Viewpoint: From Pebbles to Stepping Stones

By Betty Bland

Originally printed in the Winter 2009 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bland, Betty. "Viewpoint: From Pebbles to Stepping Stones." Quest 97. 1 (Fall 2009): 8.

Theosophical Society - Betty Bland served as President of the Theosophical Society in America and made many important and lasting contributions to the growth and legacy of the TSA. Those who know me are aware of my penchant for early morning walks. The fresh air and bracing activity penetrate the morning fuzzy-brain fog like nothing else. On several occasions my heel has gotten quite sore before realizing, "Oh, there is a rock in my shoe!" Then, in order to keep up my pace and circulation, I think, "Can I shake it out without stopping?" Or, if I am almost home, "Should I just continue for a few hundred yards more?"

Why on earth would we decide to keep walking after realizing we have a rock in our shoe, and furthermore, why might it take any time at all to realize that the rock is there? We might ask this question with an air of condescension, thinking that surely we ourselves would have better sense than that. Yet consider this same question from the perspective of how we live our lives.

First of all, most of us live with some pain or anguish that is so familiar that we do not even bring it to our conscious awareness. The daily traffic jams and road rage, irritation with family members, resentment toward whatever life has brought us, feelings of anger or inadequacy—these pebbles may irritate our existence for a number of years before we realize that life can be another way. This is not "just the way it is." We do not have to be trapped in this misery. We are conscious beings with unlimited possibilities for growth and change.

After realizing that something may be wrong and needs to be fixed, we often postpone the stop to make needed changes, but keep going, persisting in the same old ruts. How often do we choose to live with the pain rather than change our way of being? We may even decide to chatter about the pain with our traveling companions while still doing nothing about it. It takes time to seek out those hurtful pebbles and reach a willingness to break our stride. In the subtle reaches of our consciousness, we probably question whether we will ever be able to find that at all. So we travel on, without pause to contemplate.

In my far distant past, I learned in psychology class that kittens raised in a cage with vertical bars were confounded when transferred to one with horizontal bars. It was as if they could not even see the differently aligned obstruction. While I recognize that this is a dreadful image to have remained in my mind all these years, I do see a useful comparison. A cage that becomes extremely familiar can become a part of our accepted landscape and so is no longer a part of our consciousness.

Cultural identity and family traditions into which we were born tend to seem like the only normal and "right" approach to life. Behaviors and attitudes pass down from one generation to the next like an immutable script. Even when we rebel against them, they still form the standards by which we measure life. These patterns, which are built into our psyche from birth, are like a pair of sunglasses before our eyes. Colors, clarity, and the amount of light can be drastically affected. It is not until they are removed that one is struck by the impact they had on the perception of the surrounding scene.

Whether we see these patterns in terms of a pebble, a cage, or dark glasses, the nature of consciousness is to accept them as reality. That is why it is said that we live in maya, the great illusion. Things are not as they seem, but are distorted by years and lifetimes of conditioning. There is a reality to our existence, but it is not as restrictive as we perceive it to be. If we could only turn an about-face within our minds, the whole spectrum of life would appear differently.

The Buddha said that life is suffering, that by its very nature we will all experience anguish and hardships. But he also said the pain is caused by us, by our attitude of clinging to our conditioning and our desires. We want permanency, stability, power, wealth, comfort, respect, appreciation, and all those good things that attract us. The Buddha called this attachment. He said that there is a way out of this dilemma and went on to prescribe the Noble Eightfold Path as the method of deliverance. The Eightfold Path can be summarized as right thought, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

From this teaching, we can surmise that the removing the pebble is not all that simple. One could take a lifetime to understand and practice any one of these mandates. However, if we do not begin to address the problem, we will never even hope to succeed. Consider beginning with the first step—that of practicing right thought. If we could begin to control these wayward thoughts, to observe them, cultivate the beneficial ones, and begin to recognize ourselves as spiritual beings, the rest would follow. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the mind is as difficult to tame as the wind, but that with persistent effort the goal can be achieved. By turning our consciousness in on itself, a gradual shift occurs, one that is almost imperceptible at first. Yet a consistent watchfulness of our thoughts and motives launches a momentum toward awareness. With this turning of our thoughts, we can be assured that the rest will follow. This is what the Greeks called metanoia, a complete turning around or reorientation. This word, which appears often in the New Testament, is usually translated "repentance," and Jesus said it was necessary in order to be born again.

The turning around is not just turning the same old processes in a different direction, but rather it is an inside-out reorientation. Instead of directing our thoughts and energy to the level of our outer personality, something convinces us of an inner reality—the true nature of our inner self, connected with all other selves as a part of a greater whole. If we can see life from this perspective, the light of pure spirit will drive away those fuzzy-brain blues.

The painful pebbles of this world will finally penetrate our awareness. Their presence is a gift that finally directs our attention to the importance of addressing the issue. They draw us toward discovery of the problem, and in that discovery lies the opportunity to change. When given proper attention, those pebbles can become our stepping-stones.

None of you has ever thought of watching, studying and thus profiting by the lessons contained therein, the web of life woven round each of you, yet it is that intangible, yet ever plainly web (to those who would see its working) in that ever open book, sacred in the mystic light around you, that you could learn, aye, even those possessed of no clairvoyant powers.

It is the first rule in the daily life of a student of Occultism never to take off his attention from the smallest circumstances that may happen in his own or other fellow-students’ lives.
                                                                       "A Valuable Lesson," The Theosophist, September 1954.