“There is a Road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a Road. And it leads to the very heart of the universe." So wrote H. P. Blavatsky about the metaphorical road that leads to enlightenment. But how can any road lead "to the very heart of the universe"?
Such a statement will not seem impossible if we first consider the Theosophical view of what we really are as human beings and how we evolve through time. We human beings have a complex nature. We are, Theosophically speaking, a compound.
Clearly we are physical creatures, and just as clearly our physical nature has no permanence. It is said that every seven years our bodies consist of a totally new set of atoms. The physical body is thus in a constant state of change, dying once every seven years of our life. Yet the sense of self that we feel so strongly endures throughout our whole life. If that self were only the body, surely we would be a different person every seven years, but we are not. We are still the same self.
We also have an emotional nature that is in a constant state of change. It is subject to immediate changes from moment to moment, and over the years to gradual, even in some people transformative, change. The self that endures through these changes cannot be the emotional nature.
We also have a mind that has an extraordinary potential. Like the animals, we can use our mind to help us get what we want, but unlike the animals, we are capable of abstract thought and of self-examination. Changing thoughts run through our mind, and the way we view the world through our mind may change radically over the years or, in some cases, with a flash of insight.
Through all these changes, the self remains the same, and at the deepest level of our consciousness lies a most extraordinary power: the power of self-transformation. It is a power that inheres in what religion calls the immortal soul and what Theosophy calls the reincarnating ego. It is the Inner Self, the observer, the witness, consciousness itself, that endures through the changes. True, we can and do express ourselves through the body, the emotions, and the mind. Yet we can also observe our physical, emotional, and mental states.
Although our conscious attention is drawn by every fascinating or terrifying event in our lives, the pure consciousness called “self” is unperturbed by the objects before it. The Ancient Wisdom suggests that the enduring self inheres in the Eternal, in the "very heart of the universe." The self that we are is, as Walt Whitman said in “Song of Myself,” "both in and out of the game." We can stand apart and witness the whole process that we call "me," and we can change it.
If that is true, then we might ask why we do not identify with that Inner Self. We might just as well ask why we do not identify with our own personal subconscious. Psychologists know that our focus and our sense of self often block perception of the darker aspects of our own mind. Can it not be that our sense of self, that is, those experiences we call “self,” also block even deeper aspects of our own being from conscious experience? If so, then is it possible to bring that innermost self to full consciousness?
The esoteric teaching is that not only do matter and form evolve in our world, but the subjective states that include our emotional, mental, and spiritual natures also evolve. Through all the kingdoms, up to the human stage, evolution proceeds without self-conscious intervention. That is to say, it is a passive process not under the direct control of individual plants or animals.
At the human stage, that changes. Physical evolution has come to a halt. There is no evidence that new, more evolved, more capable, physical creatures will appear on our earth. The human form seems to be the final physical stage in our world. Evolution of the subjective domain, however, is far from complete. If there is to be any further evolutionary change in our psychological and innermost nature, we must bring that change about by conscious effort. Modern psychology recognizes that, if we wish to be free of neurotic behavior and resulting pain, we must make an effort to see the world in a different light and change ourselves. We cannot buy a psychological pill from the therapist with the assurance that if we take it we will live happy and productive lives. We must delve within ourselves, see ourselves, and seek new insights and ways of responding to the world if we are to become whole.
Curiously, our development tends to recapitulate the evolutionary process. As humans, we move through the passive states rather quickly in the womb and during infancy. Then we begin to gain mastery over each level of our being. At first, we identify with the physical body. We need to get some reasonable control of it at the beginning of each incarnation, as the race as a whole did in the distant past. Then the maturing process demands that we get a reasonable control over our emotions and that part of our mind closely associated with our emotions. We also develop our intellect, some only slightly, others very highly. Most stop there.
The wiser ones of the race sense, as Walt Whitman did, that we are not contained between our hat and our boots. There is an Inner Self that urges the conscious self to change, to develop, to reveal more of the potential that lies within, to gain mastery over the whole self at all levels of its expression. That Inner Self is Plato's charioteer, reining in the horses so that the charioteer is in charge rather than the horses.
The Inner Self has a purpose for each incarnation. We incarnate for a reason. We are not here only because of biological processes. In a single life, our own Inner Self determines to develop particular qualities and strengths. It strives to achieve positive results by overcoming resistance.
We readily accept that to develop muscles we must overcome the resistance of weight. What we do not realize is that the very same principle is applicable at the emotional, mental, and spiritual levels. Not only do we grow physically strong by overcoming physical resistance, we grow strong psychologically and spiritually by overcoming resistance.
Every human being experiences some emotional and mental anguish in life. We may worry about our financial security; sorrow over a lost love; have anxious concern for the well being of relatives, friends, or ourselves; or experience many other disturbing events and situations. It would be delightful if our problems would simply go away or others would take care of them for us. Yet deep down we know that we must solve our own problems. We must change ourselves, grow, develop, and become stronger without losing compassion. Even so, most of us change only when our weaknesses force us to do so.
The process is something like this. If we lack self-confidence, we may find ourselves dominated by others. We may even provide an opportunity for the unethical to take advantage of us. If we remain timid, we cannot adequately express our own potential. Lack of self-confidence results in frustration that eventually becomes more than we can bear. The resulting emotional pain may then force us to develop our own will and courage.
Those who are habitually angry soon alienate others and find themselves without friends. Loneliness may result. From being left out of social occasions, such individuals may learn to replace anger with patience, become more flexible, and even less self-centered.
If we tend to be disorganized, we find that we are inefficient. Our supervisors on the job discover this as well, and if we don't do something about it, we may find ourselves out of a job. Such karmic consequences force us to train our minds.
This process of being confronted by the consequences of our weaknesses and of our erroneous actions gradually leads to greater insight and character development. After a near incalculable length of time over many incarnations, this process eventually awakens the Inner Self to conscious life, and eventually to enlightenment.
There is, however, a more direct route--one that only the few dare to take.
Just as the outer evolutionary process proceeds by orderly, definable stages, so does the inner side of evolution in human consciousness. Most human beings travel the broad path that winds ever so slowly around the mountain toward its summit. A few take a more direct and arduous route, sometimes referred to as “the Path.” They take this difficult route, not out of desire for personal benefit, but from a one-pointed yearning to serve suffering humanity more effectively. Each step on this Path is marked by a major shift in consciousness--a kind of new birth.
The more difficult route has been called by various names in different mystical traditions. In China it is “the Tao,” in Hinduism “the Path of Initiation,” in Buddhism “the Noble Eightfold Path,” in Judaism “the Way of Holiness,” in Christianity “the Way of the Cross.” Plato described it in his analogy of the Cave, and in The Voice of the Silence, H. P. Blavatsky speaks of its stages as “portals.” All those sources indicate that it is difficult and dangerous but that, if successful, it brings reward past telling.
To enter the Path one must be consumed by, as Blavatsky puts it, "an inexpressible longing for the Infinite." In Biblical terms, one must "love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself." And one must be willing to face the dangers and hardships of the way ahead, and be willing to lose one’s life for the sake of the Infinite in order to find it in Life Eternal.
Nearly all traditions report that the personality must be purified. That is, we need to see and destroy habit patterns that are inimical to the development of the Inner Self. These habit patterns are not simply physical ones such as smoking or drinking. In fact, the more insidious ones are those that take refuge in the subconscious levels of our emotions and mind. They are subtle manifestations of self-centeredness that throw a mist over the conscious mind so that we are unaware of the motive behind our actions.
H. P. Blavatsky outlined the qualities she believed to be essential on the spiritual path in a simple, yet profound, statement entitled “The Golden Stairs.” They include a clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, and a valiant defense of those unjustly attacked.
From the pulpits of temples and churches, one often hears about the requirement to live a clean life. Indeed, that is important, but it is only the first step for those who want to press onward to what Blavatsky called "the Temple of Divine Wisdom." However difficult it may be to live a clean life, to develop the other qualities requires far more effort. In fact, they may take not only many years, but many lifetimes.
Theosophical sources tell us that entering the Path in earnest draws down upon us the karma of more than one lifetime. It concentrates the work--speeds everything up. Challenges that would ordinarily be spread over several lives are concentrated into one. Depending on the intensity and sincerity of our commitment, we are forced to confront and overcome many more difficult problems than would ordinarily face us. This intense acceleration of our karmic debt is what makes the Path, as mystical Christians call it, the Way of the Cross.
Speaking of this Path to an English newspaper editor, A. P. Sinnett, one of Blavatsky's teachers wrote:
You were told, however, that the path to Occult Sciences has to be trodden laboriously and crossed at the danger of life; that every new step in it leading to the final goal is surrounded by pitfalls and cruel thorns; that the pilgrim who ventures upon it is made first to confront and conquer the thousand and one furies who keep watch over its adamantine gates and entrance-furies called Doubt, Skepticism, Scorn, Ridicule, Envy and finally Temptation--especially the latter; and that he who would see beyond had to first destroy this living wall; that he must be possessed of a heart and soul clad in steel, and of an iron, never failing determination and yet be meek and gentle, humble and have shut out from his heart every human passion that leads to evil. Are you all this? [Mahatma Letters, no. 62, chronological 126]
Paradoxically, the very first steps on the Path do not seem so difficult. Rather, they tend to be joyous. One feels born into a new and higher life. In the scriptures and myths of various cultures one often finds allusions to the entrance and various stages along the Path. In Christianity the beginning of the Path is symbolized by the Nativity-a joyous time. Speaking of this first stage, Blavatsky (The Voice of the Silence, “The Seven Portals”) writes: "The road that leads therethrough is straight and smooth and green. ’Tis like a sunny glade in the dark forest depths."
The second portal is also somewhat joyous, but omens of difficulty appear. In Christianity it is the Baptism. In the Christian story, Jesus is now an adult and he must surely know that although he is beginning his mission, his life will not be easy. About this portal, Blavatsky writes: "And to the second gate the way is verdant too. But it is steep and winds up hill; yea, to its rocky top. Gray mists will overhang its rough and stony height, and all be dark beyond. As on he goes, the song of hope soundeth more feeble in the pilgrim's heart. The thrill of doubt is now upon him; his step less steady grows."
The third gate reveals the full extent of the future sacrifice. It is symbolized by the Transfiguration in Christianity. For the first time, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be taken from them and killed. He now fully knows his destiny. Symbolically, it is the personal ego that must die so that the divine Inner Self may rise from the dead. Blavatsky writes:
The more thou dost advance, the more thy feet pitfalls will meet. The path that leadeth on is lighted by one fire-the light of daring, burning in the heart. The more one dares, the more he shall obtain. The more he fears, the more that light shall pale-and that alone can guide. For as the lingering sunbeam, that on the top of some tall mountain shines, is followed by black night when out it fades, so is heart-light. When out it goes, a dark and threatening shade will fall from thine own heart upon the path, and root thy feet in terror to the spot.
The fourth and final gate is symbolized in Christianity as the Crucifixion. Blavatsky writes:
For, on Path fourth, the lightest breeze of passion or desire will stir the steady light upon the pure white walls of Soul. The smallest wave of longing or regret for Maya's gifts illusive, along Antahkarana--the path that lies between thy Spirit and thy self, the highway of sensations, the rude arousers of Ahankara--a thought as fleeting as the lightning flash will make thee thy three prizes forfeit--the prizes thou hast won. For know, that the ETERNAL knows no change.
Only through the death of the personal ego can the Divine Self come forth to reign. What appears to be death is in fact a gateway to the awakening of the Inner Self that inheres in the Eternal.
We may ask, with Christina Rossetti, "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?" The answer comes, "Yes, to the very end . . . my friend." We can make it to the end. But if we fail, we can try again and again until success comes.
Yet even if we shun the difficult Path and take the longer, more common route of evolution, it is helpful to remember that often the things that we think are important are, from the view of the Inner Self, completely unimportant.
The next time we get very upset over something, we might remember the little boy who would not eat his prunes at dinner. His mother told him that he had been very naughty. "People are starving in the world," she told him, "and you won't eat your prunes. God will punish you for this." Then she sent him to his room for the rest of the evening. About an hour later a terrible thunderstorm came, and she remembered what she had said to her young son. She ran upstairs to his room to comfort him and to explain that God was not punishing him by sending the storm. When she opened the door, she found him standing with his hands on his hips, looking out at the storm and saying: "Such a fuss for two prunes." Could it be that, however gigantic our problems seem, most of them are just two prunes?
As near-death experiences suggest, what is finally important is what we learn, how much we grow in strength, insight, compassion, wisdom, and self-mastery. Few other things matter much, and most things don't matter at all. They are just two prunes.
In Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, Prince Tamino was not concerned with small matters. He took the noble Path filled with danger. His bird-catching friend Papageno took the more common route. To him, a happy life with wine, food, and a loving wife was enough. Papageno was not wrong. He was a good man, but what was important to him was the cares and concerns of the personal self. The Prince was willing to make personal sacrifice to obtain the ultimate prize. He took the mystic Path to inner peace.
No matter which path we choose, when we pass through a difficult time, we might remember to dig within ourselves to find the resources, the strength, the hitherto unknown talent buried deep within our own selves, to solve the problem. For it is in the solving of a problem, meeting resistance head on and conquering it, that we grow.
The arduous trials and the luminous hopes of this mystic path to inner peace are succinctly expressed by Blavatsky in a short piece called simply "There Is a Road":
There is a Road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a Road. And it leads to the very heart of the universe.
I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inwardly only, and closes fast behind the neophyte forever more.
There is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer.
There is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through.
There is no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount.
For those who win onward, there is reward past all telling: the power to bless and save humanity.
For those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.
In this poetic form Blavatsky tells us of the difficulties, but she also assures us that there are no insoluble problems. We can succeed, if we will listen to one of her teachers, who wrote, “We have one word for all aspirants: TRY.”