When all the knots that fetter the heart are cut asunder, even while here on earth, then a mortal becomes immortal. — Katha Upanishad II.iii.15
Why do we create new inner knots or pull old ones tighter? Within us are two natures, a higher and a lower. The higher leads to inner strength, vision, peace, and love, the lower to weakness, narrow-mindedness, instability, and egoism. We create knots in our heart by shutting out our higher nature and following the desires of the lower one. Sometimes we do this because we are not able to perceive our higher self or because we give more credence to our lower self. Whatever the case, our higher nature is calling to us continually, and we can hear its quiet voice by replacing the noisy desires of our personal self with the desire to serve others. In this way our consciousness expands from the limited to the more universal.
The ancients spoke about the perfection of man and symbolized the complexity of our nature in many ways. The Greeks compared man to Apollo playing his seven-stringed lyre, Apollo himself symbolizing the highest principle. The Hindus compared man to a charioteer, the horses symbolizing his lower desires, the mind the reins, the driver the higher self, and the chariot the body. In folklore the higher self is often represented by a princess who must be rescued from selfish powers by a prince, the spiritual warrior in us. In Chinese traditions the two inner forces are symbolized by two dragons reaching for a ball of fire centered above them. We are this ball of fire! We can choose between focusing our attention on one dragon or the other.
It is up to us whether we wish to become strong and loving, or weaker and more selfish. We must decide, and then we shape ourselves by our imagination, building along the lines either of our noble or our demeaning vision. The power of imagination as an essential force in life is greatly underestimated, although we use it constantly. It shapes the ideals and principles underlying human life. Perhaps the best ideals to strive for are those that are perfected through our own aspirations and reflections. While religions and philosophies provide universal principles and examples for us, at this stage we do not yet understand how a Buddha or a Christ thinks and acts. It would seem unwise, then, to fix upon what perfected life means in practice, even though we need to retain the desire to find out more. Living according to what we now perceive to be the noblest within us acts like a mirror which reflects how grand our course really is. If we use these reflections with a sincere and open heart, our understanding of life will deepen as we move forward.
At our heart is a divinity, the source of aspiration, urging us to live in accordance with it. Naturally we often fail to live up to the divine call, but this means nothing as long as we keep trying. The heart of everything, and thus of us also, is infinite compassion, and therefore we will always have another chance to realize our divine qualities as long as we persist in our attempts to live up to them. Although the consequences of unwise past actions will rebound on us, such trials, if used rightly, form the steps of our path inwards. There is no one who has not acted unwisely, in this or in other lives, so all of us have karma to meet. If we choose to live according to the highest in us, by the power of aspiration we will call upon old karma to exhaust itself, which also gives us the opportunity to prove our resolve. Because old karma also includes the results of the good actions we have performed, our aspiration calls forth the best in us as well as the worst. To live through such confrontation requires courage and conviction, but we are here on earth to overcome our weaknesses, not merely for the purpose of self-development but to contribute our share to advancing the whole of humanity, because we are One.
The knots we have made in our heart are composed of various kinds of fear, egoism, and hatred arising from an imperfect view of life. An accurate understanding would cause us to choose courage, love, and peace, but we do not always see clearly which results stem from which causes. Our lower nature deceives us when it makes us think that we best serve ourselves, our interests, or even other people with selfish, fearful, angry acts. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we realize that on the level of action, thought, and feeling, the causes we set in motion will sooner or later bring forth their results, then we will see the necessity of rejecting ignoble impulses. Moreover, because we are not always aware of the motives for our actions, an ongoing and sincere self-analysis is one of the best practices to gain control of ourselves. If we discipline ourselves by basing our actions on altruistic love, courage, and peace, we can trust that the karma will be beneficial.
The aim of religious and philosophic schools was, and is, to make man aware of his higher nature and his responsibility to all beings, teaching the knowledge which helps him to understand himself and the world around him. In practice the student is expected to apply this knowledge to life and so learn to master himself. Our being is like the lyre of Apollo, and we can learn how to tune it to the collective welfare of all. To do so, we must become aware of the forces active in us, and sift selfish motives from the unselfish ones. This will give us increasing power to discern which course to follow, and we will be less and less distracted by our lower impulses. Perceiving the true from the false, we will see ever more clearly what our task is, its greatness and significance: cleansing the heart of impure desires so that we will feel our oneness with all. Eventually everyone must begin this process, and "the sooner begun, the easier done."
Asking ourselves how we should deal with specific situations and people results in an ongoing meditation where we try to see the situation or the other person in the light of our higher self. Doing so, we can realize that all human beings are our family, or go a step further and picture that we are ultimately One. Because this is in fact the case, this vision streaming through our being makes a call upon our divine depths, and we are able to act appropriately — or not act. All human beings draw thoughts and spiritual strength from the same source, so that our high thoughts, feelings, and acts give others more strength and nobler ideas and feelings. We can base our daily living on thinking, feeling, and acting harmoniously — not necessarily because it improves our own life, which is fairly insignificant compared to the whole of humanity, but because it makes a better world for all.
To live for humanity accords with the pure light of the highest self which is the source of every being:
As from a fire fully ablaze, sparks that are akin to the fire fly off in their thousands, even so . . . many kinds of beings issue forth from the Immutable and return to It again. — Mundaka Upanishad II.i.1
We are each a spark from this blazing fire, and it is our sacred duty to kindle this divine spark within. It will enable us to give more light and warmth to others, who in their turn will burn brighter. We can start by giving of ourselves in a humble and simple way. Each time we choose to offer others a little encouragement, without thinking of our own interests, we take a step in this direction. Whenever we refuse to be carried away by self-centered feelings, thoughts, or imaginings and replace them with uplifting and beautiful ones, we not only grow but help humanity to do so. Each time we feel our oneness with all beings, we come closer to realizing our inner self:
The wise perceive clearly by the knowledge (of Brahman) the blissful immortal which shines forth.
When that Self, which is both the high and the low, is realized, the knot of the heart is cut, all doubts are resolved, and all one's actions* come to an end. — Mundaka Upanishad II.ii.8-9
* By actions (karmani) is meant old karma that hinders us from becoming self-consciously aware of the inner self.
That the self is called both high and low negates any absolute separation between good and evil. These are relative terms for higher or lower degrees of evolution. But no matter which level we are on, the self is in all. Undoubtedly, realizing the self is a task which may take many lives of transformation, but this doesn't mean we should delay. This journey to the self is the eternal goal of life because beyond the highest self is always a new horizon with a vision of a still "higher" self. When we shall have developed into gods, we will not have reached an absolute end, but after a temporary rest we will continue to develop ourselves further.
Ancient legends of the "golden age" report that once upon a time people lived more harmoniously with each other. The future holds the promise of another golden age — not the same as in the past but on a higher level, since evolution follows a spiral course. According to Hindu teachings on cycles, this age will not flower for another 427,000 years. Satya yuga, as they call this "age of truth," may appear far away, but such time spans mean little to the ever-evolving self within us. We can start now to herald its dawn. Our present age — kali yuga, the most material of the four Brahmanical ages — provides great opportunities for growth and finally will bring forth a satya yuga. No one can say that he or she does not have the strength, wisdom, or goodness to help because these qualities are present in every human heart. All of us can do our share to help realize universal brotherhood — which is already an inner fact as well as the basis of outer nature — by loosening the knots of our hearts and by so much shedding light and peace over the globe. And why stop there? These sparks of light will illumine the very depths of a universe filled with beings, all evolving into something greater.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2002/January 2003; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)
Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny. — Carl Schurz