from The Theosophist 1981 Jan


by Hugh Shearman

A heavy aura of failure and disillusionment hangs round many who have tried to pursue yoga, to practise meditation or to engage in a variety of other more or less related activities aimed at procuring interior peace, psychological freedom or "liberation". Here and there we may recognize an individual seeker who has sought the inner life and been truly touched by it and has become in some way deepened and transformed by it. But dozens of others seem to have got nowhere and have remained unchanged, their uneasinesses sometimes intensified rather than allayed by their "occult" pursuits.

This is a great pity, for it involves much disappointment and wasted effort and is likely to turn many people away from something that might be helpful to them. Yet the cause of their emptiness and disappointment has been explained repeatedly in the scriptures of mysticism and in modern theosophical literature. Our difficulty is that we simply cannot pay attention to these explanations or believe that they can really be true or that they can actually apply to ourselves.

Any brief statement of the root cause of the difficulty is often conventionally described as a paradox. But when, for example, the Christian scriptures say repeatedly that he who would save his life must lose it, this is not a paradox or a contradictory statement or some kind of evasive cleverness. It is a statement of fact. It means - and is intended to mean - that that is how it is.

There is a comparable saying in the Bhagavad Gita (6:6), "The Self is the friend of the self of him in whom the self by the Self is vanquished; but, to the unsubdued self, the Self verily becometh hostile as an enemy."

The question, then, is not what technique of meditation is being used but who is using it, what motivating selfhood has activated this process. The Bhagavad Gita asserts that in all undertakings, in all action, there is only one Actor. And the Christian doctrine of grace hold that our salvation or liberation comes, not by any personal effort of our own, but through the grace that God, that one Life, into Whom, as it were, we are liberated. How then, can yoga, meditation or prayer succeed if it takes its rise from the motives of a personal selfhood which at all times thinks of itself as separate from the rest of life? Such a selfhood, however amiable and socially acceptable, is an encapsulated ignorance; and its enterprises are reactive, karma ridden and destined to disappointment.

Asserting duality

This has all been expressed in many ways in theosophical books. There are diagrams, for example, of "planes of consciousness" or "principles " in man, that seek to show that all nature and mankind - all that is - must be thought of as grounded in one Reality, as being solely an expression of one Reality. But as soon as we begin to talk about this and expound it in books and articles, we implicitly deny it for, by doing these things, we are asserting duality; we are here, and, by talking or writing about that Reality we are implying that it is out there, somewhere else, part of a not-self.

Certainly, by any thought or act which asserts a personal selfhood, we create a dualistic world. By asserting such a self, we assert an antithetical not-self. All our language is shaped by the supposition that this "me", round which the mind is wrapped, is a true and valid basis for all description, relationship or action. And so all our discourse subtly divides reality into two, and we think of everything from the point of view of what we believe to be a separate experiencing self.

Yet how can there be such an experience or a separate experiencing self if there is only One? Who is there to experience what? What we call experience is usually a conventional name for some thing that happened in the past, a lingering trace of some agitation in citta, a personal memory from which we perhaps make plans for a future. But this is a source of conflict. If we have what we call " a point of view", a separate experiencing selfhood, we at one divide the world, and we thereby bring into being the process of action and reaction between opposites which is popularly called "karma". The separate self which we assert has at once to defend itself against a not-self, and the assertion therefore initiates some form of aggression however refined. And all the assumptions that we make about the nature of liberation, and the attitudes implied in what we write or say about liberation or "karmalessness" or a unitive state, are given a certain falsity by this assumption that we are concerned with a separate experiencing self who, in some way, will gain advantage from these things.

When we think of a being greater than ourselves - a Master of Wisdom, or perhaps our image of God, or of something interior to ourselves which we call "the Higher Self" - this thought or image arises in the mind of what is assumed to be a separate experiencing self, which envisages only another and greater experiencing self, greatly enhanced, no doubt, but nevertheless in essence only another "me". Anthropomorphism and the projection of one's own personal values into an idea do not end merely when we cease to think that God is an old man with a beard and replace Him with some metaphysical abstraction.

Much of the language that is used in connection with religion (since it is only an extension of the language we use for "thing"), carries the implication that the one Reality is only another "me" - a self which in some mysterious way has still to confront a not-self, but does it more adroitly than we do. Such language must be taken as an artistic or poetic expression, not literally and definitively. And in communication with others it is necessary to respect the implications of the language that they accept and understand and to refrain from shocking them with some idiom that is alien to their understanding and experience. If we imagine ourselves to be wise in these matters, we might take to heart the admonition in the Bhagavad Gita (3:26), "Let no wise man unsettle the mind of the ignorant".

Dangers of yoga

As an individual approaches a condition of perception in which the unreality of the personal self, with its values and motivations, begins to be felt, there is often a sense of vast futility and loneliness, as one glimpses the abyss of meaninglessness which lies beneath all personally based efforts at fulfilment. A prepared and stable individual can be purified and stilled by this discovery, but one who comes upon it prematurely can be profoundly disturbed and projected into dangerous compulsive self-protective reactions, usually taking the form of some passionate atavistic effort to get back to something that he feels he can cling to in the life he knew before his experience came upon him and uprooted him. Or he may come to a protracted and irresolute standstill. The dangers that are said to accompany the frivolous pursuit of certain yoga practices are connected with the possibility of the derangement of an individual's normal system of personal motivation.

Many people can remember moments of great happiness in early childhood. Indeed they carry from childhood more than memories; they are haunted by intimations of an artistic innocence when the experiencing personal self had not yet become dominant. It may well be that there is a purpose in the bringing into being of that self and the mobilizing of a temporarily fixated mind for its protection and aggrandizement, but innocence is rediscovered through the dissolution of that self and the emptying of that mind. "The ultimate object of yoga", Dr, Taimni once wrote, "is to reverse the process of centralization of consciousness". Yet many people imagine that they can use what they call yoga to confirm and enhance the centralization of consciousness for the purpose of strengthening and endowing the "me" with powers and immunities. Such an attempt by the "dewdrop" to appropriate the "Shining Sea" for its own small purposes leads to conflict and failure.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tell us (1:41) that when the mind is no longer fixated to a separate personal centre, the knower, knowledge and the known are discovered to be one. When this is perceived, it is no longer necessary to assert a "point of view" in space and time. The segregated personal self has begun to be replaced by or subsumed into a Self that is all-pervading and all-sustaining, a Self in whom or for whom there is no not-self. Otherness falls away.

Quiet scepticism

This does not mean that we should feel guilty at being our own very personal selves; but there can dawn for us a gentle scepticism about this self. We need not take a rigid and uncomfortable stance of self-renunciation: to go about solemnly renouncing one's self quickly becomes absurd. There is a kind of pretentious seriousness that is deeply uneconomical of effort for it binds us to that from which we profess to seek liberation. Rather, we must keep quietly watching (and hence, by implication, questioning) the reality or unreality of our habitual attitudes. This is no formal exercise in meditation but an enlargement of the same detached and impersonally affectionate appreciation that, in relaxed moments, we give to nature. Nature does not meet with difficulties or have problems, because it is not pursuing any conceived purpose; it is not trying to go somewhere or become something. It is satisfied to be what it is and so is uncorrupted by considerations of past or future. To watch it, whether inside us or outside, is therefore a cause of happiness and healing.

Such a quiet disillusionment about our personal selves need not be an unhappy feeling. IT can be as if we begin to realize that we are only here on holiday and that hopes and fears and worries no longer matter in the way they once did. The personal self is not unreal in any practical sense; but as we watch it we can begin to see its reality as secondary and no longer as primary.

In doing this we are crossing over from what has hitherto been our habitual principle of motivation to an entirely new kind of motivation. This crossing may have its tragic crises but they will be less acute in a life that has been prepared for them by quiet questioning and watching from moment to moment. It is an illusion to think that enlightenment or liberation can come merely by attempting to "meditate" before breakfast each day, if during the rest of the day we ride along as the unconscious and unobservantly captive passengers of a compulsively motivated personal self, anxiously trying to create its future out of its past.

We are told in The Voice of the Silence that "the mind is the great slayer of the Real" and that it is necessary to seek out "the thought producer - who awakens illusion". It is necessary to discover what self has imposed itself as the starting-point for the various processes of thought. A vivid description is also given of the liberated individual whose mind "like a becalmed and boundless ocean spreadeth out in shoreless space". This is no longer that personally fixated mind which causes illusion, conflict and sorrow through collision with images which it projects and cannot contain because it has wrapped itself round a personal centre. The change is not in the mind but in the nature and scope of the selfhood for whom mind provides a mode of expression or functioning.

Pursuing these matters in words involves the danger that we may begin to "think" about them, merely producing more of those thoughts and images by which we protect our separateness from Reality and slay the Real. When emotion goes along parallel with real life, but without achieving a full commitment to life or involvement in it, we call it sentimentality. When thought does the same thing, we call it, perhaps, metaphysics: but both exercises are relatively sterile.

No problem can be solved wholly by the thought of a personal mind and no satisfactory solution can ever be reached by it. In the solution that such a mind attempts, a new problem is created, for that thought takes its rise from a prudentially personal "thinker", a "thought-producer". Reality, being one, has no lasting place for this isolated and calculating entity. Thought - or what we call thought - has always the limitation of being concerned with the past and the future; but the "accepted time" is now.

So what is this? What is happening? And to whom? If the Nameless One awakens for "me" here and now, can there remain any "me"? And yet is anything lost?

Dr. Hugh Shearman is an honours graduate in history and the author of some twenty books which include The Passionate Necessity, The Purpose of Tragedy and Modern Theosophy. He was chief executive officer of the Theosophical Society in Northern Ireland for many years.


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