Sometimes the goals pointed to by sages and teachers through the ages inspire and discourage us at the same time. We know ourselves fairly well; we realize how far away we are from those peaks of spiritual attainment. An old story tells of a young aspirant who asked, "Tell me, please, is the Path uphill all the way?" We feel a little as he must have when his answer came: "Yes, my son, all the way." Still, there are signposts we overlook. By exemplifying the teaching they propound, by enlivening universal principles through living them, the seers and guides of mankind reveal attitudes that can be far more helpful in our daily life than the vast knowledge we might gain from a close scrutiny of metaphysical ideologies.
Who of us, for example, has not been thwarted by frequent interruptions? If we are in the middle of work we consider important — work, moreover, that must be finished — and suddenly the phone rings or someone knocks on the door, what happens? Perhaps these are superficial social calls, nothing more. Isn't it easy to become irritated beyond reason? We may even be rude in our efforts to shake off this annoying obstruction, justifying our action by the importance of the task at hand. But are we justified?
Porphyry, with some wonderment, described Plotinus in this familiar situation. During the long and tedious hours of writing down his philosophical concepts, thinking as he went along, he had a constant stream of visitors — not prominent ones, but people who generally had no vital business with him at all. In his place most of us would conclude that their casual calling was blocking an essential task and turn them aside as quickly as possible. Yet this was not Plotinus' way. He put down his pen, welcomed all of them warmly, gave of himself as long as they wished him to, and only then returned to his labors. Obviously, as he saw it, his guests, whoever they might be, unfailingly represented his immediate duty; the treatise could wait.
Jesus was chided for giving help and comfort to various persons whom his followers considered unworthy of attention and concern. We all know his reaction: no one was ever turned away. And were we able to find the biographical facts of other teachers and sages, undoubtedly we would discover that each in his or her own way emphasized the significance of our relationship with whomever we may meet in the natural course of life.
Years ago I came across these words by William Q. Judge:
You dislike to be interrupted. You have decided to sit down and write or read on some useful subject. A person comes who perchance happens to be a bore in the ordinary sense, or who is not agreeable personally to you. First, you do not wish to have your fixed object laid aside, and, second, you dislike being bored. Both these are solely personal. In this case — unless of course some pressing duty to others requires you to go on — you should at once mortify the personal self by dropping the reading, writing, or whatever it is, and attend to the wants of the other person. Judgment of course must be used. But there will be every day and in all places opportunity after opportunity to pursue this practice. It is the giving up of yourself.
This brief passage, given in an almost offhand manner, carried great impact, for the advice was exactly opposite to my own views and behavior. I decided to try it out. The understanding gained through the interchange of ideas, problems, and reactions in general conversation, with any individual who came to me — whom I no longer inwardly turned away — proved a gift of inestimable worth, to say nothing of the freedom in being released from feelings of intense frustration.
What has this to do with religion and philosophy? Much more, perhaps, than we realize. Every system of religious thought asks that we trust implicitly in an omniscient Principle or in Divine Intelligence, in God or an aspect of God. This implies that there is meaning in everything, not excluding the events that happen to each living thing in the universe, from moment to moment, from age to age. We are apt to say "It was luck or chance" to explain away something we do not understand — but everyone knows this is just a handy way of admitting, "I don't know."
If ours is a universe of cosmic law and order (and evidence certainly supports this theory), then there can be no accidental happenings; there is purpose in every contact we make with other individuals, whenever and wherever this occurs. There are extremely subtle currents flowing in the sphere of personal relationships. A "chance" remark by a friend or stranger has the power to change the course of our lives. But is it chance? Or do we by some inner longing, unknown to ourselves, call forth from the other person exactly what we must have to fulfill that need? And do we unconsciously also give others a new outlook that will help them at just the right time?
We have been told: "Seek and ye shall find." Possibly we search too far afield, imagining that spiritual understanding comes only with thundering drums and trumpet blasts. Might not enlightenment come as well in the soft wisdom of a child's observation, from a neighbor's trials, from seeing an example of human courage? These are little things, but the fullness of our lives is made up of just such small moments of awareness. Aside from the fact that we could not long endure a constant leaping from crisis to crisis, it is in the quiet times in between that we garner the strength and stability to meet with equanimity whatever comes, regardless of its magnitude. And the quality of our relations with others plays no small part in this.
We are inclined to become so mentally occupied with the technical intricacies of religious and philosophical doctrines that we largely ignore, or toss aside as mere ethics, many basic principles that could supply us with the answers necessary to successful living. The often understated teaching involved with the reality of inner ties that bind humanity together is an example. Yet could we not spend a whole life pondering the implications contained in the beautiful expression "Love ye one another"?
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)