Whatever shows on the surface, our real life takes place within us; what impinges on our consciousness is what we retain and use to build up our memory, and on memory rests all the further knowledge we acquire. This must be why in Greek mythology Mnemosyne (Memory) is the mother of the nine Muses who represent the arts and sciences, for every new increment of understanding is a modification of or an addition to what we have learned before. The events in our lives would make no impact on us nor provide any experience but for the awareness which responds to those events, and that awareness is replete with recollections from the past. We may be oblivious to some happenings, so that they cause nothing to change in our awareness, while other encounters may be wholly imaginary and still make a lasting impression. Also, even when two people undergo the same experience, each one's recollection of it will differ.
You may remember a film, popular years ago, called "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" with Danny Kaye in the title role. Walter indulged in extravagant daydreams, wherein he performed prodigious feats of courage and skill. Reading a humdrum shopping list could, by association, transform the innocuous young man into a fighter pilot or a surgeon saving a patient's life by a tour de force that astounded his associates; he would then receive the acclaim of colleagues with an overweening modesty. And all this could take place while he was waiting for a traffic light to change.
We all lead a double life: an outer life that is visible to all the world, and an inner life we cannot share with anybody even if we want to. The life that is open to public scrutiny may differ quite markedly from the experience which is accumulating in the consciousness. Even while we cook a meal or paint a picture, we are undergoing mental-emotional changes and storing memories which often as not are remote from what we are doing.
How barren life would be for one who relied on the physical senses but whose consciousness did not take in their import: his ears might hear the music and the bird song, he might see the sunlight and bask in its warmth, sense the fragrance and flavor of blossoms and fruit but, lacking a responsive soul, he would have no retention, nothing would make an impact on his lasting self. Contrariwise, the flavor of a long forgotten past may recur to mind, bespeaking a soul memory more enduring than any physical event.
Yet there are many who would deny the reality of consciousness for want of tangible evidence. With what, then, do they live? Do they pass their lives in oblivion, having neither memory of the past nor hope for the future, retaining nothing but electrical synapses in a brain which is due to disintegrate when life departs? Such an existence would permit no gains in understanding, no joy or sorrow, no elation over beauty, for these are responses of a receptive inner nature, a complex soul of many colors. The physical world alone cannot supply that need. On the other hand, it has been amply proven that an individual can live fully, and indeed profitably, without the use of physical sense perceptions if it has the soul qualities that normally use and govern the senses: will, determination, courage, inspiration, imagination, and that sublime intensity where understanding is to be found. These are some of the properties of the awareness that experiences empathy and growth in ever larger measure.
But while it uses sense perceptions, consciousness is not dependent on them, except for communication with others, and not always then. We know of remarkable people who live satisfying lives despite handicaps that the rest of us find almost unthinkable: the young man with no arms (a thalidomide baby) who longed to play basketball. Instead he became a soccer player and a guitarist, using his feet to best advantage. Many blind musicians have made successful careers. And who can assess the influence on the whole world or gauge the inner vision and strength of a Helen Keller, or of her friend and teacher, Anne Sullivan. These we know of. How many unknown strengthen the composite soul of the human family? Their prowess is no less valuable, and we all have access to the common pool of human resources and service on which they draw — both for giving and receiving.
It says much for the portion of the human race that is currently in residence on earth that so many are able to cope with a much greater freedom of thought and choice than has been conceded in any age in history. Looking back we see times when laws were primitive and violently enforced, as were the Mosaic commandments, followed millennia later by the suggestive injunctions — not peremptory imperatives — of the Teacher on the Mount of Olives. Our present climate is one of even greater latitude, indicating that the soul of humanity is now more mature, more capable of making right decisions without either the threat of punishment or the incentive of reward.
There are, of course, many who still want explicit instruction in how best to tread the path of evolution: sit thus, breathe so, eat only certain foods, meditate on this or that; these have yet to discover that growth is a process demanding self-reliance above all. Among them are those who look for tangible results, expecting to become spiritual by physical means. Only a very few are prepared to look for the principles on which nature works and apply them, to seek truth no matter where it leads. For reality may not always be palatable and truth undisguised may bruise the seeker's ego. The sure, the golden key that unlocks the secrets of the cosmos dispenses with that ego, for that key is altruism. It is an easy word to say, and is readily defined but, even when known, it is not easily understood. The soul must first be motivated by the discovery of the oneness of all life, and this can only be arrived at through the individual's own exploration into the worlds of thought and spiritual understanding. Once earned, this insight leads to utter self-effacement in the whole. Dissolved in all-life, where ego ceases to have a separate existence, the singular life can become what it truly aspires to be.
This condition must be won by deliberate choice of the autonomous will. For this two things are needed: the ability to stand on one's own and make wise judgments independently and, secondly, the pilgrim on this path must have the vision and desire to apply his wisdom for the benefit of all beings even at the price of his own progress. This, like independence, cannot be taught. The student of the ancient secrets has to discover for himself the truth which will make him an agent of the higher laws of life. He will then apply those principles which can benefit and further the progress of the system we all help constitute. Usually we limit our gaze to the immediate and material and thereby we narrow our perceptions, but if we allow ourselves to dwell on grander vistas of life, seeing ourselves as products of an endless past and bound for an endless future, life becomes not only purposeful as a whole: paradoxically every moment in it becomes unique, precious, and irreplaceable.
The present age with its unlimited scope of metaphysical interests opens opportunities for everyone to find and explore his real aims. The chances of reaching superior or inferior levels of awareness are about equal; whether we attain glorious dreams or incur hideous nightmares depends entirely on the individual's motivation. We have an eternally valid basis for judgment in the soul-experience of our infinite past, and have undoubtedly suffered and enjoyed the effects of both errors and successes many times.
One cryptic saying that has puzzled many a scholar, "To him that hath shall be given; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath," is particularly applicable to the conscious self that governs our response to circumstances and evolves accordingly. On the face of it, it seems unfair, though true. The self accumulates merit and vice, gains in wisdom or unwisdom at an accelerating rate. The road to Avernus and the heights we scale become steeper as we advance. Our choices, based on desires and soul-dreams, have unlooked-for and far-reaching results, each increment becoming a base from which great consequences flow. We can blame no one else, nor are we beholden to others for the results of our attitudes, moods, feelings, or other occupants of consciousness. They are of our own choosing; so let us never underestimate the Walter Mitty in us all.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)