Seeking the Self

By Armin Zebrowski
My brother -- I have been on a long journey after supreme knowledge, I took a long time to rest. Then, upon coming back, I had to give all my time to duty, and all my thoughts to the Great Problem. It is all over now: the New Year's festivities are at an end and I am "Self" once more. But what is Self? Only a passing guest, whose concerns are all like a mirage of the great desert. . . . -- KH, The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 264

Who am I? This question, asked by the high adept and initiate in his letter, is one of the greatest we can ask. It rouses us time and again from our everyday routines and compels us to think. It implies other equally important questions: Where have we come from? Where are we heading? How are we related to the universe around us? Human traditions give a variety of answers, but none is ultimately satisfying. Here and there, for a brief moment, the seeker is bathed in the glow of understanding and is content. But we know that nothing endangers spiritual growth so much as the lethargy which accompanies contentment. The teacher, therefore, endeavors to keep his pupil's mind always in motion and uncrystallized. On our search, therefore, we should recognize teachings and symbols for what they are, not mistaking them for truth itself. After all, we are not striving to reach a destination; the journey itself is our goal, and the path begins with a single step. Self-knowledge comes from innumerable single steps, whose direction and length we determine. If truth remains our objective, we cannot miss the "right" path for us.

Islamic mysticism presents an answer to our opening question which lies outside the materialistic viewpoint. It describes the journey of the self or monad through the different kingdoms of nature. First we were a mineral, they say, then a stone, a plant, and an animal, before finally reaching the human stage. As theosophy points out, our path continues endlessly and boundlessly, the deathless self connecting the different incarnations as a sutratman or "thread-self."* On this journey the mineral, plant, and animal forms did not become a human form. Rather the inner being manifested through a series of bodies appropriate to its growing inner development. As Giordano Bruno said, "The soul never dies, rather it exchanges the former dwelling for a new seat in which to live and to be at work. Everything changes, but nothing comes to an end." We are not the bodies we use, but monadic essences which manifest through matter and engender bodies for themselves in the course of their evolution, bodies which are appropriate to the prevailing cycle of development and to the corresponding cosmic plane on which we are expressing ourselves. In the course of our individual evolution we have produced for ourselves mineral, vegetable, animal, and now human bodies and psychological vehicles in order to gain the experiences they offer. However, the essential self at the root of all beings is one, and it is simply our degree of evolutionary unfoldment that determines our outer form. This inner oneness cannot be overemphasized, since modern civilization has so largely forgotten it. All too often we feel we are alone and the rest of the world is outside of us -- an illusion created primarily by sense perceptions and mental habits.

*A Sanskrit compound for "the golden thread of individuality -- the stream of self-consciousness -- on which all the substance-principles of man's constitution are strung, so to say, like pearls on a golden chain. The sutratman is the stream of consciousness-life running through all the various substance-principles of the constitution of the human entity -- or indeed of any other entity. Each such pearl on the golden chain is one of the countless personalities which man uses during the course of his manvantara-long evolutionary progress. The sutratman, therefore, may be briefly said to be the immortal or spiritual monadic ego, the individuality which incarnates in life after life, and therefore is rightly called the thread-self or fundamental self." -- G. de Purucker, Occult Glossary, p. 169

On the other hand, our ordinary awareness of our self as a oneness is also an illusion. In reality we each consist of a multitude of beings or "voices," and an important aspect of following the path is to discover these multifold principles within us. Each voice is an evolving stream of consciousness, at present working within the overall framework of our own being. Understanding our compound nature threatens our personality or ordinary awareness because its control over our thoughts and emotions derives largely from our lack of self-analysis. We can look at our being as a river which consists of many smaller streams, tributaries, brooks, rivulets, yes, even single drops. And all these drops originate from the great ocean of universal consciousness into which the stream flows again at the end of its journey. How sublime this picture is since it assigns us a place in the cosmic cycle of existence, with its perpetual alternation of day and night, life and death, existence and nonbeing.

How can these voices or principles within us be classified, and how do they cohere? We can analyze ourselves in any number of ways. In her teachings H. P. Blavatsky most often describes us as septiform beings, composed of seven "principles" ranging from the divine to the physical. These principles are reflections of their seven cosmic counterparts, the various planes of universal nature. Another way of viewing ourselves emphasizes centers of consciousness or monads working through egos, souls, and bodies. Our inmost god or universal selfhood reveals itself through seven vehicles corresponding to the seven cosmic principles. On each plane it manifests as a monad, the smallest conceivable unit of consciousness: indivisible (Greek atomos), immortal, and indestructible. As a center of pure consciousness, the monad requires an opposite pole -- the material side of nature -- in order to express itself, create bodies, employ perception and cognition, and create karma and experience effects. This duality of spirit and matter is unavoidable during manifestation. Pure spirit, however, cannot express itself directly in the physical universe unless it builds a living ladder of consciousness-substance which reaches into the deepest layers of matter. Therefore the monad produces egos, which evolve souls and bodies.

The ego is the psychological focus of the monad on a particular cosmic plane, a reservoir containing all the experience the monad has gained in its various embodiments. The ego in turn surrounds itself with a soul or characteristic veil of living substance. The word soul can be confusing because commonly it refers exclusively to our psychological and mental aspects, which represent just two facets of our being. Here soul is used more generally to mean "vehicle." Each soul is a laya-center, a lens or transformer, which allows spiritual energies to manifest on a particular plane. Through it the ego and monad assimilate various experiences and sensations. The soul may gather around itself its own ethereal vehicle or body. Thus, our being in its totality is formed of monads -- divine, spiritual, mental, emotional, vital, astral, and physical -- each manifesting through its own ego, soul, and body on its own cosmic plane or "principle."

Our mind readily accepts classifications such as gods, monads, egos, souls, and bodies. But if we fasten rigidly on such terms, our thinking and intuition become paralyzed. We must approach self-knowledge from many angles, because to know ourselves we must look from all sides: right and left, top and bottom, outside and inside. Only when we use our hearts as well as our reason will the seeming contradictions resolve into wisdom. What, for example, is the relation between the monads and the seven principles? G. de Purucker points out the importance of the monads in understanding entities as streams or centers of consciousness. At the same time he explains that Blavatsky presented a system based on the types of substances or elements composing the universe because of the scientific and materialistic bias in western thought:

the seven principles are the seven kinds of 'stuff' of the universe. The higher part of each kind is its consciousness side; the lower part of each is the body side through which its own consciousness expresses itself. Yet every mathematical point in boundless Space can really be looked upon as a monad, because the universe is imbodied consciousness collectively; and imbodied consciousnesses or monads individually.
. . . What differentiates one man from another, or a man from a beast? The differences do not lie in their respective seven principles, because these enter and form the compound constitutions of all entities, but arise from the relative degree of evolution of the individual monads. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 443-5

These correlations of our being lead to broad conclusions. We are each a universe, and also children of the universe. As individual streams of consciousness, our awareness presently is poised midway along the totality of our constitution. The lower part of this stream of consciousness allows us to gain experiences on the physical plane; the higher part links us to eternity. This stream reaches from the most distant past to the inconceivable future. Contemplating our past not only explains who we are, it also reveals who determined our present circumstances: we ourselves. We cannot leave responsibility behind when we journey to seek the self. In the alchemical metaphor of transforming lead into gold, the past and present are the lead to be turned into a future of pure gold by refining ourselves in the laboratory of everyday life.

Like the worlds themselves, we are formed of countless beings and cycles; in a sense, we come into being and pass away with every breath we take, with every pulse beat, with every thought and action. No part of us is unchanging. Here we may better understand the words of the adept at the beginning of this article, that self is "only a passing guest, whose concerns are all like a mirage of the great desert." One must not confuse this impermanent self, however, with our entire stream of consciousness.

In the solar system, which is our home, we belong to a host of beings which forms part of the central solar divinity. Our stream of consciousness is part of the life-consciousness-substance-energy of this hierarch. And since everything is without beginning or end, even this solar divinity is part of something greater. Thus we are all linked to everything else -- in essence we are one, or as the Christian puts it: "I and my Father are one," from the root of roots up to the causeless cause. The Hindu says, Aham asmi parabrahma, "I am the Boundless," because the life pulsing within each of us is the life of the universal divinity. Various mystical schools have emphasized this way of thinking, and in this vein Purucker illustrates how a true teacher might instruct his young student or chela:

You yourself, child, within yourself hold the keys to wisdom, great beyond human description; and all that I can do is to show you how you yourself may cultivate and develop these your own inner faculties and powers, which have been before your time developed within themselves by the titan intellects, the spiritual Seers and Sages, of the human race -- the god-men of the past. . . . look therefore within yourself! There lie the secrets of all the by-gone mistakes, and of your present sorrows. In yourself likewise lie treasures ineffable which you will realize when some day you shall have found them and have brought them into activity in your life. Within you lies the only wisdom you shall ever, you can ever, obtain. Within yourself is the Path, and that Path, O Child, is Yourself -- your Spiritual Self, your Divine Self, that starry celestial power which is your root of being. It -- it, is also the heart of the Universe, for you and the All are essentially and fundamentally one and not twain. Can you, O Child, separate yourself from the Universe which encompasses you around? Can you ever leave it? Are you not an offspring of it, body of its body, blood of its blood, life of its life, thought of its thought, being of its being? Verily, you are IT. So when you have found yourself, your greater Self, your Spiritual Self: the inner god, the divinity within: then have you found not only the Path which leads to the heart of the Universe, but you have found yourself and it to be One. -- The Esoteric Tradition 2:1076

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2001; copyright 2001 Theosophical University Press)


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I see no reason to think that mysticism is a thing of the past. Mysticism is a form of religious spirituality, and spirituality continues to exist through all world crises. Materialistic civilization is against it, but the good and the beautiful and the true manage to survive from generation to generation. And this will surely be true of mysticism. -- Walter T. Stace