We are told by the experts that we live in a world of post- modernity. Grand narratives to explain things are gone. All explanations are valid. We are told that liberty has arrived, everybody is the center. We have left the old ways behind, no one, no thing or things, to rely on. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We live in a quid pro quo world: I’ll do something for you, but only if there is something in it for me.
Everything is focused towards the ephemeral part of us. Immediate satisfaction, consumed quickly. Shorten our attention span, be impatient, restless. A quick fix. We should all be flexible, amenable to changing conditions, as if those conditions were a part of nature. Change jobs, change house, re-train — is this what the Buddha really meant by non-attachment? There’s nothing wrong with being flexible, but when it is linked with all the other things of desire, the whole big sell, then it is appropriated to the more base parts of our being. Create a norm by which all else is measured, and where does our free choice fit in when all we are left with is just one choice: to be the norm. We may all eat at McDonalds or whatever our fast food choice, dress in designer clothes, but we eat them and wear them as individuals. To be individual in this sense is not the same as the individualism that makes us grow.
The lifestyle gurus tell us we are free to make life choices, good or bad, and will bear the consequences. No interference from any external agent; we’re led to believe that we can be what we want to be. But isn’t there a wealth of external agents just ready and waiting to help us achieve our innermost desires? If some don’t make it — well, it must be a failing in them because, look, some did make it. The assumption is we all begin at the same time at a point marked start, all equipped with the same resources. We don’t need to think too hard and look too far to see that this just isn’t so.
But isn’t this just what theosophical teachings tell us: we are all individual, we are all made of the same stuff, started at the same time and place? That we are free to make our choices in the knowledge that we shoulder the consequences?
Modernists tell us that we stand alone. No religion, no beliefs, no gods (except the self viewed as an economic being). As Jung said, individuals without belief, in order to give sense to what they do and how they live, will find themselves trapped in self-absorbed compulsions, depressions, anxieties — psychopathology as the modern form of illness. Indeed, the very term psychopathology means “suffering of the soul” in the original Greek, but in modern usage soul has been dropped in favor of personality, in effect ego. Even most of the self-help books and paraphernalia deal with the immediate and the personal. So we are kept busy keeping at bay an ever growing list of poisonous foods, fattening substances, carcinogenic fumes, unhealthy lifestyle regimes; at the same time we are swamped with the promotion of foods and goods made out to be just too good to miss out on. If we don’t have the latest then we are out of the loop. The meaning of life seems to be the self-gratification of the self, no point wasting time on anything else. Life coaches proclaim the right to look great, be yourself, and take your life in your own hands. At the same time numerous pressures tell us all how bad we are, how bad we look, why we feel so “not right,” and also how, for a fee, they can show us how to put it right. No matter what you are, they can squeeze you into a size marked “norm.” And then you really can be free and individual, and just like everyone else.
The other day I saw a book titled A Guide for the Advanced Soul. Here I am, a soul, browsing in a book shop — I know that I am not just an ordinary soul (I am attracted to the book), presumably because I’ve read the ordinary soul guide. This book has obviously been written by someone more advanced than the advanced soul, and they have put it all down in a book for me. How kind. It will tell how, having gone through the first stages, here is the next lesson. And I suppose there will be A Guide for the Much More Advanced Soul, and so on. The thinking, the work, is done for me. We have given up our freedom to a new class of priesthood. They don’t wear the robes of orthodoxy. They are casual, slick, one of us. The TV doctor who is so approachable and cool. The expert on how our life should be who wears sneakers and track suit. The intellectual who can explain just about everything in a half-hour television program. There is a book titled The Explanation of Everything. The world in concision.
But haven’t theosophical books been written for us to read and hopefully to advance? The difference is subtle but profound. This literature doesn’t deliver it all neat and pretty. There are no rules, no dogmas. There is no club whose membership guarantees spiritual advancement; no fees. These books, for all who wish to use them, give a map of the terrain that we inhabit and belong to. Like the New Age and self help products, they tell us it is we who have to do it, no one will do it for us. But there is one big difference: we are not to do it for ourselves, we are to do it for humanity, for all living things. For without that motive we achieve nothing. The Voice of the Silence advises: “But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed.”
The individualism of the soul is nothing like the individualism promoted today which, to me, is a pathological individualism. The feeling of togetherness is lost. Individualism isn’t about being alone, it’s about being yourself among what seems an infinite number of others. Life is good, even the bad bits. Problems, pleasures, good, bad, are all things we encounter to develop our faculties, to make us whole. Make a mistake and, sure, consequences will follow, but we are never given more than we can cope with, and no one does the giving other than that inner part of ourselves. We can take the modern cult of individualism, turn it on its head, and throw a line from our own individual shore to someone on their individual shore, the first strand of a new, different safety net. Not asking them to be like you, but being confident enough to know that you are still you and that’s okay, and they are still them and that’s okay too, but the world moves on strengthened by the act.
The book on the shelf before me has 264 pages. But our lives have an unknown number of chapters left unwritten, to be continued. I need more instruction. Something unique to me, not to be jealously guarded but to be experienced. Having that feeling of uncontrollable desire to want others to see and feel what I see and feel. But not being disappointed when they give me a funny look and think I’ve just landed from another planet. Knowing that they will not be left untouched by our encounter. We have to make a move, not to change humanity, but understanding that humanity changes.
The world as presented to us today is not atomized, despite all the efforts. We do feel for others, we are aware of their pain and suffering, because they are ourselves; whether we understand it or not, we feel it, we know it. Let’s conspire, in the real sense of the word, “to breathe together,” to turn it around. So that the fear we may experience wakes us up rather than frightens us, and so that we understand that not only can we make a difference but we are in fact that difference.
When order is disrupted we become dislocated. But ruptures in a system are not always bad. Times of change don’t just happen by accident, and I believe that what we have is a real desire and need for an outlet of what we really are: free, individual, collective (meaning united) spiritual beings. Filled with an innate understanding, however small, of what it really is all about. And the process we are seeing is just a phase when a new way of expressing our spirituality meets the old constant attempt to disable us from thinking independently and to restrain us, and the old puts up a fight. The old will lose, and it is our duty to hold fast and weather the storm. The truth will still be true, but conditions will change and we will need flexibility to be sympathetic and tolerant of others’ differences. Because that truth will be the same for them but received by them in its unique way for a unique them.
Being free, being individual, should not give us the right to do as we please. It should give us the opportunity to realize our responsibility to all others. Dostoyevsky said in essence that everyone is responsible to everyone else, for everything. And David Attenborough, on one of his latest world/man/nature programs, expressed the idea that man is no longer aware of the forces of nature, he now knows that he is a force of nature.
And no, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. And we will never be able to go back. The magic word has been spoken and the genie is out of the bottle. There is a story of a person who searched for a lost coin under a lamp post — not because he lost it there, but because that part of the pavement was better lit. Looking beyond the most obviously-lit place on the pavement may yield us much more than we look for.
(From Sunrise magazine, Winter 2007; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)