There is a wide difference between psychic powers and occultism. Psychic powers are many and various, including such phenomena as clairvoyance, psychometry, telepathy, kinesthesia, channeling, and trance mediumship. Their development is often undertaken by those who are naturally psychic; or a person may be merely curious, ignorant of what he may be getting himself into, for the psychic world is far more illusory than the physical world we are familiar with. Such powers, however, are most definitely not spiritual powers. As W. Q. Judge remarks:
When a student starts upon the path and begins to see spots of light flash out now and then, or balls of golden fire roll past him, it does not mean that he is beginning to see the real Self — pure spirit. A moment of deepest peace or wonderful revealings given to the student, is not the awful moment when one is about to see his spiritual guide, much less his own soul. Nor are psychical splashes of blue flame, nor visions of things that afterwards come to pass, nor sights of small sections of the astral light with its wonderful photographs of past or future, nor the sudden ringing of distant fairy-like bells, any proof that you are cultivating spirituality. These things, and still more curious things, will occur when you have passed a little distance on the way, but they are only the mere outposts of a new land which is itself wholly material, and only one remove from the plane of gross physical consciousness. — Echoes of the Orient 1:45
Encouraging this type of phenomenon usually has a deadening effect on our higher aspirations, just as physical indulgence does. Judge spoke of the danger of "astral intoxication" in connection with these matters, since the thirst for phenomena can be as insatiable as that for liquor or drugs:
The power that Nature has of deluding us is endless, and if we stop at these matters she will let us go no further. It is not that any person or power in nature has declared that if we do so and so we must stop, but when one is carried off by what Bohme called "God's wonders," the result is an intoxication that produces confusion of the intellect. Were one, for instance, to regard every picture seen in the astral light as a spiritual experience, he might truly after a while brook no contradiction upon the subject, but that would be merely because he was drunk with this kind of wine. — Ibid. 1:46
As human evolution goes forward, psychic powers will increasingly appear as the natural development of inner faculties as new senses and organs come into active functioning. But any attempt to force this process prematurely is perilous to health and even sanity. At times like the present, when the barrier between ethereal inner worlds and our physical world grows thin, we can expect an increase in psychic sensitivity. In such eras it is of vital importance to give a positive direction to the resulting tide of phenomena by moving human thought-life towards spiritual realities.
Occultism is often confused with psychism, and so people shy away from it. The picture of occultism in the public consciousness is that of the seance, fortune tellers, charlatans, wandering gurus with claimed powers, black magic — all things which are rampant today. But occultism in reality is the study of the hidden parts of nature. In its widest application it is sometimes called the esoteric philosophy, which deals with the structure and operations of the cosmos and with the origin and destiny of the beings that compose it. A fundamental axiom of occult philosophy is that all things are alive and parts of a living whole; that universes, galaxies, suns, planets, are all living beings composed both inwardly and outwardly of hosts of greater and lesser entities. In the same way atoms, molecules, cells, and organs of our own bodies together with the thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and understanding emanating from the higher parts of our nature — form this living universe that we call a human being.
Suppose we consider any one of our friends whom we have known so well and ask ourselves, just what is this friend? Is he or she the physical appearance, or is the real person the consciousness, intelligence, goodness? Surely the latter. This inner person, the real individual, is from the standpoint of our physical senses intangible and invisible. The intellect and soul qualities are governed by spiritual and psychological laws; even the so-called physical laws of nature are not physical at all. They also are invisible, becoming tangible and observable only because of the way they control and organize the material world. They themselves cannot otherwise be seen by our ordinary eyesight.
If we apply this reasoning to the cosmos, we can understand that the true causal universe is the invisible universe. If human life, consciousness, goodness, and strength are our reality, just so with the universe that enfolds us. It too is governed by intelligence and consciousness. What is the nature of this intelligence and consciousness? It is the overdwelling activity of intelligent, conscious beings.
Each of us is truly a universe in miniature and within us are ranges or planes of being and awareness which we only come to know by the faculties within us that pertain to these levels and which are now latent for the most part, or only partially awakened. And just as there are hosts of lives beneath the status of humans, so there must be hosts of superior beings, a view substantiated by all the great religions. The various levels of life from atom to cosmos represent the ascending steps in the ladder of cosmic evolution. And the laws of nature, so called, are the spiritual lifestyle of superior beings, whose very presence ensures the harmony of the spheres. Thus the universe is as real spiritually as it is tangible to us physically.
The three propositions given by H. P. Blavatsky in the first volume of her Secret Doctrine are the very essence of occultism, for they awaken the godlike in us and show the universe as a vast organism of which all the kingdoms, from the electron up to the highest god, are the integral evolving parts. The first proposition describes the infinite, unknowable source from which all things flow — an eternal, boundless, and immutable principle. The second proposition describes the universal law of periodicity, the life, death, and rebirth of all things — worlds, gods, and men. All these come forth periodically: there are times of rest and times of activity or manifestation. Moment by moment, year by year, cycle after cosmic cycle, the evolution of all living things goes forward. The third proposition asserts the essential oneness of every soul with the universal oversoul. It also describes how each divine spark evolves through every form of the phenomenal world, eventually attaining individuality. It achieves this through an almost infinite series of reimbodiments, ascending over cosmic time through all degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest.
This grand process is what is implied by the word occultism: how the visible comes forth from the invisible; how the smallest spark of divine life becomes in time a human being; and how we humans may become gods. How far this majestic vista is from the paltry powers associated with psychism and the so-called "occult" arts! Let us instead turn our attention toward the spiritual heart of this vast universe surrounding us, which is also the spiritual heart at the core of our own being, as we aspire to become like the gods.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)