Changing the World
The history of the last few hundred years presents a bleak picture of human nature. A long series of wars and conflicts, often stemming from economic greed or from feelings of religious, racial, or national supremacy, have caused untold misery and bloodshed, and even today world peace seems as elusive as ever. And although our planet has sufficient resources to feed and care for all of its inhabitants, over 800 million people are undernourished and a child dies of hunger every 10 seconds. There are plenty of different ideas concerning the social and economic reforms needed to change the world for the better. But change from above – even if it is of the right sort – is not enough; there also needs to be a lasting change in human nature.
We are far more than the products of our environment. Our characters and behaviour are not simply the result of our upbringing and education and experiences in this life, because different people can react to similar things in very different ways, depending on their basic dispositions. From the moment we’re born, we begin to display certain distinctive character traits, which are then developed or modified in the course of our lives. But where does our basic character come from? Materialists would probably say that it’s determined by the genes or DNA that we inherit from our parents. DNA is vastly overrated by materialistic scientists. The DNA code certainly regulates the production of proteins, the basic building blocks of our bodies, but it does not explain how these proteins then manage to arrange themselves into tissues and organs and complex living beings, and there is certainly no evidence that physical DNA determines our basic patterns of thought and behaviour. Efforts to reduce the wonders of life and mind to random physical and chemical interactions are grossly inadequate and unconvincing.
There are two main alternative explanations for our basic characters. First, there could be some supreme being or God who creates a new soul for each newborn child, and thereby determines the body and character that we are born with. However, this would mean that God is also responsible for creating any weaknesses and imperfections that are part of our basic nature, so he would have to be either very limited and imperfect himself or very cruel and unjust. This concept of God as a sort of magnified image of ourselves, including our vices, is not particularly elevating, and fortunately it’s going out of fashion.
The other main explanation for our basic characters is reincarnation. According to this view, our basic habits and tendencies are a sort of memory of our choices and experiences, our achievements and failures in past lives. A reincarnating soul is attracted automatically to the parents who can provide it with the body and family environment best suited to its karmic needs, and in the course of our lives we are drawn to the people and events that will present us with the necessary challenges and experiences for our further development.
Karma basically means that we have made ourselves what we are, and that whatever happens to us we have in some way brought upon ourselves, and this applies not only to individuals but also to countries and races and ultimately our whole planet. Some people don’t like the idea of karma because it means that we can no longer regard ourselves as innocent victims and blame others for our misfortunes. But it is actually a very liberating and comforting idea, because it means that we mould our own future and that ultimately justice does prevail. So karma is not a doctrine of fatalism. It doesn’t mean that everything is predetermined and we should therefore just sit back and accept everything and make no effort to improve our lives or those of others. If we find ourselves in a situation where we can help others and reduce some of the suffering and injustice in the world, that too is karma, and an opportunity to be taken advantage of. This is expressed very forcefully in The Voice of the Silence, which H.P. Blavatsky translated from a work studied by spiritual aspirants in the east. It contains the statement: ‘Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin.’
No matter how much we may feel ourselves to be provoked or tempted or oppressed by the people and conditions around us, the way we react is ultimately our own choice. If someone wrongs us, our immediate instinct may be to get our own back. But there’s no such thing as ‘settling the score’, because every act generates new causes, whose consequences will at some point in the future rebound upon us. People don’t hurt one another out of wisdom, but out of weakness, blindness and ignorance – in fact such behaviour is often a cry for help – and by hitting back or taking the law into our own hands we are merely displaying the same weakness. If we take the view that we have in some way brought that injury upon ourselves, then, although this doesn’t excuse the wrongdoer, it should help us to resist the temptation to strike back, and to meet injustice with compassion and forgiveness. Sometimes our high ideals might get forgotten in the heat of the moment, but if we sincerely hold to them then we should in time become increasingly able to meet the trials of daily life with greater patience and detachment and a quiet cheerfulness.
Ideally, social and national and international conflicts would all be resolved peacefully, through dialogue and reconciliation. But sometimes the forces of bigotry, selfishness, and hatred may be so powerful that outbursts of violence are virtually unstoppable. The conflicts that take place between nations and between social or racial groups reflect the conflicts that take place on a smaller scale between individuals, and these in turn reflect the conflicts that take place within each one of us. The world will never be at peace until we are at peace with ourselves.
At this stage in our evolution, we are largely out of tune with our true selves. We tend to be inwardly fragmented to some extent, with different parts of our inner nature warring and in conflict. We can divide up the inner human constitution in various ways, but broadly speaking, we have a lower, lunar self and a higher, solar self, a lower personality and a spiritual individuality. The lower self has a number of well-known characteristics. Its first concern is usually with itself and with satisfying its own perceived needs and interests. It loves and seeks praise and applause, but is super-sensitive to criticism and very easily offended. It has tremendous difficulty seeing its own faults, but seems to acquire penetrating insight when it comes to identifying the faults of others. It loves to complain, and if one source of annoyance or irritation is removed, it immediately finds something else to moan about. It tends to desire most of all what it can’t have, especially what other people have, and if it does get what it wants, it often loses interest and longs for something else instead.
Our higher self, on the other hand, is the source of our conscience, our moral sense, and our intuition, the source of our nobler, altruistic feelings and aspirations, and a treasure-house of creative talents and abilities that we have yet to unfold. The more we can control our restless brain-minds and still our fitful thoughts and desires, the more able we shall be to receive and mirror the illumination of our higher self, just as an unruffled surface of water reflects the rays of the sun far more clearly than one in turbulent motion. The basic choice before us is either to allow ourselves to be enslaved by our animal self and thereby to crucify our spiritual self (the inner christ), or to sacrifice, that is transform, our animal self, and seek the in-spiration – the ‘inbreathing’ literally – of our higher self.
The challenge, then, is not to stamp out the personality but to refine it and elevate it – to make it a fit vehicle for the inner god. This is no easy task, because we are creatures of habit; we follow the grooves of thought and behaviour that we have carved over the course of many many lives. To replace bad habits with better ones, we need to keep a constant watch on what is going on in our minds and how we act and react in our daily lives, and to check ourselves whenever we find ourselves indulging in some selfish or unworthy thought or deed. The more attention we pay to particular thoughts, or ideas, or memories, the more mental energy we invest in them and the stronger they become. So changing the focus of our attention to more positive things is an essential part of improving our characters. But it’s not enough, because there’s a big difference between repressing things and truly eliminating them.
Repressing thoughts and feelings means forcing them into the swamp of the subconscious mind, where they continue to fester and invariably erupt to the surface from time to time. But to truly dissipate and dissolve negative thoughts and feelings so that we can put the energy we’ve wasted on them to better use, we have to change any beliefs and attitudes that help to sustain them. And this is where studying the ancient wisdom is of tremendous practical importance. Because teachings such as reincarnation and karma, and our spiritual potential help us to make sense of our lives, to see things in a broader perspective, and encourage us to live ethically. For example, we can’t truly come to terms with the past, and eliminate feelings of anger, resentment, vengeance, envy, hatred, and so on until we abandon the delusion that we are the helpless and innocent victims of chance or fate, and can accept our responsibility for the things that happen to us.
The problems that afflict our society – from drug addiction and violent crime to economic exploitation and the destruction of the environment – are generally symptoms of more deeply rooted causes. The way we act reflects the way we think. It’s therefore essential to tackle not only material poverty but also spiritual poverty – the negative and narrow outlook on life that many people have. The materialistic worldview – that we are nothing but highly complex physical machines, who appear from nowhere, for no reason, and to no end – is not a healthy philosophy to live by. The belief that no part of us survives death, that we will not be held accountable for our deeds, and that the only things worth pursuing in life are wealth, power and pleasure, is likely to result in people searching for happiness and meaning in misguided ways.
The pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake, for example, will not bring lasting contentment. Deeper satisfaction and inspiration come from discovering and unfolding the riches of our inner nature and from helping and bringing happiness to the lives of others. It’s the higher and nobler qualities that we have built into our souls that endure beyond death and that we take with us into the next life – not our slick cars, beautiful homes, or consumerist gadgetry. And whether we are rich or poor, we are no more than the custodians of whatever we have. All life involves giving and taking. We draw our breath from outside ourselves, transform it within, and then return it to nature. Nothing we own, none of our possessions, is truly, absolutely ours. Even the atoms of our bodies are merely borrowed from the pool of nature, and when our inner self has finished using them as its vehicle it will release them and they will be used by some other entity. So it’s not how much wealth we have but our attitude towards it and what we do with it that counts.
But it’s not just the materialistic worldview that is to blame for the lack of vision that many people have. Religion, too, especially in the west, has often played a very divisive and bloody role in human history, and some religious and theological doctrines are just as narrow and negative in their effects as materialistic ones. For example, the Christian belief that we have only one life on earth, and that when we die, regardless of how we have lived our lives, all our sins will be forgiven provided we believe in Jesus, is illogical and unjust. And as for the idea that God will then consign believers to an eternal heaven of bliss and unbelievers to an eternal hell of fire where they will ‘weep and gnash their teeth’ – the sooner such superstitions become extinct the better. In one short life we can only develop a tiny fraction of the capacities locked up in our higher nature, and it’s precisely by meeting the consequences of all our actions, life and life, that we learn better and evolve. Genuine moral and spiritual progress is something we have to achieve through self-effort and self-discipline, otherwise it would be a very cheap attainment.
The first of the three objectives of the Theosophical Society is to promote universal brotherhood and oppose discrimination based on race, colour, sex, creed, or religion. Nowadays, most people would probably accept this principle – at least in theory. But some people still regard other individuals, other races and nationalities, followers of other religions, or even supporters of rival football teams, as inferior beings and treat them accordingly. Different individuals may be at different stages of development or more developed in some ways than in others, and so may different groups of people. But no one is inferior in the sense of being of lesser intrinsic worth or of lesser intellectual or spiritual potential. At the spiritual level, we are all brothers and sisters – whether our personalities like the idea or not. A verse by Edwin Markham reads:
He drew a circle that left me out – heretic, rebel – a thing to flout;
But Love and I had the wit to win – we drew a circle that took him in.
This is what becoming truly human is all about – becoming more inclusive, broadening our sympathies beyond our immediate circle of family and friends, beyond our country and race, to embrace all humanity and all living beings.
One of the great themes of the world’s sacred traditions is the common spiritual origin of all that exists. Many creation myths tell of how at the dawn of a new cycle of evolutionary activity, the universal spirit reawakens from its long sleep, and emits multitudes of god-sparks, seeds of divinity, which are destined to pass through all the kingdoms of nature in search of knowledge and experience. We begin our journey through the human kingdom as nonselfconscious, non-thinking beings in a state of innocence – symbolized in the Biblical allegory by the garden of Eden. The eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents the emergence of selfconsciousness. This gives us the power of thought and choice and free will, and we become morally responsible. And then the fun really begins. Our original state of innocence is lost; we are expelled from Eden.
This is the Fall – a fall into independent, selfconscious personalities. It’s also a fall into matter; the Book of Genesis says that we take on ‘coats of flesh’, meaning that our original, ethereal bodies become increasingly physicalized, resulting in increasing obscuration of the inner light. We begin to see others as totally separate and distinct from ourselves, and we are tempted to misuse our free will for selfish ends, to further our own supposed interests at the expense of others. The divine gift of free will allows us to raise ourselves ultimately to the level of the gods, or to sink far below the level of the beasts – because animals are for the most part instinctive creatures and are never deliberately cruel or destructive or malicious, whereas humans, unfortunately, sometimes are. But as embryo-gods, we have the ability to see through the illusion of separateness, and to come to understand that we are all children of the cosmic spirit, offspring of the one life, and that it is our duty to assist the upwards, evolutionary course of nature by helping one another along the path. But in order to realize our full spiritual potential, an enormous number of lives are necessary.
Some people nowadays seem to regard reincarnation as some sort of evil and long to be released from the wheel of rebirth. But why? Is it because they want to escape from the scene of so much suffering and misery? That may be understandable, but is it a worthy motive? For those individuals – very rare in our age – who attain the pinnacle of human evolution, and become what the Mahayana Buddhists call bodhisattvas, who are free to choose whether to continue to reincarnate on earth or to enter nirvana, the most selfless choice would be to remain voluntarily on earth and do whatever is karmically possible to help humanity. Gautama the Buddha – the latest in a long line of buddhas – was an example of one who made this ‘great sacrifice’, and it is said that even to this day his soul continues to live as an active force in the spiritual atmosphere of our earth. The noble sentiments that lead to this act of self-renunciation and self-sacrifice are beautifully expressed in The Voice of the Silence. A bodhisattva who has achieved spiritual liberation and earned the right to a long period of nirvanic rest and bliss, hears the voice of compassion within them asking: ‘Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?’
Most of us have a very long way to go before we become buddhas, but all of us can make a real contribution to changing the world for the better by making every effort to correct our own faults, and by helping those around us with encouraging words, kind deeds and uplifting thoughts. Every step along this path is a step towards a more peaceful and caring world for all.
November 1997. Last revised: Aug 2019.
The spiritual path