Henry Travers Edge – USA
This is a question that none can escape; it must often suggest itself even to the most thoughtless. It cannot be indefinitely evaded, for man cannot indefinitely remain in an irresponsible state, refusing to face facts, or trying to live superficially and in the moment. Yet why should it be evaded? Man has the power to answer any question that he has the power to propound. Those who reject religion and authority, from a motive of self-reliance, should surely have self-reliance enough to tackle this question. We cannot consistently stand on a pinnacle of pride and self-sufficiency in order to proclaim therefrom our own incompetence and inability to know.
It is within our own intelligence, therefore, that an answer must be sought; man's own judgment is always the final court of appeal. Yet that man would be foolish who should attempt to start on the career of knowledge all by himself, without availing himself of the help that may be afforded him by the efforts of predecessors.
It is not dogmas or the say-so of anybody that we here offer, but suggestions for due consideration. It was from the teachings of others, tested by our own judgment, that we received the hints that we now try to pass on.
You are a conscious intelligent being. Here is a fact to start with. Or if you do not regard this as a fact, if you doubt or deny your own existence, then turn the leaf, for we can have no more to tell you. The next fact is that you are not the only intelligent being in the Universe. Or if this is not a fact, then the Universe is a product of your imagination, and I do not exist outside of your imagination; a point on which we should at once take issue. The world then contains a multitude of intelligent beings like you.
Next, it contains beings also regarded as alive and conscious, possessed of a different kind and degree of intelligence, not showing signs of being self-conscious (or not as we are). These are the animals. Then we come to the plants. They are alive; they know enough to select their food, build their tissues, and care for their welfare. Are the plants conscious? If not, how are we to explain their behavior? We must invent some other theory. When we get down to what has been called the mineral or inorganic kingdom, the same question arises in even greater degree.
The so-called inorganic kingdom exhibits organization, system, adaptation, growth, change, and other phenomena of conscious mind. But for some reason we have chosen to regard this kingdom as being dead and inert. Therefore, we have been driven to try to explain its behavior in some other way; and science has invented a whole pantheon of mysterious gods, such as force, affinity, attraction, chance, etc., to explain the properties of the 'inorganic' world. In short, a dualistic system has been imagined, in which there is a vast universe of dead inert matter, acted on (a) by mysterious forces, (b) by a lonely isolated deity. The lonely deity, who has existed from eternity, built a universe, either out of nothing or out of an equally eternal matter. The physics of last century gave us a universe of two eternal things, matter and energy. Both are eternal, indestructible, and uncreate.
In place of all this metaphysics, religious or scientific, consider the idea that there is nothing dead in the whole universe: that the universe is composed exclusively of living conscious intelligent beings. Get this into your mind, and difficulties begin thenceforth to drop off.
The consciousness of these many beings is not all of the same kind or degree. As man differs from the animals and the animals from the plants, so there are other orders of life, other kinds of mind. What we call 'character' in man, and 'instinct' in animals, we have chosen to call 'properties' in the mineral kingdom. But the distinction is artificial. All such qualities are manifestations of intelligence. When the intelligence is small, it may suffice for little more than a continued repetition of the same acts. This we see in men, where we call it habit; still more in the animals, and there we call it instinct.
When we come to the 'inorganic' world, we see so much invariability that we speak of the properties of matter as 'laws of nature.' But in truth, they are merely habits. Science itself now begins to doubt whether these habits are invariable. Science has traced the chain of cause and effect down to a point where it finds particles moving without any detectible cause in obedience to any known law. Science is in doubt whether to attribute to these particles purpose or to fall back on the lame explanation that they are actuated by Mr. Chance.
The answer to the question "Who am I?" begins to shape itself: you are one conscious being in a vast society of conscious beings, of which the greatest and most inclusive is the universe itself. Further, you are a self-conscious being, endowed with the power of introspection and of being aware of your own mental activities. You have the power to consider a course of action and to act upon it or refuse to do so. You stand on a higher level than do those orders of life that have not these powers. Around you are many other beings of the same rank as yourself.
You are endowed with a mysterious sense of separate personality; you must infer that other men have also this sense. But your reason abhors the idea of this separateness. Often, even in childhood, has your brain reeled and your heart sickened over this problem of the difference between You and Me. You may since have learned to crowd it out of your mind, but the specter is still there. This means that the present state of existence, wherein this sense of separateness and isolation from others exists, is not the real and final state for you. You have roots in some higher stratum, and of those roots, you are even now dimly conscious. You have an intellect, but you cannot seem to stretch it to fit your intuitions. This brings us to another valuable hint.
Whenever you find yourself brought to the point where most people give up in despair and say that this is beyond the limits of possible knowledge -- then you stand at the very place where, if you have the courage, knowledge begins. Yet this is the very point where so many people stop. They either take the agnostic position and regard knowledge as unattainable, or leave everything to Providence. In either case, they deny their own power. But, though you may live through incarnation after incarnation in such a state of mind, you will at last be driven back upon your own resources and compelled by necessity to face the problem by the strength of your own resources.
When you die, you will shed your body and some other belongings. You will continue to exist -- not as your present personality, for the conditions of its existence are now broken up -- but rather as a comparatively disencumbered spiritual entity. But you also existed before you were born into this present life. There is no sense in the theory that your existence is limited, at either end, by the confines of this earth-life of seventy years. Such a theory mocks the reason and is not to be reconciled with the facts of life.
You enter this life endowed with the seeds of character and destiny, which you yourself have generated by your past exercise of will and imagination. You spend your present life in creating new seeds for a future harvest. Sometimes you are able to trace the cause of your present experiences, and then you blame yourself or take credit, as the case may be. But oftener you are unable to trace the causes of your present experiences, and then you say it is chance, fate, or Providence. So you have divided experience into two classes, distinguished from each other merely by the limits of your present knowledge. This distinction is absurd; all experiences follow the same law; they are due to the causes that you yourself have set up.
But -- to keep to the point -- who is this you or I of which we speak? He is the master of your destiny, your real Self, the real liver of the lives.
You do not realize this yet, for you are in a kind of dream; you are not fully awake. But there is one point in which you are better than some -- you have at least a suspicion that you are dreaming. What you have to do, then, is to wake up, not all at once, perhaps, but at any rate bit by bit. And does it not seem certain that, in this awakening, the mystery of separate personalities will be solved, or at least greatly elucidated? For in this higher, more awake, state of consciousness, we cannot be as we are now; we must stand at a higher level. If the delusion of separate personality persisted, wherein would that state be an improvement on this?
The Universe is at the same time One and Many: innumerable distinct beings, yet with one life running through all. This grand truth of the oneness of all that lives -- it is your destiny to realize it. One day you will wake up to the fact; and then it will no longer be a beautiful saying but an obvious thing. Here then is the foundation stone of all ethics; ethics is not an enforced code to live by reluctantly; it is a statement of the scientific truth about life. If you make your personal interest (or what you may foolishly think to be your personal interest) paramount over your social obligations, you are acting contrary to the real law of your nature and will run into trouble.
Much of the mystery of pain lies herein. Why does the Supreme Power permit us to suffer? Well, if the Supreme Power were to shield us from suffering, he would be coddling us; instead of which he may have endowed us with free will and left us to exercise it. And so we experiment and burn our fingers. But how much better this, than to be the mere marionettes of some all-powerful deity or the sport of ruthless laws of Nature!
No, we must solve the riddle of life for ourselves -- find out Who am I? This means polishing up the mirror of the mind and cleaning up a good many other matters as well. Science and ethics are the same -- different aspects of the same path of knowledge. Conduct is all-important; conduct means knowledge, and knowledge means conduct. But, when it is said that we must solve the riddle for ourselves, this does not mean that we are to tear up our books, listen to no one, and sit in solitary meditation. It means that we must seek knowledge wherever we can find it, relying on our own judgment as to whether it is what we need or not.
Let me express for you this devout good wish: that you may be fortunate enough to find a Teacher. For this will save you a deal of trouble and futile wandering. What has just been said about the Universe implies that there must be men who have preceded you and me on the path of knowledge, and must therefore be in a position to perform the usual functions of a teacher to a pupil. If you are afraid of being imposed upon, take my advice and do not risk anything until you have gained more confidence in your own power of discrimination.
We are actors, playing a part, playing many parts, as the mystic bard has said. But there must be an actor, an actor who is none of the parts, and yet is (in one sense) each and all of them. You have become so used to the part you are enacting now that you have lost your real identity, yet are dimly conscious of it. The path of human evolution leads straight on to the place where you will wake up and become aware of your identity. It is the voice of the true Self -- the impersonal Self -- that speaks in such words as these: "I am the Self, seated in the hearts of men"; "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
You cannot even read these words, if they are new to you, without taking a step in your evolution. For they will put into your mind ideas that were not there before; or rather revive in your consciousness ideas that were latent. And thereby your outlook cannot fail to be changed, your conduct colored, in however slight a degree. The old truths that Theosophy revives are a leaven working in the mind.
One token of the truth is UNITY -- a thing we cannot help longing for and striving after. Conflict is our bane, as we pitifully realize the two natures, the many natures that struggle within us. We continually thwart ourselves. If only we could find that of all these selves is the real I! This conflict vanishes in the light of self-realization; our several desires unite to a single end. No more contrast between the desire for knowledge and the sense of duty; or between selfish lust and impersonal love. Knowledge and duty are found to be one; lust fades like a rush light in the glow of love. The answer to our question "Who am I?" is to be given by our own experience; let us not seek to express the ineffable, to measure the immeasurable.
[From The Theosophical Path, September 1931, pages 224-29.]