In the mid-19th century Western thought reached an acme of materialism. H. P. Blavatsky challenged the profound limitations then placed upon human consciousness and possibilities, pointing to the existence of spheres beyond the physical and to states of consciousness far transcending the ordinary waking state reported by our physical senses. She emphasized the essential connectedness of all existence, as well as the need to transcend the physical and intellectual commonplaces built on an unfounded acceptance of separateness as the basis of reality. One of the objectives of The Theosophical Society was, and remains, "to investigate the powers innate in man"; and like the other two main objects — forming an active universal brotherhood and studying ancient and modern science, religion, and philosophy — it has gained wide currency in the hundred years since HPB's death.
Today there is a proliferation of techniques for exploring and developing the abilities latent in every person, whether stemming from traditional sources or modern research. Books, tapes, researchers, and teachers hold forth the promise of achieving personal growth, health, happiness, success, powers, and/or enlightenment through a great variety of means. Many open minds recognize that we have been needlessly self-limited, and that ordinary people are capable of what heretofore was considered extraordinary or impossible. We are also realizing that oneness is the fundamental reality, whether in the human, global, or cosmic sphere. Theosophy has much to contribute to this exciting renaissance, particularly in its broad perspective on human nature and life.
Clearly our ordinary waking state, focused on the physical world, is only one aspect of our consciousness and, when viewed as the only mode of existence, tends to limit us to a very narrow field out of the totality of who we are. Cosmic in our inmost reaches, we are miniatures of the solar system and galaxy, imbodiments of solar and planetary beings and forces. Considering each person as a spiritual consciousness-center expressing itself through a material form, as did HPB, human development means the purification and training of our intermediate nature so it can transmit undistorted the consciousness of the divine self and, in the process, itself evolve toward divinity. Our spiritual and divine aspects are relatively immortal, while less evolved aspects including emotions and lower mind disperse after death. Because psychomental and psychic powers do not survive intact from life to life, remaining merely as influences and tendencies, to spend our lives perfecting such abilities is ultimately futile. On the other hand, spiritual attributes such as love, intuitive perception, universality, and compassion, are not only the most powerful intrinsically, but also the most important to human development since they represent permanent growth.
Development of human potential has been pursued throughout the ages, through many types of meditation as well as through yogic, tantric, shamanic, ascetic, and other practices. Concentrating the mind, becoming unattached psychologically to objects of the senses, penetrating beneath the superficial material aspects of oneself and the world, as well as special techniques belonging to various schools or traditions, are often accompanied by phenomena such as visions, voices or sounds, stimulation of the chakras, out-of-body experiences, speaking in tongues, psi phenomena, trances, ecstasy, communication or merging with other "beings," and feelings of union with spiritual reality. These peripheral experiences, therefore, are often considered the sine qua non of human development. They may be inevitable and natural byproducts of a given state of human evolution, but more commonly are induced by stimulation of psychophysical triggers. For example, specialized breathing, sensory deprivation or selective stimulation, or certain chemicals can produce temporary changes in consciousness and/or its content, but these do not reflect the real spiritual condition of our everyday self. There is a marked contrast between such transitory manifestations and long-term inner development, as psychotherapist Stanislav Grof notes in connection with kundalini:
I have myself observed repeatedly in psychedelic sessions and various nondrug states manifestations that matched closely the descriptions of the arousal of Kundalini, opening of the chakras,and flow of the Kundalini energy through the main conduits, Ida and Pingala, and through the intricate network of the nadis, fine and ramified channels for pranic energy, as they have been described and depicted in Tantric texts.
However, it is important to emphasize that experiences of this kind — Kundalini-like phenomena that would in traditional Indian literature be described as pranic — have to be distinguished from true awakening of Kundalini. The latter is an involved process of profound significance and transformative power, the completion of which often requires years. In comparison with isolated pranic experiences, such an awakening of Kundalini occurs only very rarely as a result of psychedelic experiences or experiential psychotherapy and seems to be an independent phenomenon. — The Adventure of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1988, pp. 113-14.
Uninformed use of developmental methods can have an adverse effect on the circulation of these refined energies through the human constitution and result in unhealthy physical or psychological states. The poor physical (and sometimes psychological) condition of many mystics, particularly in the West where they were often working without competent spiritual guidance, is a case in point.
Many great mystics and spiritual teachers have held that abnormal phenomena and powers are actually one of the greatest stumbling blocks along the path of spiritual development. St. John of the Cross, for instance, held that these phenomena, whether acting on the physical, mental, or spiritual organs of perception, distract the aspirant from his search for God and often engender spiritual pride and attachment. Such experiences can be addictive, leading the searcher away from the spiritual and back to the phenomenal and egocentric. They may also unbalance and deceive the aspirant who takes his experiences at face value or uses their content as a guide. Phenomena may come either from God or from the Devil, to use Christian parlance, and it is impossible for even the most sincere recipient to distinguish at times the one from the other. Generally experiences are the expression of one's own mind, and only the highest sages can always tell whether these are coming from the spiritual or the limited mental/emotional or psychic parts of themselves.*
*Cf. "Awakenment and Phenomena," Sarah B. Van Mater, Sunrise, Nov. 1978, pp. 72-8, for a fuller treatment of mystic phenomena and spiritual growth.
There are, moreover, positive and negative forces in nature on every plane of existence, physical, psychic, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Those transcending the physical plane generally enter the astral or psychic world — a slightly more ethereal form of matter which contains influences and entities ranging from the most degraded to the very lofty. This so-called astral light, the astral body of the earth, is the medium for transmitting forces between more ethereal planes and the physical world, as well as being in its lower reaches the region where people's concreted lower psychological energies (kama-rupas or "spirits") remain to dissipate after death. It contains the impress of all the thoughts, feelings, and actions of humankind since the dawn of time. These akasic "records," very similar to the morphic resonances proposed by Rupert Sheldrake, exist in this more tenuous astral atmosphere which penetrates every portion of the earth and of the individual lives composing it. These impressions are drawn to individuals by affinity and similarity of vibration: all of our thoughts and feelings come to us through this medium, and are thrown back into it again after they are used. In the case of those in nonordinary states of consciousness,
all these individuals interpret their respective seeings differently, each according to his own nature.
Herein lies one of the main causes of the unreliability always present in what semi-mystics and quasi-seers or visionaries often describe as 'visions of truth.' They can bring on to the physical plane only such pictures of the astral light as they happen to 'see' and then only through the vehicle of their own respective imaginations. The great danger lies in the ascription wrongly of spiritual truth to their astral visionings, and hence they make wrong connections with consequent wrong interpretations. There is, therefore, no genuinely spiritual seership about it; because the true seer knows thoroughly the dangers and distortions of the astral light, and sends his piercing gaze into the regions of the spirit where he can envision and transmit truths directly to the waiting brain. The mere visionary, on the other hand, imagines, often sincerely, that what he 'sees' are the workings of the 'spiritual world,' whereas all he actually experiences is a wandering of his erratic and untutored psychomental apparatus through the terribly deceptive and illusory picture galleries of the astral light. — G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 544
Most people, unused to functioning self-consciously in the astral sphere, are even more likely to be deceived by appearances and become confused there than in the physical world, where confusion and lack of self-control are common enough. Doorways once opened into inner realms can be difficult to close if unwanted forces and beings impinge on the searcher. Only those who have completely mastered similar aspects of themselves can control and judge correctly these nonphysical forces and entities.
Assimilation of the broader range of inner knowledge of Oriental and traditional peoples is acting as a leaven on Occidental disciplines, and psychic faculties are experiencing a resurgence as more people find themselves developing such abilities spontaneously or with relative ease. As HPB wrote to the American Section of the Theosophical Society in 1891:
Psychism, with all its allurements and all its dangers, is necessarily developing among you, and you must beware lest the Psychic outruns the Manasic [mental] and Spiritual development. Psychic capacities held perfectly under control, checked and directed by the Manasic principle, are valuable aids in development. But these capacities running riot, controlling instead of controlled, using instead of being used, lead the Student into the most dangerous delusions and the certainty of moral destruction. Watch therefore carefully this development, inevitable in your race and evolution-period, so that it may finally work for good and not for evil; — H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions: 1888-1891, 1979, p. 35.
Centuries of denying inner forces and planes of existence have left Westerners ignorant of the inner aspects of nature and man, and in many cases unable to evaluate accurately the consequences of their actions in these realms. There is danger in adopting indiscriminately on an experimental basis very powerful techniques, some of which contain degenerated and black magical elements in their native setting. In the words of a Tibetan proverb, only a spider's web separates white magic from black: the same training, techniques, and abilities are used in both cases, the only differences being the motive, uses, and results of development. Addressing her students' ignorant use of meditation techniques, HPB warned:
Genuine concentration and meditation, conscious and cautious,upon one's lower self in the light of the inner divine man and the Paramitas, is an excellent thing. But to "sit for Yoga," with only a superficial and often distorted knowledge of the real practice, is almost invariably fatal; for ten to one the student will either develop mediumistic powers in himself or lose time and get disgusted both with practice and theory. Before one rushes into such a dangerous experiment... he would do well to learn at least the difference between the two aspects of "Magic," the White or Divine, and the Black or Devilish, and assure himself that by "sitting for Yoga" with no experience, as well as with no guide to show him the dangers, he does not cross daily and hourly the boundaries of the Divine to fall into the Satanic. — H.P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, 12:603-4
Spiritual literature and traditions emphasize the importance of competent guidance in self-development. For millennia there have been centers of high spiritual learning all over the globe, sometimes called the Mysteries or Mystery schools. Said to have been founded several million years ago by divine beings in conjunction with the most spiritually advanced of mankind, these schools have served several functions: to preserve through increasingly material eras the wisdom of the divine instructors of early mankind; to benefit humanity as a whole by providing a source of spiritual and intellectual light and a link with the spiritual forces of the planet and cosmos; and to help those whose inner strivings, aspirations, and self-transformation allow their personal evolution to be quickened by training through systematic methods.
We know very little about the teachings and methods of the ancient Mysteries; those that we know of flourished in comparatively recent historic times, generally by then having become secularized and degenerate. The theme of the Mysteries was the second birth, the bringing forth of the inner spiritual person freed from thraldom to the physical body and lower psychological nature. Doubtless various means were used to stimulate and accelerate spiritual unfoldment, including many of those coming increasingly into vogue today. At the same time these public Mysteries, though shrouded in secrecy, were not the esoteric Mysteries, which might or might not be connected with an exoteric site.
The inner Mysteries were the training ground of the few who wished to consecrate their life to spiritual development, and had the dedication and ability to do so. Here the emphasis was on becoming rather than on a particular visionary experience, altered states, psychic powers, or communication of intellectual knowledge, though these were doubtless involved. The quality of the individual and his ability to transcend the limited aspects of himself or herself was the determining factor. These inner Mysteries have never disappeared and are said to still function actively, though secretly, all over the earth. They are found by individuals whose evolutionary development, high moral character, and selfless aspiration bring them into sympathetic inner, and perhaps outer, contact with those forming this ancient spiritual network.
As in the ancient Mysteries, the heart of human evolution remains the second birth: the growth of the everyday self until its limitations are utterly transcended and it is self-consciously reborn as the god within. Each person must decide what the appropriate role of various techniques is for him or her in this process. We need to ask ourselves, however, what we really want and how it can best be achieved. For many the criterion is "does it work?" not whether their motive or the ultimate result is universal and impersonal. Often people are searching for more powerful tools to achieve the same limited and sometimes destructive ends. However useful, self-oriented methods are an expansion of egocentric, worldly concerns into other realms of being, and as such are not means to inner growth. Even seeking spiritual development to escape "the wheel of existence" or for our own gratification is ultimately an expression of selfishness and egoism, though on a more spiritual plane.
It is easy to become caught up in the glamour of supernormal abilities and states both as ends in themselves and as means to personal powers or success, material or spiritual. But human development is a matter of inner discipline and growth, which in its early phases may or may not result in phenomenal signs, psychic powers, personal success, or dramatic alterations in our state of consciousness. It ultimately depends on the accomplishment of the outwardly unspectacular tasks of daily life, on controlling our character, and on making altruism the basis of existence. In this context the various powers and states of consciousness will in time evolve forth naturally.
If we can realize that attaining these states and powers in and of itself is not an emblem of inner growth and progress — that the path to becoming truly human, and ultimately godlike, is made of compassion and of centering of consciousness in the more universal aspects of ourselves while making the everyday ego our servant instead of our master — then the entry of these new-old techniques into modern Western life may herald a return to the more spiritual and global atmosphere of the inner Mysteries that influenced so beneficially certain civilizations of ancient times. Undoubtedly this spiritualizing of human life, globally and individually, was behind H. P. Blavatsky's encouragement of the study of the powers innate in man.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1991; copyright © 1991 Theosophical University Press)
Nature gives up her innermost secrets and imparts true wisdom only to him who seeks truth for its own sake, and who craves for knowledge in order to confer benefits on others, not on his own unimportant personality. — H. P. Blavatsky, Studies in Occultism