Thinking versus Reading
[From the PATH, June 1888, pages 88-92]
JASPER NIEMAND F. T. S.
© 2007 Online Teosofiska Kompaniet Malmö
The opinion of theosophical students divides in respect to reading. There are those who consider the chief source of learning is study, while others deprecate reading and urge us to confine our efforts to ”living the life.” The truth is that both methods combine. They serve different departments of the same end. By study – especially of scriptures – we form more ideas of what ”the life” may be and in what way we shall live it. By living it, we correct all mistaken ideas. We shave and prune the excrescence of the mind.
We apply spiritual (impersonal) ideas in daily life. We study how we may hold to them amid the practical routine. We discover them within material conditions and things. We put forth effort to develop them. Doing so through the spiritual will, we broaden our nature and alchemize it into spiritual essences and powers.
Nothing is wholly material. If it were, it could not exist. It could not cohere for an instant. Spirit is that mysterious force which is within all things, enabling them to ”live” or advance through successive changes. In Bhagavad-Gita we find that Purusha and Prakriti, or Spirit (energy) and Nature, forever conjoining.
All the powers existing in the macrocosm having also their various specific seats in man, it follows plainly that, if we wish to evolve more rapidly by means of these powers, as the universe also evolves by them, we must think and think within ourselves. These forces are under the guidance of will, thought, and knowledge. (In Sanskrit, they are Itchasakti, Kriyasakti, and Gnanasakti. See page 110 of Five Years of Theosophy.) Reading will never enable us to reach them. Thinking may put us on track.
Examine this question of reading. What is it that we do when we read? It is not reading to repeat, parrot like, words that we instantly forget like the infant class over its primer. The eye encounters certain words and conveys an idea to the brain. Is this all that happens? For certain persons, it is all. They accept this idea as a form, a crystallization representing ascertain state of things. If it attracts them, they retain and quote it. Otherwise, they dismiss it. In either case, it is totem finality.
They have their brains stored with such formulas. They have never lived them out, even in the mind. They do not really know the idea represented by this form of words at all. The fancy or prejudice has been tickled by mere sound. This is so much useless lumber. Show them what some of their favourite ideas really involve if carried out and they will cast them aside in disgust or dismay. Depreciate this sort of reading along with the kind undertaken to ”pass time.”
They do not see that an idea is a seed that, once planted, should sprout and grow. They do not see that all ideas have a specific, energetic life of their own, proportionate to the idea's vitality or truth. None but occultists know that thought has a power of self-reproduction, bearing a thousand-fold for use or misuse. Occultists know of its insidious and tremendous power. Part of the vital energy and real being of a writer diffuses throughout every page. This is true even of printed works, affecting readers as a psycho-magnetic entity.
Every thought modifies the mind. It energizes according to the nature of those thoughts, diffusing a pernicious, weak, or beneficent force about us. Forcing thoughts upon the mind too rapidly, we gorge it; we give ourselves mental dyspepsia and an unhealthy condition, not only in the internal organ called mind, but also in the physical organs that quickly respond to its condition. A habit of the mind soon forms and like the dyspeptic, it craves abnormal quantities of food, alternated with periods of sluggish inertia.
Moreover, the mind habituates to certain stimuli. If we feed it long upon novels or excitement, it will reject healthier food. Something within us, knowing and striving to make us know, takes advantage of the vibration set up in the mental (and through that to the outer) man to transfuse his understanding with more light. This is a greater reason for a careful choice of reading.
This something, this soul, leaps up within us, touched by the current flowing from those thoughts, and asserts of them, ”Theyare true” or ”They are false!” Thus, books may help us tore member or recall what we have lost. No man to whom life is sacred will wish to expend those energies of which life consists in any idle fashion, developing the lower forms of those energies when the higher are equally at his command.
How shall we read? When we have reason to believe that the writer knows somewhat of his subject, we may assume a receptive attitude. Where such is not the case, we cannot usefully read atoll. We may not judge our author. He may have found truths unsuited to us now, or teach them in ways that we are unfitted to pursue. This being so, we shall do well to avoid what is at present unhealthy nourishment.
Where we feel attracted and read, we receive the idea into our minds. Submitting ourselves passively to its influence, note what impression stamps upon the sensitized plate within. The true character of the idea is felt rather than intellectually cognized, and by such a study of the interior impression, we receive the verdict of the hidden judge. We need dread no Vehmgericht [a secret tribunal of old] but this; by it, all stands or falls. To attain this end, we must hold ourselves still. The outer self must maintain an attitude of suspended judgment. Otherwise, our mere personality comes up with quips, cranks, whims, opinions, and loves, drowning the inner voice with its racket and hubbub.
Another way of utilizing ideas is to assume their merit and to study wherein that merit may possibly consist, what fine ray has escaped our grosser sight. For example, I quoted to a comrade this line: ”We must be ready to say at any moment, in whatever circumstances, whether expected or unexpected: ’It is just what I in fact desired’.” [See PATH for February 1888, page 328]
My comrade replied that this appeared to him hypocritical. If he lost an arm, for instance, he could cheerfully submit, but he could not in truth say that he desired that accident. This objection has a surface correctness. Had he read with an assumption that the line must have some truth in it and had he examined it in that belief, he would doubtless have found its true bearing. Such personal exertion opens up a mind and nourishes it as no artificial injection can do.
That true bearing is that the reincarnating soul has chosen those circumstances most needed for its evolution. To work out that evolution, we must work through our Karma. There is no other way. Hence, my Higher Self or real self did in fact desire just that body and all its Karmic circumstances and life as necessary experience for my soul now. The soul has to pass-through all experiences, and though i may not desire them, I does. We can base no true statements upon the assumption that the personality or even the lower principles of the soul are the real ego at all.
There is again another point we guard against in reading books other than sacred writings, whose inner meaning we strive to assimilate. It is the reverse of the one above stated, cautioning us against too great mental hospitality. It is the danger of basing our faith upon the personality of the writer.
If we do this, were he the Jove of Theosophy himself, we may receive injury rather than benefit. We may have good reason to believe him knowledgeable. Has he has assimilated that knowledge? This is again another question. An initiate will have done so, and the real value of his writings is in his being the truths that he gives out. He is himself the word and the sign of his degree.
Only as far as he has lived out his knowledge and become it can he impart it beneficially to his readers in turn. Otherwise, he runs the risk of presenting partial Truths through the medium of his own personality, tinging them thereby. In this way, with the best will in the world perhaps, he gives to students himself. He does not give the Truth, only his warped edition of it. As an occult fact, we can only gives ourselves and no more; hence, to give Truth we must be it.
Herein lays the value of the writings of initiates, ending with those of our beloved Madame Blavatsky, who alone has dared to speak plainly to her era. The movement she inaugurated and the wellspring of teachings she opened for us to draw upon have been the means of renown for many writers who, without her initial courage, had never won an audience or a name. Even as one of thievery least of these, I say, ”May we never forget the debt!”
Were all readers forewarned and ready to discount the personality, this danger lessens. Such discrimination in these matters is a spiritual quality not yet generally found among men. It is a power of the soul, a more or less direct perception of Truth. It behooves the writer desirous of serving mankind to look well to his words, to the form in which he imprisons the Truth he has found. It behooves the writer to strive earnestly only to give forth as much of it as he embodies in his life, as much as he has become.
We do great harm by the spread of brain and lip knowledge, to be proven false supports by suffering men. Better that we take the tone of suggestion than that of authority. We may have touched upon our higher powers without having fully raised the nature totem. While we are but man, we only see by glimpses. Then the veil falls again. I would preface all writings with the request that the reader guides himself by his own natural selection largely.
Many writers, too, have come into this life with a special task to perform. They have something to say or to give. When done, their usefulness to humanity is over. They seem then to have outlived themselves long before their bodies pass into the ranks of the unseen and their virility and life-giving power have departed. We often see this fatal high-water mark in the life of the poet, the painter, the leader we followed and loved. We see that he can never surpass it, that he has touched his highest state for this incarnation. To remain there is impossible. Nature decrees that he advances or recedes. There is no standing still.
Who has set this fatal limit? We see clearly that the man alone has done himself this wrong. It is Karma, but a type of Karma of his own making. Some pass beyond that limit to intellectual greatness. In doing so, they pass beyond our ordinary sight, joining the silent workers in the Lodge of Truth. Our only indication of their progress is that they have never fallen lower than the great level where we last saw them standing. They have never followed up their words of power by the impotent babble of senility.
Few indeed are these men, for ”Many are called, but few are chosen.” They are those who have a Karmic stock of spiritual energy sufficient to flood them over the crisis. They use their highest intellectuality as a steppingstone to that which lies beyond intellect and above thought.
Lesser men suffer. They have done and sacrificed much. They donor understand why people no longer snatch their words from their lips and pass them along to the expectant throng eagerly. It is because their words are vain repetitions. They no longer speak living, winged things.
The speaker has not renewed his thought. He has fallen to worshipping his own methods. He makes an apotheosis of his present knowledge instead of reaching up to the realms of real life for new, vital essences. Thought, however broad, follows circle at last. In that circle, the speaker runs like a squirrel turning a wheel with puerile activity.
As a man thinks that he has done or sacrificed something, he should see his mistake. Deeds happen through him, not by him. His so-called sacrifice was an opportunity to rise to greatness. Only his half methods limit it to a sacrifice. Some cry out in despair that it was better to do nothing at all. I would not say that. The irresistible waves surge onward, bearing us to ascertain point. We may lie there long. Still, we can never lose this progress. Pity that we should not arise and go further, not waiting for the next tide.
These considerations show us that disagreements between theosophical writers are often unavoidable. The writers are batmen and women. It is to our advantage to use our discriminative powers, strengthening them by use so we do not injure ourselves by these differences. We harm ourselves more if we stake our faith upon any one or several writers. When our idols crumble, and crumble they must, we often end up in the dust beneath them, stunned and wounded by their fall.
”Let a man learn to bear the disappearance of the things he washout to reverence without losing his reverence.” Emerson never wrote a truer word. We are instruments in mighty hands. If we turn our edge, we must expect them to lay us aside. Refrain from solidifying our thoughts into a system and our reports of Truth into dogmas. We should not dazzle ourselves even by the highest heavens, but must worship Truth alone.
The problem for both writer and reader consists of eschewing mere forms, to look beyond words to the principles they represent faintly. A man represents one or more universals. His thought should do the same. He will never mislead while he gives us these. Looking for nothing less, we will never misunderstand him.
All reading is useless as far as spiritual progress is concerned. We cannot progress upon the above lines. If they limit your reading, they will extend your thinking. So much the better, for thinking is the path toward becoming.
”What a man thinks, that he is. This is the old secret,” say the Upanishads. There is a way of taking a thought and brooding overt as a bird broods on the nest. By this method, the true thought hatches out, manifesting itself to us. We must apply these thoughts to the touchstone of our own souls. Reading and thinking are not to be divorced. They should be one act. Then each would correct and equilibrate the other.
My last word upon the subject I say emphatically. Never receive and pass onward a thought that you do not feel and understand. On this point, accept no authority other than your own soul.
It is better that you seem to lose a ray of Truth than to acceptant deflect it by a want of understanding, by a want of assimilation of it. If it were yours in the Law, you cannot lose it. It will come to you repeatedly until you receive it. Take then what your nature selects until you reach a point where you can rise above nature. When you reach this, you will not need tread any longer, except from the wonderful book of life and from those blessed Scriptures wherein the Divine has spoken to the ages through men who had attained some share in His being.
JASPER NIEMAND F. T. S.