Each person is a great mystery, to himself and to others. We see the ever-changing play of light and shadow upon the superficial aspects of ourselves, but of the endless depths that lie beneath we are for the most part ignorant or unconscious. At any time, however, currents flowing from these depths may sweep us unexpectedly into thoughts, actions, or even lifestyles we would now find inconceivable. We may then rise to heights of achievement or fall far below what we would have believed possible in others. Yet how easy it is to pass judgment based on what people manifest of themselves outwardly at any given time, as if this could approach the totality of who they really are. With the derelict, alcoholic, drug addict, or criminal, the victim of mental or physical illness or abnormality, or even someone we find obnoxious, strange, or just too successful, we tend to insulate ourselves from their experience as if they were not human in quite the same way we are.
The same potential, however, for good or evil, for achievement or failure, exists in everyone. Confronting our own depths or heights, or seeing friends or family members undergo experiences which transform them physically or psychologically, brings home dramatically that each of us is capable of creating in and for ourself living hells or heavens. In thinking of a currently struggling person, it is difficult to reconcile the contradictions we have seen — the constructive with the destructive or self-destructive, the caring with the indifferent or malicious, the great hope and promise with a life seemingly in ruins. Perhaps in time their life and personality may become quite ordinary again, and we can hardly believe that they or we could have participated in those past experiences.
Why do we know so little of who we and others are? The answer lies in the multifaceted nature of being human. The personal aspect with which we generally identify is but an impermanent outflowing from our fundamental spiritual center. Because they are in self-conscious contact with their divine source, our spiritually-aware, transcendent aspects remain intact from life to life, carrying the conscious memory of past existences and a progressively more complete knowledge of who we are. But our outer self is merely a collection of psychomental substance that disintegrates into its components at death, much as the physical body does, with all the lower sheaths of consciousness reduced to their primary elements. The human spiritual center reassembles these elements afresh into a personality at the beginning of each incarnation. This "person" has no self-aware memory of past lives, for it is a new creation built from the formerly-used psychomental substances. Thus, each newly reformulated personality is unique and as such never appears again.
Our present personality, then, is the outgrowth of many earlier ones, each of which lived its own life as an outer expression of our spiritual center. The actions and thoughts in these lifetimes have made us what we are today. Certainly the multitude of causes we have set in motion and the contradictory qualities we have expressed just in this current life would be difficult to work out completely in any other single future life. Because of this, there remains a tremendous amount of unexpended karma built into our nature (as well as into our relationships with others) that carries over from the past. We draw from this karmic reservoir those particular qualities and characteristics compatible with our present environment, heredity, and the evolutionary purposes of our spiritual self. At any one time we express the stellium of qualities compatible with our dominant karmic impulse, yet other strands of karma inhere in our nature. Given an opportunity, they will express themselves and perhaps become dominant for a shorter or longer period.
The profundity of our being shows itself in the remarkable growth some people experience when thrown into crises or positions of responsibility. The spiritual reality lying so close to the everyday surface is also revealed in mystical or peak experiences. A person can achieve such states instantaneously because the essential part of us already exists in an enlightened, relatively unlimited condition. The personality need only open itself to its inner self, momentarily undistracted by the many material and psychological veils through which spirit manifests. On the other hand, human consciousness can at any moment fall prey to psychomental illusions because it is temporarily blinded or fails to deal constructively with past tendencies. Whether in adolescence, middle or old age, we are never secure from these limited aspects of ourselves which may rise up gradually and overwhelm us. Generally we emerge from such states as from a bad dream, stronger for the experience and more tolerant and compassionate of others; but in more extreme cases we may not emerge before death, sometimes hastened by our own misguided actions, overtakes us.
When will the veils of consciousness fall to reveal a sudden splendor, or rise to blind us in unexpected ways? No one knows. And, could we foresee such challenges and opportunities, who of us can understand the purpose or value of the various experiences we go through? The everyday person, with his or her limited perspective, has little chance to see either the underlying causes or the inner effects. Still, the permanent person, the inner self, can and does see every experience in the light of past and future karma, thereby absorbing the lessons of each experience. Even negative situations offer a growth opportunity if met with a constructive inner approach. Sometimes, however, it is as though we must travel to the very bottom of a particular valley before reasserting inner mastery over our own life and conduct. Although every person is the imperfect expression of his own inner god, each has the divine strength to rise above and master any trial or failing. We should not forget that, ultimately, the same battered person now groping and staggering through personal darkness is destined to shine forth with the brilliance of self-consciously divine humanhood.
While our ordinary matter-based perspectives emphasize individual human uniqueness, in the larger view human beings are as alike as grains of sand or cells of the brain, collectively forming one humanity or global organ of consciousness and activity. We deal mainly with the psychophysical illusions that we weave around ourselves. In reality no others are alien from us, or we from them, whatever our physical or psychological expression may be at any moment. Because we are so caught in webs of illusion, perceiving only the surface of life, we truly are never positioned to judge anyone, not even ourselves.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1990; copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press)