'Theosophy - What's it all about?' - Chapter 9, Scientific and Esoteric Knowledge

by Geoffrey Farthing

'A brief summary of a wonderfully exciting and vitally important subject.'


It is necessary for a proper understanding of Theosophy to distinguish between scientific and esoteric knowledge because they are quite different. The one relates to objectivity and the other to inner subjectivity. There is an objective and a subjective aspect to Theosophy. For the purposes of this chapter esoteric knowledge is subjective Theosophy. The dictionary meaning of the word "esoteric" is "meant for the initiated". The word "initiate" has two meanings "to begin or start" and "to admit into secrets or mysteries". This could be the introduction of someone into a society and the imparting to him of some facts or tricks of the trade or order of ceremony, passwords and so on, not made known to outsiders. The mere joining of a Society like that of the Theosophical Society, the then availability of its library facilities and the enjoyment of the company of likeminded members would satisfy this definition. In the case of Theosophy, however, simple admission to the Society cannot give a knowledge of Theosophy in the esoteric sense.

The word from which "science" is derived means simply "to know". Science, however, has come to mean not only knowledge in the fields of the various sciences, of physics, chemistry, astronomy, archaeology, etc. but a particularly disciplined method of reasoning. We must, however, look to see what knowledge really is.

Knowledge as we ordinarily regard it is remembered experience or information we get from the spoken or written word. Knowledge gained from experiment or other direct observation comes into the category of experience. The conclusions derived from deductive or inductive reasoning are not really knowledge until they are proven, then they too come within the scope of experience.

Knowledge derived from experience is always related to


and affected by the observer. All individual experience is coloured by our feelings, our prejudices and the limits of our powers of observation. All these will affect what we receive in consciousness and thus what is available to memory. This applies particularly to the generality of everyday experience in familiar surroundings. Inthe case of scientific observation, training in strict method reduces this coloration to a minimum. The very nature of the training however might introduce the danger, in some cases, of not seeing the Wood for the trees.

All ordinary knowledge comes to us via our five senses, and in mankind all of these are very limited. We can see only a limited range of colours and we can see things only down to a certain size. We can hear only sounds within a relatively narrow frequency band. Our sense of smell appears dull when compared with that of dogs. Our impressions received from touch are very inexact. We can tell a warm thing from a cold thing, but something too hot will burn us. Something too cold will freeze the part of the body it touches, rendering it numb. Some things are too heavy for us to handle. Some people have an acute, refined palate, others a Coarse insensitive one. The fields of sight and hearing can be considerably extended by instruments but even their registrations must be referred in some way to our senses for them to have any meaning for us.

We know about things therefore largely only by what we can perceive of their qualities, that is their mass, colour, texture, temperature or their taste and the sounds or smells they emit. Ineach of these departments our means of perception is limited, So that our knowledge of anything by these means is always limited.

We can never know from sense impressions all about anything. There are also wide areas of knowledge such as rates of vibratory radiation, chemical affinities, how other people feel, what prompts their particular actions, with which our normal senses are quite inadequate to deal. In these areas we have to try to imagine and to sympathize. So much for knowledge by experience.

What about knowledge gained from words? Words come to us via our senses too. Written words come by way of


sight, spoken words by way of sound. Words are symbols. Written words are marks or impressions of recognizable form, and spoken words are sounds comprising consonants and vowels, but also of recognizable form. How do these symbols come to have any meaning for us? The short answer is that we put the meaning into them for ourselves, mostly by association. "Cat" is associated with our remembered or present-time experience of a furry four-legged creature with certain recognizable, consistent characteristics. Word symbols commonly come to have a meaning for us in terms of our experience. If, however, the word relates to something outside our experience, we have to supply a meaning out of our imagination. Ifwe happen to ascribe a meaning to a word which other people have ascribed to it, we get agreement. We thus get some confidence in our ascribed meaning and feel we know what the word means. To the extent that the meaning is agreed on we can communicate. This confidence is also often well placed when the word relates to something in someone else's experience, even if we have not enjoyed the experience ourselves. Such confidence is belief.

Even though some of us may not have been to foreign lands we believe what we are told about them if we consider the witness reliable. The position, however, with words used about things like heaven, hell, God, the Spirit and the levels of being we have been talking about, is quite different, because these relate to things outside of normal experience. Largely they are ideas. Let us look at belief again. Inthe case of our traveller to foreign lands, when we accept what he tells us about something outside our experience, we have to imagine in terms of something within our experience what he is trying to say. In other words, we put our own meaning into his words by our imaginations. It is important that we should be aware of this process, particularly when we come to words dealing with abstract ideas such as those instanced above which constitute the fundamentals of religions, of philosophies, theologies, doctrines and dogmas. The meaning we ascribe to many words used in them is entirely drawn from our imagination. This meaning must be entirely peculiar and private to each of us.


Some of us may have had some direct experiences that we should describe as religious. The mystics have spoken of the joy and bliss they have experienced. We can only know what they are talking about if we have had similar experience. If we have not, the best we can do. is to try to imagine what they have felt, in terms of our own experience of what we know as joy and bliss. Purely subjective experience is not communicable by words. This is what was meant when we said that admission to the Theosophical Society could not impart Theosophy. Information providing a wealth of ideas and food for thought is available. This is objective Theosophy. When this has been assimilated a student will have knowledge of the subject of the same kind as any student can gain of any other subject. But such is not esoteric knowledge or what we have now called subjective Theosophy. This brings us again to the difference between scientific and esoteric knowledge.

It is easy to see from the foregoing what scientific knowledge is. What of esoteric knowledge? The definition of it included the word 'initiated'. What meaning other than that of being given access to information otherwise held secret can that word have? We have said that there is a class of experience not communicable by words. This is inner subjective experience which somehow registers in consciousness. Initiation is then taken to mean here the beginning of self-conscious functioning on each of the levels of being, and the eventual union of the lower with the higher, Egoic, principles.

There are grades of such experience varying from our ordinary inner feelings and awareness, through degrees of psychic experience to the attainment of great insight, understanding and wisdom. It is apparent from this that there are two kinds of extended experience. One kind derives from the extension of the senses faculties we already possess, like seeing and hearing into the other levels of being, i.e. psychism, and the other the development of faculties not yet operating -faculties of a higher order. These latter are our spiritual faculties of higher intelligence, intuition, compassion (pure love) and will.

Regarding the first kind we must all have heard of people


who experience things that we do not. They can 'see' apparitions; they can 'hear' voices; some have remarkable visions; some become aware of events taking place at a distance or even that have not yet happened. We say in theosophical parlance that these people have perceptive faculties functioning on the astral level and, with thought transference, maybe on the mental level. The working of these faculties is mostly involuntary and spasmodic, as in the case of’ second sight, and of common telepathy. Some people can voluntarily put themselves into a trance-like state and can, for example, receive messages from the 'other side'. Itshould be noted that, in these cases, of mediumship, the medium is in a passive state, is usually unaware of what is coming through and cannot control it or determine which 'spirit' shall speak. There are other sensitives who, by being in the presence of a person or being given something belonging to that person, can in the ordinary waking state surprisingly give details of that person's life and circumstances. This is psychometry.

There are some important things to notice about these apparent gifts. One is that they must involve the use of faculties or aspects of faculties not functioning in most of us. Another is that although they are perceptions of things not normally physical, what is experienced does relate to the personality level of being. This gives us a clue to the plane on which the sensitive is operating. It may be up to the lower mental, but usually it is on the astral level.

The difference between the voluntary and involuntary nature of these experiences is important. This difference is dependent on the centre of perception that happens to be functioning. There are various centres in our astral double which act as vital links between that body, and our emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. These centres are associated with and correspond in position to various major nerve ganglia or ductless glands in our physical bodies. These are at the base of the spine, in the sex organs, in the solar plexus, heart, throat, pineal and pituitary glands.

When humanity was on the downward arc in involution the centre at the solar plexus was quickened into life as the journey downwards through the inner planes was being


made. In most of us our consciousness passed down through the astral plane and was for a long time centred in it. Next we became located in and identified with our physical bodies. In some few, however, the solar plexus centre remained 'psychically' operative and so we get the folk with second sight and so on. Similarly most of the mediums who contact passively, but cannot function consciously on, the astral plane have the necessary centre functioning but usually not under their control. In most of us the functioning of our solar plexus is as a nerve centre and has become automatic. It does not normally affect our consciousness and is better left that way. To requicken it would be a retrograde step. On the other hand, the power to use clairvoyance and clairaudience voluntarily comes by the development of other centres. This quickening though usually comes incidentally after a person has taken up his evolutionary training and should, we are advised, not be separately undertaken.

It is important to notice that experience even on the psychic and mental planes is still objective, capable of translation into knowledge of the ordinary kind as remembered experience.

In considering the second kind of extended experience we are brought back to the consideration of esoteric knowledge. Is it not now beginning to be clear that, apart from some of the facts given here which might be regarded as esoteric in that they are not generally known, esoteric knowledge should not really be regarded as knowledge in the ordinary sense of 'things' experienced and remembered? Esoteric knowledge proper is the conscious functioning of our inner faculties particularly of the higher ones. As mentioned before, at higher levels it manifests in us as spontaneous understanding, as pure love, as strength, as blissful joy and wisdom. These become the activities of our own inner being. They are of our individuality, our Ego, not of our personality. True esotericism or occultism, is no process of self-aggrandisement, rather is it the reverse. The personality becomes subservient to the higher self. Esoteric knowledge or knowing is real subjectivity, an expansion


of consciousness to include the functioning, in full self-determined awareness, on the inner planes.

As we progress, awareness or active, as opposed to dreamlike passive, consciousness is preserved to us, according to our ability, if and when we move on to the other planes. It is said that we all ordinarily operate on the astral, emotional and mental planes but normally we are not conscious there of ourselves in our actual surroundings but only in our self-created ones. Our dreams may be some occurrences in which we are involved in these states, being impressed, mostly incoherently, on our physical brain consciousness. The majority of us are not really awake, in the full sense of the word, even in our so-called waking life. We are too identified with our bodies. Our consciousness is shut in. It is even more shut in on the astral and mental planes. A good example of the sort of thing we are trying to convey is the person in a state of complete preoccupation or a 'brown study'. We say he is not with us, and neither is he.

To a greater or lesser extent we are all in this 'brown study' state most of our lives. The esotericism we are trying to describe is a move into an increasingly free state of consciousness, of liberation. This is a state of full awareness of ourselves in our surroundings in the ever-present now. Everyone would say that he is aware in the ever-present now, but normally consciousness is too often of the 'shut in' type, in our heads or in our feelings. We cannot, of course, be aware at any time other than now, neither a second in the past nor a second in the future. We can remember the past or look towards the future, but we cannot be at any time other than now - neither can we be anywhere but here, wherever we are. The simple act of waking up to this fact, to a real realization of it, might produce a significant experience. Try it.

This talk about awareness and the present moment leads us to a word which may now have a somewhat expanded meaning. It is 'knowing', knowing, so to speak, in the instant now, and this is always the instant of our being. Knowing in this sense is the functioning of faculty, indeed of being. It is the awareness of the operation of faculty. In


a more significant sense it is the awareness of the functioning of our higher faculties. It is something other than a knowledge of, or remembered information about, things. It is important to note the way the word 'knowing' has just been used. It has nothing to do with the mind as the seat of the mental process of recall (memory), thinking or imagining. This mind is part of the mento-emotional complex, the defects and derangements of which are the subject of the present-day science of psychology. The functioning of the higher faculties is never subject to derangement. It is sanity of the highest order.

In closing we can now touch on two words about which there is endless conjecture -Truth and Reality. Reality is obviously that which is real to us at the level of being where we are conscious. We have seen however that manifestation stems from the dual fundamental of Spirit-Matter. We have seen that these are the elements of what we now know as consciousness - the subjective and the objective. Reality then, as well as having the familiar objective aspect it presents to our normal senses, has its subjective aspect. It is this aspect of reality which usually we completely ignore in all our considerations about it. All objective reality is relative and temporal, but subjective reality is of the nature of Being. It always is. It is relative only in the degree or to the extent of our being. It is therefore essential to see that we can only come at Reality proper subjectively, that is by way of our higher faculties, aspects themselves of the Spirit, the very nature or being of which stems from, nay basically is, in each of us, consciousness itself. This final reference point of all being, the ultimate subjectivity, is Truth. In this sense Truth and final Reality are synonymous.

To finish let us come back to initiation. It seems now that any candidate for true esoteric knowledge or knowing must develop faculty and he must start the process for himself. In The Secret Doctrine, it is stated that the candidate must "make progress ... first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas (mind) up to the holiest archangel". It was also said by Madame Blavatsky,


apropos the study of The Secret Doctrine, "This mode of thinking is what the Indians call Jnana Yoga. 'As one progresses in Jnana Yoga, one finds conceptions arising which, though one is conscious of them, one cannot express nor yet formulate into any sort of mental picture. As time goes on the conceptions will form into mental pictures. This is a time to be on guard and refuse to be deluded with the idea that the new found and wonderful picture must represent reality. It does not. As one works on, one finds the once admired picture growing dull and unsatisfactory and finally fading out or being thrown away. This is another danger point because for the moment one is left in a void without any conceptions to support one, and one may be tempted to revive the cast-off picture for want of a better to cling to.

The true student will, however, work on unconcerned, and presently further formless gleams come, which again in time give rise to a larger and more beautiful picture than the last. But the learner will now know that no picture will ever represent the TRUTH. This last splendid picture will grow dull and fade like the others. And so the process goes on, until at last the mind and its pictures are transcended and the learner enters and dwells in the World of NO FORM, but of which all forms are narrowed reflections."

Theosophy - what's it all about? > Next Page Chapter 10 The Way to Understanding


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