Printed in the Spring 2012 issue of Quest magazine. Citation: Terpack, Walter. "Stewards of Eternity" Quest 100. 2 (Spring 2012): pg. 56-58.
By Walter Terpack
My grandmother would use the word "terrific" to describe bumper-to-bumper traffic, as in the song "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays." Here "terrific" was close to its original meaning of "to cause terror." While that may have been adorable with her Bronx accent, in my generation the word has come to mean something closer to the opposite of what she described. When my parents commented on my soccer performances throughout my youth, if they said I'd had a terrific game, instead of basking in apparent praise, perhaps I should have asked them to be more specific.
We recognize these forms of verbal evolution from their context and we alter our word choices accordingly. It's not just words and their definitions that evolve but also our understanding of a concept and its importance. "Love" and "joy" have meant the same thing for centuries. What has changed, possibly even evolved, is our understanding of their role as determined by the human psyche and their rare distinctions of being singular, without opposite, in describing states of unalloyed conscious presence.
Few people unfamiliar with Theosophy would imagine that the process of evolution might be anything more than incidental. Some, particularly Western, societies and religions have themselves evolved into institutions that try to convince man that he is a lowly sinner with no hand in his own evolution. They seem to prefer to have him believe that life and circumstances are beyond personal influence and the things that happen to us are simply God's will or the events of life, which some naively assert are unfair.
As Theosophists, we are encouraged to be aware of a more personal type of evolution. In a sense, we are all agricultural scientists, or husbandmen, selecting traits in ourselves, cultivating and nurturing them. Though the word "husbandman" seems outdated and exclusive of women as a synonym for "farmer," it hints at a nurturing quality more commonly found in the female. Agrarian Wendell Berry, in his essay "The Unsettling of America," tells us, "The farmer, or husbandman, is by definition half mother." We know that a farmer owns, operates, or works on a farm or pays for the right to collect revenue or profits from its production. The husbandman, however, is concerned with the general management of domestic affairs and resources. The word "husbandman" implies responsibility and accountability, not only for production, but for ensuring that it's not at the expense of future production.
While a husbandman is usually concerned with crops and stock and their conversion to edible products, in order to evolve we require spiritual sustenance and tools. We are stewards of eternity, learning from experience to recognize what must be sacrificed for a greater good, keeping in mind the laws of nature and the demands of nurture.
Like plants, we are rooted in our environment. Unlike plants, we can choose to take evolution into our own hands. John Algeo, past president of the Theosophical Society in America, shares a fundamental concept in his study guide Theosophy: An Introductory Course: "The process of evolution, which begins by unconscious impulse, must eventually become a conscious process directed by the free will and ever increasing self-awareness of the evolving entities. The conscious participation by human beings in evolutionary change is symbolized as walking a path." Theosophy, the wisdom tradition, guides and inspires us to take the next step along the path. Throughout history, human beings have faced challenges unique to their respective eras, despite innovative technological advances. Yet this perennial philosophy, as it is so aptly called, remains an effective cauldron for transmuting the ills of any epoch into spiritual progress. When we follow the Theosophical road map and take the three routes recommended to us—study, meditation, and service—we can come to know our dharma, or what nature's aim may ultimately be for us.
For the spiritual aspirant as for the husbandman, study of one's craft is imperative. In order to prepare ourselves for so arduous a journey, plotting a course is as important as having a destination. History has given us stories and lessons from messengers blessed with wisdom and providing us with seeds for thought, transformation, joy, inspiration, love, forgiveness, and healing. As we study the lives of the adepts and Mahatmas and immerse ourselves in spiritual traditions, we become more capable of directing our own evolution. These Masters have already sown their seeds and reaped their harvests, and they have saved the seeds from those harvests in order to pass on to us knowledge that might save us whole seasons of ignorance and frustration.
For the husbandman, the act of cultivation is indispensable to progress. Preparing a seedbed by eliminating all unwanted vegetative growth capable of stealing water or nutrients from the intended crop is akin to our meditation practice. Daily we stake out an intention along with an allocation of time. During this time we sit; we are thorough yet gentle in our cultivation. Beneficent intentions are felt, pondered, and embraced at the altar of our higher Self. Anything detrimental to our goals is abandoned where it lies, or better yet, cast aside to the compost pile of doubts, fears, and worries. This is contemporary alchemy, where the elevated vibrancy of our meditation heats up, transmuting bad habits, character flaws, and past "sins" into beneficial constituent elements, which contribute to the fertility of our personal potential. At the end of the session, we are gifted with a fertile patch of Eden. There will be days when we sit, but only end up having wrestled with vines or itchy from poison ivy. These too are days when we become wiser and stronger from the exertion.
"The key to the advancement of human evolution is a dedication by the individual to the service of others, that is, altruism—an awareness of brotherly unity and a forgetfulness of personal separateness." John Algeo again, this time with practical encouragement to step into the stream leading back to the One. As we align ourselves with spiritual ideals, we naturally become less aware of ourselves and more aware of others. When, in addition to meditation, study, and service, we participate in life with a grateful heart, we become more capable of recognizing the many faces of suffering. Less self-involvement affords us more time and opportunity to be of assistance to those who need it. On an evolutionary trail, there will naturally be representatives of different levels of spiritual maturity. We speak of the Mahatmas on one side of the evolutionary scale, but along the rest of the scale, there are those who cannot thrive without the love, compassion, and support that others might provide. "In the theosophical context," Robert Ellwood, past vice-president of the TSA, tells us, "service is work done for the benefit of others, whether human or beast, and thus an expression of compassion and a â€˜push' along the evolutionary trail upward." We apply what we have garnered through meditation and study to the service of others. Just an inch of water here or a topdressing of compost there can make all the difference in a world where small gestures have immeasurable impact.
There are pitfalls to evolution when attempts are made to shortcut nature or proceed with a limited, self-interested perspective. Most obvious are those seen in agriculture. By the process of adaptation, strains of plants or trees become capable of withstanding previously unfavorable conditions by slowly overcoming challenges, such as climate, soil pH, and the availability of water and other nutrients. Even plants grown in a greenhouse require a period of "hardening off" or else they will be susceptible to the cool air of spring, wind, and direct sunlight. When done naturally and incrementally, most living things will adapt into hardier organisms, better equipped to survive or thrive in a new environment. Genetic alteration and chemical treatment for the purpose of disrupting natural processes have less predictable, potentially disastrous results. We frequently hear of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or chemical-resistant weed or insect pests, many of which are no longer affected by the application of something which would have devastated them just a few short seasons ago. Coexisting peacefully, in full partnership with nature, is assuredly a wiser option. There is a guarantee of basic health in ecological systems where Nature becomes teacher.
We have been introduced by birth into a system so beautifully evolved that we can use any challenge available to us as an impetus to further ourselves along the course we've chosen. If we take a cue from Nature and realize that some of the richest, most fertile soil for growing will be made up of rotted manure, decomposing vegetation unfit for consumption, and other natural debris, it becomes obvious that nothing was intended to be wasted in this plan. Nothing is trivial; tragedies and mistakes are adorned with lessons and opportunities, and human beings are worthy of their karma and have contributions to make no matter what their station. Life is what impels us along our path, and our lives and communities are filled with teachers who either have wisdom to share or can, even with their faults, make us more tolerant, compassionate, or forgiving. We don't even require teachers who know more than we do! There is no shortage of events in our lives that couldn't inspire us to consider our own personal evolution. These are the gifts that resonate within us and confirm our divinity.
Making a conscious choice to step onto a path has its practical applications. Many of us have known what it's like to live the alternative—a life where one responds unconsciously to the circumstances which were creations of a life lived unconsciously. The detours along such a course may lead to depression or dysfunction. Fortunately for the suffering traveler, these places have an alarm clockâ€“like ability to wake us from our reactive slumber. Aspiring to our destiny, we evolve mindfully, aware of consequences, with the understanding that love, compassion, and forgiveness bear real fruit, true to their seeds.
Personal evolution and the development of character begin with thoughts, which manifest as acts, and develop into habits. When we consider the many instances we interact with others in a typical day, we can take small, incremental, but sure-footed evolutionary steps by facing our dharma and responding appropriately.
Algeo, John. Theosophy: An Introductory Study Course. Wheaton: Theosophical Society in America, 2006.
Berry, Wendell. "The Unsettling of America." In The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002.
Ellwood, Robert. Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages. Wheaton: Quest, 1986.
Walter Terpack studies Theosophy, endeavoring to apply its principle toward personal transformation and healing. He is a native of New Jersey and a participant in the TS's prison outreach program.
The Theosophical Society in America provides information on Theosophy to prisoners through pamphlets, books, and correspondence courses. Many prisoners become members of the TSA due to the sense of purpose and direction that the teachings provide. If you would like to participate as a mentor in the prison program, please contact the National Secretary at 1-800-669-1571, ext. 301.