Strong currents of change are sweeping over man's world these days. The political sphere is a mass of confusion as governments great and small are being rocked by scandal or plagued by economic ills, and bloody revolutions rend the lives of millions. Religious institutions are struggling to rise out of centuries-long complacency. Scientific knowledge is exploding in an astonishing array of discoveries ranging from the heart of the atom to the limits of the universe. And in the arena of man's thought about himself and his responsibility to others, there seems to be an even greater growth and diversity. What force could be impelling mankind to give vent to the powerful creative and destructive energies so evident today? Are man's knowledge and power reaching the boiling-over point, beyond which lies a nightmare of social and moral chaos? Or are we entering an era of intense inner growth and advancement?
Whatever form the consequences may eventually take, each one of us will unavoidably help to shape them. For, despite the countless inequities in the present distribution of material wealth and power, the true cause of today's turmoil lies, not in the outer life of mankind, but in the inner life of each individual. Having been jolted out of the comfortable inertia of our previous religious and scientific dicta by decades of discoveries into the nature of man and the universe, we are being forced to ask ourselves the age-old questions: Who am I? What am I to do with myself? What is the value and significance of life, and death? Honestly faced, such issues can so assail our self-satisfied preconceptions as to alter the entire course of our thoughts, our feelings, and consequently of our lives. And naturally enough, when a great many people are called to sincere self-questioning, every aspect of human existence feels a corresponding restlessness.
But where to turn for a general view, a perspective of understanding with which to address these ultimate questions and hopefully gain better insights through them? Some have turned to the original teachings of their particular religious belief in an attempt to regerminate within themselves the fresh blossoms of divine inspiration that first drew seekers in that direction. Many others feel an equally strong urge to self-betterment, but look instead for a new direction. And it seems only natural and proper that, by the very intensity and earnestness of their search for spiritual realities, possibilities of a vastly accelerated inner growth should open up to those in either group.
Even in such a noble quest, however, potential sidetracks and dead-ends are numerous. Many of these result from our old and deeply ingrained habits of gauging progress in terms of preconceived goals attained and outer trappings of recognition. Obviously, any actual spiritual growth must involve the whole person. Yet how often do we tend to consider a single aspect of ourselves in isolation, perhaps so inspired by a lofty principle that we resolve to act upon it in every instance. In itself, such a resolution is a very positive step, but one which also leads to many disappointing failures to live up to it. And in the midst of our disappointment it is easy, through an unconscious pride, to fall into an unwholesome depression by judging ourselves to be total failures. But do even our physical bodies grow by the serial perfection of separate parts, that is, does the embryo first produce the full-grown skeleton of the adult, then add the muscles and organs, followed by the skin, and finally infuse it with life and intelligence? Of course not. Healthy children follow a balanced course of development along all these lines simultaneously. It is the same with spiritual progress. While it is certainly helpful and even necessary to nurture lofty aspirations, is it really this or that isolated factor or is it not actually the indefinable sum total of a man which is the true measure of advancement?
Nevertheless, even if we do not devise and grade our own spiritual report cards, there are always would-be guides and 'teachers' who are only too happy to do it for us. Perhaps just because it is so convenient to try to shift the responsibility for our growth to someone else, the ranks of those who claim to have all the answers appear to be growing by the hour and minute. What they ask in return varies as greatly as their programs. In the most obvious cases it is money. In the more subtle and dangerous examples, the price exacted is part or all of our freedom of thought.
Yet there is a path of true spiritual development which has been universally recommended by the great teachers of mankind throughout the ages. It is a path which is as wonderful and simple, and as difficult, as each one of us. It tells us to forget entirely our own advancement and instead to begin right here and now to live up to the grand, selfless love within us; without seeking anything in return, but with only the welfare of others fixed firmly in the center of our consciousness. Naturally enough, the radical changes in our thoughts and feelings necessary to fully reorient ourselves along these lines will take a long, long time to accomplish. On the other hand, however far we may have wandered from this path, we can turn toward it at any moment. And with that very first step we instantly begin to move in sympathy with the highest aspects of ourselves and others. In this way we can do more real good in a day than we might achieve in lifetimes of struggling to overcome our particular weaknesses. For in following this path we are actually living the most sublimely beautiful and infinitely powerful mystery in the universe, the heart and root of us — compassion.
(From Sunrise magazine, February, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)
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