The above article first appeared in The Theosophist of August 1998
We all want to be wise: we all want to be able to cope wisely and effectively with the multitude of problems, involving both ourselves and others, which arise in the infinitely numerous and varied situations of our lives. These arise in the family, at work, in our religious and political activities and in all the short or long term decisions we have to make. Many diverse factors have to be borne in mind and reconciled. How do we evaluate them? What considerations should be given priority?
If we are thoughtful people we have a responsible regard both for our affairs and to what we see happening around us not only immediately but further afield, even perhaps in the international scene. We may think, for example, that were we in charge, we could do better than those who are. But could we? When we look at events remote from us it seems easy to be wise, but then we are not personally involved. Therein lies a key factor in the application of what we might consider wisdom. This key is ourselves and our self-concern; selfishness in other words. Does this not lead us on to see quite certainly, in circumstances and events remote from us, that the most intractable problems arise from selfishness: the selfishness in one degree or another of the people involved? This is particularly the case with those in power or seeking it. Mostly this selfishness is based on materialism or wealth, money or land. It extends also, and very importantly, to religious belief.
It is the egocentric view that inspires us to foolishness not only in our own affairs but those of others, and much more seriously it can lead us and others to actions that result even in killing, in wars, etc. Nowadays the consequences of these inward-turned views are only too apparent in commerce, where the over-riding concern is profit instead of service. The generality of mankind is only of concern as a profitable market. The health and happiness of people, of ecology, etc., become very secondary.
So where does wisdom lie? Wisdom lies in our being able somehow or other to transcend the limited personal view, to have a true concern for real values, for others, whoever they may be. This is a pre-requisite to wisdom. Wisdom involves understanding, caring, sympathy and much experience of the hard knocks that life metes out to us. These knocks often not only adversely affect our physical well-being, our finances, even our position in society, but they affect us emotionally and psychologically. They can sap our will to face further challenges. We can be brought to feel low in our own estimation. A wise confidence in such circumstances can often restore our self esteem whereas we might have spent the rest of our lives, so to say, in a siding. Right help at the right time puts us back again on the main line of life. Maybe however, we will have learned the meaning of the signals as we go along the track and come to know that there are proper stopping places before onward progress can be resumed.
The Wise Man
The truly wise man has learned to transcend the limitations of his personal self with its too-confining personal concerns. What does this really mean? A further question is, what is this self with its seemingly insatiable demands? We are only too well aware of our bodies and the demands that they make, for food, warmth, shelter, clothing, and all that is otherwise necessary. These needs, in our modern society, usually means money.
Emotions also play a large part in our lives: relationships intimate or not bring their problems. As the poet, John Donne, once said, 'No man is an island, entire of itself'. We need others for both physical and emotional needs if we are to be happy. Unfortunately we often put these relationships at risk by our conduct. We thereby attract to ourselves considerable but unnecessary emotional suffering. If we were wise we would know how to avoid damaging our precious friendships, even our relationships.
Unfulfilled desires or having to endure what we would rather be without, contribute to our unease. Not achieving our ambitions, social position, power, wealth, public regard, or appreciation, recognition, or perhaps just a lack of gratitude we feel due to us, further discomfort us. All the foregoing are well known causes of suffering which we bring on ourselves, as taught by the Lord Buddha.
What about the wise man? Can he avoid pain and suffering? We are taught that he can by the elimination of 'desire'. This is obviously more easily said than done. It means the overcoming of selfishness in all its multifarious aspects. Even the man free of his self-centred promptings would still suffer. If he were at all sensitive he would suffer vicariously. He could not possibly be unaffected by the welter of individual and collective suffering in the world. A genuine awareness of the pains of others is compassion, said to be the highest emotion. It is a manifestation of pure love. It is characteristic of the developed man; the truly wise man. According to the degree of development of this capacity to love a man is truly wise.
The Ancient Wisdom
It might seem coincidental that in our thinking about wisdom and how it applies in the circumstances of earthly life, we might happily discover that there is such a thing as the Ancient Wisdom which in turn implies that there are those who possess it. This Ancient Wisdom has been known by a number of names, but its essence is, in depth, knowledge of things as they are, in their total being, and not just what they appear to be. For example, we know that, as well as man having a body with its needs, there is also his inner world of invisible faculties. The Ancient Wisdom teaches that Nature also, as well as its outer, objective existence has its inner counterparts. This applies to all that we can see around us including the very material 'stuff' of the earth and even to the heavenly bodies. The teaching has it that every thing, even all the diverse elements, atoms, etc. of the materials of the mineral kingdom, the wide variety of plants making up the vegetable kingdom, and similarly the countless forms, from insects to elephants, in the animal kingdom, all are the apparitional forms of a common life manifesting in each one of them in a characteristic way. Every thing has its inner principles. The teaching postulates that One Life is shared by all things and creatures including man. This One Life is the basis of all sentiency and ultimately as we rise up through the kingdoms, of consciousness, until in man there is self-consciousness. Man knows himself as 'I', an individual entity.
The Wisdom tells us that consciousness operates in a series of modes. These are exemplified in the very rudiments of sentiency in the mineral kingdom whereby they respond to their surroundings. They 'sense' heat when, for example, most materials expand, or cold when they contract. Atoms of some elements show affinity for those of other elements, hence chemical combinations, as when oxygen and hydrogen atoms combine to form water.
In the vegetable kingdom this sentiency is more obvious. It has been shown that some plants can respond even to a man's mood or intention. Further, some respond even to the feelings of other plants. The experiments of a Professor Bose at the beginning of this century demonstrated this. In animals we easily perceive the emergence of a degree of consciousness depending on the development of a wide range of response to the environment and eventually approximating to that in human beings. Man differs from the animals, however, in that not only is he aware of his environment but of himself in it. He has achieved self-consciousness.
In man consciousness is not confined to the physical plane; we know how we feel, i.e. what goes on in the emotional world. Similarly we 'know' what we are thinking about (our mental world) and we are aware sometimes of our nobler impulses of altruism, compassion, justice, true comprehension and so on. According to the teachings, all these are modes or levels of consciousness, each corresponding to an aspect of our inner being, which in man is known as a principle, and that in turn corresponds to a plane in Nature.
There are said to be seven such principles in man: a) his physical body, b) its life force, which is of the same nature as the 'universal' life force, c) an astral body, which not only acts as a reservoir for, but distributes, the life force (vitality) about the astral body and it also constitutes a model around which the physical body is 'built'. The astral body has a definite constitution, a counterpart to the general physiology of the earthly body, with nervous and capillary systems which circulate vital energies around it as do those in the physical body, e.g. the blood, hormones, enzymes, etc. These three components or principles - the physical, the astral and the life force - are directly concerned with the maintenance of the life of the physical body or vehicle as it is sometimes called.
Similarly, as we have seen, man has an emotional principle in which emotions and desires arise, but further, he knows his various moods, as when he is angry, happy, depressed or joyful: in other words, consciousness operates at that level. He is also aware of his various kinds of mental activity. Often this activity is automatic, but at other times it is subject to his direction. It is important to note that he can decide to give his attention to what he likes; both his emotions and his thoughts are potentially under his control.
This introduces one aspect of volition or will to his 'inner' activities. Apart from the actual stimulus of desire to action he can if he chooses override desire by the use of this will which is said to arise in his nature at a level higher than the mind. This is instanced by the fact that he can think of what he wants; he can direct the activities of his mind with his will. At these higher levels of his being man has what we have referred to as compassion. This springs from a feeling of sympathy uniting him not only with his fellows but, as he becomes more developed with all nature. He recognizes his unity with all created things.
Purely selfless, noble motivations even the very dynamism of animation derive from these three upper principles, viz. a) the higher impersonal mind, b) the very spirit of Life itself, and c) a vehicle in and through which Spirit can become effective.
The Ancient Wisdom classifies the principles of a man's nature by groups. It says that the three concerned with the life of his physical body itself, the life force and the vehicle of the life force, constitute a lower trinity or triad. Then man's emotional-cum-mind principles constitute is a middle duad. There is a complication here in that the mind is said to operate at a higher and a lower level. The mind associated with desire and emotions. i.e. that which justifies what we want to do, is said to be the lower or personal mind, whereas the mind associated with the higher elements of man's nature is said to be the higher or impersonal mind. This higher mind has a distinct mode of operation of its own. Whereas the lower mind deals with ordinary mental activities required for ordinary everyday life, sequential thinking, logic, comparing, remembering, acquiring mental skills and so on, the higher mind is said to be the mind of knowing. It does not have to store information, its knowing arises from its sympathetic union with that to which attention is turned. It knows directly the nature of things because subconsciously it appreciates that - in the long run or the large scale - they are aspects of itself by way of its common spiritual nature with that of Nature herself. This direct knowing is known as intuition. The principle above higher mind is that wherein love arises from a fully conscious appreciation of the Cosmic Unity; it is the man's very Self. Over and above all these principles, characteristic of the man, is that which empowers them all. In the Ancient Wisdom this is referred to merely as 'THAT'. It is indefinable in any mind terms. It is the basis of all existence and the very source of all natural dynamism which manifests as life acting through all the forms of existence. These three 'upper principles constitute a Triad. This Triad is the Egoic entity, the Individuality overshadowing each personality. It is immortal whereas personalities are only too obviously mortal.
Spiritual dynamism does not act haphazardly. In the long aeons of evolutionary time, life forms by reason of their periodical existences learn; their inner principles are thereby modified by the experience. This in turn calls forth a modification of outer forms. There is a progressive march of expansion and development of life through all the forms that it enlivens. In this process everything 'learns' the part is has to play in the grand drama of life. Everything, so to speak, knows what it has to do and does it. The aggregate of this 'knowing' and action is the Law, universal Law, operating at all levels of being by the Beings comprising those levels.
These beings are grouped according to their level, the groups constituting hierarchies. Each level is said to be distinct from the others in function and in characteristics. There are seven such distinct levels, the cosmic planes of Being, with seven corresponding hierarchies, each with its mode or state of consciousness.
One of the wonders of the cosmic scheme of things which, of course, includes our earth and all that is on it, is that there is a great series of correspondences running through it. The seven planes of existence with their seven corresponding hierarchies correspond to the seven principles of man and seven levels of consciousness and so on. Each of these various aspects of the mighty operation fits into its place. The student of these things is guided in his understanding of them by the law of analogy. This is that law which, as the Hermetic Axiom has it, says: 'As above, so below; as is the small, so is the great', and so on.
There are various aspects to the Law. One is that all the operations of Nature are cyclical: alternation rules: everything comes and goes. The whole activity of Nature through all its multitudinous functions is rhythmical, vibratory, cyclical, with some cycles of only milliseconds' duration, others like the movement of planets or galaxies of millions of years. So it is with the length of time that things endure. Generally small things have small life spans: the bigger the longer the life. This law applies to all things and creatures from butterflies to elephants and worlds. It also applies to man. We are only too aware that human bodies come and go. They arrive as babies, they live through childhood and adolescence to maturity, and then slowly decline to eventual, inevitable death. The teaching adds much to this process. It says that, although the 'life' that uses forms, including that of the human being comes and goes, Life itself goes on; it continues; essentially it is everlasting.
All natural action is from 'within to the without', from the subjective to the physical. Man as a spiritual being periodically projects his inner bodies from the subjective worlds. His physical body is a projection from an inner realm into the outer objective world of our senses, using of course the procreative methods evolved by Nature.
This continuous life manifests as 'lives' which, as with everything else in Nature, conform to an hierarchical structure, and the cyclical mode of operation.
Mental-emotional activity persists for a time after the death of a human body. Thereafter consciousness dawns again in what we could now call the spiritual levels, but in a special way. It is said that as far as any human entity is concerned, these last three principles, which include an element of the higher mind, virtually go on for ever. Essentially then the inner man is immortal.
That which ultimately makes a man wise is the development of these higher aspects or principles of his nature. People young in this great evolutionary journey are as children with little wisdom. Older ones by experience and effort, mature and become wise as they become able to express more and more of the Divine Nature which stems from the Central Core of Being: the One Life in action. They become more understanding, loving, compassionate, noble in thought and action. The petty meannesses, jealousies, greeds, insensitivity of an adolescent state are transcended.
This process of spiritual growth necessitates the 'Life' passing through many lifetimes of experience, first in the kingdoms of Nature, and then, as a human being, in many sub-races, races, various environments, stations in life, and even in either sex, through many, many personal lifetimes. This is the process of reincarnation, life after life, when we play many roles like actors on a stage. The essential, the divine man, in his developmental journey overshadows literally hundreds of lives on earth, some spiritually fruitful, some not, and manifests more and more of the qualities of his divine Self. The developing personal man begins to make better use of life, he quickens his inner faculties, eventually becoming wise. He has learned the lessons of life the hard, the most poignant way. He knows the whole gamut of human emotion from great joy to abject misery, of success and failure, from the neglect of total loneliness to public acclaim and fame. He knows all the intimacies of family life, of comradeship and friends. He knows also of bereavement and loss. He knows of boisterous, rude health, and painful crippling disease, and the loss of faculty in old age. He knows the remorse of wrong doing. He has suffered the hurt of injustice and false witness. He knows the heady delights of achievement, of realized ambition, as well as total failure.
The wise ones have told us that this long evolutionary process can be hastened if a man will take his spiritual development into his own hands. The next section tells how this can be done.
The Wisdom Teachings
Such are the souls who have progressed a long way along the path to Wisdom. Many are those who have passed on and out of earth life, but they have left us the results of their experiences. If we can learn we have the teachings in many scriptural writings. These point the way to things other-worldly, to matters spiritual. They are, so to speak, consciousness-raising. It is said that, as a man develops his inner nature, he builds a bridge between the lower and the higher mind and that as he builds it, so he is able the more to apprehend spiritual truths and so avoid some hurts inflicted upon himself by ignorant and wilful wrong doings. He must also learn to control his lower nature; slowly he learns and as he does he shows forth in word and deed the true qualities of his Higher Ego, his divine human Soul. He begins to manifest, in all his doings, that quality of true greatness that we call wisdom. He then acts as an example, a model, a true leader in the world of those of us who have not yet reached his status but are still struggling.
The above article first appeared in The Theosophist of August 1998