The esoteric doctrine, the inner doctrine, to be found in every old literature and religious book, is that cyclic law is the supreme law governing our evolution; that reincarnation is cyclic law in operation and is supreme. For what is reincarnation but a coming back again to life, just what the ancient Egyptians taught and which we are finding out to be probably true, for in no other way than by this cyclic law of reincarnation can we account for the problems of life that beset us. With this we account for our own character, each one different from the other, and with a force peculiar to each person.
This being the supreme law, we have to consider another one, which is related to it and that is the law of the return of impressions. We mean by this that those acts and thoughts performed constitute an impression. That is to say, your coming to this convention creates in your nature an impression. Your going into the street and seeing a street brawl creates an impression. Your having a quarrel last week and denouncing a man, or with a woman and getting very angry, creates an impression in you, and that impression is as much subject to cyclic law as the moon, and the stars, and the world, and is far more important in respect to your development — your personal development or evolution — than all these other great things, for they affect you in the mass, whereas these little ones affect you in detail.
In respect to cycles and the evolution of the human race, it is to be described somewhat in this way: Imagine that before this earth came out of the gaseous condition there existed an earth somewhere in space — let us call it the moon, for that is the exact theory. The moon was once a large and vital body full of beings. It lived its life, went through its cycles and at last, having lived its life, after vast ages had passed away, came to the moment when it had to die; that is, the moment came when the beings on that earth had to leave it because its period had elapsed, and then began from that earth the exodus. You can imagine it as a flight of birds migrating.
When I was a boy in Ireland, I used to go to my uncle's place where there was an old mass of stone ruins at the end of the garden, and by some peculiar combination of circumstances the swallows of all the neighboring counties collected there. When the period arrived, you could see them coming in all parts of the sky, and they would settle down and twitter on this pile of stone all day, and fly about. When twilight came they rose in a body and formed a huge circle over forty feet in diameter, and that circle of swallows flew around and around in the sky, around this tower, for an hour or two, making a loud twittering noise, and that attracted from other places swallows who had probably forgotten the occasion.
They kept that up for several days, until one day the period arrived when they must go, and they went away — some were left behind, some came a little early, and some came too late. Other birds migrate in other ways. And so these human birds migrated from the moon to this spot where the earth began (I don't know where it is — a spot in space) and settled down as living beings, entities, not with bodies, but beings, in that mass of matter, at that point in space, informed it with life, and at last caused this earth to become a ball with beings upon it. And then cycles began to prevail, for the impressions made upon these beings when they lived in the ancient — mind fails to think how ancient — civilization of the moon, came back again when they got to this earth.
That is the theory, broadly, and in that is included the theory of the great seven races who inhabited the earth successively, the great seven Adams who peopled the earth; and at last when this earth shall come to its time of life, its period, all the beings on it will fly away from it to some other spot in space to evolve new worlds in other spaces in nature. We are not doing this blindly. It has been done before by others — no one knows when it began.
We cannot turn back the cycles in their course. We have come up through the cyclic laws from the lowest kingdoms of nature. That is, we are connected in a brotherhood, which includes not only the white people of the earth, and the black people, and the yellow people, but the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, and the unseen elemental kingdom. It includes everything, every atom in this solar system. And we come up from lower forms, and are learning how to so mold and fashion, use and abuse, or impress the matter that comes into our charge, into our bodies, our brains, and our psychical nature, so that that matter shall be an improvement to be used by the younger brothers who are still below us, perhaps in the stone beneath our feet. I do not mean there is a human being in that stone; I mean that every atom in the stone is not dead matter. There is no dead matter anywhere, but every atom in that stone contains a life, unintelligent, formless, but potential, and at some period in time far beyond our comprehension, all of those atoms in that stone will have been released. The matter itself will have been refined, and at last all in this great cycle of progress will have been brought up the steps of the ladder, in order to let some others lower still in a state we cannot understand come up to them.
Now then, this law of impressions can be illustrated in this way: If you look at an electric light you will find it makes an image on the retina, and when you shut your eye, this bright filament of light made by a carbon in an incandescent lamp will be seen by you in your eye. If you keep your eye closed and watch intently, you will see the image come back a certain number of counts, it will stay a certain number of counts, it will go away in the same length of time and come back again, always changing in some respect but always the image of the filament, until at last the time comes when it disappears apparently because other impressions have rubbed it out or covered it over.
That means that there is a return even in the retina of the impression of this filament. After the first time, the color changes each time, and so it keeps coming back at regular intervals, showing that there is a cyclic return of impression in the retina, and if that applies in one place, it applies in every place. And when we look into our moral character we find the same thing, for as we have the tides in the ocean, explained as they say by the moon — which in my opinion does not explain it — so in man we have tides, which are called return of these impressions; that is to say, you do a thing once, there will be a tendency to repeat itself; you do it twice, and it doubles its influence, a greater tendency to do that same thing again. And so on all through our character shows this constant return of cyclic impression.
We have these impressions from every point in space, every experience we have been through, everything that we can possibly go through at any time, even those things which our forefathers went through. And that is not unjust for this reason, that our forefathers furnished the line of bodily encasement, and we cannot enter that line of bodily encasement unless we are like unto it, and for that reason we must have been at some point in that cycle in that same line or family in the past, so that I must have had a hand in the past in constructing the particular family line in which I now exist, and am myself once more taking up the cyclic impression returning upon me.
Now this has the greatest possible bearing upon our evolution as particular individuals. An opportunity will arise for you to do something. You do not do it; you may not have it again for one hundred years. It is the return before you of some old thing that was good, if it is a good one, along the line of the cycles. You neglect it, as you may, and the same opportunity will return, mind you, but it may not return until another life, but it will return under the same law.
Now take another case. I have a friend who is trying to find out all about a psychic nature, but I have discovered that he is not paying the slightest attention to this subject of the inevitable return upon himself of these impressions which he creates. I discovered he had periods of depression (and this will answer for everybody) when he had a despondency that he could not explain. I said to him, you have had the same despondency maybe seven weeks ago, maybe eight weeks ago, maybe five weeks ago. He examined his diary and his recollection, and he found that he had actual recurrences of despondency about the same distance apart. Well, I said, that explains to me how it is coming back. But what am I to do? Do what the ancients taught us, that is, we can only have good results by producing opposite impressions to bad ones.
What he should have done was, that being the return of an old impression, to have compelled himself to feel joyous, even against his will, and if he could not have done that, then to have tried to feel the joy of others. By doing that, he would have implanted in himself another impression, that is of joy, so that when this thing returned once more, instead of being of the same quality and extension, it would have been changed by the impression of joy or elation and the two things coming together would have counteracted each other, just as two billiard balls coming together tend to counteract each other's movements.
This has a bearing also on the question of the civilization in which we are a point ourselves. Who are we? Where are we going? Where have we come from? I told you that the old Egyptians disappeared. In my poor and humble opinion, we are the Egyptians. We have drawn back with us, by the inevitable law of association in cyclic return, some personages connected with us by some acts of ours in that great old civilization now disappeared.
Nothing is lost. If we were left to records, buildings, and the like, they would soon disappear and nothing could ever be recovered; there never would be any progress. But each individual in the civilization, wherever it may be, puts the record in himself, and when he comes into the favorable circumstances for it, he will bring out the old impression. The ancients say each act has a thought under it, and each thought makes a mental impression; and when the apparatus is provided there will then arise that new condition, in rank, place, and endowment. So we retain in ourselves the impression of all the things that we have done, and when the time comes that we have cycled back, over and over again, we come at last to an environment physically and in every other way to enable us and the others who are coming after us to do well. It is well enough to say to a man, Do right; but after a while, he will say, Why should I do right, unless I feel like it? When you are showing these laws, that he must come back in his cycle; that he is subject to evolution; that he is a reincarnated pilgrim soul, then he will see the reason why.
The great end and aim is the great renunciation, that is, that after progressing to great heights, which you can only do by unselfishness, at last you say to yourself, "I may take the ease to what I am entitled." For what prevails in one place must prevail in another. But if you say to yourself, "I will not take it, as I know this world and all the people on it are bound to live and last for many thousand years more, and if not helped perhaps might fail; I will not take it but I will stay here and I will suffer because of having greater knowledge and greater sensitiveness" — this is the great renunciation.
I know we do not often talk this way, because many of us think people will say to us at once, "I don't want it; it is too much trouble." So generally we talk about the fine progress, and how you will at last escape the necessity of reincarnation, and at last escape the necessity of doing this or that, but if you do your duty, you must make up your mind when you reach the height, when you know all, when you participate in the government of the world, instead of sleeping away your time, you will stay to help those who are left behind, and that is the great renunciation. That is what is told of Buddha, and of Jesus. Doubtless the whole story about Jesus, which cannot be proved historically to my mind, is based upon the same thing that we call renunciation. He was crucified after two or three years' work. This means that this divine being resolves he will crucify himself in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of others, so that he can save men. Buddha did the same thing long before Jesus is said to have been born. The story that he made the great renunciation just means that instead of escaping from this horrible place, as it seems to us, he remained in the world and started his doctrine, which he knew at least would be adhered to by some. But this great doctrine of renunciation teaches that instead of working for yourself, you will work to know everything, to do everything in your power for those who may be left behind.
If these old doctrines are not taught, you will have a revolution, and instead of making progress in a steady, normal fashion, you will come up to better things through storm, trouble, and sorrow. You will come up, of course, for even out of revolutions and blood there comes progress, but isn't it better to have progress without that? These old doctrines revivified explain all problems and in the universal scheme give man a place as a potential god.
[Condensed from a paper titled "Cyclic Impression and Return and Our Evolution," read by Judge before the Sixth Annual Convention of American Theosophists at Chicago, Illinois, April 24-25, 1892, and published in Theosophy, Vol. XI, January, February, and March 1897; reprinted in Echoes of the Orient 1:492.]
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)
Thus in the cosmic book of destiny, there is no recording angel to allot divine reward or satanic punishment. It is man alone who has inscribed his past, who must read and interpret his present, and in so doing shape his future. We cannot hope to decipher the entire script of our lives at once, but we should try to read the signposts of direction as they come. Our main drawback is in expecting karma to work too fast or according to our wishes. But as we understand more clearly our own particular chapter in the larger, universal script of destiny, we shall observe that the circumstances and events that arise day by day operate so scientifically, so accurately, and so compassionately that all whom we contact are of necessity brought to us and we to them for each of us to learn and to grow, to receive and to give. It is a natural and beautiful interchange of experience and, if we can quietly "feel" the karma as it unfolds from moment to moment, we shall begin to recognize the promptings of guidance. If, however, we anxiously hunt for signposts, we shall never see them. That is the paradox: when we seek for this or that specific form of help, it never comes; but if we meet each day unafraid, relying on our innate strength and wisdom, we shall have all the protection and help we can use. — James A. Long, Expanding Horizons