Theosophy

The Three Pillars of Practice

Tim Boyd – USA, India

Theosophy TB Tim in Naarden

Tim Boyd at the beautiful International Theosophical Centre in Naarden, the Netherlanda

IN all traditions that aim at self-transformation, or human regeneration, there is a necessary emphasis on the need for practice. Some people might resist the discipline and time required to develop and persist in a practice, thinking of it as just another process of conditioning, which it is, but it is paradoxical. Spiritual practice is a process of conditioning that leads to the possibility of freedom from conditioning. The preoccupation with practice in spiritual and religious circles is based on a couple of observations. The first is that whether we recognize it or not, we are continually practicing something.

For those living what has been described as the “unobserved life”, the training to which they submit is a constant conditioning that fixes one firmly within the limitations of the material world and that level of emotion and thought that align with it. Caught up in the pressing needs and wants of the body and personality for comfort, recognition, wealth, health, and a happiness based on the satisfaction of perpetually renewing desires, there is little room for the “still, small voice” of the soul, or Inner Self.

A second observation fueling the need for a practice that turns one’s attention inward is the age-old truism that “Practice makes perfect”. Having spoken to groups of people around the world I have come to realize that this pearl of folk wisdom is present everywhere. However, the fact that everyone knows it and agrees does not make it true — at least not in the way that most people accept it.

Anyone, who has been involved in music, sports, medicine, or any field where an ever-expanding proficiency is sought, must develop a proper practice — a regular discipline that ingrains effective habits of body and mind. Persistent repetition leads to a “perfection” of sorts. However, a challenge to the belief in the infallibility of practice becomes evident in those cases where one’s diligence in practice is flawless, but one is practicing the wrong things. The athlete, injured because of their persistence in improper body mechanics; the physician trained in an incorrect view of medicine; the musician whose repeated wrong practice limits their growth, all become “perfect” in their imperfection. The time-honored expression would be more correctly stated as “Perfect practice makes perfect”.

Within the theosophical tradition there is a long-standing formula for correct practice, sometimes expressed as the “Three Pillars” of practice. Briefly stated, those Pillars are 1. Study; 2. Meditation; and 3. Service. It is simple language expressing profoundly valuable guidance. One of the unavoidable difficulties facing any genuinely wise, or spiritually illumined person has been how to share their level of realization with others (us) who lack their level of experience. All of the great teachers try a variety of means to communicate, but much of their contribution takes place as words that with time become scriptures. They use language in a variety of ways — as straightforward analytical explanation, poetic imagery, storytelling, and parables — in the attempt to give us some clues to the unspeakable realms of Spirit. Historically it has been a losing battle for the Teachers. As much as we feel that everything can and should be explained, in the realm of Spirit, ideas and language not only fall short, but often confuse more than they illumine.

One problem is that words seem to convey fixed, universal meanings, but their meaning depends on consensus. Their value as tools of communication depends on a shared acceptance of meaning. Also, over time our use and understanding of words changes. There is an old expression that “Familiarity breeds contempt”. It is an attempt to convey the observation that with long association we lose sight of the value of things. Our tendency is to devalue things by taking them for granted. We can become inattentive and complacent in our relationships with people, Nature, ideas, and words. This is especially the case with longstanding ideas and the words used to describe them. I feel this is true for the words of the Three Pillars.

In order to resuscitate some of the slippage of meaning for the Three Pillars, allow me to reframe the language. In our normal or academic view, “Study” is an intellectual process of searching out information as building blocks to larger structures of knowledge. Mostly it could be called a horizontal process because it broadens the horizons of our knowledge, linking it with other areas of study.

From the Ageless Wisdom perspective, the human being is “Highest spirit and lowest matter linked by mind”. The activity and focus of mind have the capacity to extend from engagement with “lowest matter”, all the way to “highest spirit”. Most people find themselves stuck in the cycling of thought around sensations, pleasures, pains, losses, gains, and the world of external activity, rarely allowing time for some exploration of more refined possibilities of the mind. In the context of spiritual practice, study is a vertical process. It is the elevation of our accustomed center of activity within the vast spectrum of mind. At its peak it comes so near to spirit that it becomes “enlightened” or “illumined” in its proximity. In Sanskrit it is called the “Mânasa Taijasi” — the Radiant Mind. So, “Study” I describe as the “Elevation of the Mind”.

For most people, when they hear the word “Meditation” an image of someone sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, and motionless arises in their mind. Relaxation, inactivity, “no thought” might also be common associations with the word. But is all or any of that what meditation is?Probably not. The practice of meditation incorporates these features in the same way that playing musical scales is a part of the practice of playing music. It is a training that allows for a freedom to arise. Actual meditation occurs when one is free from involvement and attachment to the process of thought production and movement within the stream of thought. In the profound and clever words of Lama Anagarika Govinda, “Meditation is not what you think”.

So, rather than make the, mostly inaccurate, designation of Pillar #2 as “Meditation”, which for most “practitioners” is only an occasionally occurring experience, my preference is to refer to this pillar as “Experimenting with Quiet”. In the practice phase we do relax the body; we do attend to posture; we do (in most cases) cease from physical movement; we do pay attention to the flowing of the stream of thought. All of this has its beginnings in Quiet. But Quiet is nuanced and has progressive depths. The initial quiet of a concentrated mind alleviates distraction and uncontrolled activity.

There is a further depth of quiet that expresses itself as Stillness, where the consciousness is centered inwardly, unaffected by the outer world. Then there is an ultimate experience of Quiet — Silence, a union of the individual Soul, or Self, with the Universal Consciousness. “I”, “me”, “my”, “you”, “them”, all boundaries and separations lose their meaning in this absorption of Union. In Yoga philosophy these three stages of Quiet are named Dhârana, Dhyâna, and Samâdhi.

The third Pillar, “Service”, is vital and often undervalued. We could describe the effects of practice in this way: Study provides the building blocks of information that form structures of knowledge. Every field of knowledge has a specific and identifiable form. Scientific knowledge is distinct in its insistence on the scientific method and, as practiced currently, the material band of reality to which it limits itself. Christianity has its own form and distinguishing features. Islam, Buddhism, Theosophy, dentistry, agriculture, and all the rest also do. All of them form and develop structures as receptacles/containers for their knowledges. Spiritual study as an activity of “elevating the mind” also evolves its forms, intended as containers for what we might call the “water of truth”.

But study alone does not open the flow of a higher understanding, of wisdom. The point of experimenting with quiet is that in the experience of a deepening quiet, then stillness, and possibly silence, the floodgates of intuitive insight are opened, filling and giving meaning to the container built by persistent elevation of the mind. It is at this point that service reveals its profound importance.

In my reframing of terms I think of “Service” as “Conscious Compassionate Activity”. The emphasis is on awareness, becoming conscious in our activities of relieving the suffering of others. There are many things we all do without thought or intention that indirectly serve others. Even something as simple as breathing provides carbon dioxide that plants and trees require to live, which in turn make life on earth possible for all of us. The money one makes from their employment is taxed; those taxes contribute to the operation of schools, hospitals, the building of roads, the feeding of the poor, and so on. While beneficial, these are unintended collateral consequences of behavior we engage in without thought, or with our personal benefit in mind. When it comes to spiritual practice the primary focus is awareness and the intentionality that accompanies it.

In H. P. Blavatsky’s The Voice of the Silence the statement is made that “Compassion is no attribute. It is the Law of Laws”. This is a very high view of Compassion. For most of us compassion is experienced as the desire to alleviate the suffering of others. Everyone with a normally healthy mind engages in it on some level. Whether it is caring for elderly parents, children, friends, or animals, we all do it both as caring actions and in thought. As a practice, compassionate activity is a powerful antidote to our ingrained and cherished sense of separateness. The simple act of acknowledging the need or suffering of another is expansive. It moves us beyond mere self-absorption to concern for another. In a very real sense, the scope of our consciousness enlarges. It also has the effect of opening us to deeper, more potent energetic resources.

As the scope of our service expands, so too does our awareness and connection to genuine power. In the case of those we regard as the “Great Ones”, their awareness and inclusion has come to embrace humanity as a whole. This is the power of Conscious Compassionate Activity — that it leads to Unity, Oneness, Non-separateness, Truth.

Having built a container by Elevation of the Mind, having opened the flow of intuitive insight by Experimenting with Quiet, through Conscious Compassionate Activity, we direct the overflowing wealth of understanding and power to others — in Buddhist terminology, “to all sentient beings”.

Although any time is the best time to begin, the deeper effects of practice reveal themselves over time.

Self-transformation, human regeneration, yoga are different words for one process. It is not involved in spiritualizing oneself, or “becoming” spiritual. In its simplest description it is the removal of the obstacles to an inherent, ever-present, indwelling spirit. Yoga is not about positions, breath, or exercises. Rightly understood and practiced it is literally about “union”. The goal and end result of its practice is described in the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali as “chitta vritti nirodha”, literally “the cessation of the modifications of the mind”.

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This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 145 NO. 7 APRIL 2024

The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.

To read the APRIL 2024 issue click HERE

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