Barbara Hebert – USA
The author passionetaly lecturing at Olcott, Wheaton
All over the world, we continue to face serious issues socially, economically, ecologically, and spiritually, just to name a few. As students of the Ageless Wisdom, this should not surprise us. If we look at core Theosophical literature, we learn that our successive incarnations focus on spiritual evolution until the time arrives when we are self-consciously aware of the unity of all life. In order to spiritually evolve, we must experience periods of difficulty. Rarely, if ever, do human beings seem to learn from happy things that occur. Generally, we learn through adversity and difficulty. If we consider the Sanskrit scriptures of the Hindus, we read about the Kali Yuga, the period of time in which we are currently residing, that is typically referred to as the Dark Age. It is generally perceived as a time filled with strife, conflict, and war; a time when materialism is rampant and humanity as far from the spiritual as possible. Regardless of whether we adhere to the concept of the Kali Yuga, all we have to do is look at the world in which we live, and we recognize the struggles that abound.
While it is possible to go into great detail about the many serious issues faced by humanity--overpopulation, global water crisis, food insecurity, poverty, war, racism, global ecological crisis--and so on, we could quickly become caught up in the constant swirl of the tremendous adversities faced by so many. We know, from our studies of the Ageless Wisdom, that thoughts are energy. When we think a certain way, we send out that type of energy. Focusing on the many horrific things that are happening across the world seemingly sends negative energy into the world, thus allowing the negative to strengthen. Not focusing on the negative leaves us in a bit of a bind, however. If we are not aware of the inequities in our world, then we cannot work to make change. The question quickly becomes: How can I be part of the solution without focusing all of my energy on the problem? Focusing on understanding the source of the issues, rather than simply becoming frustrated by the symptoms of them, would perhaps be most helpful. For instance, if we concentrate on understanding the source or fundamental cause of food insecurity rather than becoming frustrated because we cannot find a way to feed the world, we may be able to address the root cause of food insecurity and thus impact and hopefully alleviate hunger in the world. In this way, we become a part of the solution.
Understanding the root or primary cause of suffering requires insight into the Ageless Wisdom. When individuals do not have access to these tremendous teachings, they may feel trapped or even helpless in the face of modern-day struggles. Even those of us who are aware of these teachings may at times feel helpless or overwhelmed by the many adversities facing humanity today. However, having this glimpse of the Ageless Wisdom confers upon us the responsibility of using it to buoy our own understanding as well as to share this knowledge in a way that can help others. In this way, we work toward helping all of humanity.
What, then, is the root cause of the suffering in our world? Is it simply because suffering is part of the evolutionary path of spiritual growth? Is it because we are living in the Kali Yuga? Perhaps both of those things, and even more. Madame H. P. Blavatsky writes in The Key to Theosophy, “... all pain and suffering are results of [lack] of Harmony, and that the one terrible and only cause of the disturbance of Harmony is selfishness in some form or another.” Annie Besant, as quoted in Theosophy Wiki, writes “... pain is primarily the product of desire. Desire, fulfilled or unfulfilled, will always give rise to new desires, thus creating an endless cycle which has at its center suffering.” And finally, in the Mahatma Letters, we read
“Food, sexual relations, drink, are all natural necessities of life; yet excess in them brings on disease, misery, suffering, mental and physical, and the latter are transmitted as the greatest evils to future generations, the progeny of the culprits. Ambition, the desire of securing happiness and comfort for those we love, by obtaining honors and riches, are praiseworthy natural feelings but when they transform man into an ambitious cruel tyrant, a miser, a selfish egotist they bring untold misery on those around him; on nations as well as on individuals. All this then – food, wealth, ambition, and a thousand other things we have to leave unmentioned, becomes the source and cause of evil whether in its abundance or through its absence.”(Letter #88, Chronological series)
Along these same lines, we can look at Buddhism and Buddha’s Second Noble Truth that speaks of dukkha or suffering. It is generally understood that the Buddha perceived three primary causes of suffering: desire, craving, and ignorance. In this regard, ignorance does not mean uneducated; rather, it means the inability to see Reality, to see the impermanence of the physical realm. Col. Henry Steel Olcott in his book, The Buddhist Catechism, responds to the question “Why does ignorance cause suffering?” by saying: “Because [ignorance] makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve when we should not grieve, consider real what is not real but is only illusionary, and pass our lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.”
Therefore, we find that suffering is caused by a lack of harmony, through desire, and through ignorance. Individuals are unaware of the impermanence of the physical world and suppose that physical “things” can bring about happiness. In reality, the excessive desire or craving for these physical things –food, sex, power, control, money, etc. – simply brings about unhappiness and suffering. Furthermore, the desire to escape the pain of the physical world by immersing oneself into anything that may alleviate that pain – alcohol, drugs, sex, food, power, money, etc. – also results in unhappiness and suffering.
The key, then, to avoid suffering seems to be the elimination of excessive desire and enlightening ourselves regarding the Reality of our world. If we are able to eliminate desire and enlighten ourselves, we may then find the Harmony of which HPB speaks. If we look to the Perennial Wisdom to understand the world in which we live, it would seemingly lead to the elimination of excessive desire and eventually to Harmony.
It is through an understanding of the essence of things that we realize the world in which we live and which seems very real to us, is actually Maya, or illusion. One metaphor that can facilitate our understanding of the difference between this illusory world and the essential nature of Reality (or at least our limited understanding of it) is that of being in school. This is a well-used metaphor, but it is a very useful one. For many adolescents, the most important parts of day to day life includes those aspects related to school—friends, social activities, and peer-related events. Home life remains in the background, providing the foundation from which we reach out to enjoy life. In school, we learn how to adapt to the world around us: negotiate difficulties, learn to interact with peers as well as with authority figures, become a part of a community, etc. Home provides what we recognize as safety and comfort. (A quick caveat here: Home in this physical existence is definitely not a place of safety and comfort for every individual; however, if it is where we have lived for a period of time, it is the known and we have likely found an element of safety and comfort in some aspect of it.)
If we liken our physical daily lives to that of being in school, then we recognize the illusory nature of it. What seemed so important as an adolescent (who is invited to the party!) may not seem as important in retrospect from an adult perspective. We realize that the time in school as an adolescent was a time of learning and growing, but it was not the “real world.” The “real world” is what happens when we leave school, when we return home after the lessons have been learned. The “real world” is the inner Realm of existence, whatever we happen to call it.
Once we realize that the world in which we live is impermanent and is essentially “a temporary classroom for learning” regardless of how “real” it seems, then we begin to have a glimpse of Reality. We begin to move toward a sense of harmony and balance. The excessive desire for temporal or material things begins to lessen as we start to recognize their lack of importance in the overall scheme of things.
How, then, does this understanding help us to work toward solving the difficulties and problems that much of humanity faces? In addition to being active in various social justice movements (in whatever ways we can help others), we must work to change our own consciousness, to transform our own consciousness. Every time one of us takes even the tiniest step forward into spiritual self-transformation, we are taking every other aspect of life forward with us. As our own consciousness is transformed, so is the consciousness of all life. Transforming the consciousness of humanity provides the foundation of esoteric spirituality: service to humanity.
This is one of the most important – if not the most important – aspects of our work as Theosophists. Very few people recognize the importance of transforming the consciousness of all humanity. Can you imagine our world when every individual apprehends and puts into practice the Reality that all life is One?