Steps to Understanding

John S. Hasbrouck

Imagine, if you will, a hillside having three levels or plateaus with rather steep ascents to each. Or again, imagine that they are a series of three steps cut by some giant for his easier climb to the top. From a distance there appear to be people on each of the level places, a few only on the highest, many more on the two lower ones. Some are climbing the sides to reach the next higher level. Also, each of the levels seems to have some sort of sign that tells one where he is in the ascent. As we approach closer we can see that the sign on the first level reads "Information," and that there are steps leading to the first level which are marked "Search" and "Ask." At this lowest level we find a large group of people, and that here are located schools, libraries, and all other sources of the world's teachings. Many people seem to be clustered around one individual who must be an instructor in some phase of learning. Yes, these men and women, we find, have ascended to the second level, and have also returned to aid their fellows. We wonder why, with all their seeming knowledge, these teachers are here rather than on one of the higher levels. We ask, and are told that the climb to the two higher levels is through individual effort only, and that the means of ascent must be worked out each for himself. This level of "Information" then must be the only place a teacher can work and help others, no matter how wise the teacher may be.

So we approach the slope leading to the second level, and can now read the sign on which is printed "Knowledge." On reaching the base of this slope, we are confronted with a strange phenomenon. Though we see many people on the higher level, we can find no steps by which to ascend. It is as if after use the steps have disappeared, or have been drawn up after the one using them. On inquiry a room is pointed out to us wherein is a great stock of material and the tools with which to construct our own steps. The tools are also marked "Information" and the material is marked "Experience." We now begin to understand the words of the "wise ones," and why they are on the lowest level. It is only through personal effort, using the tools we have, that we gain experience enough to reach the level of knowledge. We can now recall many examples to prove this statement, and the old saying that "Practice makes perfect" comes to mind.

Hewing out our own stairway of "Experience," we finally reach the level of "Knowledge." Here, our horizon is greatly expanded, and the view of the surrounding area more perfect. We do not need now to be told of its wonders as we have found out for ourselves, and no one can lead us on false paths because we have seen what is true. As we look back we wonder why none of those we see on the first level have come up to this level. Is it because the effort is too great to build the stairs, or could it be that in trying to absorb too much information at one time they are confused and do not see the greater height? On observing those already on our level, we find that not all is perfection. We see one group calling down to those below, "Give us part of your worldly goods and we will build the stairs for you." How, we wonder, can they achieve this when the material for the stairs is on the lower level? Many there are who listen to this group, only to be disappointed when they do not make the grade. Still another group is trying to prevent those below from making the ascent to knowledge, saying, "Just have faith in us, we will tell you all about the things to be seen from here." This seems to satisfy a great many, though it is apt to be a distorted picture they receive. One cannot really see the light while in the deep shadows. Still another group would prevent those below from climbing the height from purely selfish reasons because then they would lose the slight advantage in power they may have gained by making the ascent themselves. These people resort to all manner of tricks to gain their end, but one day may find themselves too close to the edge and will fall into the chasm of darkness from which it takes a long time to find a way out.

We leave these groups to their devices and approach the slope leading to the highest level. We read the sign of this new level, and see the word "Wisdom" printed thereon. The slope here is much longer and steeper than before, but we now know what must be done. We again find our tools and materials, but the signs on them have changed. The tools are now labeled "Knowledge," and added to the material of "Experience," we now must add those of "Discernment or Discrimination," "Kindliness," and "Understanding," combined with others that may suit our purpose, because this stairway must be long and firm. As we build step after step we become convinced that it is the use to which we put our knowledge that counts in its construction. Constructive use builds a strong stairway, while destructive use will introduce flaws that could cause our downfall, and we again recall an old saying that "The higher, the harder the fall." With perseverance, however, we master the climb and find ourselves on the summit of understanding, we think. The vista, from this level, where we started from is again greatly expanded, and we call to those below, "Come up, it can be done, and the effort is worth it." Turning now, we walk to the other side of our level space on top of this hill, and, much to our amazement, we see other such hills stretching out in a seemingly never ending line toward the seat of the "Gods." We know now that our first hill of "Wisdom" is only the beginning if we are to find the full answer to Life and Nature. So with deep humility, we start on our forward journey. Along the way we lighten our load from time to time by sharing with others of the things we have found. How long does it take to reach the end? There is only one answer: "It depends on one's own efforts."

There are those to guide, but no one can take for another the actual steps to full understanding.

(From Sunrise magazine, January 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)

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