Theosophy embodies both ancient and modern expressions of the Ageless Wisdom and it has been entrusted to theosophists as a heritage for preservation and dissemination. This body of knowledge can be archived in virtual reality and human memory; it can be accessed for interpretation; and it could serve as an agenda of action. By participating in this function, theosophists have become “Keepers of the Ageless Wisdom” in whatever social context or in whatever political conditions they may be.
A potent strategy in preserving this Wisdom is to offer it to a wider audience so the sacred teachings, which have remained hidden from public attention for a long time, are enriched by contemporary experience and become relevant to the lives of entire communities as modern Theosophy. By going public there is greater chance of reaching people who are determined Seekers eager in unveiling mysteries and with creating meaning in life.
Every theosophist and spiritual pilgrim begins as a Seeker, someone who decides to follow an inner impulse to quest, to experience the fullness of being alive. The theosophist as pilgrim, hopeful and bold, embarks on a journey hoping to find answers along the way. Many of us are already part of this great adventure. This quest for the hidden truth in the enigma of existence is encoded in the Ageless Wisdom, and a crucial part of it is known to many Keepers as ‘mysticism’.
At the core of all the major religions is the mystical experience and the goal of the mystic is union or communion with the Absolute. It is the realisation of individual consciousness with the universal consciousness. This significant quality of the Ageless Wisdom has been explored and studied but has largely remained in the realm of the esoteric after being constantly sidelined from the mainstream of religious teachings.
In the current era when widespread social and political turmoil are fuelled by sectarian intolerance and violence, it is timely for the Keepers to reveal what has remained priceless and timeless; to share this prism of spiritual seeing and being. Mysticism implies that the world’s religious traditions share a universal truth that transcends the demands of dogma, the constraints of narrow factional interest, the popular appeal of rituals, and the impositions of power structures in institutionalised religion.
The mystic core is often known as the Wisdom Tradition in every religion and is meant to provide a conceptual and practical framework for awakening the inner self, living a spiritual life and the communion with the Absolute. It emphasises an intuitive, experiential approach towards religion. In this light the mystic is a pilgrim who undertakes a life journey to understand the fundamental divine gift in being human.
Although not a popular facet in the world religions today, this Wisdom Tradition periodically manifests itself in different times, places and forms through the presence of great teachers who heavily influence their social milieu by practising what they teach fearlessly and compassionately and by making the ethical a distinct standard of being spiritual.
Every major religion has a mystical school or movement that inspires the seeker to discover the nature and source of the Divine. Being both gnosis (esoteric knowledge) and praxis (technique), mysticism involves a system of discipline. Typically, mystics view their experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation: from fleeting to an abiding consciousness that accompanies a person throughout the days of his or her life.
In her book Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill characterises the mystical quest into five phases: awakening to the divine within; purgation of bodily desires; illumination of the mind; purification of the will; and unification or being with the divine.
In many instances, the mystic experiences of various pilgrims are incoherent and confused before becoming focused and clearly defined. Two important factors influence their personal experiences: social context and individual temperament. Many who have chosen to quest are not able to complete the phases to the very end in one lifetime.
Here is a summarised description of the phases based mainly on Underhill’s study. The boundaries between phases overlap. The previous phase is integrated to the next and gradually grows in fullness as the pilgrim proceeds.
It usually starts with a feeling of ‘divine discontent’. The person realises the inadequacy of a way of life that merely satisfies superficially. This induces the person to be a pilgrim in search of the ‘true Path’.
It is “the awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. It is tawbah or conversion in Islam and metanoia in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense feelings of joy and exaltation.” The pilgrim enthusiastically engages in studies and meet people who could provide clarity and meaning.
2. PURIFICATION OF THE SELF
This is the stage of apatheia or “holy indifference” in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This process involves removing unwholesome conditionings and desires sheltered in personality (lower nature) hiding the truth about the spiritual life. It becomes an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of emotions that could harm others: anger, fear, hurt, guilt, envy and greed. The practice involves managing stress and emotional distress through self-awareness. This is actually the prelude to the practice of mindfulness (being always present in the moment) and mental concentration.
The everyday action of the pilgrim is to follow a moral or ethical code, such as the Buddhist paramitas; avoidance of the seven cardinal sins in Christianity; the guidelines in Viveka-Chudamani (The Crest Jewel of Wisdom) by Sri Sankaracharya. It could also mean a change in lifestyle due to lack of physical exercise, unhealthy diet and other self-defeating habits (e.g. impulsive temper; smoking; excessive consumption of liquor and drug abuse). At this stage, one learns to acknowledge the gift of grace and to express gratitude through prayers and meditation, acts of charity and service.
The pilgrim also turns to Nature for inspiration. “To look on trees, water, flowers,” says St Teresa of Avila of her own mystic beginnings, “helped me to recollect the presence of God.” Plato also advised: “The true order of going is to use the beauties of the Earth as steps along which one mounts upwards for the sake of that other Beauty.” This, too, is the true order of Holy Poverty: the selfless use, not the selfish abuse of lovely and natural things.
It is the awakening of the buddhi or the spiritual consciousness. In Zen it is the experience of kensho (self-realisation; seeing into one’s own nature) or satori (a state of intuitive enlightenment). “Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine Presence, but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.”
The pilgrim experiences ecstatic moments in Illumination, similar to awakening. The term ‘ecstasy’, as used by psychologists and ascetics, defines that short and rapturous moment – a state well-marked by physical and psychical experience – in which the pilgrim loses consciousness of the phenomenal world and is caught up in a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision.
The awakening of the spiritual consciousness, however, can be gradual and imperceptible, as the buddhi becomes part of a daily consciousness. In Christian literature, this is known as the contemplative consciousness or “the presence.” It forms with the two preceding stages, the “first mystic life.” Not all mystics go beyond it, although many seers and artists have shared to some extent, the experience of the illuminated state.
4. PURIFICATION OF THE SOUL
It is the growth process after the spiritual consciousness has begun to be active. There are various stages and facets to it. There are certain conditions that arrest the progress in one’s spiritual life. St John of the Cross wrote about the “dark night of the soul.”
The “dark night of the soul” overtakes the pilgrim because he or she treads an unfamiliar path in life while approaching the mystery of God or the Absolute. With faith, the pilgrim persists and becomes the light in the darkness that brings him or her intimately closer to realising the mystic goal. This second ‘night’ of purification happens to those who have made contemplation a part of their life.
According to St Basil, when the individual advances in knowledge, he realises his own weaknesses. This is remedied by continuous spiritual training (ascesis) in the renewal of character, when one consciously engages in self-discipline to dissolve the imaginary line that separates the pilgrim from other beings.
It refers to the merging of the individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness (God or the Absolute). It is called fana in Islam, moksha in Hinduism, nirvana in Buddhism and theosis in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The pilgrim becomes theos anir (the human perfected in the likeness of God). Many known mystics have attempted to explain this ineffable experience:
- I and the Father are one. John 10:30
- All that one sees as a spectacle is still external; one must bring the vision within and see no longer in that mode of separation but as we know ourselves; thus a man filled with a god – possessed by Apollo or by one of the Muses – needs no longer look outside for his vision of the divine being; it is but finding the strength to see divinity within. Plotinus
- Highly ought we to rejoice that God dwelleth in our soul, and much more highly ought we to rejoice that our soul dwelleth in God. Our soul is made to God’s dwelling place; and the dwelling place of the soul is God which is unmade. Julian of Norwich
According to Underhill:
In this state, the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed, as in Illumination, but is one with it. This is the culmination of all previous oscillations of consciousness. It is a state of equilibrium, or purely spiritual life, characterised by peaceful joy, by enhanced power, by intense certitude.
Despite difficulties and struggles, the mystic finds the inspiration to proceed and reasons to complete the quest:
- God or the Absolute can be experienced by knowing and participating in one’s own divine nature;
- To experience God or the Absolute requires a process of self-transformation that can be perceived through the development of human character, changes in behaviour, and improved social relationships;
- Love, expressed in various circumstances and degrees (through kindness, empathy, compassion and altruism), allows the mystic to persevere and endure despite formidable obstacles, making the quest an adventure of the pilgrim soul;
- Whatever is the outcome of the journey in this life, the most important fulfilment is having tried his or her best to perform duties out of respect for life and devotion to the Divine.
Mystics in the various phases of their spiritual development do not renounce action or avoid claims of love. In most cases they dedicate themselves to a life of service. Character determines one’s destiny. It is also true what an ancient maxim tells us: “One becomes what one loves.”
One of the essential features of the Ageless Wisdom is the ability of human beings to become ‘perfect’ at the end of the mystic process. To be a perfect human being does not mean that the pilgrim becomes an omniscient or omnipotent god. Self-realisation, according to ancient sages and transpersonal psychologists, is the flowering of human potential that brings inner peace or liberates the pilgrim from unhappiness.
Those who seek perfection make a vow to gain enlightenment in the shortest possible time so they can be worthy of helping others in gaining enlightenment. Thus, the pilgrim chooses to take the Path of Hastened Attainment or the Path of Resurrection. In Theosophy, one who has attained human perfection becomes an ‘Adept’. The qualities of the Adept correspond with the qualities of the arhat in Buddhism, the rishi in Hinduism, and the saint or christos in Christianity.
Upon attaining perfection, one may decide to forego eternal liberation or ascension from human condition. By doing so, he or she makes the supreme choice to reincarnate immediately in order to help others recognise the Path and to take the Path (i.e. the bodhisattva). The Perfect Human assumes this role without tampering with the duties of those being assisted in dealing with their own karma. The Christ triumphant becomes ‘saviour’ by sharing his life with us, and not by substituting himself for us.
The Godhead or the Absolute is present in each one. The theosophist as mystic can address directly this Divine presence. In Islam, it is a great sin to forget one’s divine origin (ghaflah). It implies not knowing who you really are and why you are here. The cure to this state of amnesia, according to Plato, is anamnesis or mindful recollection.
To ‘remember’ the planes of human consciousness becomes an important step in cultivating wisdom. The theosophist, to be a Keeper, must also have basic knowledge on the constitution and planes of human consciousness to help oneself and others ardently engage in self-transformation.
In theosophy, the term ‘individuality’ refers to the higher nature of the self (Atma, Buddhi, Higher Manas) and ’personality’ refers to the lower quaternary of the self (Lower Manas, Astral, Etheric and Physical). In the mystic stages, it is the personality that undergoes purgation and purification. It is the mystic duty of theosophists to master one’s lower self through the higher self. Helena P. Blavatsky in her Collected Writings once stated:
One only inflexible rule has ever been binding upon the neophyte, as it is binding now – the complete subjugation of the lower nature by the higher. From Vedas and Upanishads to the recently published Light on the Path, search as we may through the bibles of every race and cult, we find one only way – hard, painful, troublesome, by which man can gain true spiritual insight.
By taking the Path, the theosophist becomes aware that adopting a process for self-realisation is indispensable. Gautama the Buddha offered the Eight-fold Path as a programme of action for the community of seekers so they can test, learn from their experience and replicate the practice confidently. The Eight-fold Path has been the subject of many commentaries, old and modern.
Yoga, another programme of action, embraces the principle of Oneness. The Sanskrit word ‘Yoga’ means identification or realised identity with the Divine. It is a practice that provides the means to be aware of that relationship. It is based on the principle that the Spiritual Self within each one of us is of the same divine essence as the Spirit of the Universe. The hidden God within us has been so buried by the mundane and the profane that it is hardly noticeable. When yoga is practised the Divine Self is revealed, freed from all the pettiness of lesser things. It is an aid for the hastened unfoldment of the human consciousness.
As a programme of action, it consists of eight progressive steps:
- Yama means ‘harmlessness’. The real yogi never hurts anybody. Harmlessness also denotes internal purification through moral training that builds the preparatory stage in advancing further.
- Niyama means ‘study, being in God’s presence, and contentment’. Since a person’s conduct is mainly responsible for creating the conditions affecting him, he intelligently accepts the results of his behaviour. This inward calm and appreciation of the situation characterises ‘contentment’.
- Asana means ‘posture’. Proper posture is not limited to sitting meditation but refers to the daily demeanour or disposition of the practitioner.
- Pranayama means ‘controlling and directing the breath and prana, the vital energy’.
- Pratyahara means ‘introspection’. It signifies the controlled withdrawal of the consciousness from the activities or business of the outside world and bringing it back to oneself.
- Dharana means ‘concentration’. The mind focuses on whatever topic or object or mantra is chosen.
- Dhyana means ‘abstract contemplation’, absolute identification with what is being meditated upon.
- Samadhi is complete absorption of the entire consciousness with the Absolute.
Because the spirit of divine life cannot die, the mystic with an awakened consciousness is not bothered whether one completes or does not complete the entire transformative process in this lifetime. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once said, “It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives.”
Among Kabbalists, reincarnation or gilgul does not punish or reward. It is concerned with the process of individual transformation by giving significance to the life of each person, as each individual has particular tasks, based on karma, that only he or she can accomplish. Through reincarnation, the soul fulfils the divine plan.
The challenge is to be engaged in the stages of mystical development and to use this pattern of unfoldment in transforming our human nature towards being one with the divine. This spiritual quest or great adventure involves preparing ourselves physically; serious study; deep reflection and constant meditation; love for all beings; and dedication to serve those in need.
One’s duty is to determine in what stage of evolution one is at present so that one can develop the awareness to participate in the Cosmic Design or Divine Plan. It is not easy, but those who have gone before us or those tremendously advanced in this lifetime can offer guidance in taking the Path and in gaining a sense of wholeness or holiness while proceeding.
Because individuals can be weak repositories or transmitters of wisdom, they have to belong to a particular culture that aims to make them dedicated and competent Keepers. The theosophical organisations must provide this cultural experience, a reliable way of doing things based on constant practice and communal learning. We have to invest in developing leaders who will be at the frontline of mainstreaming theosophy. The mentoring of potential leaders is crucially linked to character-building and to the Society’s mission in helping others proceed towards higher mystic stages.
As Keepers, the theosophical culture impels us to engage in continuous study and to test what we learn in everyday activities. In this culture, the theosophist learns why and how Wisdom appeals to the individual and is necessary to develop a sense of common well-being. One of the initial tasks of the theosophist, therefore, is to become familiar with and to recognise the significance of Mysticism. While undergoing studies, the theosophist attempts to integrate knowledge and practice, to confront life challenges decisively and life choices with genuine fervour. In the process, one experiences what is worth sharing:
- a deeper understanding of life;
- the potency of universal values and ethical principles;
- increased capacity for self-awareness and for understanding life as it is;
- sense of responsibility and commitment to nurture relationships;
- empathy for those in need and compassionate desire to serve;
- strong sense of inter-connection with all beings;
- developed faculties by integrating one’s divine nature with the human.
The theosophical heritage undoubtedly can enrich our lives and those of others. We learn to become comfortable with our silence. We learn to apply the laws of nature in all facets of life. We seek, we keep, we share and become who we really are.
Compiled and shared by Victor Peñaranda at the national convention of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand, 16 January 2016, at Kawai Purapura, Albany, Auckland. [Revised for distribution.]
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mysticism, 1994-99
Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Image Books, Doubleday, 1990
Philip S. Harris, Vicente Hao Chin, Jr and Richard W. Brooks, Theosophical Encyclopedia, Theosophical Publishing House-Manila, 2006
Vicente Hao Chin, Jr, The Process of Self-Transformation, Theosophical Publishing House-Manila, 2000
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, Harper Collins, 1991
Geoffrey Hodson, The Yogic Ascent to Spiritual Heights, Stellar Books, 1991
John Algeo, Living Theosophy, Theosophical Publishing House-Adyar, 1998
Helena P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings No. VI, Theosophical Publishing House-Adyar
James Cowan, Desert Father, New Seeds Book, 2006
Victor Peñaranda was a Trustee and Vice-President of the Theosophical Society in the Philippines and coordinates the Section’s lodge development and training activities. He is also an experienced trainer-facilitator of the Self-Transformation Seminar. Victor has worked as a journalist and as a capacity-builder on community development and governance in the Philippines, the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Republic of Macedonia. He has written and published three collections of poetry. Victor and his theosophist wife have three children.