The Theosophical Society in America

Thinking Aloud: Nothingness

By Radha Burnier

Small children are often asked by parents, friends, or neighbors, "What do you want to become when you grow up?" The child of course does not know what the question implies. Once a child answered, "I want to be a king," and when he was told he could not become a king, he declared, "Then I want to be a Field Marshal." Those were the days of the war, when there was much news about Field Marshals and Generals. There are many such childish fancies– as wanting to be a pilot flying a jet plane.

These childish notions about becoming something are, of course, innocent. But as time passes, innocent minds get conditioned, sometimes through persuasion but often under pressure, into thinking seriously about what to become and how to achieve. Their future, they are told, would be a hopeless failure otherwise. Thus, the sensitive minds of the young are hardened, and ambition becomes a driving, if not a destructive, force in their lives– of surroundings and of finer feelings. Present-day lifestyle makes a virtue of "being somebody," or "becoming" something, and success is regarded as life’s greatest purpose.

The drive to become somebody– distinguished politician, lawyer, or engineer– an obstacle to remaining whole, for specialization tends to condition and confine the mind in narrow tracks. Through repetitious, professional effort and training, habits are contracted: the teacher wants to explain everything (even the obvious), the auditor niggles, and the lawyer argues even when there is no case. The mold into which the mind is set does not permit spiritual qualities to blossom according to the innate and unique endowments of the individual.

Desire and ambition have a role in the evolutionary plan. They activate the mind, which would otherwise stagnate. But the activation entails the loss of innocence; it is the human "fall." Animals are innocent, whatever they do, because they have no conscious desire to achieve or become. They are themselves and therefore have a special charm, as do infants and small children. When motivated by personal desire, the mind becomes sharp and clever; it grows but loses that quality which makes the innocent so lovable. With increasing sophistication, desire turns from mere craving for food and basic necessities to fame, power, possessions, and ultimately what it imagines to be spiritual progress.

To "grow as the flower grows," unconsciously, is for most people a meaningless ideal; but the time must come when the mind is not merely capable and clever, but has also developed a certain clarity and thoughtfulness regarding nonpersonal questions. It then sees that ambition fathers manifold evils; while it sharpens the mind, it also makes it selfish; it teaches a person to invent and plan, without conscience, to be energetic but not compassionate. With the increase of intellect, spirituality diminishes.

Is a reversal needed? Can human advancement proceed along new lines, in a new direction? Light on the Path, a profoundly paradoxical Theosophical text, says, "That power which the disciple shall covet is that which shall make him appear as nothing in the eyes of men." This indeed is the recovery of lost innocence. Once again we must become as little children, but not childish, which we already are; we must be as innocent lambs, but with the power to understand, to learn to grow as the flower grows, unconsciously, eager to open the soul to the infinitude of life.

It is disastrous in the present era to follow a philosophy of achievement. A peak has been reached in aggressive and destructive activities, and the responsibility is largely that of the supposedly educated and clever people, who are role models for the young. The "leadership" of the mentally competent and morally poor is at the base of many grave problems facing today’s world.

What must we do? We must see that the human mind passes on to a new stage of dynamism without ambition, the door to which will open for all those who ponder and realize that the power to be nothing is the source of immense energy. Free of self-interest, the pure mind reaches depths of understanding and perceives new meanings. As H. P. Blavatsky says:

The appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends on his power of cognition. To the untrained eye...a painting is at first an unmeaning confusion of streaks and daubs of color, while an educated eye sees instantly a face or a landscape.

Only the quiet mind without any restless longings is receptive to life’s messages and knows what is truly good. It senses the beneficial presence of the one consciousness everywhere, unfolding faculties, revealing meanings, harmonizing relationships. Without achieving or becoming, by simply being, quietly surrendering to the All-consciousness, it receives and pours out beneficent energy.

A new human culture will arise when nothingness is the background philosophy of people’s lives instead of compulsive becoming.


Radha Burnier, a Sanskrit scholar and in her youth an exponent of classical Indian dance, is the international President of the Theosophical Society. This article is reprinted from "On the Watch-Tower," The Theosophist, November 1998.