The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Originally printed in the Winter 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley,
Richard . "From the Editor's Desk" Quest  100. 1 (Winter 2012): 2.

Richard_SmoleyMost people avoid dealing with awkward sub­jects. For the writer of editorials, however, it's these issues that provide the richest material. In this case I'm referring to that curious part of the Theosophical lineage known as the Third Object. As you know, the Three Objects are statements of prin­ciple that you ought to agree with in order to join the Theosophical Society, but the third of these three puts Theosophy at an uncomfortable juncture.

The Third Object is (as you can see by flipping back a page to the masthead, where it is reproduced in every issue of Quest) "to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity." In prin­ciple there seems to be nothing wrong with this. And yet it points to an agenda that creates discomfort among many Theosophists today.

Because investigating these "powers latent in humanity" brings up the vexed issue of developing occult capacities. As Russell Targ's article in this issue suggests, paranormal powers such as telepathy, clair­voyance, and precognition are, surprisingly perhaps, skills much like piano playing or writing poetry: every­one has them in embryonic form, and they can be devel­oped easily enough (although, of course, some people will have more of an aptitude for them than others). But Theosophists often frown on this kind of development. The literature issues strong warnings against acquiring these powers for their own sake.

Well, then, which is it to be? Investigating the pow­ers latent in humanity or avoiding the investigation of these powers because of their spiritual dangers? You can't, it would seem, have it both ways, and the frequent result is to avoid the issue entirely. Unfortunately, this approach sets aside much of the Theosophical heritage, which has a long tradition of developing these pow­ers, whether it is a matter of seeing chakras and astral forms generated by the Christian sacraments, as with C. W Leadbeater, or, as with Dora Kunz, communicat­ing with nature spirits.

So what should we do about psychic powers? In try­ing to answer this question from my own experience, I see that my views are by no means simple or easy to articulate. On the one hand, the warnings are valid. Making occult investigations without the proper pre­cautions which include a clean way of life and motives that are reasonably pure is extremely dangerous. Indeed I would go further and say that it is dangerous even with the safeguards. Anyone who seriously tries to explore and develop these latent powers can probably expect to suffer some psychological and perhaps even physical damage as a result. This can occur even when there is no direct or obvious connection between the damage and one's investigations.

It would seem to make sense, then, to avoid these risks and simply cultivate your own garden lead a life of quiet study and service without attempting to develop any unusual capacities. And yet I find that I don't agree completely with this advice.

The fact is, the human race has never progressed merely by staying safe in its own little garden. Human advancement has always made ample use of adventur­ers, explorers, even fools and scoundrels, and the world of psychic investigation is no exception.

The best analogy I can think of is athletics. Cer­tainly it's possible to maintain a healthy level of fitness by exercising sensibly. This is by far the best approach for most people, and they can generally do this without being injured. But there are those who are not going to be happy with this prudent advice; they want to exceed and excel. These are the athletes; it is they who set the records, and it is they whose performances we so admire. But exerting yourself to this degree is fraught with dangers, and I suspect that there are few great athletes who have not had to cope with injury—often serious injury—at some point.

We aren't all going to be athletes, nor are we all going to be crack explorers of the astral realms. That will be reserved, as it has always been, to the small elite who have the talent and make the effort to surpass the usual expectations of what's possible for the human mind. But in my opinion it is as foolish to forbid such explorations as it is to pursue them carelessly.

If you are one of the few who do decide to investi­gate these latent powers, the most important require­ment is honesty. This would include being clear about what works and what doesn't as well as distinguish­ing what the books have to say from what you know through experience. Most important of all is an inner honesty a willingness to see into your own motives, good and bad, for the journey you have chosen to make.

This same quality is necessary in a collective body such as the TS. In this case it involves a willingness to see through old prejudices and ways of thinking that may have been useful a generation or two ago but are not what are required today. Most of all, it requires creating a safe space in which people can discuss their paranormal experiences ”both accidental and deliber­ately" induced. This is hardly alien to the Theosophical tradition as a whole; indeed it has often characterized the tradition at its best. Not all of us can be explorers, but we all can treat our explorers with respect and honor them for their daring and their discoveries. 

Richard Smoley