The Human Journey
Quest for Self-Transformation
(Slightly edited from the original print version)
By Joy Mills
© The Theosophical Publishing House
Adyar, Chennai 600 020, India
The pivotal doctrine of the esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.
(The Secret Doctrine, Vol. I, p. 17)
To obtain life in human form is said by the Buddhist to be the greatest privilege. The same concept has been expressed by ?ri ?ankarâchârya in his classic work on Vedânta, Viveka Chudâmani, often translated as “The Crest Jewel of Wisdom.” There it is said: “Among sentient creatures, birth as a man is difficult of attainment. . .” (Chatterji, Mohini M., Viveka Chudamani, verse 2). But just what can be meant by such statements? What is it to be human? Much has been written in recent years about the dehumanization of our human condition by the technological devices that we have created. Many voices are being raised in protest against a view that would categorize us either as an animal, albeit a superior one, or as a machine, however skillful in operation. Very much really depends on how we define our humanity and ourselves.
The Jewish theologian, Dr Abraham J. Heschel once stated: “Every generation has a definition of man it deserves” (Who is Man? 1965, p. 23). He added: “It is characteristic of the inner situation of contemporary man that the plausible way to identify himself is to see himself in the image of a machine” (Ibid, pp. 23–4). We might add, “a machine with interchangeable parts.” Our contemporary dilemma lies in the fact that we usually frame our definition in terms of what rather than who a person is. Our “what-ness” places us in the category of things, but being human is really a process in which we are constantly engaged. It is a journey towards knowing, feeling, and comprehending more; towards a transformation that will carry us beyond ourselves. It is a journey in which the very process of travelling is not distinct from the unfolding awareness of our own mystery—the beautiful and awesome mystery of being human.
According to Laurens van der Post, Dr Carl Jung once said: “The core of the individual is a mystery of life, which is snuffed out when it is ‘grasped’….True understanding seems to me to be one which does not understand, yet lives and works . . .” (van der Post, C. G. Jung and the Story of Our Time, 1975, p. 122). It is by living and working that we ultimately define ourselves as human. It is through this process that we come to know ourselves as truly human. The search for human identity has been the subject of great literature, art, and philosophy throughout the ages. It has been central to every religious tradition. It forms the foundation of all great mythologies. In all cultural systems, sooner or later the human enters on the stage of existence. Then things become different; something not altogether explicable happens. There is a stirring, a shaking, a “never-again-the-same” quality as life takes on purpose and meaning.
To approach an understanding of our human identity, we may begin by acknowledging the various facets that compose our individual identity. We have physical bodies with their unique characteristics; we have feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. In times of deep inner reflection, moreover, we have an awareness of something more: something beyond yet near; something neither wholly of ourselves nor wholly other; something indefinable yet real and true.
H. P. Blavatsky, in setting forth the perennial philosophy, defined the human as a saptaparna, a seven-leaved plant. The seven “leaves” or principles, as they are generally called, are variously given in theosophical literature. We may narrow our definition to that which is essential for us to be truly human. This includes the two highest principles: Âtman, the universal Self, and Buddhi, its spiritual soul or consciousness. (HPB termed the combination of Âtma-Buddhi as constituting the Monad or the Pilgrim). As HPB stated: “. . . the two higher principles, can have no individuality on Earth, cannot be man, unless there is (a) the mind, the Manas-Ego, to cognize itself, and (b) the terrestrial false personality, or the body of egotistical desires and personal will, to cement the whole, as if round a pivot to the physical form of man” (The Secret Doctrine, II, p. 241).
Essentially, three factors are involved in understanding our human state: (1) the Monad (Âtma-Buddhi), which expresses itself through (2) the mind—or the entire psychological nature, which, in turn, functions through (3) a “terrestrial . . . personality.” The focus of our human journey towards Self-realization is at the central point of manas or mind. Here the true battles are fought and won. Here is the field of choice where the great decisions must consciously be made. The power of conscious choice is truly a human characteristic. Not only must we face the consequences of our choices, we must recognize that others cannot make our choices for us. Many scriptures echo this fundamental truth. As one writer has put it, if we fail to exercise this power, we “shorten the stature of our soul.”
It may be suggested that the central lesson of the Bhagavad Gitâ is not so much that Arjuna must act as that he must act out of his own choice. He must reach his own decision and understand the basis on which his action rests. For Arjuna—symbolic of each one of us—longed to have someone else solve his dilemma. This, the Divine Teacher (?ri Krishna) could not do. Indeed, no true teacher can ever solve the problems confronting the student. The Immortal Charioteer in each of us can but give us the vision—the true perspective of comprehensive understanding. On that vision we may base our choices intelligently and with dispassion. As the Viveka Chudâmani reminds us:
The nature of the one reality must be known by one’s own clear spiritual perception and not through a pandit . . . the form of the moon must be known through one’s own eye. . . .
Who but oneself (Âtman) is capable of removing the bondage of avidyâ, kama, and karma . . . even in a thousand million kalpas. . . .
Disease is never cured by [pronouncing] the name of medicine without taking it; liberation is not achieved by the [pronunciation of the] word Brahman without direct perception (Op. cit., verses 56, 57, 64).
To give further emphasis to the central task of our journey, we may briefly turn to another and perhaps even more useful classification of the human principles. In discussing the septenary classification that she favored, HPB also presented a tabulation of systems adopted in various other schools ( The Secret Doctrine , I, p. 157). Commenting specifically on the Târaka Râja Yoga classification, she stated that “for all practical purposes [this] is the best and simplest,” adding that “though there are seven principles in man, there are but three distinct upädhis [bases], in each of which his Âtmâ may work independently of the rest” (Op. cit., p.158).
The word upâdhi (from the verbal root dhi), which means “to hold” or “to nourish,” is generally translated as “container” or “receptacle.” But it also has the connotation of something that imposes limitation and gives qualification to that which is being held, nourished or contained within it. Therefore, the three upâdhis through which the universal (Âtman) becomes particularized both limit and nourish the One Consciousness in its individualized expression. These three upâdhis are given as:
- Kâranopâdhi, spiritual soul or Buddhi, the base which provides the principle of causality;
- Sukshmopâdhi, or the mind, including kâma rupa, the body or form of egotistical desires, as well as of volitions and feelings, the word sukshma itself meaning not only subtle, precise, intangible, but carrying also the connotation of the subtler principles relating to the psychological nature of the human being;
- Sthulopâdhi, or the dense physical with its etheric and prânic aspects, the word sthula meaning that which is tangible, gross, bulky, and therefore referring to the perishable body which has mass and weight, the vehicle in which the human and spiritual soul is invested for an incarnation.
While this examination of the principles of the human constitution may seem not only very technical, but also far removed from our immediate enterprise as human beings, its unique importance will become evident when we consider further that HPB explicitly stated “. . . there exists in Nature a triple evolutionary scheme for the formation of the three periodical upâdhis; or rather three separate schemes of evolution, which in our system are inextricably interwoven and interblended at every point. These are the Monadic (or spiritual), the intellectual, and the physical evolutions” (Op. cit., p.181). Elucidating this doctrine, Dr G. de Purucker pointed out that these three lines “are coincident, contemporaneous, and fully connected in all ways: an evolution of the spiritual nature of the developing creature taking place on spiritual planes; an evolution of the intermediate nature of the creature (in man, the psycho-mental part of his constitution); and a vital-astral-physical evolution, resulting in a body or vehicle increasingly fit for the expression of the powers appearing or unfolding in the intermediate and spiritual parts of the developing entity” ( Man in Evolution , Chapter 5, pp. 54–5).
To complete the picture, HPB added: “Each of these three systems has its own laws, and is ruled and guided by different sets of the highest Dhyânis or Logoi. Each is represented in the constitution of Man, the Microcosm of the Macrocosm; and it is the union of these three streams in him, which makes him the complex being he now is” (The Secret Doctrine, I, p. 181). Actually, it is we alone who unite in ourselves these three streams of evolution. We do so through that specific factor which marks us as human—the presence of manas. Manas is the principle which makes self-consciousness and (therefore) choice possible. It is to this principle that we must give the utmost attention, for to betray its promise is to forfeit our humanity. To refuse to think is to deny our human condition.
The battleground is the field of conscious choice. This is the road we will travel. For indeed there is a road, as HPB is reputed to have said. Though it “is steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind,” it is still a road, “and it leads to the very heart of the Universe.” To travel on that road is to risk all, but this is the glory and the agony of the human journey. It is also the “pathless Path” and it is for each of us to “seek out the way.” Again, to use HPB’s words: “For those who win onwards 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” (For the full statement, see Collected Writings, vol. XIII , p. 219).
Let us turn our attention then to the human journey and the path that lies before us. In her exposition of the fundamental propositions on which the occult doctrine itself is based, HPB directed our attention to the work involved:
The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. (The Secret Doctrine, vol. I, p. 17)
Relating this essential teaching to the threefold evolutionary stream, we may suggest that three primary processes are involved. First, there is reincarnation, by which the developing consciousness sheaths itself in successive vehicles appropriate to the awakening life within. Secondly, there is metempsychosis, by which the psycho-mental constituents of our nature are inwardly transformed by “personal effort and merit” into the likeness of the “Heavenly” or archetypal “man.” [see footnote 1] Thirdly, there is the “process” (which is no process, but a full awakening) that we may call Enlightenment—when the spiritual nature stands fully revealed in its awesome splendour.
These processes are indeed “coincident, contemporaneous, and fully connected in all ways,” because they relate to three kinds of time. Reincarnation takes place in chronological or linear time. Linear time enables us to speak of past and future lives. It allows us to say, “This is my present incarnation.” Metempsychosis occurs in mythic time. It has the “once-upon-a-time” quality of all myth and allegory in which transpires the hero-journey of the soul. In mythic time, a beginning is possible at any moment in terms of linear time. One does not need a new incarnation to undertake the quest for self-transformation. The eternal quest is begun the moment the choice is made to take the road that leads to the “heart of the universe.” And Enlightenment (which, as stated earlier, is not a process) takes place outside of time altogether. It is the “now” which is always—that “now” which can enter the world of time at any moment, as the experience of the Buddha clearly showed. It may be ascribed to what has been called mystic time—that time beyond time, that timeless moment in which total transformation occurs.
It has become axiomatic to say that today we stand at the crossroads. Today is a time of transition and even —of violent change. Old patterns of life no longer suffice to meet the crises of the present. On our decisions today will rest not only our own survival as human beings, but the survival of all life on the planet. There are many who cry out that we have already chosen the fatal fork in the road and are well along the way to self-destruction and world-annihilation. If that is so, then what we need most urgently is the courage to retrace our steps. We then need to return to the treacherous junction by facing the consequences of our old choices (our karma) and start anew on the genuine road that leads to our goal.
Myth and fairy tale are replete with examples of those who took the wrong turn and found themselves, as did Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , in a “slough of despond.” They had to extricate themselves in order to retrace their steps, but all the while living with the results of unhappy choices until they could once again set out on the great journey with renewed strength. All about us may be signs that we are embarked on the wrong road. Sometimes we act very much like passengers on a bus, chattering away about our own petty concerns and the trivialities of existence. We never look out the window to see where we are going, heedless of the terrain across which we are traveling. We are fully content to leave the driving to someone else.
But when we finally do awaken to the direction we have been taking or to the fact that we have been drifting aimlessly without clear direction, we realize that we can take a hand in determining our destination. As all the great myths relate, we then must begin in earnest on the hero journey of the soul and, like Ulysses of old, we set out
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars. . .
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
. . . that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
[see footnote 2]
Our work—the human opus—which has been clearly depicted in religious scriptures as well as in myth and legend is to take up the human journey—the quest for self-transformation. The forces that are arrayed against us are no longer those that would enslave the body, but those that hold in bondage the mind and heart. We ourselves set these forces in motion through all our past unconscious wanderings in the wastelands and deserts of ignorance. We must win through to our immortality, as The Secret Doctrine makes amply clear. Just one quotation may suffice as illustration of this point:
The Doctrine teaches that in order to become a divine, fully conscious god—aye, even the highest—the Spiritual primeval INTELLIGENCES must pass through the human stage. And when we say human, this does not apply merely to our terrestrial humanity, but to the mortals that inhabit any world, i.e., to those Intelligences that have reached the appropriate equilibrium between matter and spirit, as WE have now . . . Each entity must have won for itself the right of becoming divine, through self-experience. (The Secret Doctrine vol. I, p. 167)
A lonely journey it may be, yet we are never alone. If we will but look, the signposts are clearly marked by generations of Adept Teachers. “Awake, arise” is the call heard through the Upanishads. “Follow me” is the injunction of the Christos. Our journey is from the everyday self through the Self to the One Self. As HPB put it in The Voice of the Silence :
Saith the Great Law: In order to become the KNOWER of ALL-SELF thou hast first of Self to be the knower. To reach the knowledge of that Self, thou hast to give up self to non-self, being to non-being. And now thy self is lost in Self, thyself unto Thy self, merged in that Self from which thou first didst radiate. (Fragment 1, verses 19 and 90)
The mode of travel by which our journey is accomplished is that of metempsychosis—a doctrine sadly misunderstood and misinterpreted, unless viewed in the light of the occult philosophy. HPB’s reference to it as an essential element in the achievement of our humanity is clear evidence that the doctrine refers to the necessary psychological transformation that must take place if we are to win our immortality. Reincarnation alone is insufficient to achieve the goal set before us. The mere accumulation of existences—whether seven hundred or seven thousand—can no more make of us a god than eating forever the leaves of one special plant will transform the caterpillar into a butterfly. Indeed, the process of metamorphosis that certain organisms undergo is analogous to our task of metempsychosis, except that ours must be undertaken in full conscious awareness. Hence it is that HPB speaks of a “long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.” As suggested earlier, the latter occurs in linear time, while metempsychosis operates in another dimension of time altogether—what many writers have called “mythic time.”
The pathway to such transformation lies in the willingness of each one of us to plunge into the mysterious depths of our own human identity. This process—as we shall see—has been well defined in every tradition and mythology. It is the age—old hero (or heroine) quest of the encounter with the dragons of the psychic realm, the shadows and complexes about which contemporary psychology has so much to say. As it was for Dante , it may well involve our descent into hell (facing all the karma of our own past) before an ascent can be made. It is the mystic quest of the medieval alchemist in which the pure gold of the spirit must be distilled from the crude material of the personality. In religious terms, it is spoken of as liberation, salvation or enlightenment. It involves the redemption of the human spirit, the liberation of the one true Self that ever abides in all beings. The Way of metempsychosis is both simple and difficult. It is fraught with danger but also filled with ecstasy.
Metempsychosis has been usually translated as “changing soul after soul” and has been a symbol for the passing of the ego during successive incarnations into human bodies. Yet the term contains a much more profound meaning. Essentially it refers to that evolutionary stream which HPB defined as “intellectual” (manasic) or, more properly, the kâma-manasic stream compounded of thought, choice, reflection, desire and volition. In brief, the doctrine of metempsychosis refers to the adventures that befall the soul.
As the doctrine is fundamentally Platonic, it can best be understood in light of Plato’s concept of the soul. Here it may be recalled that HPB spoke of the Platonic philosophy as “the most elaborate compendium of the abstruse systems of old India” and of Plato as “the greatest philosopher of the pre-Christian era [who] mirrored faithfully in his works the spiritualism of the Vedic philosophers who lived thousands of years before himself, and its metaphysical expression” (Isis Unveiled , vol. I, page xi).
An examination of the Platonic doctrine will amply justify the thesis that metempsychosis is an essential process relating to our psychological (or intellectual) evolution and that its importance for us today cannot be overlooked. For it is truly in the change of humanity’s consciousness wherein lies the hope for peace and the full recognition of our brotherhood with all. Therefore, metempsychosis should neither be confused with the process of reincarnation nor dismissed as an alternative term for transmigration. Each term has its own unique significance in the total evolutionary development of the human.
Throughout Plato’s dialogues , the responsibility of the individual soul is emphasized. In the Phaedo, for example, Socrates tells his listeners: “. . . if the soul is really immortal, what care should be taken of her, not only in respect of the portion of time which is called life, but of eternity! And the danger of neglecting her from this point of view does indeed appear to be awful.” (The Dialogues of Plato, trans. by B. Jowett, vol. II, p. 255) Again and again Plato stresses that the soul brings judgement upon herself by her own actions when through ignorance or passion she transgresses the Divine Law, or when by her own efforts she turns from the depths of misery to ascend the heights of spiritual realization. The Platonic myths found in the Timaeus the Phaedo , the Phaedrus , and the Symposium all deal beautifully with the nature of the soul and the choices confronted on her journey through birth and death, as well as her final restoration to her true home.
As the editors of the Shrine of Wisdom text, The Human Soul in the Myths of Plato, point out, “. . . when Plato speaks of the souls of men changing into the souls of animals, this must not be taken to mean that the human soul becomes literally the soul of an animal, but rather that it lives in a purely natural manner, content only with the things of the body and without energizing its more divine faculties.” Herein lies the key to the true meaning of metempsychosis: in a fundamental change of consciousness. It involves a change from being attached to desires and passions to a state that reflects the awareness and understanding of unity flowing from the spiritual realm. In theosophical terminology, it is a change—a metempsychosis—from manas imprisoned and enslaved by kâma to manas inspired and enflamed by buddhi.
Thomas Taylor, the great eighteenth century Platonist so frequently quoted by HPB, stated the principle involved very clearly in his introduction to Plato’s Timaeus: “Again, when our souls are represented after falling to the present body [reincarnation] as suffering a transmutation into brutes, this, as Proclus beautifully observes, must not be understood as if our souls ever became the animating principles of brutal bodies [the usual concept of transmigration of the human into animal forms], but that by a certain sympathy they are bound to the souls of brutes, and are, as it were, carried in them . . . .” More explicitly, Plato records Socrates in the Phaedo as saying that “. . . such as are addicted to gluttony, arrogant injuries, and drinking, and this without any fear of consequences, shall enter into the tribes of asses and brutes. . .” while “such as hold in the highest estimation injustice, tyranny, and rapine, shall enter into the tribes of wolves, hawks and kites.” According to the Platonic doctrine, the outer form reveals the characteristics which the manner of our life dictates. Karma is truly inexorable! And only a change from within—a complete reversal implied by the term metempsychosis—can carry us forward into the truly human and onward into the fully spiritual state. It should be noted that for Plato only those devoted to philosophy could be assured of rebirth in human form! To be human, we must act in a human manner.
The ease with which the human state can be lost is nowhere better illustrated than in the dramatic account of metempsychosis The Transformations of Lucius, which was written in the second century AD by Lucius Apuleius, a brilliant adherent of Neo-Platonism. This work is often published under the title The Golden Ass . Thomas Taylor, in his introduction to the central myth of that work, called Apuleius “the greatest of the ancient Latin Platonists,” although he was still “inferior to any one of that golden race of philosophers of which the great Plotinus stands at the head.” Both Taylor and later commentators on Apuleius’ text present evidence that it was not “invented” by him, but rather was based on far older sources. Apuleius’ text represented a continuation of the ancient mystery schools—Mithraic, Dionysian, Egyptian, and others—while Apuleius himself had certainly been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.
Our current interest in this remarkable text, however, lies not in what it has to tell us about the mystery traditions of past ages, but rather in its remarkable relevancy to our present situation. Presently, there is an urgent necessity for a true change in consciousness—the redirection of thought from its outer entanglements to a realization of human unity and brotherhood. And the story that Apuleius told is that of the human journey that every individual must take today—even at the risk of losing human status. Only a profound metempsychosis can bring about a world at peace with itself.
The story that Apuleius related is much intermixed with extraneous elements which form “blinds” to the essential meaningfulness of the tale. So it is that genuine occultism has always been veiled in allegory and symbol, as HPB stated clearly in The Secret Doctrine. She herself so often pointed to the role of myth and symbol, as well as allegory and legend, in veiling the true secrets of existence. Ultimately, as one of her Adept Teachers pointed out in a letter to A. P. Sinnett, “the Secrets are incommunicable. The illumination must come from within.” (The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letter 20, chron.) In The Golden Ass, we have the story of a young man, Lucius (whose name itself means “light”), who sets out on a journey to his mother’s home—a very apt symbol for both the return to the abode of Sophia, the eternal wisdom, and to his own inner or spiritual soul. Lucius encounters numerous adventures en route and meets people of all stations in life and of all occupations. Interspersed throughout the novel are countless tales—sometimes amusing, sometimes instructive, and sometimes even disgusting. [Many translations of the work exist, but for a modern English rendering the best is by the English poet, Robert Graves. There is an excellent commentary by the well-known Jungian psychologist, Dr Marie-Louise von Franz, A Psychological Interpretation of the Golden Ass of Apuleius.]
On his first stop on the journey, Lucius meets a young attractive girl by the name of Fotis, a word that also means “light.” But it is reflected light, and it is through her—and his infatuation with her—that Lucius is transformed into an ass. Wearing an ass’s head, Lucius is now able to say only “hee-haw,” although his inner consciousness is left untouched by the outer appearance. Accordingly, the tragedy of the losing our essential humanity is compounded when we realize the extent to which the máyávic realm of reflected light has led us astray. Our identification with our desires and attachments to sensory illusions so often makes fools (asses, we may say) of us! So it is that the contemporaneity of the story is dramatically illustrated. How many today are “bewitched” (as was Lucius) and driven off course by the lure of psychic powers which Fotis claimed to have. As The Voice of the Silence reminds the aspirant:
Beware, Lanoo, lest dazzled by illusive radiance thy soul should linger and be caught in its deceptive light. This light shines from the jewel of the great ensnarer (Mára). The senses it bewitches, blinds the mind, and leaves the unwary an abandoned wreck. (Fragment 1, vv. 33–4)
How many today—young and old alike—are blinded by the dazzling light of the pseudo-occult, by promises of quickly gained psychic abilities, or by their own search for self-gratification? Like Lucius, they figuratively (if not literally) wear asses’ heads as a result of their bewitchment. Truly, Lucius is but one figure in an ancient line of personified principles representative of the Anthropos—the man who in all ages represents every individual human in the quest for wholeness. And, of course, Lucius (as well as all other representatives of Anthropos) becomes lost on his journey through his own selfish desire for power. Parsifal is another example as the Grail legends tell us the same story. The Gnostic tradition is replete with references to the “Light-Man” (the personified principle of light) who must undertake a journey into the Stygian darkness of matter. From those depths, he must liberate the original being within through a process of inner transformation and return in full Self-consciousness to the kingdom of light. From the Rig Veda description of the primordial Purusha through all the myths of countless cultures, through the Gnostic, Hermetic and alchemical traditions to Dante’s recounting of his journey through the underworld to the Paradise of Light, the image of Lucius has lived on into our own time, whether consciously recognized or simply unconsciously experienced.
Today, the astrological image of the Aquarian period provides a graphic symbol of the eternal Anthropos. It reminds us that the task of the human in this age is to become conscious of the larger inner presence which is the central point of our being: the Monad, or Âtma-Buddhi. Through the process of “soul-making” (or metempsychosis) we must preserve lest we lose our humanness. Like Lucius, we must ourselves remove the ass’s head by eating the rose—a symbol of self-sacrifice that Lucius was told was the only cure for his “disease.” And further, we must stand naked—to be without any false coverings that hide the true immortal Self. The process is ever the same—an inner transformation by which the human soul is awakened to its true nature. And it is always (as HPB stated in defining the “pivotal doctrine of the esoteric philosophy”) through “personal effort and merit” that we proceed on the human journey that leads to the ultimate transcendence of the human condition.
The question inevitably arises as to the means by which metempsychosis is accomplished. If it is by “personal effort and merit” as HPB stated, what is the nature of that effort? How may we engage in such a work while in the midst of our ordinary lives? The method by which soul transformation is accomplished has been variously defined. In The Key to Theosophy, HPB referred to the process of theurgy or “divine work.” That term is very old and is part of the vocabulary of the mystery traditions. And, as HPB stated in a footnote (see Abridgement of the Key to Theosophy edited by Joy Mills, p. 2), theurgy “was a mystic belief—practically proven by initiated adepts and priests—that, by making oneself as pure as the incorporeal beings—i.e., by returning to one’s pristine purity of nature—man could move the gods to impart to him Divine mysteries. . .” So, what does this mean in very practical terms?
Returning to the story of Lucius as told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass, we may find some interesting clues that will help us understand the work to be undertaken. In the course of his adventures, Lucius falls in with some robbers (a symbol of those who willfully transgress the law). The robbers hold in bondage a young girl by the name of Charite (symbol of the buddhic nature of compassion held a slave by those elements that are attached to worldly wealth). To comfort both Lucius and Charite, an old woman (who is trying to reform the robbers) tells them the classic fable of Amor and Psyche. Of that fable, Thomas Taylor wrote that this fable “was designed to represent the lapse of the human soul from the intelligible world to the earth” and the subsequent “redemption” of the soul by her own efforts. The soul (or Psyche) is the bride of Amor (pure Love). Psyche is filled with an intense desire to see the form of Amor precipitated on earth. This is symbolic of our thirst for sentient existence that results in our taking incarnation in accordance with karmic law. Psyche wanders in search of Amor, but she is told that there are four tasks she must accomplish before she can be reunited with her “god.” It is in these four difficult labors that we find clues to the human journey, which must be undertaken to achieve our ultimate goal—our conscious union with the divine soul (or Monad) within. Moreover, it is here on earth in physical incarnation that the metempsychosis must be effected.
Let us explore the four tasks that lay before Psyche. In one way or another, they symbolize the fourfold work faced by every aspirant engaged on the human journey towards Self-transformation. Couched in the language of myth and allegory, these four labors may be given many interpretations, but they point clearly to the nature of the inner work we have before us.
The first task that Psyche must perform is the sorting out of a hopeless muddle of seeds. A mound of barley, millet, peas, lentils, and beans is placed before her. She is told she must separate and arrange them. In this task, she is called upon to discover within herself what we may call an ordering principle. At the outset of the return journey, we have to learn the lesson of discrimination. If there is within us a hopeless muddle—a tangle of ideas and mixed-up emotions—we have to put ourselves in order. We have to sort things out and understand what is important and what is not, what is true and what is false. This is never easy. We can risk losing ourselves in the hopelessness of the task—which means we do nothing—or we may risk choosing the wrong values and thereby creating a worse muddle.
In the fable, Psyche is happily able to perform this task through the help of some ants that come to her aid. The ants represent a kind of instinctual ordering principle, while the seeds may be said to represent the spiritual germs of higher qualities potentially present within us. Those germs need to be nourished if the higher qualities would fructify in our lives here and now. But care must be taken to discriminate between the nurturing of spiritual seeds and the desire for material or psychic powers!
Psyche now faces her second task, which is to gather a hank of wool from some sheep whose fleece shines as gold. Those familiar with various Egyptian and Greek myths will recall the symbology of the ram and legends of the golden fleece. In this labor, the occult significance becomes somewhat more complex. To put it simply, we may note that the ram or sheep is associated with the zodiacal sign of Aries and suggests aggressive impulsiveness and powerful emotional drives. In our story, Psyche is aided by a reed which tells her that she will have no problem if she waits until the sun has gone down; then the rams who have become quite frenzied in the blazing fury of the noonday sun grow quiet and approachable. So it is that only when the emotional nature grows calm that we are able to pluck from it the golden fleece or golden treasure which represents the essential values of the emotions.
Here, the lesson to be learned is that the emotions are not to be killed, but are to be brought into a state of calm where they may reflect the light of buddhi. Then we must know the right moment when we can “pluck” the treasure. The reed, which helps Psyche, is an Egyptian symbol for secret knowledge conveyed by the inner voice as a whisper, much as the passing air does as it quietly passes through an open reed. Both ants (which appear as helpers in the first task) and reeds are often used as symbols of the small hints of truth that come to us when both body and emotion are quiet. Only when we bring our outer nature into an orderly and silent state, can we hear the whispers of truth that come from the realm of the Spirit.
The final two tasks given to Psyche reflect the increasing difficulty of treading our human journey. For it has been truly said, “the road winds uphill all the way.” The third task given to Psyche requires her to fill a crystal bottle with water from the spring that feeds the rivers Styx and Cocytus, the streams of the underworld. Here again she is given aid for the fable relates that the eagle of Zeus takes the bottle, fills it with the water and brings it back to Psyche. To explore the full significance of this symbolism would require volumes and we suggest only a few ideas that may be helpful. As thought is given to the work assigned to Psyche, further aspects of this labor unfold themselves. It may be apparent that the confluence of the two streams represents the union within us of the highest and the lowest, the spiritual and the material, the stream itself representing that vital energy known in occult literature as kundalini. The eagle of Zeus, the highest of the gods, may be said to represent the high-soaring flight of intuitive spiritual perception, while the crystal bottle is often considered a symbol of manas or the mind, into which the creative energy (kundalini) is to be poured. As indicated by the very risky nature of the task, all of this is truly a very tricky business. More than one person attempting the arousal of kundalini has fallen into the river Styx, which is to say, has been destroyed and figuratively—if not literally—lost their soul. For it is psychic suicide to play about with those energies represented here as the streams of the underworld which could be misused or abused for personal, egotistic and materialistic ends. Today all too many are beguiled by the desire for power or the glamour of psychic phenomena, thus falling into the “rivers of the underworld” and losing all in the end. To fill the vessel of the mind with the truly creative energy of buddhi requires a pure life, an intuitive spiritual perception, and insight born of compassionate understanding.
While aid is given to Psyche in accomplishing the first three tasks, there is no assistance given for the fourth labor set before her. Now must she descend alone into the underworld. That descent is mirrored in many myths and legends of countless cultures throughout the world (the crucifixion of Christ in the Christian tradition is but one example). Now Psyche is to enter the underworld, unaided, in order to retrieve the box containing divine beauty—the ointment or oil of spiritual life. She is told not to open the box, but inevitably she does and immediately falls into a deep slumber only to be awakened by Amor. Again, the symbolism is so rich with significance that one needs to ponder long on the various aspects of the task assigned to Psyche, the soul.
First, she goes alone with no help as provided in the previous tasks. Ultimately, we must take the human journey for ourselves. And here in the “underworld” of dense, physical matter, we must find the box of beauty—the box that contains the life-giving ointment of the Spirit. Here in physical incarnation lies buried the supreme secret that must be uncovered in order that the soul may be transformed into a new life of Love, Beauty, and Truth. The soul has fallen into a slumber and needs to be awakened into that new existence in which all egoity has disappeared and one knows oneself as truly one with all life. The human soul is to be transformed into the spiritual soul. Âtman and physical are known as one. This is the profound mystical experience. Love, Beauty, and Truth are here in this very world of illusion. Unless they are found here and revealed here through our lives, they will not be found anywhere. In the final metempsychosis, the self or soul that was must die if the Immortal Self is to be born.
Thus the tale of Amor and Psyche may be told in terms of our present human condition. It is the age-old story of the work to be undertaken—a work that cannot be denied if we would awaken to our full human potential as gods in the becoming. In today’s world where guru-production has become almost an industry and where the concept of meditation has too often been cheapened by the marketing of techniques demanding no personal effort, we may overlook the age-old truth that those who would gain liberation cannot escape the labor necessary to bring about the transformative process.
In our scientifically sophisticated age, we may dismiss the recipes and formulae of the medieval alchemists as superstition. We may dismiss the tales and myths of ancient cultures as fanciful imaginings. But theosophical insights unveil the psychological and spiritual truths hidden in all of these past tellings. Whether known as yoga in the east or the ancient art of alchemy in the western tradition, the theurgical task is still before us if we would win our immortality. In today’s psychological jargon, it may be called self-actualization or individuation. Whatever the name assigned to the human opus, we are dealing directly with the psycho-mental transformations which constitute the hero journey of the soul.
Mr. A. P. Sinnett, one of the early members of the Theosophical Society and the recipient of numerous letters from HPB’s own Adept Teachers, wrote of the royal art of spiritual regeneration:
The transmutation of the normal physical consciousness of man into the divine consciousness was the magnum opus on which the true alchemists were engaged, and much that is grotesque imbecility in the directions and recipes they have left behind, if we read it simply as nineteenth century chemists, becomes beautiful spiritual philosophy in strictest harmony with the laws governing human spiritual evolution, when we put a symbolical construction on the quaintly expressed formulae relating to coctions and distillations and the mercury of the wise and fiery waters and ferments (A. P. Sinnett, The Growth of the Soul; for HPB’s own comments on the subject, see her article “Alchemy in the Nineteenth Century,” Collected Writings, vol. IX).
While we have used the stages depicted in the fable of Amor and Psyche (as retold by Apuleius in The Golden Ass) to symbolize the work before us today on our human journey, we could equally have alluded to the stages outlined in all alchemical texts and to which HPB often referred in her writings. Both depictions emphasize the psychological implications of the process before us. For HPB, who clearly restated for our time the principles of the mystery-tradition, stated explicitly that the next developmental stage in our evolution would have “more to do. . . with psychology than with physics. . . ” (The Secret Doctrine, II, p. 135). To repeat, the focus of our work today is at the psychological level, the second of the three streams of evolution. It involves dealing with the intellectual or kâma-manasic field of operation within us where the process to be undergone is known as metempsychosis. This is the critical area of the psycho-mental complex where the battle for the preservation of our humanness is waged. As said so often by HPB and her successors, as well as by her Teachers, it is a change in consciousness that is required today. And it is this message that is being repeated by many of the leading thinkers of our time. Consciousness, or intelligence, is primary. Only a profound change in consciousness can bring about those changes in the world that will halt our nearly willful destruction of the planet.
The divine alchemy of individual transformation brings about as a logical consequence the transformation of the world. The ancient yet ageless road of self-ransformation must be taken today in full awareness of the theurgical task before us. There is no other way to go. If we ourselves are in darkness, the world cannot know light. Within ourselves are met all the possibilities for world destruction or world redemption. When we know how to bear the pain and burden of the world’s sorrow, we will know how to transmute that sorrow into supreme joy. “Thou art enlightened—choose thy way,” says The Voice of the Silence (Fragment 3, verse 310). Recall the Upanishadic verse:
From the unreal lead me to the Real.
From darkness lead me to Light.
From death lead me to Immortality.
Yet there is no one to lead us on the human journey, unless we lead ourselves. For the road “admits no privileges or special gifts” in us except those we have earned out of our own struggles, failures, and successes through all of incarnate experience. And if there is no one to lead us, there is also nowhere to be led. For even here and now, the opened “box of beauty” containing Love, Truth, and Goodness are all about us. We have but to open our eyes to see. The passage that is the human journey is won by our own efforts through numberless external existences and countless internal transformations. When we have won through, as win through we must and will, we shall truly see the Real embedded in the unreal. We shall behold the Light shining through all that is now dark and we shall know our Immortality in this transient moment of time.
One day, in that mythic time of ever-nowness will come the climax of our journey so beautifully portrayed in The Voice of the Silence:
Behold, the mellow light that floods the eastern sky. In signs of praise both heaven and earth unite. And from the fourfold manifested powers a chant of love ariseth, both from the flaming fire and flowing water, and from sweet smelling earth and rushing wind. Hark! . . .from the deep unfathomable vortex of that golden light in which the Victor bathes, ALL NATURE’S wordless voice in thousand tones ariseth to proclaim:
JOY UNTO YE, O MEN OF MYALBA.
A PILGRIM HATH RETURNED BACK FROM THE OTHER SHORE.
A NEW ARHAN IS BORN. . .
(Fragment 3, vv. 311–5)
Fare forward, Pilgrim!
The term 'Heavenly Man' occurs in many places in The Secret Doctrine
, and deserves special study study by the earnest student. An excellent analysis was provided by the late E.L. Gardner in his small work The Heavenly Man: the Divine Paradigm
published by the Theosophical Publishing House, London, in 1952.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
; the full poem may be found in many anthologies, as well as in Tennyson's collected works.
Apuleius. (Robert Graves, trans.), The Golden Ass: The Transformations of Lucius
. USA: Penguin Books, 1950.
Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Writings
. Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977-91. Isis Unveiled
. Wheaton, Ill: TPH, 1972. The Key to Theosophy
. Wheaton, Ill: TPH, 1972. The Secret Doctrine
, Adyar, India: TPH, 1888. The Voice of the Silence
. (Golden Jubilee Edition) Adyar, India: TPH, 1953.
Bunyan, John. (N.H. Keeble, trans.), Pilgrim’s Progress
. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Chatterji, Mohini M. Viveka-Chudamani
. Adyar, India: TPH, 1947.
De Purucker, G. Man in Evolution
. Pasadena, California. Theosophical University Press. Second and Revised Edition, 1977.
Gardner, E.L. The Heavenly Man: The Divine Paradigm
. London: TPJ, 1952.
Hao Chin, Vicente, editor. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett
. Chronological edition. Quezan City, Philippines: TPH, 1993.
Heschel, Abraham J. Who is Man?
Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1965.
Jowett, B., trans., The Dialogues of Plato
. London: Oxford University Press, 1931.
Sinnett, A. P. The Growth of the Soul
. London: TPH, 1896.
Shrine of Wisdom, ed., The Human Soul in the Myths of Plato
. London: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1936.
Taylor, Thomas. The Cratylus, Phaedo, Parmenides, Timaeus and Critias of Plato
. Minneapolis, U.S.A.: The Secret Doctrine Reference Series, Wizard Bookshelf, 1975.
van der Post, Laurens. C. G. Jung and the Story of Our Time
. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
von Franz, Dr. Marie-Louise. Psychological Interpretation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius. USA:
Spring Publications, The Analytical Psychology Club of New York, Inc. 1970
The text is available as a booklet from the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois. Phone: 630-665-0130 Web: www.questbooks.net