The Theosophical Society in America

To Be Is To Be Responsible

By Joy Mills

Originally printed in the MAY JUNE 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Mills, Joy. "To Be Is To Be Responsible." Quest  95.3 (MAY-JUNE 2007):
87-91, 99.

Joy Mills

Freedom, responsibility, new frontiers: three ideas that call for considered thought and contemplative exploration. What is it to be free? Is freedom really possible, and if so, what constrains us? To what extent are we responsible? For what or for whom are we responsible? What of new frontiers? Are there really new frontiers, not geographically, but spiritual frontiers of consciousness? And if so, how do we move from the old toward the new, the unexplored? Approaching these three concepts—freedom, responsibility, new frontiers—we are assailed by many questions, none of which have easy answers if we are truly serious in exploring each of these concepts deeply. 

Let us begin with responsibility; not an easy idea to examine, for generally we do not like the word or its connotation. And to suggest that simply to be, is to be responsible seems to imply a greater burden than we may care to shoulder. Looking out upon the world and the crises facing humanity today, surely we are not responsible for the conditions we see all about us. War, poverty, ecological disasters, hatred, fear, greed: the litany of woes seems endless and has been recited so often that we have become nearly inured to its message. And the thought that you and I might be personally responsible for even a fraction, let alone all of the problems confronting the world today may seem beyond the limits of reason.

Before proceeding further, let us consider a number of words and ideas related to the notion of responsibility. For example, rather than accepting or denying responsibility for any of the problems just enumerated, I might ask instead: How do I respond to these woes? What is my response and at what level of my being am I responding; from the heart, from the head, or from some deeper part of my being? What is it to be responsive? And what is my ability to respond?

These are not simple questions, particularly if I view the universe as an interdependent whole and see all humankind as truly interrelated, and an integral part of the web of life. From such a perspective, pulling on any strand of that vast web will cause the entire web to vibrate, to respond. In this sense, responsiveness is an inherent characteristic of existence. To respond is to acknowledge responsibility. The degree or extent of that response will determine the degree of responsibility.

In a talk I once gave, I suggested that within ourselves, we each harbor the seeds of anger, greed, hatred, and so on, and that the correlates of these seeds affect the world around us. During the discussion that followed, an audience member asked whether I thought, or implied, that as individuals either one of us was responsible for a recently occurring earthquake. This is a difficult question to answer, when one considers the matter deeply.

True, as one individual I did not cause the earthquake, but the question remains to what extent do I, as an integral part of life everywhere, contribute—through my thoughts or feelings—to disturbances on the planet? Today, one might ask to what extent am I responsible for the tsunami which so devastated parts of Southeast Asia, India, and Sri Lanka. Certainly the responsiveness of people around the world attests to a feeling akin to a sense of inner responsibility, even for natural disasters.

At the time, there was less evidence for, or at least less discussion of, the interconnectedness of all things than there is today. However, one of the most exciting books to appear recently is by the philosopher scientist Ervin Laszlo, who was a member of the Editorial Board of the journal, Main Currents in Modern Thought, the publication initiated by Fritz Kunz and edited at one point by Emily Sellon. In Science and the Akashic Field, Laszlo begins with a definition of akasha as "the womb from which everything we perceive with our senses has emerged and into which everything will ultimately re-descend," and examines in detail what he terms "the puzzle-filled world of the mainstream sciences" and then proposes that the "established concept" can only be "transcended" by "a new/old concept: the informed universe, rooted in the rediscovery of ancient tradition's Akashic Field as the vacuum-based holofield" . To quote Laszlo further:

The informed universe is a universe where the A-field [his term for the Akashic field] is a real and significant element. . . .All that happens in one place happens also in other places; all that happened at one time happens also at all times after that. . . .All things are global, indeed cosmic, for the memory of all things extends to all places and all times. . . .the truly remarkable feature of the informed universe . . . is that everything that happens in it affects —"informs"—everything else... (p.16)

Students of Theosophy may be reminded of a statement in the first letter of one of HPB's teachers, the Mahatma K. H., to A. P. Sinnett in which the Englishman is told that "without a thorough knowledge of Akas, its combinations and properties, how can Science hope to account for" the many phenomena that caused Sinnett to inquire about their source. How many of us have sought to understand the full meaning of akasha, even to the extent that HPB discusses it in The Secret Doctrine? If the age-old concept of akasha is being invoked today by so well-known and respected a scholar as Dr. Ervin Laszlo as a possible explanation for many, if not all, of the so-called anomalies in the field of science, then it certainly behooves us to recognize that such a universal field exists as the basis for the interconnectedness of all things. Akasha is not only the very fabric of the universe, but it is also a living, dynamic information or informed fabric to which we apply the term consciousness.

In citing the accumulation of evidence for what Laszlo refers to as the "nonlocal connection between the brains and minds of people," Laszlo quotes the well-known physicists David Bohm and Henry Stapp. Bohm wrote in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, "Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one. This is a virtual certainty because even in the vacuum matter is one; and if we don't see this it's because we are blinding ourselves to it".

Next, Laszlo quotes from an article written by Stapp two decades after Bohm titled "Quantum Physics and the Physicist's View of Nature," "The new physics presents prima facie evidence that our human thoughts are linked to nature by nonlocal connections: what a person chooses to do in one region seems immediately to affect what is true elsewhere in the universe. This nonlocal aspect can be understood by conceiving the universe to be not a collection of tiny bits of matter, but rather a growing compendium of 'bits of information.'"

Finally, Laszlo concludes, "The information field that links quanta and galaxies in the physical universe and cells and organs in the biosphere also links the brains and minds of humans in the sociosphere" (p?). And, I would certainly add, the same information field—akasha—links the physical universe, the biosphere, and the sociosphere, so that nothing in any domain of existence stands apart from anything, for all is rooted in consciousness.

Having begun rather in the middle of our exploration of being and responsibility, let us now return to the beginning. It is my thesis that the two terms, being and responsibility, contain the essential message of the theosophical worldview and constitute the central theme and thrust of H. P. Blavatsky's work, The Secret Doctrine, as well as her spiritual guidebook, The Voice of the Silence. For the human entity, to be is to be responsible. Being is responsibility, since to be human at all implies choice and choice entails responsibility for the consequences of one's choices. If indeed we live in a universe, which is also a holo-verse, an in-formed as well as an informed universe, in which every part reveals the presence of the whole, we are not only self-responsible by the very nature of our being, but "everyself-responsible." Now let us set the stage for an understanding of these statements.

H. P. Blavatsky is reported to have told her students (as recorded in the notes of one of those students, Commander Robert Bowen, and so often called the "Bowen Notes"), "...existence is ONE THING, not any collection of things linked together. . . .The Atom, the Man, the God are each separately, as well as all collectively, Absolute Being in their last analysis, that is their REAL INDIVIDUALITY. It is this idea which must be held always in the background of the mind to form the basis for every conception that arises from the study of the SD".

Emphasizing this concept still further, HPB added, "...It is clear that this fundamental ONE EXISTENCE, or Absolute Being, must be the REALITY in every form there is." The universe is indeed a holograph or holofield, to use Laszlo's term, in which each part reveals the presence of all. Further, the theosophical worldview recognizes that from this primary fact of one existence present in every existent thing there arises an ethic at once challenging and glorious, the ethic of oneness which is compassion or love. The informed universe is one rooted in compassion, and that constitutes the responsibility of being.

Between being and responsibility is a link which we may call becoming, the process that involves us and all life in growth. As The Secret Doctrine postulates, the very process of manifestation comes about through an interior polarization within the One and such a polarization, giving rise to the poles we call Spirit and Matter, brings into play that which links them, the dynamic or dynamism which makes possible growth, development, and the continual process of becoming. This, in brief, recapitulates the Three Fundamental Propositions on which The Secret Doctrine is based. Stated in terms of our human experience: we are, which is Be-ness, our undivided and essentially inexpressible be-ing; we are always in process, Be-coming; and linking our Be-ness and our Be-coming is the journey, which HPB calls "the obligatory pilgrimage through the cycle of incarnation or necessity." And that journey, says HPB, is dependent upon "self-induced and self-devised effort," with no special privileges or gifts save those we win for ourselves. It is a journey in becoming ever more responsive to all of life, awakening at every step a greater sensitivity to respond. As our ability to respond deepens and widens, so our awareness of our respons-ability toward all that exists grows ever stronger.

Though I may not have caused an earthquake or a tsunami, my thoughts and feelings of anger, greed, prejudice, and self-concern must contribute in some way to so in-forming the universe as to have their effect in some measure across time and space. So also my thoughts and feelings of goodwill, love, compassion, and understanding must contribute to this informed universe of which I am an integral part.

To be is to be responsive; to be is to be responsible. Here is an undeniable truth for the earnest Theosophist. Consider, for example, the words of HPB in her Introduction to The Secret Doctrine, words written well over a century ago, but applicable to today's world:

The world of today, in its mad career towards the unknown—which it is too ready to confound with the unknowable—is rapidly progressing . . . on the material plane of spirituality. It has now become a vast arena—a true valley of discord and of eternal strife—a necropolis, wherein lie buried the highest and the most holy aspirations of our Spirit-Soul. (xxii)

Could any words be more descriptive of our contemporary world? HPB's call to disentomb those "holy aspirations" is as relevant today as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. Here lies the new/old frontier that defines the challenge before us: To recall humankind to a true knowledge of its origins and destiny, to awaken to our responsibility, to live a life wholly responsive to the world's pain as well as to its joy. Christmas Humphreys, the well-known Buddhist scholar and Theosophist, once suggested that the two major themes found in The Secret Doctrine concerned "the purpose or meaning of life" and "the living and intelligent law which pervades and controls the smallest part of it." These two themes, I propose, are from and encapsulated within the simple words: To be is to be responsible.

Drs. John Briggs and David Peat, in their perceptive analysis of contemporary scientific theories which are today producing a revolution in so many fields of thought, put the matter thus in their fascinating book, Looking Glass Universe: "Nature herself is a web of living energy, each object a mirror made up of strand upon strand of all that is".

The "intelligent law" to which Christmas Humphreys referred as undergirding the process, the law which is inherent in the "web of living energy," or the Akashic Field described by Ervin Laszlo, has been called by many names; karma, the law of equilibrium or adjustment, the law of harmony and the law of compassion. It is intelligent because the universe itself, rooted in consciousness, is consciousness.

Without becoming lost in the myriad details concerning the manifestation of a universe from or within the One Ultimate Reality which can never be fully known or described in the language of a limited intellect, we may focus our attention on the central principle of Being as Becoming. The Nobel Prize-winning theoretical chemist, Ilya Prigogine, has introduced into scientific thinking the concept known as dissipative structures, or far-from-equilibrium forms, as one of the fundamental factors governing nature. Without elaborating on this concept, we may note that Prigogine has postulated that the laws of dissipative structure give shape not only to space but also to time, and as one writer has therefore stated, these laws move the universe "from being to becoming." Drs. Briggs and Peat put this in a different way in their book, "For the dissipative structure, being is becoming". In effect, this agrees with Bohm's concept that in the implicate/explicate order, being is being since, according to that theory, being (or the implicate) is ever unfolding (becoming explicate). We cannot speak of being without implying becoming; to be is to grow, to change, to move, and we can no more deny the process of becoming than we can deny the fact of our being, which is central to the process.

HPB speaks of the fact that " was not 'created' the complete being he now is, however imperfect he still remains," (SD, II, p. 87), and then she reiterates a statement made in Volume I, "...there is a spiritual, a psychic, an intellectual, and an animal evolution." While this idea may seem strange to those unfamiliar with theosophical doctrine, it brings meaning and understanding to the customary scientific view of biological evolution as the sole process of becoming. HPB continues her explanation of human development or becoming by referring to "...the one absolute, ever acting and never erring law" by which the entire process is carried forward, that law to which we have already referred and which involves the "obligatory pilgrimage," in accordance, as HPB states, with the "absolute universality of the law of periodicity." In the human stage, a further factor is added as we know, the factor called "self-consciousness," which inevitably indicates the way in which we influence the process of becoming.

To recapitulate the Second Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, in the human stage of development there is added to the "natural impulse" of the evolutionary drive which for aeons has governed the process of becoming, the key factor already spoken of as "self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma)." (SD, I, p. 17) The Buddha, unconcerned with the whole spectrum of evolution, placed this factor of "self-induced...efforts" in the context of human life as the law of moral responsibility, and in the Pali canon of Buddhist thought the whole process by which the single life-force uses a succession of forms (Prigogine's "dissipative structures") is described as "karma in action." What we may call the "self" or pilgrim is, then, denominated "a discrete continuum of karmic impulse." [Need attribution of this quotation.]

It may be useful, at this juncture, to explore a bit further the term "pilgrim" as used in the esoteric tradition, a term that implies both being and becoming. In the context of The Secret Doctrine, the term is used to designate "our Monad (the two in one) during its cycle of incarnations. It is the only immortal and eternal principle in us, being an indivisible part of the integral whole—the Universal Spirit, from which it emanates, and into which it is absorbed at the end of the cycle." (SD I, p. 247) Consequently, HPB points out the difficulty of language in describing that which is and yet is always becoming:

Metaphysically speaking it is of course an absurdity to talk of the "development" of a Monad, or to say that it becomes "Man." . . . It stands to reason that a MONAD cannot either progress or develop, or even be affected by the changes of states it passes through. It is not of this world or plane, and may be compared only to an indestructible star of divine light and fire, thrown down onto our Earth as a plank of salvation for the personalities in which it indwells. It is for the latter to cling to it; and thus partaking of its divine nature, obtain immortality. Left to itself, the Monad will cling to no one; but like the "plank" be drifted away to another incarnation by the unresting current of evolution. (I, 174-5 fn.)

Further, HPB points out that for what we may term essential Being, the emergence or radiation of Be-ness as the ultimate, the Monad "...requires (a) a spiritual model, or prototype...; and (b) an intelligent consciousness to guide its evolution and progress..." (I, 247) The latter, the "intelligent consciousness," is supplied we are told by "the two middle principles," Manas and Kama, or the psychological ego in its nature as kama-manas, now truly the "pilgrim soul" engaged in a journey: "It is now no more a passage of the impersonal Monad through many and various forms of matter . . ..but a journey of the "pilgrim-soul" through various states of not only matter but self-consciousness and self-perception . ." (I, 175). So it is that Being emerges as Becoming. The external passage through forms is matched by the internal journey that confronts the awakening consciousness. This leads us to an awareness that the mighty rhythm of the vaster life of the universe is also our own inner rhythm. And it is through knowing our intimate and indissoluble link with the universe and all that it contains that we awaken to our responsibility in being and in becoming human.

Now it may seem that we have wandered far from our central thesis: that to be is to be responsible. Yet to understand this thesis, we need to recognize the process by which the journey of becoming, as indicated in the Third Fundamental Proposition, has taken place. We cannot really separate the three terms, Being, Becoming and Responsibility. Interlinked and interwoven, they are the three strands of a single thread met in the human as the "microcosm and miniature copy of the macrocosm . . . the living witness to . . . Universal Law and to the mode of its action." (SD, I, 274) For, declares The Secret Doctrine, ". . . all in Nature tends to become Man. All the impulses of the dual, centripetal and centrifugal Force are directed towards one point— MAN. . . . Man is the alpha and omega of objective creation" (II, 170). HPB further defines the man-stage or our human stage as the "Presence of the Unseen Principle throughout all nature, and the highest manifestation of it on Earth" (II, 555), adding in summation:

Man is certainly no special creation, and he is the product of Nature's gradual perfective work, like any other living unit on this Earth. But this is only with regard to the human tabernacle. That which lives and thinks in man and survives that frame, the masterpiece of evolution—is the "Eternal Pilgrim," the Protean differentiation in space and time of the One Absolute "unknowable." (II, 728)

To be, then, is to become; and for us as humans, to be is finally to be and become responsible. As Christmas Humphreys stated the case, ". . . who is at the heart of this intelligent, ever-living process . . . save man, save each one of us? Since each disturbance [or Harmony] starts from some particular point, it is clear that equilibrium and harmony can only be restored by the reconverging to that same point of all the forces which were set in motion from it. That point is each of us. Hence utter and complete responsibility of every man for all that each man thinks and wills and does".

Mahatma K. H., writing to A. P. Sinnett in the early days of the Theosophical Society, spoke of man as "the one free agent in Nature" quoting then these most beautiful lines:

Since there is hope for man only in man
I would not let one cry whom I could save!

And in the same letter, Mahatma K. H. wrote of "Humanity . . .the great Orphan . . .," stating very clearly our responsibility: ". . .it is the duty of every man who is capable of an unselfish impulse to do something, however little, for its welfare" (49).

So we return to a consideration of that great law of moral responsibility. Far from being a pawn in a game I cannot control, a plaything of fate, I come to recognize that I have a part, a significant part, in making things as they are; I contribute, in however small a measure, to every circumstance in which I, and indeed all of humanity, participate. Consequently I can unmake or remake the circumstances of life, when and as I choose to bring about change in myself. We have learned to call the law by the name of karma, but we may also call it the law of equilibrium or the law of harmony, for as HPB wrote: "The only decree of karma—an eternal and immutable decree—is absolute Harmony in the world of matter as it is in the world of Spirit." (SD, I, p. 643)

Yet the concept is far more than one of ethical causation, with its simplistic corollary that "it pays to be good." If karma (or compassion) is, as The Voice of the Silence proposes, the "law of laws," then all things, all events, and every particle of our present being is karma and karma-made.Seen from one point of view, karma appears as destiny; perceived from another angle, it is harmony disturbed and seeking its own natural rhythm, with the disturber "fated" to adjust or attune that which has been thrown into discord. From this perspective, karma is opportunity as well as challenge. Since there is but one existence and the universe itself is but one vast web of interconnecting and interrelated energies, the disturbance of any thread of the web must have repercussions throughout the entire fabric. How accurate was the vision of the nineteenth century poet, Francis Thompson:

All things by immortal power
Near or far,
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without the troubling of a star.

As mentioned previously, that vision is being echoed today by so many contemporary scientists, including the late Dr. David Bohm. In his early classic physics text, Quantum Theory, Bohm wrote: "Quantum concepts imply that the world acts more like a single indivisible unit, in which even the "intrinsic" nature of each part (wave or particle) depends to some degree on its relationship to its surroundings".

Many other thinkers, scientists and philosophers support this realization of the interconnectedness of all life and all events, corroborating a view held by the ageless wisdom we now call theosophy. It is in light of this realization that we must accept responsibility for our every act, feeling, thought, word, and gesture. It is for us to work with that principle which HPB called, in The Key to Theosophy, the "Ultimate Law of the Universe," adding that it is the "source, origin and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature."

As I have suggested, if we are intent on calling this law karma, we must come to know that its true name is compassion, for as we read in The Voice of the Silence, "Compassion is no attribute. It is the Law of Laws, eternal Harmony . . .the light of everlasting right . . ."

So whether called harmony, compassion, or karma, each term defining some aspect of that universal law, the principle is the same and it encompasses more than can ever be expressed in words. It is a law that brings us both freedom and bondage: bondage, in that we are held within the web of life itself, and freedom, in that as human beings we have the magnificent power of choice over how we shall think and act in affecting the web at every moment.

The lasting and essential message of The Secret Doctrine, and of the theosophical worldview, lies in the emphasis given to our ultimate responsibility as human beings in a universe of order, purpose, and meaning. As I have said before, responsibility means the ability to respond, and as human beings, our response should no longer be automatic, reactionary, or instinctual. We must know what we are doing; we must take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. How we respond is determined by the values we hold, by the principles to which we give allegiance and by what is truly important and significant for us.

In one of the most moving sections of The Secret Doctrine, "Cyclic Evolution and Karma," (Vol. I, pp 634 et seq) HPB enjoins the theosophical student to examine "the esoteric bearing of the Karmic Cycles upon Universal Ethics." For this, she says, we must "begin acting from within, instead of ever following impulses from without. . . " Then she continues:

. . . the only palliative to the evils of life is union and harmony—a Brotherhood IN ACTU, and altruism not simply in name. The suppression of one single bad cause will suppress not one, but a variety of bad effects. And if a Brotherhood or even a number of Brotherhoods may not be able to prevent nations from occasionally cutting each other's throats—still unity in thought and action, and philosophical research into the mysteries of being, will always prevent some. . . from creating additional causes in a world already so full of woe and evil. (I, 634 et seq)

To engage in that "philosophical research into the mysteries of being" of which HPB wrote is one of the greatest challenges before us. Inevitably such research leads and encourages us to recognize our most profound responsibility, to move, as the Buddhist philosophy would say, from the path of seeing to the path of practicing that which has been seen. With Henry David Thoreau, we seek to "place the imprint of our immortality upon every passing incident of daily life." That is to bring what we are, essential Being, fully into the process of Becoming, with full responsibility for every moment on every day.

Knowing who and what we are, and with our destiny in our own hands, we are at peace within and have the courage to face the challenges before us. We may say with Thoreau, "I know the enterprise is worthy; I know that things work out well. I have heard no bad news." Can we really say this in a world so full of violence, hatred, and injustice? Yes, if we respond with love, with compassion, with understanding and sympathy, knowing that to be is above all to be responsible for our responses to everything and everyone who shares with us in this vast enterprise we call life.

Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980
Laszlo, Ervin Science and the Akashic Field, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004
Stapp, Henry P. "Quantum Physics and the Physicist's View of Nature." In The World View of Contemporary Physics, edited by Richard E. Kitchener. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.
Bowen, Robert. Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy or The Bowen Notes. Adyar: India, 1960
The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett (the chronological sequence)