Jonathan Colbert – USA
It is certainly an honor to offer some impressions of the ITC (International Theosophy Conferences) gathering this year from July 26th through July 29th. Overall, for me and for many others I have talked to, the ITC gathering this year had a special quality of both mind and heart. I used to hear sometimes a couple of decades ago, unfortunate statements from Theosophists, like, “I like Theosophy but I’m not so sure I like theosophists.” Maybe people are still saying things like that even nowadays, but I don’t hear it anymore. In fact, for me at least, it is such a joy and such a great privilege to come together annually through the ITC conferences with Theosophists of seemingly various stripes and colors, each time in a new year and a new place. I’m wondering if in time, the theosophical movement will consist of just students of theosophy, wherever and however situated.
Participants ITC 2018, Berlin
Foreboding signs did pop up in the immediate days prior to the conference. Even though there was enthusiasm a year earlier at Philadelphia about this year’s conference, as the time approached this year, there was a certain quotient of pre-conference jitters and doubts about whether or not a purely working conference with little or no lectures would end up being too corporate and mechanical. Additionally, there were the jokes about how the three hot topics – religious intolerance, end-of-life-issues and depression – were, well, depressing! Furthermore, astrology types were saying something about a full Lunar Eclipse; that Mars would be closer than in a long time; and that Mercury would be in one of its three retrograde cycles for 2018. Seemingly bearing out the dire prognostications of the astrological soothsayers, on the way to the conference itself, there were numerous baggage transfer problems at airports causing several attendees, especially coming from The United States, to become separated from their suitcases for days in a row!
Yet, by the end of the conference, I had never seen so many bright and shiny smiles and faces, so many happy hearts all gathered in one place. How did this happen? As mentioned, this year’s conference was heavy on study circles and light on lectures. The experiment was to see if you could have a true theosophical working conference. Corporations do these in order to bring about a fundamental “change process” drawing from a wider field of participants within the organization to get new ideas and generate new initiatives, instead of utilizing a more traditional intra-department, top-down approach to achieve such an end. In this way participants are invited that represent a wide variety of expertise, experience, geography and demographic within the corporation to analyze given problems, come up with solutions to them and to implement these in the form of new policies and programs going forward.
So, why have a theosophical working conference? This, after all, was the mandate we had generated from the Philadelphia Declaration last year to “commit ourselves to facilitate the creation of working conferences harnessing the unique genius of the various theosophical streams, by: identifying suffering/hot topics that need a solution from theosophical perspective; studying and contemplating the theosophical teachings and selecting the relevant principles; translating these into modern language/putting these into context; developing pure and simple applications (products); inspire, encourage or facilitate theosophical branches or organizations to enter the arena, to offer these solutions.”
A large portion of the conference began invisibly, well before the visible part. This consisted of participants preparing for the conference per previously emailed instructions requesting us to: email to the ITC website relevant theosophical readings, which, in turn, would shed light on the essential nature of each of the three hot topics from a theosophical perspective; then to read, study and contemplate these contributions; and then to survey contemporary society to think what it thinks is the solution to the problems inherent in the hot topics – by talking to family, friends and colleagues about them and also by searching the Internet.
Finally, despite the spooky prognostications and pre-conference anxieties, came the conference itself, the great coming together – which turned out to be quite superb! Erwin Bomas did an excellent job of keeping it all together with humor and grace, as did his sidekick, Bouke van den Noort, with his able facilitation of the computer and all things projected on the large screen.
Bouke van den Noort (left) and Erwin Bomas
First, we heard a greeting from the three presidents. Gene Jennings spoke about the gratitude we owe to HPB and her Masters and of the importance of binding together in the empathic, pluralistic and integrative exchange that is the backbone of the ITC. By doing so, like the bundle of sticks, we become stronger than any forces of division. Herman C. Vermeulen spoke of the short term and the long-term mission of the ITC and how they reinforce each other. The short term is popularizing Theosophy, while the long term is thinking in terms of incarnations, rather than in immediate locations or numbers. Jan Nicolaas Kind (via a pre-recorded video since he was not able to attend) also brought to our attention that while it is an occult law that even though there are forces of detraction that want to destabilize efforts at Theosophical unity, still, if we work together and think in terms of hundreds if not thousands of years, then we will be invincible. But even though we work for the future, there is no time like the present for action, in the sense that Theosophy is really a verb, something that is to be lived, much more than it is a noun.
Then Bouke gave us a brief presentation on modern art and Theosophy, especially in relation to Berlin. We learned of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian, of cubism, cosmic ratios and the golden mean—as he said, “from Blavatsky to the iPhone.” I thought this proved to be helpful at the outset, tuning us into what has been called the right brain, non-linear thinking that is conducive to creative and collective problem solving. More and more are theosophists, and humanity in general, recognizing the importance of the spiritual in art.
The keynote lecture was given by Elton A. Hall, the author of over a hundred articles in the golden journal, Hermes, edited by Raghavan N. Iyer. The articles Elton wrote were known as “The Teacher Articles” and demonstrated a level of scholarship and luminosity that is educative, uplifting and unmatched. As we learned from Jim Tepfer in his glowing introduction of his friend, Elton was a popular teacher and lecturer wherever he taught. He embodies the qualities of a true theosophist by his graciousness, by how he is able to put people at ease, by his warmth, his tremendous wit –, as Jim said, “an alpha heart and an alpha mind.” The tribute was like what one might have heard in ancient and more golden times and moved some near to tears.
Elton, in his delivery of his keynote, likewise did not disappoint. He joked about being “over-wired” with the microphones attached to his person and said he would be just as happy to use stone tablets to read his notes from “if you could get good clay anywhere these days!” His lecture was one of challenge, showing how universal the quest has been throughout the ages to discover, “What is a Life Worth Living?” The three hot topics he handled with the carefulness of anything that was laden and potent with both crises and opportunity. Emphasizing, “The Masters insist on direction, not perfection,” Elton’s message in relation to the remainder of the conference was that of a spiritual archer drawing back and calmly aiming an arrow before its release. He emphasised in various ways the distinction between absolute truth, Paramarthasatya, and relative truth, and how failing to recognize a difference between these two was the very foundation of religious intolerance. You-tube videos were incorporated in Elton’s talk from: the Dalai Lama on religious intolerance; a prominent Boston surgeon, Dr. Atul Gawande on end of life issues; and Victor Frankl on depression. In the study circles, I heard frequent references to these video clips and other important points made in the keynote. Memorable, was Elton’s tripod of indispensable disciplines in the life and work of the true theosophist: study of the teachings, meditation and self-study.
Herman C. Vermeulen gave us an outline of how the study circles would work. We knew coming into the conference that in its three days, Day One would focus on religious intolerance; Day Two, on end of life issues; and Day Three, on depression. He explained that in the study circles we would start by spending 15 to 20 minutes on identifying what are the common perceptions of the causes and solutions inherent within the three hot topics. Then he said that we would bring theosophy into the picture by first focusing for a time on relevant abstract theosophical principles, and then by slowly working our way downwards from the heights of abstraction to the level of rational and analytical thinking. Finally we would try to come up with theosophical solutions or signposts that might at least point towards a Theosophical alleviation of the problems associated with each hot topic.
Herman was brilliantly effective at explaining this rather complex process by means of applying the famous teaching from Damadar K. Mavalankar of deductive and inductive thinking: at first, we need to apply the deductive method of going from universals to particulars. Then we need to return back to the source, going from the known to the unknown, thereby using inductive logic to work from particulars back to universals. The goal was that by the end of the day, written snippets would be entered on an easel in coherent, useful, easy-to-understand language that would summarize what each study group had come up with in terms of theosophical signposts and solutions. These snippets would then be shared in the evening’s plenary session using the mind map software as projected on the screen. As a student from each study group would stand up and read the snippets garnered from their group, the emcee, Erwin Bomas, would seek to clarify what they were saying and Bouke would enter the contributions into the mind-map visible to the whole group up on the screen.
To me, this method of structuring the conference in general and, more specifically, the study circles, was an imaginative combining of the four noble truths of Buddhism (life is suffering but there is a solution) with Damadar’s dialectical method of merging above below deductive logic with below above inductive logic. It was quickly discovered that urgency and importance of real compassionate problem solving requires us to engage in pure, manasic, creative thinking, free of the baggage of habitually and mindlessly channeling groupthink, parroting “older theosophists” or any kind of “authorities.” This reducing of the persona to as close to Gandhi’s “zero” as possible is perhaps similar to the process of when you multiply and divide fractions – first it is advisable to reduce all the numerals involved to lowest terms and then to cancel what numerators and denominators you can, this in order to lessen the burden of needlessly calculating large numbers. In this regard, I was especially proud of the young people in the groups in that I thought they exemplified a sort of leadership in their own way – their sheer insistence on real creative thought and manasic clarity.
Each study circle started with a mindful cataloguing of society’s common perceptions of what are the causes of the suffering that is involved in the three hot topics. Then, thinking philosophically as a discipline was implemented when we were asked to brainstorm together about principles such as unity, cyclicity or spiritual evolution that could be found in the three fundamentals and that might pertain to the given hot topic assigned for that day. The difficult thing was to think abstractly and impersonally, at what was called an ‘atmic’ level, for a given period of time—with 8-10 other theosophists; this, without descending too quickly into the analytical or the emotional. Then, with the skillful leadership of the study circle facilitators, our collective brainstorming was directed to thinking about the hot topics at what was called a ‘buddhic’ level, slightly less abstract than the ‘atmic’, i.e., that of making connections, thinking holistically and using analogy and correspondence. Again, this required a certain discipline to stay at this level without suddenly descending to the level of the personal and the emotional. Then, for still another sustained period of time, we were invited to think at what was called a more ‘manasic’ level about what theosophical principles such as, say, karma and reincarnation, might be clarifying. After lunch we focused on possible solutions in relation to these problems, but in the light of theosophy. This kind of disciplined control of what level we would be problem-solving at any given time, reminded me of what, in aviation, is involved in the disciplines and procedures relevant to the critical art of taking off and landing.
Taking off is relatively easy, provided your ascent isn’t too steep such that you go into a stall. However, landing an airplane requires discipline, skill, practice and patience. By mindfully sharing society’s common perceptions of the hot topics, we were not taking off, climbing and gaining altitude too steeply. Yet by eventually segueing into questions regarding the abstract theosophical principles involved, we were able to attain a certain critical altitude from which we could achieve a necessary philosophical perspective that we could then use to deductively descend from universals to particulars approaching the problem at hand. With the creative design of the structure of the study circles, and with the skillful leadership of the study circle leaders, we were able to descend to a landing smoothly and with grace. The group process and collective participation were an attempt at what the ancient Greek thinkers might have called dianoia, thinking things through based on principles – with a certain sophrosyne, harmonious cooperation of creative effort born of soundness of mind.
On two separate evenings, we heard presentations from two wonderful women. The first, was from Sieglinde Plocki, who has worked for many years at and recently retired from the Freie Universität, Free University of Berlin. Her memories of her work there were glowing, brimming with gratitude for the privelege. Founded in 1948, this university is now 70 years old and is going strong as one of Berlin’s best universities. International from the very beginning, in its robust worldview and in its faculty and student body, the university is a mirroring of the cosmopolitan nature of present day Berlin as a whole. Judy Saltzman, from California, told me she did research as a Fulbright Scholar at this university, which explains why she has retained so much of her German!
Yuliia A. Shabanova and her (excellent!) translator
The next evening we heard from Professor Yuliia A. Shabanova, Dr. Ph. Sc., PhD,
“Dnipro Polytechnic” in Ukraine. Through a translator she introduced us to the work going on in Dnipro, the birthplace of H.P. Blavatsky. Her energy, heart quality and intellectuality was impressive to all as she conveyed the desire on the part of several institutions having to do with H.P.B. and Theosophy in Dnipro, to be available to and to interact with the larger, worldwide theosophical community. My guess is that in the years ahead, as the nation of Ukraine becomes more and more internationally integrated, Dnipro will increasingly be a place of pilgrimage for theosophists and likeminded seekers interested in the mystery of H.P.B. and her worldwide theosophical effort.
We also heard one evening from Domen Kocevar, who has recently founded a project called, “One Humanity Institute.” He said that even in the Kali Yuga, “when you are really self-aware, you can do so many things.” The Institute is located in Auschwitz-Oswiecim, Poland and encompasses the vision of building a “City of Hope,” a destination where long or short-term visitors can experience the stark realities of the past alongside opportunities and models of transformation for a culture of sustainable peace and the uniting of humanity. It is so very interesting the initiatives that are ceaselessly bubbling up in this, at times daunting, age of transition.
ITC President Gene Jennings
For several ITC conferences in years past, one of the things to look forward to was a supernova of brilliance in the presentations of Dr. Eugene Jennings. He would talk mostly on the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, but also on the Pistis Sophia, the diagram on page 200 of The Secret Doctrine, involution and evolution, turning inward and the death of the false sense of self that true meditation entails. For several years in a row, the conferences no longer featured Gene’s ending presentations. Sure, in 2016 at Santa Barbara, he did a memorable job of conducting a dialogue with the general assembly on The Great Master’s Letter. And every year, as he is president of the ITC, we were privileged to hear his opening remarks. But missing has been his comprehensive closing presentations – except this year. I mentioned that this year was light on lectures. However, apparently at the last minute – during the period of the last day of the study circles on depression, it was agreed that Gene would offer some thoughts on his thirty-plus years as a Theosophically oriented psychiatrist.
Through his presentation, itself apparently generated with the help and focus of the study circles, he brought us into his world; how he uses theosophical principles to develop and approach empathic sessions of sharing with his clients. His voice was calm, confident and resonant, while he also demonstrated a mastery of silences as we all absorbed the gravity of what he was conveying. He shared with us how he challenges people, young and old, to re-think who they really are. Gene lives on the front lines of a field of duty where there are people who are considering suicide, who hurt themselves, who hurt others, who wrestle with addiction—who have in one way or another given up on life. He talked about how he views each human being as a soul that is still in some way connected to a hidden and ancient continuity, a pilgrimage through thousands of incarnations. He talked about samskaras and about skandas; about karma and reincarnation; about despair and about joy. Even though he is engaged in much heavy lifting in the real world of people confronting their demons, just hearing a giggle or a laugh from a child is enough for him as far as any kind of gratitude is concerned. We learned a little of the compassion, the fortitude and the wisdom required of a truly theosophical psychiatrist who would not let one tear dry before he himself had wiped it from the sufferer’s eye.
Jim Tepfer told me that Lalibel Mohaupt (one of the Dutch participants) said that, when we get together each year at ITC, “it feels like we are a family.” As I think about this and as I assimilate some of the memories of the conference, I recall the happy reunions that took place in the assembly room of the conference venue and in the dining hall of the restaurant. I also think of certain dynamic duo’s: Erwin and Bouke on the stage, those two splendid colleagues, both with their shoulders to the wheel, keeping it all going. I think of Jim and Elton, those two best of friends for over 50 years, both beloved and both treasured by the young folks at the conference. I think of Herman and Gene, hanging out and ribbing each other like two inseparable friends. I’m thinking, real brothers work together in common like that for the larger whole. As Elton said in his keynote, “The work of this conference aligns with the path of service.”
Onward to Olcott in Wheaton, USA next year!