance. Since we are dealing here primarily with nonphysical dimensions, a larger measure of discrimination is required.
The first requisite is to know what we are dealing with. What do we mean by "astral"? Originally from the Greek — astron, "star" — the term was used by Medieval and Renaissance philosophers, Alchemists, and Hermetists for the subtle, invisible substance that encloses and penetrates our physical earth. Paracelsus refers to it as the Sidereal Light, and Eliphas Levi called it the serpent or dragon whose emanations often plague humanity. The Upanishads of India use the term akasa, "shining," for the luminous substance that pervades the whole of space, sun and moon, lightning and stars, as well as the self (atman) of man. The Stoic philosophers had their quintessence, "fifth essence," or aether from which the lower four elements derive, and the Latins their anima mundi, "soul of the world," which they conceived as surrounding and vivifying all beings. To most peoples of earlier times the celestial bodies, stars, and planets, were "animals" — living beings filled with the "breath" (anima, spiritus) of life. They were gods using stellar and planetary bodies as their means of gaining experience, each having its nous and psyche (its noetic and psychical aspects, its spirit and soul). There was never any question in the minds of those schooled in the Mysteries about the intimate and continuing interconnection of man and nature.
In modern theosophy the term "astral" is used for the subtle model on which the physical bodies of both man and globe build themselves. Today the word astral is frequently found in parapsychology journals, although various terms are likewise employed, such as energy body, bioplasma, and the like.
The astral light, as earth's finer counterpart is called in theosophical parlance, ranges from the most dense to the most ethereal and spiritual, its lowest levels being heavy with the dregs of human thought and emotion, its uppermost levels merging with the akasa through which higher beings may commune at rare intervals with those who command their interest. H. P. Blavatsky refers to the astral light as "the great picture-gallery of eternity" because it contains "a faithful record of every act, and even thought, of man, of all that was, is, or ever will be, in the phenomenal Universe." (The Secret Doctrine 1:104)
Since whatever is experienced leaves its seal on the earth's aura and on our own, the astral light is the repository and hence the reflector of the most altruistic thoughts and aspirations as well as the most degraded of human impulses of the countless men and women who have ever lived on our planet. There is continual interchange: we imprint the astral light, and the astral light in turn leaves its imprint upon us, a two-way flow of astral energies circulating in and through earth and its kingdoms. Actually, we are awash with astral currents all the time: our thoughts are astral, our feelings also. As we talk together, we are using astral thought substance. When we are inwardly in harmony, we may unknowingly be the recipient of intimations of truth and beauty either from our inner god, or from the upper ranges of the astral light (akasa). Contrariwise, when we are depressed and allow negative thoughts and emotions to make inroads into our consciousness, we may be opening the door unawares to lower astral influences. Unless we are in command of ourselves, it is often downright hard to shut that door when we want to, and even more difficult to keep it shut. Moreover, to the undisciplined and untrained, the currents of the astral light can prove extremely deceptive, and therefore dangerous. Rashly to venture into astral and psychic experimentation, ignorant of the hazards involved and, most important, without the protection of an utterly stainless soul, is as foolhardy as to jump into quicksand.
In spite of admonitions against the potential misuse of our latent psychomental power, psychic manifestations among all types of people have notably increased in recent decades. In consequence, there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest in ESP, levitation, divination, crystal and pyramid power, psychokinesis, and all manner of astral busywork, so much so that we feel impelled to ask a few questions: Is it prudent in our present stage of evolution to force, as in a hothouse, the cultivation of paranormal faculties when we are still so very egocentric? Are we sufficiently prepared by inner purity and self-mastery to deal with astral forces that heretofore have been held in check by nature's protective closure of our physical senses to octaves beyond the normal range?
What of channeling, the much talked about "gift" of mediumship? Hardly a gift, for to be a medium for the channeling of messages from beings from the "other side" may seem to serve us well for a while, yet it often happens that the receiver in time becomes prey to external forces beyond his control. Our psychiatric wards in hospitals and prisons tell the harrowing story of the many thousands of unhappy victims of psychic possession. Yet, to be a channel is an everyday occurrence. We are, each of us, constantly the channel or recipient of thoughts and atmospheres that arise in ourself or among family, friends, neighbors, our nation, and humanity as a whole. Inevitably so. Could we not on occasion be the channel for an inspiration that we, usually in spite of our ordinary mind, hear, see, or feel, when momentarily we have become a transmitter of light and inspiration from the akasic heights? There is nothing remarkable about this; it has been going on for millennia, in every land among all peoples. But this is a far cry from the type of channeling that captures headlines.
On the other hand, what of those who commit heinous acts: many scarcely know why, or what may have impelled them to murder or rape. Did inherent weakness of will allow the ingress into their psyche of malevolent forces from the lowest portions of the astral light? While nature utilizes all things for ultimate good, and broader insights may well come through at times, channeling could deflect many sincere seekers from their true goal and, at worst, plunge them into a psychic whirlpool of confusion and, possibly, into unconscious sorcery.
We can take a lesson from Macbeth: almost immediately, on learning from the witches of Endor that he is to be Thane of Cawdor, he becomes anxious. Will all really be as they foretell? Observing Macbeth in severe stress of emotion, swinging between greed and fear, Banquo muses:
But 'tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence. — Macbeth, Act I, scene iii
This is precisely what happens to many recipients of "messages" from those "beyond." Astral entities channeled by mediums in the beginning often do win us with honest trifles, certain small truths, which lead us on, only to betray us later in matters of deepest consequence.
Then there are those who are interested in "astral travel," getting out of the body and trying to reach their atman; or to visit people, other lands, planets, or planes astrally. Many sincerely believe they can help friends or relatives in this manner. To understand why this is not a wise way of attaining union with one's atman or divine self, we need a knowledge of the sevenfold nature of human consciousness: the divine, the spiritual, and the higher mind, the lower mind combined with the desire principle, and the vital, astral, and physical. The desire/mental part of man forms our ordinary personal self, and when illumined by the intuitional and higher mind, we have an awakened soul. Soul is a rather broad term that can be used for many aspects of our being. Usually the Greeks spoke of nous as the higher mind, the higher intelligence, and of psyche, daughter of nous, as the soul.
To take a dogmatic stance, however, and condemn out of hand all extranormal phenomena is as shortsighted as to endorse everything astral or psychic. Judgment is required: the wisdom of ages has shown that to open wide the entrance into astral realms is tantamount to opening a Pandora's box of elemental energies, both benign and malignant. We caution against deviation from altruistic intent because in any astral dealings, however innocent the motive may be at the start, the excitement of easy success too often leads to corrosion of moral principle. Human nature is ever susceptible to appeals to self-benefit; the more disguised they are, the greater the need for caution, lest unawares the seed of pride germinate. Psychic vanity in many and strange forms constitutes a most seductive snare, binding the aspirations to the personal level instead of freeing them to respond to the call of one's deepest being.
There are of course many degrees of psychic or astral involvement. As noted earlier, we use nonphysical power all the time: love, hate, thought, and emotion of every kind are manifestations of psychic or spiritual faculties. Most people, moreover, are naturally telepathic, experiencing thought-transference more often than they realize, especially with those close to them. Then there are the sensitives, who have a sort of sixth sense which, when manifesting unsought and in a completely natural way, is often a protection for others and for themselves. But when these powers are sought out of vanity, as a self-indulgence, or a running away from the discipline of daily responsibility, they readily become a danger. Those who have a "spirit guide," who prate about hearing the "bells," or through automatic writing receive the "most wonderful teachings," should be wary, lest what they are "seeing" or "hearing" may not be wisdom "from above, but is earthly" (James 3:15); or be as candlelight compared to the brilliance of the sun.
At the risk of oversimplification, let us draw a parallel between the fate of the alcoholic and the psychic addict. Before they realize what is happening, they have become "possessed" by a force outside of themselves which they feel powerless to control. Just as iron filings are drawn to lines of magnetic force, so are "elemental beings" from the astral body of earth attracted to whomever will give them an opening; and the lowest planes of the astral are weighted down with humanity's most evil thoughts. Fortunate are those whose pure goodness affords them protection, for they will respond only to that which is akin to them.
We find warnings in Buddhist writings against the improper use of our psychic faculties. In one of the texts of the Pali Canon (Cullavagga, V, 8:1-2, Sacred Books of the East, 20:78-81) an incident is reported of a merchant of Rajagaha who acquired a block of sandalwood and had a beautiful wooden bowl made from it. He challenged anyone claiming to be possessed of iddhi, "power, craft, skill," (Pali form of the Sanskrit siddhi. These are of two kinds: the one "embraces the lower, coarse, psychic and mental energies; the other . . . exacts the highest training of Spiritual powers." — H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence, p. 73) to fetch it from the top of a very tall bamboo; if he succeeded the bowl would be his. Several toyed with the idea, but went no further. Finally the venerable monk Bharadvaja came forward, and "rising up in the air, took the bowl, and went thrice" around Rajagaha. The villagers were ecstatic and began shouting and running after him. On learning the cause of this raucous behavior, the Buddha called the monks together. When Bharadvaja stated that he had indeed retrieved the bowl by the use of iddhi, the Buddha said to him and the assembled monks:
This is improper, Bharadvaja, not according to rule, unsuitable, unworthy of a Samana [recluse], unbecoming, and ought not to be done. How can you, Bharadvaja, for the sake of a miserable wooden pot, display before the laity the superhuman quality of your miraculous power of Iddhi? — Ibid., p. 80
After this rebuke the Buddha discoursed on spiritual themes, and then stated to the assembled monks:
You are not, O Bhikkhus, to display before the laity the superhuman power of Iddhi. Whosoever does so, shall be guilty of a dukkata [an offense]. Break to pieces, O Bhikkhus, that wooden bowl; and when you have ground it to powder, give it to the Bhikkhus as perfume for their eye ointments. — Ibid., p. 81
Even if we faithfully adhere to the ancient proscription against improper use of paranormal powers, when the paramitas ("transcendental virtues" — see ch. 13) are practiced with diligence over an extended period, profound inner changes do occur both in character and within the constitution. The individual may discover, especially in the practice of dhyana, "meditation, concentration," that certain of the iddhis are activated. This is not out of line provided one maintains silence, inner balance, purity of motive, and vigilance against psychic vanity.
All of this HPB made amply clear in the Preliminary Memorandum and Rules she sent to applicants who sought to join the newly formed Esoteric Section (1888):
the student — save in exceptional cases — will not be taught how to produce physical phenomena, nor will any magical powers be allowed to develop in him; nor, if possessing such powers naturally, will he be permitted to exercise them before he has thoroughly mastered the knowledge of SELF, . . . until he has in abeyance all his lower passions and his PERSONAL SELF . . .
9. No member shall pretend to the possession of psychic powers that he has not, nor boast of those which he may have developed. Envy, jealousy, and vanity are insidious and powerful foes to progress, and it is known from long experience that, among beginners especially, the boasting of, or calling attention to, their psychic powers almost invariably causes the development of these faults and increases them when present. Hence —
10. No member shall tell to another, especially to a fellow member, how much he has progressed or what recognition he has received, nor shall he by hints cause such to be known. — E.S. Instructions III:4-5, pp. 21-2; reprinted in H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings 12:488, 495
While extranormal phenomena have a place under certain circumstances, they are only an outer expression of a more subtle condition. Providentially the great majority, in former times as well as today, have an inborn warning signal against inviting anything of a psychic nature into their lives: either out of a natural fear of the unknown, or because of having already gone this route in the present or a former life and found it to be a blind alley. With some the onset of hypersensitivity is spontaneous; with others it is induced by mind-training programs or drugs. Without question, at this convergence of cycles, when the Piscean age is on the way out and the Aquarian age is becoming the dominant influence globally, psychical manifestations are on the increase along with an intensified interest in and cultivation of once latent faculties. If a person is born with his psychic nature more or less developed, we should recognize it for what it is but not exaggerate its importance. Due in part to the thinning of the barrier between the physical and the astral, many more today, even very young children, are exhibiting psychic leanings.
H. P. Blavatsky foresaw that humanity was fast entering a "new cycle [where] the latent psychic and occult powers in man are beginning to germinate and grow." But, she added, "Understand once for all that there is nothing 'spiritual' or 'divine' in any of these manifestations." (H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions: 1888-1891, p. 28) In her fourth letter to the American theosophists written in April 1891, shortly before her death, she urged them to "watch therefore carefully this development, inevitable in your race and evolution-period, so that it may finally work for good and not for evil." Her warning is explicit:
Psychism, with all its allurements and all its dangers, is necessarily developing among you, and you must beware lest the Psychic outruns the Manasic [mental] and Spiritual development. Psychic capacities held perfectly under control, checked and directed by the Manasic principle, are valuable aids in development. But these capacities running riot, controlling instead of controlled, using instead of being used, lead the Student into the most dangerous delusions and the certainty of moral destruction. — Ibid., p. 35
Notable, however, is the difference in emphasis in psychic interest today from what it was during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. At that time — leaving aside those who, as in all eras, are caught by the glamour of phenomena — only a relatively few of the more intrepid minds were attracted, for the scientific and cultured world for the most part frowned upon such doings. In the twentieth century, and particularly in its last decades, the potential of human consciousness specifically and paranormal phenomena in general have been subjected to controlled testing. Experimentation in these and allied areas is being conducted by neuroscientists and others in an effort to penetrate the inner layers of human consciousness. At the same time, some very dangerous research is going on. We have only to glance at current "metaphysical" magazines to realize how sinister is the trend of some of this research and resulting practices worldwide.
Fortunately, a number of researchers in the field are aware of inherent risks, particularly to those mentally and psychologically unstable. Some of them are speaking out strongly against "hypnotic programming," and warning against the psychic pollution to which hypnotized victims open themselves. We cannot emphasize too much the peril of putting oneself under the will or within the aura of another. It is not recommended; it is not advisable. We must be master of ourselves at all times; and to let ourselves even unconsciously slip under the dominance of another is to weaken by so much our innate power to handle our lives. We human beings are here with an immense back- ground of force, generated through lifetimes, which we are learning to direct along those paths of destiny that are rightfully ours. While we interact with one another and thereby affect to some degree each other's karma, no one — no god in heaven, no demon in hell, no Master or Adept — has the right to interfere with the inner life of any human being. Were we to permit another to impose his will upon ours and break into the citadel of our selfhood, we would be degrading our humanhood and prostituting the intent of our higher self.
Young people especially should be aware of the potential risk, because as the years go by they will be meeting with this type of intrusion more and more. Physical war is not nearly so hazardous as the control of wills and of minds which increasingly is taking more subtle forms. One day, and hopefully during the present century, war on the battlefield will be a nightmare of the past. However, we will need to maintain our vigilance, for conflict will be centered for the most part on the mental and psychological planes. Then as now there will be need for the courage and the determination to fend off subliminal darts that could pierce the inner fabric of our being.
How can we protect ourselves against psychic invasion? One certain protection is to be aware of the dangers, yet not afraid. When fear, real fear, threatens to take hold, if we trust fully our deepest being within, we will know that nothing can touch us, no entity or thing can injure our real self. "Perfect love casteth out fear." The love must be genuine, self-forgetful without conditions. Consistently orienting our consciousness in a selfless direction, with purity of motive, is a natural safeguard.
As we head into the future, we had best keep aware of the rapid changes in the consciousness field. It behooves us to understand the nature of our many-faceted constitution from physical to spiritual, and to recognize the imperative need for each of us to be master of our own decisions. By first strengthening our moral and spiritual faculties, our mental and psychic powers will develop proportionately; we shall be in a better position to use them wisely and for the benefit of all. The wisdom of ages is epitomized in Jesus' words: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God [of the spirit] . . . and all these things shall be added unto you."
Today the challenge before us is not how we can stop the tidal wave of psychic experimentation, but how we can help give it the needed upward direction so that it will "finally work for good and not for evil." The future is open-ended, with enormous possibilities both for progress and retrogression. What the generations to come will face we cannot foretell. Their dilemma and opportunity may well focus, even as ours does today, on how to prepare inwardly to achieve the required moral purity and strength of character to meet the continuing ingress into the thought atmosphere of our planet of astral and psychic influences — from within themselves, from others, and from the earth's astral light.
We ask again, why are so many interested in acquiring extrasensory powers? Of what benefit will this be to anyone? Suppose we do learn to mind-read, to travel in our astral body, see clairvoyantly, foretell the future, would anything of spiritual worth be gained? More to the point, and perhaps the only question: What is our real motivation in life? If we can answer this honestly, to the satisfaction of both intellect and intuition, we may find that we need to center our concern in our spirit-soul, where I and Thou are one — not in the psychic and physical, the least permanent parts of our constitution.
The building of character is an ongoing challenge: the transmutation of selfishness into altruism, of personal interest into the warmth of compassion — a slow, patient alchemy.