The Theosophical Society in America

Transformative Qualities of Theosophy

Originally printed in the November - December 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Lile, Minor. "Transformative Qualities of Theosophy." Quest  92.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2004):208 -211, 217.

By Minor Lile

Minor LileAnyone who has looked at the influence of theosophy on Western culture since the Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 can readily point to the influential and transformative role that theosophy has played in the world. One need look no further than the first two presidents of the Society—Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant—to find individuals who were greatly changed by their exposure to theosophical ideas. Many prominent examples can be cited: Thomas Edison, W. B. Yeats, Rudolf Steiner, J. Krishnamurti, Henry Wallace, W. Kandinsky, Maria Montessori, Paul Klee, and many others were profoundly influenced and stimulated by theosophical ideas.

The modern theosophical movement has also inspired less prominent men and women around the world to transform their lives. My own story certainly serves as one such example. When I first became aware of the Theosophical Society at the end of the 1980s, I was living in Seattle. Unmarried, I had recently left a job that I had once valued highly and was struggling to come to terms with the death of my younger brother.

My exposure to the ideas of theosophy would quickly engender great change in my life. Yet could there have been less exciting way to have found the organization than by looking it up in the Seattle phone book?

My search for answers had gone in several directions and led eventually to my picking up a Quest book on a topic I was pursuing. The short statement of purpose that is included in these books (published by the Theosophical Publishing House) caught my eye:

a membership organization dedicated to the promotion of the unity of humanity and the encouragement of the study of religion, philosophy, and science, to the end that we may better understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The Society stands for complete freedom of individual search and belief. . .

"Hmm," I thought, "That sounds appealing. I wonder if there's such a group in Seattle?" Yes, they were listed in the phone book, at an address that I was astonished to see was near my home. In looking at the trajectory of our lives, there is rarely an easy explanation for why things happen as they do. Regardless of why, those steps that took me to the threshold of the Theosophical Society in Seattle set me upon a path that has changed me in many ways.

That first visit had the feel of a new chapter beginning in my life, as if a veil had been lifted or a curtain parted as my life took a new direction. When I look back over the journey, that sense is even stronger. I used to joke that I only set aside my initial caution and joined the TS after it became apparent that the organization wasn't secretly interested in taking anything from me. As it turns out, I've given my life to it instead! Fifteen years later, I'm married to the woman who was president of the Seattle Lodge at the time I joined. Together we are in our tenth year as the resident managers at Indralaya, the theosophical retreat center on Orcas Island, Washington. I've also served for five years as a member of the national board of the Theosophical Society. In addition to these external changes, I have found satisfying and meaningful answers to the riddles of life and death.

How is it that these sometimes obscure and always challenging teachings have proven to be so compelling and influential for so many people over the past 129 years? I'm not sure there is an easy answer. Ask any two members of the Theosophical Society to share their perception of what theosophy is and you are certain to get at least two different descriptions. While the exact nature of theosophy is a challenge to summarize succinctly, like all great spiritual teachings it has the capacity to deepen our perceptions and lift us out of our habitual selves. It offers ways of seeing the world that engender deeper self-awareness, thus enhancing our potential to be more fully human. Along these lines, the theosophical tradition offers certain general qualities that are fundamentally supportive of the process of self-transformation.

Theosophy Inspires

One such quality is that theosophy is inspirational. By imparting a resonant set of ideals and precepts, the theosophical tradition has the potential to lift us out of ourselves and broaden our understanding of what is possible for each of us as individuals and for humanity in general.

A good place to start in considering how these ideals are expressed is with the primacy of truth. Since the Society's origins, truth has been enshrined as its highest ideal. "There is no Religion Higher than Truth" states the motto of the Theosophical Society. Standing on their own, these words are just as thought-provoking and relevant to the modern day with its sorrowful burden of clashing fundamentalist and sectarian points of view as they were when chosen 129 years ago.

At the same time, when considering the original Sanskrit phrase from which the motto is drawn, "Satyam Nasti Paro Dharma," many students of TS history and philosophy have noted that the chosen translation of Dharma as "religion" limits the meaning of this statement. Dharma is one of many Sanskrit words that are difficult to translate directly into English. It has been variously defined as "an essential quality or characteristic," "that which holds together," "virtue," "law," or "path." The Bhagavad Gita characterizes dharma as the essential duty or purpose of an individual's life. If we consider the theosophical motto in this context "that there is no duty, no law, no path we can walk that is higher than the path of truth" we come closer to capturing the full meaning of the phrase.

Truth is the ultimate trump card. By its light and its pursuit alone should we guide our actions. There are, of course, the ultimate universal truths that lie behind the veil of illusion that beguiles us. To know these ultimate truths is indeed a high calling, one that only a few are truly capable of attaining at any given time. But to aspire to know these truths is a path available to all, and it is the path that theosophy encourages .On that quest, one is bound to come upon and work with relative truths that are also highly valuable. In various traditions there is the often-told parable of the boat that carries one to the far shore of the river. Just as that boat must be abandoned as one reaches the shore and continues the journey, one must also leave behind these various relative truths as they no longer serve our continued development.

The Theosophical World View is a wonderfully succinct and inspiring statement of theosophical premises. This modern statement was written by members of the American Section in the late 1970s. In addition to endorsing the high value of truth, it also enumerates several other inspirational ideals that are central to the theosophical tradition:

Recognition of the unique value of every living being expresses itself in reverence for life, compassion for all, sympathy with the need of all individuals to find truth for themselves, and respect for all religious traditions. The ways in which these ideals become realities in individual life are both the privileged choice and the responsible act of every human being.The Theosophical Society imposes no dogmas, but points toward the source of unity beyond all differences. Devotion to truth, love for all living beings, and commitment to a life of active altruism are the marks of the true theosophist.

At Indralaya, we often use the World View as a basis for discussion when introducing theosophy to program participants. It has always served as a touchstone and a source of inspiration to me.

Other sources of inspiration in the theosophical tradition are the well-known books Light on the Path (Mabel Collins) and At the Feet of the Master (Alcyone). These two little gems, along with H. P. Blavatsky's The Voice of the Silence are generally considered the great inspirational texts of modern theosophy. Many Theosophical Society members have also found great inspiration in the Bhagavad Gita.

Of all those who have written on theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky is without compare, the writer to whom many turn for inspiration and insight. There is some special quality to Blavatsky's works that makes returning to them especially fruitful. Most, if not all, of her works seem to be written on many levels, which reveal themselves as we are ready for them. The well from which she drew seems virtually bottomless. Recently our local theosophical study group spent a few weeks reading The Voice of the Silence. In a way I hadn't perceived quite so clearly before, this work is a profound yet quite subtle explication of Buddhist insight couched in poetic allusion.

Many others have written about how the very process of exploring Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine can be a transforming experience. Anyone who has sweated through the study of that mysterious book and pried loose kernels of insight can be justifiably proud of their achievement. Her Key to Theosophy and Practical Occultism are two other resources that I have found to be particularly valuable.

Theosophy Gives Permission

Another transformative quality that the theosophical tradition offers is permission to explore, to experiment, to assess and value and develop one's own perspective. This quality of permission is an implicit aspect of the Society's resolve that no doctrine or teaching be binding on its members. Additionally, the vast dimensions of the teachings allow each individual to explore and find those aspects of the tradition and the teachings that are most relevant and meaningful in their own lives. For this reason, the inherent difficulty of defining precisely what theosophy is, which might seem initially to be a weakness, becomes one of its greatest strengths. All who find some resonance with the theosophical tradition are challenged and emboldened to explore where their interests might lead and find the truth for themselves. The essence of this quality is embedded in the Society's second and third objects, which encourage a spirit of inquisitiveness and exploration, both in looking within oneself and in examining the world around us.

This institutional encouragement to pursue varied interests has certainly played a valuable part in my own development. An interest in Jungian psychology and dream analysis originally drew me to the Theosophical Society. Over the course of the fifteen years that have passed since then, I have been attracted to many different areas of study and activity, such as interfaith dialogue (including attending the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions and organizing regional interfaith gatherings), Buddhist meditation practice and mind science, the history and symbolism of the labyrinth, synchronicity and divination, the spiritual dimensions of leadership, and the relationship between dharma and karma, among other topics. Although everyone's specific pursuits will certainly differ, this range of interests seems to be more or less typical of those who are drawn to theosophical ideas.

Theosophy Provides Context for Our Daily Lives

The modern theosophical tradition is sometimes faulted for being too removed from the challenges of daily life. Without question, there are some highly arcane and abstract elements to the theosophical teachings. Nevertheless, at a deep level, theosophy offers a great deal that is directly applicable to life in the day-to-day world.

Theosophy offers a story of universal evolution that is capable of imparting meaning and purpose to our lives. From a theosophical perspective we are in the midst of a prolonged evolutionary journey—a great age, or manvantara—that brings us from the origins of the universe right down to this present moment. Theosophy teaches that we are in profound relationship with this universe, we are connected, we are one with all that is.

Notwithstanding the value that the theosophical tradition places upon individual freedom of expression and pursuits, it is these teachings about relationship that are potentially the most deeply transforming aspect of the theosophical tradition. We are grounded in an ultimate unity that binds everything together. As we all know too well, these teachings do not magically remove the challenge of living in harmony with each other, nor do they offer easy solutions to the problems of getting along with our family, friends, and neighbors. Despite our repeated failures to live up to the challenge they present, the teachings do continuously remind us of the reality of our connectedness.

Theosophy also teaches that this relational reality unfolds in the field of time and space and manifests in the interdependent relationship between the individual and the collective. Our essential self has been conditioned by experience accumulated over many lifetimes, as well as within this particular lifetime. As a result, we find ourselves in a certain place and time, immersed in life circumstances that provide the setting or context in which we have the opportunity to further unfold. In other words, each of us is influenced by the world we live in, and, conversely, each of us is also capable of influencing the world.

This relationship between the individual and the collective extends to the realm of thought. Indeed, it is a basic theosophical teaching that thoughts are things, with an energy and living quality of their own, somewhat independent of our own existence. Therefore we must learn to closely observe and govern our thoughts, for they are the breeding ground for our words and deeds. Indeed, it is only when thoughts gain sufficient energy through repetition that they are expressed in outer action. All of us are confronted by habitual patterns of thought that have been in place for a long time. Until we become aware and are able to change these habit energies, they can take us by surprise and compel us to act in unanticipated ways. No doubt all of us have experienced this.

Theosophy teaches that we have a choice. We can allow our thoughts to flow where they will and meander in the lowlands, or we can train our minds and bring our thoughts to bear on the higher aspects of our being, those noble attributes such as the development of compassion, selfless love, an ethic of service, and a life of active altruism toward which theosophy points as the foundation upon which to build our lives. This process of taming our minds and directing our thoughts is the birthing ground for our future evolution.

The teachings are also quite clear in describing how to train our minds. The proper way to do so is by acting without attachment or desire for any particular result or outcome. As Annie Besant writes in Karma, "Desire is the cord that binds us to the fruits of our actions." In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna advises Arjuna, "Do your duty always but without attachment. That is how one reaches the ultimate truth, by working without anxiety about results."

This anxiety about results is what the Buddhists call craving. We want this to happen, we don't want that to happen, and when we don't get what we want, our craving draws us away from the present moment. We are no longer in control of our thought processes, and we fall back onto those old reliable habit patterns that are responsible for keeping us locked in the jailhouse of our own making. You might say that we must guard our thoughts to avoid being jailed by them. As anyone who has worked at this process can attest, it isn't easy. It should be readily apparent, however, that this is a practice that can only be worked at from moment to moment, in the inescapable context of daily life. Put another way, this process of change or self-transformation is essentially composed of the seemingly mundane decisions and choices that are made in the midst of day-to-day life.

Why Are We Here?

In a collective sense, we are in profound relationship with the times we live in and the energies of those times that surround us. There is little question that at the dawn of what might be called the global era, when all of humanity is confronted by great problems and opportunities. Within us and all around us are competing clouds of hope, despair, fear, love, confusion, and aspiration.

It may be that at this juncture, perhaps more so than at any other time in the human story, we are being called upon to dramatically evolve psychologically. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we can't hope to find a solution to the great problems that confront us by approaching them with the same level of consciousness that brought about the problems in the first place. The teachings embedded in the theosophical tradition are among the valuable resources available to humanity as we attempt to prevail over the challenges that confront us. Ultimately, this transformation, if it is to come, will rely on individual effort. Yet each of us, by successfully undertaking that challenge, also helps to transform the collective whole. In these times, there may be no greater calling than to try.