The Path – June 1888


The opinion of theosophical students is divided in respect to reading. There are those who consider that the chief source of learning is study, while others deprecate much reading and urge us to confine our efforts to "living the life." The truth of course is that both methods are to be combined. They serve different departments of the same end. By study — especially of scriptures — we are enabled to form more just ideas of what "the life" may be, and in what way we shall live it. By living it, we correct all mistaken ideas; we shave and prune the excrescences of the mind. The application of spiritual (impersonal) ideas in daily life; the study of how we may hold to them amid the practical routine; the endeavor to discover them within all material conditions and things; the effort to develop them; broaden the nature and enable us, through the spiritual will, to alchemize it into spiritual essences and powers. Nothing is wholly material; if it were it could not exist, it could not cohere for an instant. That mysterious force which is within all things and enables them to "live," or to advance through successive changes, is what we call Spirit. In Bhagavad-Gita we find that Purush and Prakriti, or Spirit (energy) and Nature, are forever conjoined. All the powers existing in the macrocosm having also their various specific seats in man, it follows plainly that, if we wish to evolve more rapidly by means of these powers, as the universe also evolves by them, we must think and think within ourselves. These forces are under the guidance of will, thought, and knowledge; (1) reading will never enable us to reach them; thinking may put us on their track. To examine this question of reading. What is it that we do when we read? It is not reading to repeat, parrot like, words which we instantly forget, like the infant class over its primer. The eye encounters certain words and an idea is conveyed to the brain. Is this all? For certain persons it is all. They accept this idea as a form, a crystallization representing a certain state of things. If it attracts them, they retain and quote it; otherwise they dismiss it. In either case it is to them a finality. Such persons have their brains stored with such formulas; they have never lived them out, even in the mind; they do not really know the idea represented by this form of words at all. The fancy or the prejudice has been tickled by mere sound. All this is so much useless lumber. Show them what some of their favorite ideas really involve if carried out, and they cast them aside in disgust or dismay. This is the sort of reading which is much to be deprecated, along with that other kind undertaken to "pass time." That an idea is a seed which, once planted, should sprout and grow, they do not see. That all ideas have a specific, energic life of their own, and that this life is directly proportionate to the vitality (or truth) of the idea, they do not see. That thoughts have a power of self reproduction, bearing a thousandfold for use or misuse, that they have an insidious and tremendous power, none but occultists know. That a part of the vital energy and real being of a writer is diffused throughout every page even of his printed works and more or less affects the reader as a psycho-magnetic entity, is rarely thought of at all. Every thought modifies the mind: it energizes according to the nature of those thoughts, diffusing a pernicious, weak, or beneficent force about us. If they are too rapidly forced upon it, the mind becomes gorged; we have mental dyspepsia and an unhealthy condition, not only in the internal organ called mind, but also in the physical organs which quickly respond to its condition. A habit of the mind is soon formed, and, like the dyspeptic, it craves abnormal quantities of food, alternated with periods of sluggish inertia: moreover, it becomes habituated to certain kinds of stimulus: if we feed it long upon novels or excitement, it will reject more healthy food. A greater reason for careful choice of reading than all these is found in the fact that something within us, that thing which knows and strives to make us know, takes advantage of the vibration set up in the mental (and through that to the outer) man to transfuse his understanding with more light. This something, this soul, leaps up within us, touched by the current flowing from those thoughts, and asserts of them, "They are true!" or, "They are false!" Thus books may help us to remember, to recall what we have lost. And no man to whom life is sacred will wish to expend those energies of which life consists in any idle fashion, or to develop their lower forms when the higher are equally at his command.

How then shall we read? When we have reason to believe that the writer knows somewhat of his subject, we may assume a receptive attitude. Where such is not the case we cannot usefully read at all. We may not judge our author. He may have found truths unsuited to us now, or teach them in ways which we are unfitted to pursue; this being so, we shall do well to avoid what is at present unhealthy nourishment. Where we feel attracted and do read, we should receive the idea into our minds and, submitting ourselves passively to its influence, note what impression is stamped upon the sensitized plate within. The true character of the idea is felt rather than intellectually cognized, and by such a study of the interior impression we receive the verdict of the hidden judge. We need dread no Vehmgericht but this; by it all stands or falls. (2) To attain this end we must hold ourselves still. The outer self must maintain an attitude of suspended judgment, or up comes our mere personality with quips, cranks, whims, opinions, and loves, drowning the inner voice with its racket and hubbub.

Another way of utilizing ideas is to assume their merit and to study wherein that merit may possibly consist, what line ray has escaped our grosser sight. For example: I quoted to a comrade this line; "We must be ready to say at any moment, in whatever circumstances, whether expected or unexpected: 'It is just what I in fact desired'." (3) My comrade replied that this appeared to him hypocritical. If he lost an arm, for instance, he could cheerfully submit, but he could not in truth say that he desired precisely that accident. This objection has a surface correctness. Had he read with an assumption that the line must have some truth in it, and had he examined it in that belief, he would doubtless have found its true bearing, while such personal exertion opens up a mind and nourishes it as no artificial injection can do. That true bearing is that the re-incarnating soul has chosen those circumstances most needed for its evolution; to work out that evolution we must work through our Karma; there is no other way. Hence my Higher Self, my real self, did in fact desire just that body and all its Karmic circumstances and life as a necessary experience for my soul at this juncture, the soul having to pass through all experiences, and though i may not desire them, I do. No true statements can be based upon the assumption that the personality, or even the lower principles of the soul, is the real ego at all.

There is again another point to be guarded against in reading books other than sacred writings, whose inner meaning we strive to assimilate. It is the reverse of the one above stated, and cautions us against too great mental hospitality. It is the danger of basing our faith upon the personality of the writer. If we do this, were he the Jove of Theosophy himself we may receive injury rather than benefit. We may have good reason to believe him possessed of more or less knowledge. Whether he has himself assimilated that knowledge is again another question. An initiate will have done so, and the real value of his writings for us will consist in the fact of his being himself those truths which he gives out: he is himself the word and the sign of his degree. Only in so far as he has lived out his knowledge and become it, can he impart it beneficially to its readers in turn. Otherwise he runs the risk of presenting partial Truths through the medium of his own personality and tinging them thereby. In this way, with the best will in the world perhaps, he gives to students himself and not the Truth, gives his warped edition of it. As an occult fact, we can only gives ourselves and no more; hence to give Truth we must be It. Herein lies the value of the writings of initiates, ending with those of our beloved Madame Blavatsky, who alone has dared to speak plainly to her era. The movement she inaugurated and the well-spring of teachings she opened for us to draw upon have been the means of renown for many writers who, without her initial courage, had never won an audience or a name. Even as one of the very least of these, I say; "May we never forget the debt."

Were all readers forewarned and ready to discount the personality, this danger would be lessened. Such discrimination in these matters is a spiritual quality not as yet generally found among men: it is a power of the soul, a more or less direct perception of Truth. It behooves the writer desirous of serving mankind to look well to his words, to the form in which he imprisons so much of the Truth as he has found, and to strive earnestly only to give forth so much of it as he himself embodies in life, so much as he has become. Great harm is constantly done by the spread of brain and lip knowledge, to be proven false supports by suffering men. And we do better to take the tone of suggestion rather than that of authority. We may have touched upon our higher powers without having fully raised the nature to them. While we are but man we only see by glimpses; then the veil falls again. So I would preface all writings with the request that the reader be guided by his own natural selection to a very great extent.

Many writers, too, have come into this life with a special task to perform. They have something to say or to give, and when it is done, their usefulness to humanity is over; they seem then to have outlived themselves; long before their bodies pass into the ranks of the unseen, their virility and life-giving power have departed. We often see this fatal high-water mark in the life of the poet, the painter, the leader we followed and loved; see that he can never surpass it, that he has touched his highest state for this incarnation. To remain there is impossible. A law of nature decrees that he must advance or recede; in nature there is no standing still. We ask ourselves who has set this fatal limit, and we see clearly that the man alone has done himself this wrong. It is Karma, but a Karma of his own making. Some there are who pass, indeed, beyond that limit to intellectual greatness, but in doing so they have passed beyond our ordinary sight and have joined the silent workers in the Lodge of Truth. The only indication left us of their progress is the fact that they have never fallen to a lower level than that great one where we saw them standing. They have never followed up their words of power by the impotent babble of senility. Few indeed are these men, for "many are called, but few are chosen." They are those who have a Karmic stock of spiritual energy sufficient to flood them over the crisis, and they use their highest intellectuality as a stepping stone to that which lies beyond intellect and above thought. The lesser men suffer. They have done so much, sacrificed so much, they do not understand why their words are no longer snatched from their lips and passed eagerly along the expectant throng. It is because those words are vain repetitions: they are no longer living, winged things. The speaker has not renewed his thought; he has fallen to worshipping his own methods; he makes an apotheosis of his present knowledge instead of reaching up to the realms of real life for new, vital essences. Thought, however broad, follows a circle at last, and in it he runs like a squirrel turning a wheel with puerile activity.

The mere fact that a man thinks he has done something or sacrificed something should show him his mistake. Deeds have been done through him, not by him. His so-called sacrifice was his opportunity to rise to real greatness, and only his half methods have limited it to a sacrifice. Some cry out in despair that it had been better to do nothing at all. I would not say that. The irresistible waves surge onward and bear us to a certain point: we may lie there long; still this is so much progress which we can never lose. The pity is that we should not arise ourselves and go further without waiting for the next tide.

These considerations show us that disagreements between theosophical writers are often unavoidable, the writers being but men and women. It is to our advantage to use our discriminative powers, to strengthen them by use. So we are not injured by these differences. We are more injured if we stake our faith upon any one or several writers, just because when our idols crumble,—and crumble they must, we are so often found in the dust beneath them, found stunned and wounded by their fall. "Let a man learn to bear the disappearance of the things he was wont to reverence without losing his reverence." A truer word than that Emerson never wrote. We are instruments in mighty hands: if we turn our edge, we must expect to be laid aside. We must then refrain from solidifying our thoughts into a system, our reports of Truth into dogmas. We may not be dazzled even by the highest heavens, but must worship Truth alone.

Thus the whole problem for both writer and reader consists in eschewing mere forms, in looking beyond words to the principles which they represent faintly. A man represents one or more universals; his thought should do the same. He will never mislead while he only gives us these; we shall never misunderstand him while we look for nothing less. All reading is useless, so far as spiritual progress is concerned, which cannot be conducted upon the above lines. If they limit your reading, they will extend your thinking. So much the better, for thinking is the path toward becoming. "What a man thinks, that he is; this is the old secret," say the Upanishads. There is a way of taking a thought and brooding over it as a bird broods on the nest; by this method the true thought hatches out and itself manifests to us. We must apply these thoughts to the touchstone of our own souls. Reading and thinking are not to be divorced. They should be one act; then each would correct and equilibrate the other.

My last word upon this subject would be this, and I would say it emphatically. Never receive and pass onward a thought which you do not feel and understand. On this point accept no authority other than your own soul. It is better that you seem to lose a ray of Truth than to accept and deflect it by a want of understanding, a want of assimilation of it. If it be yours in the Law, you cannot lose it. It will be sent to you again and again until you do receive it. Take then what your nature selects until you reach a point where you can rise above nature. When this is reached you will not need to read any longer, except from the wonderful book of life and from those blessed Scriptures wherein the Divine has spoken to the ages through men who had attained to some share in His being.


1. Itchasakti, Kriyasakti, Gnanasakti. See "Five Years of Theosophy," Page 110. (return to text)

 2. Vehmgericht. A secret tribunal of old. (return to text)

3. See PATH for Feb., 1888, page 328. (return to text)

The Path