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Theosophical Encyclopedia


The study of the mind, consciousness, and behavior. Early theories about human psychology may be found in the world’s philosophic literature. In the West, the first systematic writing was by Aristotle (384-322 BCE). In Eudemus, he argued for the pre-existence of the soul (psyche), defending a doctrine which he had gotten from Plato (427?-347 BCE) in which the soul was considered a substance separate from the body. However, by the time he wrote On the Soul, (now known by its Latin name De Anima), he had changed his mind and considered the soul to be the form of the body — in the same sense, for example, that a bowl made of clay (its matter) has a certain shape (its form), although he conceived the psyche as a kind of hierarchy with intellect (nous), found only in human beings, at the apex of the hierarchy and separable from the body and other functions of the psyche, therefore immortal.

Aristotle’s views, often slightly modified by both Arabian and medieval Catholic philosophers, generally prevailed until the modern period when the question of the relation between body and soul (or mind) led to a philosophical impasse because the mind was conceived as not located in space, therefore it became difficult to understand how it could affect the body. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) attempted to solve the problem by suggesting that the mind, although not spatially extended, therefore immortal, is linked to the body through the pineal gland. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) argued for a single substance which manifested both as body and mind, therefore did not really interact. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a materialist, rejected the idea that the mind was a separate substance, hence there was for him no problem of an interaction between two utterly different sorts of things; of course, there could be no survival after death in such case. Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), as a Christian clergyman wanting to preserve the idea of survival after death, rejected the idea of matter and argued that everything was mind; again, that solved the problem of interaction, although few others accepted his radical solution.

There were other attempts to solve the “mind-body” problem in 18th and 19th century Europe, but none actually involved quantitative experimentation. That began with professors of anatomy and physiology, such as Ernst Weber (1795-1878), Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), Johannes Müller (1801-1858), and Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894). Modern scientific psychology, as contrasted with philosophical and religious psychology, is commonly regarded to have started in 1879 with the work of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), who began in the University of Leipzig, Germany, to apply the scientific method to the understanding of human behavior. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the most important milestones in the growth of this new science were the works of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in Europe and William James (1842-1910) in the United States. Freud not only brought wide recognition to the role of the unconscious in human behavior and psychopathology, but introduced his well-known topography of the human psyche — the id, ego and the superego — and their dynamics. Underlying human behavior is the action of an innate energy called the libido, which, when suppressed and dammed up, is the cause of neurosis and psychosis. William James, with his groundbreaking Principles of Psychology, recognized the introspective approach to psychological investigation in his inquiry into such concepts as the will and the self. In addition to biological and social selves, James proposed the existence of a spiritual self. These were the pioneering attempts to map the human consciousness that led to later generations of personality theories.

Carl JUNG (1875-1961), an associate of Freud who broke off from the psychoanalytic movement, enlarged the latter’s view of the nature of the self by stating that the ordinary conscious ego is but the incipient stage of a process that eventually leads to the formation of an integrative Self through a process he calls Individuation. The human consciousness, according to Jung, is constructed according to archetypal structures that serve distinct purposes. In addition to the ego, there are the persona, the shadow, the anima/animus, and the Self. Full human maturity is attained when there is harmonious balance and integration among these different archetypes under the larger consciousness of the Self. He also introduced the idea of a collective unconscious which is shared by all humanity, a concept he deduced from the similarity of dreams and symbolisms in various peoples and cultures.

The views of Jung, as well as some of the later personality theorists such as Abraham MASLOW (1908-1970) and Roberto ASSAGIOLI (1888-1974), are of particular relevance to theosophy and eastern philosophy in that they all share a common view regarding the direction of human growth and maturity: the emergence or discovery of a transcendent Self that is distinct from the psychological ego, and the necessity of integrating the existing elements of the personality to harmonize with this higher Self. The Italian psychoanalyst Roberto Assagioli makes this a central point of his therapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, where the purpose of growth is either the direct realization of this Self, as in enlightenment and self-realization, or indirectly through ideals that mirror the Self. In the 1920s, the American psychologist John B. Watson (1878-1958) reacted against the introspective method of psychology as being too subjective and unverifiable. He sought to make psychology as scientific as physics or chemistry. Thus, to him, the only sources of psychological knowledge were those phenomena and behaviors which were observable and measurable. Consciousness, for example, was a thing that was neither definable nor usable. It cannot thus be the subject of a scientific investigation. This school of psychology became known as behaviorism, and was the dominant view for several decades before the Second World War. It led to a method of therapy and behavior modification involving conditioning. Classical conditioning is a technique discovered by Ivan Pavlov when he found that a dog could be taught to salivate whenever it heard the sound of a bell by repeatedly associating the bell sound with food. Operant conditioning is the modification of behavior by associating an action with rewards or punishments, a technique extensively studied by B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). The behaviors of animals and human beings can therefore be changed using psychological techniques developed by behaviorism.

The two dominant psychological schools, psycho- analysis and behaviorism, failed however to touch upon certain profound issues of human life and behavior, such as the nature of psychological maturity. Some psychologists felt that psychoanalysis was too focused on psychological aberrations and was too deterministic in viewing human behavior as primarily the result of childhood experiences. Behaviorism, on the other hand, tended to be materialistic and reductionist, and ignored meaningful experiences such as feelings and love. As a reaction to them, a so-called “third force” in psychology arose, the humanistic school, which was interested in the power of self-determination of human beings, and the realization of the human potential. A principal figure in this movement was Abraham Maslow who postulated a hierarchy of human needs and an innate drive towards self-actualization. Another one was Carl Rogers (1902-1987) who developed a client-centered approach to therapy.

In the 1960s a new branch of psychology gradually emerged side by side with humanistic psychology. This became known as transpersonal psychology. It recognizes the existence of states of consciousness beyond the persona or the outer layer (or mask) of the individual. This new field is to be distinguished from parapsychology in that the latter is interested in observable paranormal phenomena, while transpersonal psychology is interested in the subtler layers of human consciousness beyond sensations, feelings and thought. This includes intuition, spirituality, illumination, cosmic consciousness, mysticism, religious experience, and similar states. It was pioneered by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), Stanislav Grof (1931- ), Victor Frankl (1905-1997) and others.

As the subjects of transpersonal psychology were evidently beyond the scope of physical science and measurement by instrumentation, a recurring question that arose was whether transpersonal psychology could be considered a science at all. Ken Wilber strongly argues that transpersonal psychology as well as similar fields of inquiry, such as mysticism, follows a general valid principle of arriving at reliable knowledge, of which the scientific method is but a mode. The principle has three strands: (1) an operational injunction, consisting of a set of instructions to be done if one wants to discover a truth, i.e., “If you want to see this, do this”; (2) the apperception when the injunction is followed; and (3) the communal confirmation or validation by those who have tested the injunction. This principle is applicable not only to the investigation of the sensory and measurable world (science), but also to the relationships among ideas and concepts (reason) and the transcendent realms (contemplation). It allows replicability.

The emergence of transpersonal psychology brings the preoccupation of psychology back to the original theme of the philosophical and religious psychologies of ancients: the understanding of consciousness, self, spirit, perfection, and the purpose of human existence. This too has been the theme of theosophical psychology.

The Eastern Approach. The Eastern approach to understanding the psyche has tended to be from “inside out,” that is, starting from inner subjective experience and observation. Perhaps the classical source for this is Patañjali’s Yoga S™tras, although most Indian philosophy generally takes a similar approach. Various meditative techniques are claimed to put one in direct touch with both the mind and also deeper aspects of one’s consciousness. Watson decried such introspective methods as subjective, therefore not susceptible to any kind of impersonal, objective, assessment and intersubjective verification (one of the basic criteria of the scientific method). Since theosophy approaches the study of psychology in the same way as Patañjali, one must be sensitive to that criticism and have a reasonable answer to it. In fact, the rebuttal is deceptively simple. If by “intersubjective” you mean capable of being sensed by any person with the requisite scientific training and requisite sensory mechanisms, theosophists would agree. But to the behaviorist, those sensory mechanisms are identified as the eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin — or instruments which can be read by one of those senses. Since all of those “mechanisms” are physical, Western psychologists have, in effect, begged the materialist — or, more properly, physicalist — question. If one allows only physical intersubjective verification, one necessarily confines onself to the physical world.

While it is true that most people cannot operate objectively at anything other than the physical level, it does not follow that everyone is limited in such a way. In fact, Patañjali’s approach, as well as various forms of Buddhist meditation, are designed to achieve an impersonal objectivity at the psychic level. They also claim to result in certain forms of paranormal cognition — such as clairvoyance — in which intersubjective verification can occur with anyone else who has achieved the same type of cognition. In other words, it satisfies the general criterion that the two subjects both possess the requisite sensory mechanisms. Indian philosophy identifies several such non-physical mechanisms, as does theosophy. There is a considerable amount of theosophical literature which is based on this form of cognition. Like all types of cognition, clairvoyance is susceptible to error, but by repeated observations of the same phenomenon one can, it is said, achieve objective truth. Some theosophists would even extend that claim to mystical experiences. As Annie Besant puts it in Theosophy and the New Psychology (p. 6),

The testimony of the mystic to his own experiences, the testimony of the religious man to the facts of his own consciousness, the visions of the Sufi, of the Yogi, of the Christian Saint, are as much facts of consciousness as any that you can gather from the records of the hypnotiser, any you can find in the recorded phenomena of hysteria.

Psychology and Theosophy. Helena P. BLAVATSKY at the end of the 19th century strongly criticized the materialistic tendencies of the emerging science of psychology. “It is psychology minus soul; psyche being dragged down to mere sensation; a solar system minus a sun . . .” (CW VIII:334). She wrote that the external consciousness of the physical brain is but the outer phenomena of inner, mental states, the manasic self.

Theosophical psychology is rooted in its topography of the psyche, or the soul. This soul is but one of a triune that constitute the human being: Spirit, soul and body. The latter two are further divisible into three subparts each, thus totaling seven levels of consciousness in all (see HUMAN CONSTITUTION). The body has the following three aspects: the dense physical body, the etheric double or linga-śarīra, and prāna. Blavatsky divides the soul into three important parts, which constitute the central field of study of theosophical psychology:

Spiritual soul: buddhi

Human soul: manas or mind-body

Animal soul: kāma or feeling-body

The middle part, the mental, is simultaneously drawn “upwards” to the buddhi and “downwards” to the feeling-body, thus dividing itself into the higher and lower mental. These three layers thus form two clusters or centers of self: the higher or noetic aspect composed of the buddhi-manas, and the lower or psychic aspect, composed of the k€ma-manas. The latter constitutes the personality, while the former is the individuality, the impersonal part of the human psyche (CW XII:353). Thus theosophical psychology distinguishes between two selves: the personality or lower self, and the individuality or higher self. Which of these two is dominant is a central issue in the applied side of theosophical psychology.

The personality is influenced from without, while the individuality has its inherent forces or drives. The lower self thus cannot exercise any free will, but the higher can. The two essential elements then of individual growth towards perfection are (1) the awakening and strengthening of the higher consciousness within the individuality, and (2) the mastery or subjugation of the lower personality in accordance with the values and directions of the higher. Theosophy affirms that the psychological practices of all the mystical traditions are based on this dual principle.

The theosophical approach to psychological insight was further developed by Annie Besant in her various works, particularly The Pedigree of Man (1903), A Study in Consciousness (1904), and Theosophy and the New Psychology (1904), although important contributions are scattered around in the works of Charles W. LEADBEATER, Geoffrey HODSON, Phoebe BENDIT, and Dora KUNZ, among others, aside from, of course, the voluminous writings of H. P. Blavatsky.

The first of Besant’s books on the subject is based on The Secret Doctrine of H. P. Blavatsky. The next two involve her own development of the ideas. Her technical terms in the second book, especially, draw not only from theosophical terminology, but also from Patañjali and the ADVAITA VEDĀNTA philosophy, although she develops her ideas much more fully than either of those two Indian sources. The reader would be advised to consult those three books for the details of her ideas. Only a general outline of them can be presented here.

A complete understanding of human psychology must situate it in the overall scheme of cosmic creation, a story spanning an enormous duration according to theosophical literature. In this theory, the universe manifests on seven different grades of material substance, termed by Besant in A Study in Consciousness (p. 53) the Ādi or the First, Anupādaka, Ātma, Buddhi, Manas or mind, Kāma or desire, and Sthūla-śarīra or dense, gross levels or planes (counting from the rarest to the densest). Other authors often substitute the term “Astral” for Kāma and “Physical” for Sthūla. According to Besant, the deity or LOGOS of our solar system manifests its consciousness on the Anupādaka level in a triune principle, termed the Monad (because although triune it acts as a single unit). This is termed the Self — Ātman or Paramātman in Indian philosophy. That Self, in turn, manifests a triune Soul or life-principle (jīvātman) on the levels of Ātma, Buddhi, and Manas. As this life-principle gradually gathers around it matter of the lower planes (manas or mental plane, kāma or desire plane, and sthūla or physical plane) the process is termed “involution” and the consciousness is more dream-like than it is objective. When the involving consciousness (sometimes termed a “life wave”) manifests in physical matter, it does so first in mineral, then vegetable, then animal forms. The dreamlike quality of consciousness gradually becomes turned outwards and more objective, especially with the development of a nervous system, although even in the higher animals it is still instinctual. This is termed “evolution,” following the usual scientific terminology. At a certain point in its evolutionary development, an individual soul is formed, called in theosophical terminology the “causal body,” the term being a literal translation of the Sanskrit kārana-śarīra. It is that which distinguishes humans from animals. The animals have a kind of collective consciousness, termed a “group soul,” whereas humans have an individual soul and with it free will, therefore responsibility for their actions.

Human consciousness, therefore, according to theosophical theory, is septenary in nature with a spiritual higher triad (ātma, buddhi, and manas or abstract mind) and a lower quaternary comprised of a categorizing or conditioned mind, emotions, vital energy or prāna, and the physical or biological body. In other words, consciousness requires a form of some sort in order to manifest (cf. A Study in Consciousness, pp. 27-8). It is the latter quaternary, especially the mind and emotions, which is generally termed the personality in psychology. Buddhism, which approaches the subject more from a psychological than a vehicle-of-consciousness perspective, identifies five elements in this lower nature: form (rūpa), feeling (vedana), cognition (samjñā), habit patterns (samskāra), and conditioned consciousness (vijñāna). Form is usually identified as (and often translated) the physical body, but the term is probably intended to specify the tendency of consciousness — even when disembodied — to concretize ideas and give them specific forms, to think in terms of objects. The theosophical and Buddhist theories, therefore, would be just two different methods of analyzing human nature, not necessarily contradictory with each other. In any event, according to both theories human beings are far more complex than behaviorist psychology or most Western philosophy claims.

It is usually stated in theosophical literature that consciousness “unfolds,” i.e., gradually manifests through the forms more and more of its latent potentials which are inherent in its real Self, the Monad. Besant explains this process in terms of “vibrations” from our inner nature which “organise in the physical body organs which are able to respond to them, and each new organ opens out a new avenue of knowledge” (Theosophy and the New Psychology, p. 17). Furthermore,

As these vibrations are more and more definitely recognised by consciousness in the higher regions, it transmits them more definitely to its physical vehicle, and all that you call premonitions, intuitions, exaltations of the senses, of the intelligence, of emotion, the visions of the mystic and saint, the clear vision of the yogi and of the trained occultist, all that you get in the variety of dreams, all that you get in genius, and in the loftier states of human consciousness, all are the coming down into the physical brain of vibrations received in loftier regions by loftier bodies, gradually being organised for conscious life and work upon those planes. (Loc. cit., pp. 17-8)

This helps to explain differences in perception of the same object or event by different persons. As Besant puts it, “The same things may present themselves to each, but the power of perceiving what is presented will depend upon the evolution of the faculties” (loc. cit., pp. 43-4). It also helps to explain aberrant (psychopathological, neuropathological) behavior as caused by efforts of the person to invoke states of consciousness which the brain is not yet capable of handling (loc. cit., p. 37). And it explains the purpose of a proper diet (i.e., sattvic food, as Besant puts it) and daily meditation to aid the body to respond to those higher vibrations. But even ordinary attention “is a thing which can be enlarged . . . and [you will be able to] attend to more and more things at one and the same time . . . [thus] bring a larger number of ideas within the field of clear vision (loc. cit., p. 46).

Early theosophical literature generally identifies three levels of consciousness: waking consciousness, sub-consciousness, and super-consciousness. More recent theosophical literature often discusses what Jung termed “the collective unconscious.” Waking consciousness is brain-centered in humans and ganglia-centered in lower organisms. In the sub-conscious are “all those strange and dim relics of our past that have come down to us through our parents, and also through our own permanent atoms [i.e., material focal points around which vehicles of consciousness are formed in each new incarnation]” (loc. cit., p. 50). This sounds like at least part of the “collective unconscious,” although not the part that deals with symbols of personal integration. “They will be vague, dim, difficult to grasp . . . dull gropings and searchings long left behind by the advancing consciousness of man, memories dim and blind which still have left their marks on our physical system” (idem.). These probably include vague, nameless fears. But note that the thought-environments in which we live — family, local neighborhood, national, racial — can also influence us at the sub-conscious level and shape our beliefs, fears, animosities, nationalistic feelings, etc. This influence comes to us not only in verbal and subtle behavioral ways, but also telepathically, as several theosophical writers have stated (see, e.g., C. W. Leadbeater, The Hidden Side of Things, 1913). Furthermore, “There are many beings on the astral plane whose presence is antipathetic to man, whose feelings are not friendly — partly because man is so destructive an animal” (Besant, Theosophy and the New Psychology, p. 55). Various kinds of conscious lives still on their involutionary journey, termed elementals in theosophical literature, inhabit and vivify thought forms, both beneficent and harmful, and these can influence the subconscious mind of humans not aware of and therefore not on their guard against such influences. On a more constructive note, however, our Soul — or Ego, as it is often termed in theosophical literature — is always trying to disencumber itself of as many repetitive behaviors as possible, thus “takes advantage of the automatism of his vehicles to put into their hands as much as he can get rid of. . . . He does not want to be bothered, say, with the looking after of the vital functions of the body, but only gives his attention to the machinery he has trained when anything goes wrong. The whole of that we can put aside as sub-conscious” (Besant, loc. cit., p. 53).

As parapsychologists have known for over 100 years, psychic impressions (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition) impinge upon us through the subconscious. According to Besant, they set up vibrations in the astral body which are conveyed to the sympathetic nervous system and from there, usually vaguely or in a fragmented form, to the brain. It is only when one is able to focus one’s attention at the astral or mental level that psychic clarity can occur. This is termed super-consciousness by Besant, who defines it as “that which is in consciousness on the super-physical planes, and when sent down to the physical plane arrives directly in the brain, not through the sympathetic system” (loc. cit., p. 56). It is also from that level that the inspirations of genius come into the brain (loc. cit., p. 58). But all such forces from the super-conscious are necessarily modified by the vehicle into which they come, thus “will then be changed into the form of energy to which that vehicle lends itself most readily” (loc. cit., p. 59, italics in the original). That vehicle could very well distort the energy, so one must always be cautious when attempting to interpret such inspirations. As Besant warns,

Hence has it been said to the candidates for the higher teaching: “First, cease from evil.” Until you have ceased from evil, the less of the higher life that flows into you the better. After you have ceased to do evil, begin the control of the senses. Subject them absolutely to the mastery of the mind; then bring the [lower] mind under the control of the higher mind, and make the wanderings and errancies of the lower mind quiet and still, under the influence of the higher. Only when the man has thus purified the vehicles, only in the tranquillity of the senses and the silence of the mind, can he see with safety the glory of the Self. (loc. cit., p. 60)

It must, therefore, be obvious that, as Besant puts it, “you cannot deal accurately and fully with consciousness without knowing something of the nature of its instruments” (loc. cit., p. 1). Since the theosophical account of the constitution of man is considerably more complex than the account found in Western psychology, it is little wonder that its approach differs markedly from that of Aristotle, Descartes, Freud, Watson, or Skinner.




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