Having been born in this body, we are in some major respects the prisoners of it. Our inner nature and its faculties seem tied to the organs through which they express themselves. Whereas our minds can soar into the blue vault of space, so chained are we to our material vehicle that we have difficulty knowing whether or not our conceptions have intrinsic reality. And the soul in us longs for reality. We look through our eyes and see others "out there" looking through their eyes. But each of us remains locked in his own little room, where the walls are frescoed with the shape and color of concepts and beliefs, loves and fears; and seldom does a door open, letting in sunlight from the larger, more real world surrounding us and of which we are, actually, integral parts.
Man is a secret being, and we seem least acquainted with the very one with whom we are supposed to be the most familiar — ourselves. Possibly this is because we are urged to search without for answers that lie only within. How much we know about those other islands out there depends in good measure on how much we know about our own nature in here, which is the lens through which we see everything. We spend too little effort trying to discover who or what this knot of consciousness is that inhabits this body, uses and often abuses it. The body, even, hides many mysteries. For what operates this living, self-repairing vehicle, our visible expression? What pulses our hearts night and day, fills our lungs with air, digests our food and so directs the tout ensemble that we are unaware of its manifold activities?
Scientists term many of these quiet functions 'automatic.' It is a peculiar word, symbolic of our times. A flower blooms automatically — cells divide and proliferate according to some genetic pattern. A galaxy comes into existence because of the presence in space of matter in motion, plus laws like attraction and repulsion, thermodynamic forces, etc. Similarly, the machine we call man is born and, shaped by environment, nourishment or lack of it, grows ineluctably into more and more complicated structures according to certain gene possibilities, forming what are termed 'organizations.'
By the word organization as used in modern biology is meant a complex assemblage of pieces (including other organizations), all of which operates as a whole and which, by reason of the combined functions of the parts, and because it is a 'wholeness,' possesses capabilities far in excess of the sum of its smaller units. This concept of organizations within organizations is similar, in its outward aspects at least, to the ancient idea of hierarchies. A giant corporation is a mundane example of a hierarchy, within which may be numerous subsidiary companies (also hierarchies). In turn these are composed of many branch offices with their departments, officers, personnel, etc. They all combine to form the larger concern, but each has its own particular functions.
It is when we come to his inner qualities, man's emotional-mental-conscious nature, that we are precipitated into a realm too difficult for the mind to grasp in all its ramifications if, that is, we are trying to explain it merely as the end product of a physico-chemical process that started with a single cell and has groped its unguided way upwards. Most scientists do not come right out and say that human nature is nothing more than a complicated neuro-physical machine, yet this is what it comes to. Consciousness? certainly. Mind? assuredly. But these are pictured merely as eventual offshoots of more and more complex organizations of matter. Or are they?
Down through history our many-sided constitution has been described in a variety of ways. Some of these may appear rather "far out" to those of us reared in the modern scientific tradition; or to those who may subscribe to a religious outlook which assumes that man was "created" and is not the result of an evolutionary process. Yet, it is possible to offer numerous interpretations of the same set of facts. These may range from highly abstract philosophy to the most confining materialism. In judging their merits we have to avoid the common misconception that the material or physical world is real and the so-called spiritual is not. Indeed, the concensus of the ancient and medieval world was just the reverse: that visible nature is in great part an illusion, the only enduring realities being the countless spiritual agencies which use it as a vehicle for their self-expression. The philosophies of India, for example, hold that the cosmos is a duality, consisting of spirit and matter; but they usually add that even the atoms and molecules of universal matter are themselves "lesser lives," with an infinite evolution ahead of them.
Presuming for a moment that spiritual beings and laws exist, it would be foolish to suppose that these in any way oppose the laws and facts of the visible world. Obviously they do not war with each other, for then there would be chaos. Instead, spirit and matter are visualized as parts of an interwoven cosmic process. The all-encompassing universe can be described in purely physical or in entirely spiritual terms, but it would be impossible to explain it adequately in such a departmentalized fashion. But is this not the endeavor of science, on the one hand, and many faiths, on the other?
By resorting solely to material terms, we are forced in spite of ourselves to attribute godlike potentials to the lowly atom and cell, in order to account for consciousness, feeling, understanding, and much more, that are supposed to have proceeded from these ultimate particles in a completely blind and unguided manner. In a similar way we regard the galaxies and solar systems as having evolved without direction. We are thereby saying in effect that man is the highest intelligence in the universe; that he has even evolved the ability to study the very processes that have produced him; and we have concluded that whereas he has somehow developed consciousness, the majestic cosmos surrounding and enfolding him has it not.
Certain religions, such as Christianity, take the opposite view, declaring the material universe to be the work of a Creator, who established the earth with all its kingdoms as a haven for man, and garnished his handiwork by spangling the sky with twinkling stars. But often overlooked by students of the Bible is Paul's description of man as body, soul, and spirit. There has been a tendency to confuse 'soul' and 'spirit,' or to use these words interchangeably, whereas it is obvious that the word soul or psyche is quite different from the term spirit or pneuma. In I Thessalonians 5:23, Paul speaks of sanctifying a person entirely, "spirit and soul and body [soma]"; and in Hebrews 4:12 he says that the word of God is like a two-edged sword, "penetrating to the very division of soul and spirit" (Moffatt translation).
This threefold division of St. Paul is very useful in studying the human makeup. We see at once that our ordinary consciousness is centered in the soul part, vacillating between the higher and the lower; one moment giving way to some gross or selfish impulse, and in the next rising to the heights of compassion and self-forgetfulness. The body appears to be transitory, and the spirit more permanent, the soul partaking of both. This dual action of the soul is seen more clearly when we apply the concept of body, soul and spirit to the idea of reincarnation. At death, obviously, the bodily components return to nature — by this is meant the physical and subtle bodies, the life forces, etc. Similarly, it is said, the earthy elements of soul remain earthbound. The death experience is described in many scriptures as the effort of the higher part of the soul to extricate itself from the lower. The process has been described by Vergil, Dante, and many others as a kind of purgatory or cleansing, and its intensity and duration depend upon the bias of the life just concluded, how the energies have been directed, how 'cemented' the soul has become to the more gross aspects of its own nature.
Then there ensues what has been termed a second death, after which the spirit absorbs or carries within it, as though sleeping or dreaming, all the finer aspects of the soul, the unfulfilled aspirations, unselfish urges and sublime creative thoughts, which are woven into the soul fabric during a state of consciousness known as heaven in most religious philosophies. So that when reincarnation occurs, the 'new' person, while drawing to himself his lower attributes from the former life, which he cannot escape, for they are his children, yet faces them with the added strength from all past efforts and aspirations which have now become part of his character.
The spirit or pneuma is perhaps the most vague and little known aspect of threefold man. The word pneuma is Greek and means breath, implying that it is the divine which breathes its life into soul and body. The English word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, also meaning breath, or to breathe. Among many peoples it was thought that birth for the soul was death for the spirit, and that when man dies the spirit is born into its own cosmic world and, carrying within it the finer essence of the human soul, wings its way along the circulations of the cosmos. For this reason the Romans sometimes referred to one who had passed on, as "he who sleeps among the stars."
Other philosophical schools looked upon man's complex nature as five-, seven-, ten-, and even twelvefold. Each of these classifications offers fresh insights into the functioning of the human being in the waking state, during sleep, or after death, The fivefold outlook is an example in point: the proponents of this system, among whom were the ancient Vedantins of India, taught that man was really composed of five sheaths or selves. These were the divine, the spiritual, the human, the animal, and the vital-astral. The divine part was often viewed as 'open-ended' so to say, i.e., our link with the universal essence from which we sprang transcends finite thought; yet the link is there, even though words cannot adequately express it. At the lower end, the physical body was sometimes considered not to be a sheath or principle, merely the dregs of the vital-astral self. For these philosophers held that the source of man's five senses is astral in character, not physical. That is why they often termed the astral or subtle body of man the model body, for it precedes the physical, which forms around it cell for cell.
According to the fivefold system, the functions of our bodies which are termed 'automatic,' are not so in the least, if we mean by that term a soulless, mechanico-chemical robot, or a kind of blind conditioned reflex. Instead, the vital-astral soul is occupied at this point of its evolution with the well-being of the bodily organism, the digestion, breathing, heartbeat, etc., and, in fact, is that organism in its entitative aspect. The human part of us is at a crossroads, closely tied to the animal nature, which it must discipline; and on the higher side, linked to the spiritual self, whose helpful rays strengthen, guide and illuminate when they can penetrate our daily consciousness. The destiny of the human self is to merge with this spiritual principle, to become buddha-like, in other words.
No matter how man's nature was described and divided, the simple fact of the duality of the human part is a familiar concept of religious philosophy throughout the ages. Life's experiences confirm it at every turn. We have to look at only a single day in our busy lives to discern clearly how our consciousness is pulled in one direction or another. The old adage is that we cannot drift into calmer seas, we must row there. The implication of this statement is that we dare not allow turbulent desires to overrun us like a mob sacking a city; or permit selfish or vagrant thoughts to turn our minds into chaos. Mastery of the lower by the higher has been the basic premise of genuine spiritual discipline from earliest times.
It is simple to visualize the need for controlling the lower nature, but it is not always easy to discern how the higher urges us. The key, I believe, is that we are not advised to destroy the lower, to kill out desire, to starve the body so its hungers will not make demands upon us. Instead we are asked to refine and guide the energies infilling us, for they are valuable assets in spiritual growth. Even the atom is a potential god. Every principle or self has divine potentialities. Desire ranges from the lowest, most bestial impulses, to the highest aspirations; and our minds can soar among the stars or sink into the pit. The higher nature has been through all our human wars, on its way to unfolding what it now is. And we, it is presumed, have traversed the animal path until we succeeded in developing the human self-awareness. In all cases the higher fulfills itself by inspiring the lower to transcend its nature.
It's a big world out there, with billions of human souls engaged in the process of achieving self-knowledge and self-conquest, whether or not they are aware of it. How much better to know something about the ground rules and the potentials of the players. It is just here that we can prove the value of acquainting ourselves with the insights into man's nature given by the wisest men of our race, as these have come down to us in the various religious and philosophical systems, East and West. For without them as a background to our conscious life, we may find that we simply drift. Or, if we try to navigate, we have no maps to tell us where we are headed, inwardly. Yet even so, there is most conclusive evidence of the existence of a higher nature. This lies in the fact that even while ignoring it, we are guided by it. For it is the magnet that inspires us upward.
(From Sunrise magazine, April 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)