Annie Besant: The Conditions of Occult Research

Printed in the Summer 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Besant, Annie. "Annie Besant: The Conditions of Occult Research
" Quest  100. 3 (Summer 2012): pg. 106-113.

ANNIE BESANT (1847—1933) was one of the seminal figures in the early Theosophical movement. She joined the Theosophical Society in 1889 and was elected president of the international TS in 1907, a position she held until her death. She was the author of many books, including Esoteric Christianity, Thought Power, A Study in Consciousness, and The Laws of the Higher Life, and was active in many social and political causes as well.

This lecture was originally given at the second annual congress of the Federation of European Sections of the Theosophical Society, held in London in July 1905. It is a kind of sequel to Besant's "Occultism and Occult Training," reprinted in Quest, Spring 2012. The lecture is reproduced in full, with no changes except for some modernization and Americanization of orthography and punctua­tion. The "observations on the atoms" that she mentions toward the end of this article are probably those described in her book Occult Chemistry: Clairvoyant Observations on the Chemical Elements, coauthored with C.W. Leadbeater.


Theosophical Society - Annie Besant was one of the seminal figures in the early Theosophical movement. She joined the Theosophical Society in 1889 and was elected president of the international TS in 1907, a position she held until her death. She was the author of many books, including Esoteric Christianity, Thought Power, A Study in Consciousness, and The Laws of the Higher Life, and was active in many social and political causes as well.     The subject we are to study this evening is one, I think, of practical and immediate interest to all members of the Theosophical Society. It is one on which a great amount of misunderstanding appears to exist, and I thought it might perchance be useful to try to lay before you some of the difficulties and conditions which surround occult research, and something, perhaps, about the attitude with which those who carry it on should be regarded.

     The conditions surrounding the work of occult research at the present time are entirely new in the history of the world. In the past a man who was gradually unfolding the faculties necessary for this research was practically shut away from the crowd and bustle of cities or large communities. The moment a pupil of a great teacher began to develop the faculties of the astral or mental sheaths he was called into retirement. He was shut into an atmosphere kept calm and serene by the thoughts of his Teacher, that mighty aura serving for him as a protection from the throng of outer influences. Everything that could be done to purify the bodies and to strengthen and concentrate the consciousness was done for him. He was necessarily somewhat ascetic in his life, but it was a careful asceticism, neither exaggerated in the hardships imposed upon the body nor in any sense lopsided in its conditions. With all physical things a medium path was followed. He must neither so strain the body that there would be a danger of hysteria nor pamper it so that it would not readily respond to the vibrations from the upper worlds. The whole arrangement was based on an experience that had lasted for tens of thousands of years, until it had reached perfection—an arrangement of all surrounding circumstances so that the least possible difficulty from outside might come in the student's way.

     For those who have to carry on occult research in the West or the ordinary East, under the conditions of normal human life to-day, it is obvious that none of these precautions exist; and in the West especially there is a certain impatience of any restrictions in relation to these matters, a vague confusion of psychic and spiritual development, and irrelevant questions asked, such as: "Can it make any difference to the Spirit whether I eat peas or mutton?" Well, it does not. The Spirit, as such, is not concerned with the question, but the vehicles in which the Spirit is to work are very much concerned with these matters; and I am bound to say to you that a fairly strict regimen along these lines is necessary if research is to be carried on with body. Among the various people whom I know who do follow lines of psychic evolution and occult research I do not know one single case where restrictions of diet have been disregarded which has not been followed by a breakdown of the health of the physical body; and the only ones I who carry it on without injury to the body are those who yield to the old rules with regard to these restrictions.

     Then, in addition to that physical training, it is necessary that the emotions shall be well under control, and that the mind shall be trained to concentration, for the simple reason that in the earlier stages research much difficulty arises on the astral and mental planes with regard to the nature of the objects observed, as to whether they are inhabitants or objects of the planes or projections from the investigator himself. This is one of the most fertile sources of error, and one which is far subtler and far more difficult to escape than many in their earlier investigations are inclined to admit. Obviously, if the emotions and the mind are uncontrolled the chaos on the astral and mental planes will be unspeakably increased, so that the old habit is not only to train and prepare the body, but also the consciousness as regards the emotions and thoughts.

     But it is not only a question of what is called purification. It is also a question of the higher and finer development of each of the bodies, the physical no less than the astral and mental. Certain changes in the atomic structure must take place with the bringing down of the consciousness of the higher planes into the physical brain. It is not only a question of being conscious on the higher planes, but of translating that consciousness by means of the physical brain, and in order to do this effectively certain parts of the atom have to change and evolve, and the higher orders of spirillae which, at our present stage of evolution, are lying with their sides against each other like limp India rubber tubes, have to be forced open by the currents from the higher planes, so that they may become physical instruments of consciousness. As physical matter yields but slowly to all forces, it is necessary to give time when those changes have to be brought about. They are brought about by the action of strenuous, definite thinking, and as that is carried on, one after the other of these more delicate spirillae begin to open. This shows itself by a heaviness of feeling in the brain, and if it be disregarded, then by pain growing more and more acute. Suppose, for instance, a person, in whose brain some spirillae are ready so far as the manasic consciousness is concerned, desires to pass on to the buddhic plane. He will at first lose physical consciousness and pass into a trance. In that condition he will be able to find the required knowledge, and by impressing it on the manasic sheath utilize the manasic spirillae in the physical brain. When he first tries to keep his physical consciousness at the same time that he is using his buddhic consciousness he will find a great physical pressure, and he dare not persist for more than the briefest space of time. Fraction of second by fraction of second he must lengthen the period of pressure, never carrying it on one iota beyond pressure to pain, for pain means absolute danger, whereas pressure is only the danger signal. It is not only the physical brain he has to prepare for the work; he must reorganize his astral and later his mental body in the same way.

     That reorganization can be simply described. I am taking it for granted that you are familiar with the ordinary facts as you find them in our books. You know that what we call the sense centres of the astral body are in full working order with every one of us, that it is these that build up the physical sense organs, and that these sense centres in the astral body have nothing to do with astral sight or hearing; they are merely the mechanism whereby the consciousness builds for itself the sense organs on the physical plane. A great deal of indefinite astral information, however, reaches the physical brain by way of these sense centres, in the case of undeveloped persons (the savage and types at about the same level)—the second-sight of the Highlander; the vague premonitions of approaching disaster, of sorrow or trouble; intimations of events on the threshold of the physical plane, and so on. All these things come from the astral plane by a general vibration caused in the astral body by vibrations coming out from the coming events. The whole astral body vibrates in answer, and when the vibrations pass down to the sense organs they often produce sights or sounds of various kinds, because any pressure on the nervous mechanism of the body produces, when you are dealing with a sense organ, the kind of result to which that sense organ normally gives rise; so that anything that comes from the astral centre of sight and touches the mechanism of the physical eye will start a vision.

     I came, in India, across one very interesting series of experiences of that kind, which the people thought to be astral experiences, but which, as a matter of fact, were physical. By a certain process of strain placed upon the sense organs—by external pressures, and so on—they were dulled for a time to external impact, and under those conditions a considerable number of people heard musical sounds. On looking into it I found there were two factors at work: one, the impressions on the astral body which, touching the astral center of hearing, passed down to the delicate harp-like mechanism within the ear and set it vibrating, and, two, the pressure on the auditory nerves which produced a vibration in those ultimate cells, and caused the sounds heard. I have even known them to be caused by purely physical means—by the pressure of blood, alterations of the pressure giving rise to vibratory action within the nerves, which again translated itself as musical sounds. Now I do not think there are so many observations on what may be called in psychological language "auditory hallucinations" as there are on "visual"; but no doubt they may be carried to an extreme extent.

     The occult researcher has nothing to do, in his researches, with these sense centers. He is concerned with those astral centres which serve him on the astral plane as the sense organs serve him on the physical—the chakras and the organs connected with them in the astral body itself. Whatever comes to them comes clearly, so far as the immediate sense impression is concerned; and I want now to make one general observation before going more into detail.

    When you are dealing with observations on the astral or mental plane you are dealing with observations that are made under the same laws as observations on the physical plane. You are dealing with consciousness using a vehicle in order to contact a particular plane, and there is no difference in principle between observations made by your eyes and ears on the physical plane and the observations made by your astral eyes and ears on the astral plane. Both are observations, not revelations. There is no sudden illumination which reveals to the seer the objects of another world. Illumination belongs to the inner consciousness, not to the outer observations, whether physical, astral, or mental. That which is gained by illumination is quite a different thing from occult research; it is not research at all, it is simply the higher mind illuminating the lower, sending a beam of light, and enabling the consciousness to understand, but not to observe. Observations belong to the vehicles, not to the consciousness. Much error arises from students imagining that when a person begins to develop astral sight, for instance, everything becomes known by some miraculous process of illumination. It does not. That depends on the evolution of consciousness—a very different thing—and has to be evolved in very different ways. It is the path of the prophet; it is not the path of the occult researcher.

    Let us, then, apply to the first observations on the astral plane some of the laws which we know work when we are dealing with observations on the physical plane. I am speaking now of early observations, because I want you to see how these are surrounded with difficulties. As the best seer has gone through these early stages, it is well that those who, perhaps are beginning to see shall understand some of the difficulties surrounding these earlier visions. One of the most misleading, because the most subtle, difficulties is the question of how much the astral eye sees and how much the consciousness, trained in physical experience, adds to the observations of the astral eye. Every student knows that when he says, "I see so-and-so" (on the physical plane), that sight carries with it a mass of previous experiences of similar observations. If you go into the country of a race differing very much from your own—say India—all the faces appear the same. Thirty people are introduced to you. You do not know one from the other. You constantly blunder. But the Indian will say the same thing when he comes for the first time over here. To us it seems absurd. I look at the faces in this audience. No two are alike, but an Indian who had never seen English people before would say: "How can you tell one from the other?"

     That means that you do not see very much; you supply by the mind much more than you see, and there is the first great difficulty of the astral seer. He sees the astral object, but he sees it as the baby sees a physical object—as a sort of blob, outline, color perhaps; no knowledge of astral distances, no power of realizing different dimensions. But into that he reads all the memories of the physical past, and he sees an astral outline with a physical content. He does not know that, and only finds it out after long experience. It is quite inevitable until his astral experience has gradually made up for him a content of astral consciousness, which he will gradually begin to read into the astral sight, and then he will begin to see more accurately the astral world. Hence you continually find in the records of seers that they are only giving you, when they tell you about heaven, copies of the earth—golden thrones, and streets of gold, and gates of pearl, etc. They have read into the heavenly colors that which down here they connect with the colors which they see. It is true that when the student is being taught he passes through this stage more rapidly than if he is quite alone; but nevertheless, for many a month, or many a year, more or less of that difficulty will surround his astral seeings.

     Pass from this to another difficulty—the difficulty of the confusion of one's own aura with the astral colors. That comes out very curiously if you talk to a number of different clairvoyants. You will find people read an aura in the same way, but if you ask them what colors they see they will tell you quite different colors. One clairvoyant, for instance, may say: "Oh, there's a great deal of green, yellow, and pink in that aura; it means so-and-so." The next clairvoyant may say: "There is a great deal of violet, red, and blue in that aura," and will read it the same; because the consciousness working in the astral body receives a distinct impression as to the temperament and the consciousness of the person who is being looked at, but the astral vision, confused by the aura of the observer, mixes that aura with the observed object, and you get a mixture of the two. I will mention a similar case on the physical plane, because it will probably strike you as even stranger. When palmists read the hand they have certain names for the lines, and by that tell the character of the person. I have had my hand read by both English and Indian palmists. Now the Indian names all the lines quite differently—the English "line of life" is the "line of head" and so on. Yet out of his different lines he reads the same character. The same thing happens as on the astral plane, and the reason is the same. He does not only go by the lines; he goes also by the impression made by the consciousness of the person at whose hand he is looking, and that is stronger than the lines.

     Not only does this take place in the looking at auras, but another difficulty arises from the crowd of thought-forms which when first he makes his astral observations. How often have we said: "If you find an astral person praising you, telling you you are a very wonderful person, mistrust that astral appearance. It is more than good opinion of yourself, appearing there as a thought-form, and translating your own idea of your merits into an outside testimony to the greatness of your evolution." And the other day, when I met a harmless gentleman who told me he had been hearing voices which told him that he was his last incarnation and could not commit any more sin, I knew very well the voice he heard was the voice of his own self-opinion, and not of some astral person on the level of a Master, as he imagined.

     These difficulties, of course, are obvious. What I want to point out to you is that they persist much longer than most of us are inclined to think; that the trained seer, unless his training has carried him to the threshold of Mastership, may still be liable to these blunders in his observations. Quite honestly his temperament will influence his observations; quite honestly something of himself will mingle in what he sees; and though he may have outgrown the coarser blundering of mistaking thought-forms and desire-forms for heavenly and astral inhabitants, none the less there will be a residue of that clinging round him for many a year.

    And even when that is over there is one other difficulty you must remember, you who read the books written by some of us in whom these faculties are partially developed. You may often find differences of observations, and such discrepancies are inevitable. Every man observes most the things which attract him most. If three or four people send you an account, say, of a foreign city, those accounts will differ greatly if the people have been working independently—one will have observed the architecture, another the type of people, another the contents of the shops, another will have gone to the libraries or the picture-galleries. Such discrepancies are a good test of observation. If you find with a general identity a large amount of detail discrepancy, you may take it that something has been observed. I look on those discrepancies as of value, partly as showing that the people are really trying to see for themselves, and not repeating the great thought-forms made by ages of thought in particular directions; and also because they may do something towards checking that tendency in the Theosophical student to repeat blindly on authority that which others have tried to see by careful investigation. Nothing is more fatal to the growth of faculty than the constant acceptance of unverified observations. The more discrepancies the better for the careful observing of the other world. We are not in a realm of miracle, but in the realm of observation, and human observation is subject to error on whatever plane it may be carried on.

     Let us pass from that to one other difficulty before I take up the latter part of my subject. According to the development of the vehicles of the student will be the amount of observation he can carry on at the same time that he is working in his physical consciousness. There are two ways of observing: in one you observe while your physical observation is also alive; in the other you try to shut out the outer world, and the more quiet your surroundings the easier will it be to let the astral sight play unchecked while the physical eyes are open. This double observation makes considerable strain upon the nervous system, which shows itself constantly in an increase of nervous irritability on the part of the person who is using the consciousness along two or three lines at the same time. Very often such a person may be blamed for his irritability. Certainly it would be better if he were not irritable; but it is almost inevitable until great progress has been made. It is for this reason that in the earlier days people were secluded in the carrying on of the work, for when a person has developed the astral faculties, and the physical body is becoming more sensitive at the same time, loud noises, as in the London streets, come like thunder on the nervous system. The mere rolling along of a dray shakes the physical system as though it were a great electric shock, and in this way you often get nervous irritability which the unfortunate person is fighting against, but cannot entirely control.

     Let us pass from that to the question of how the researcher can find out the facts which he is asked for—the method he must use and the limits of his power. Suppose, for instance, a question is asked, such as the question which led up to the observations made by Mr. Leadbeater and myself on the atoms some ten years ago. The process was first of all to get quiet. We went to Box Hill for a week, so that we could have pure air and surroundings which were not full of thoughts and vibrations of every kind. We lay down on the grass and shut our eyes. The next step was simply to intensify the sight, which means a projection of the will on the astral centre which corresponds to vision on the physical plane, and through that to stimulate the physical senses, so that the etheric sense would be active as well as that normally used in vision. The result was a very great increase of rapidity of vibration in the ether connected with the physical eye, and side by side with that a rapid magnetic action in the astral chakra and the corresponding physical centre between the eyebrows, so that there is a sense of great pressure and of rapid whirling between the eyes. Then comes the direction of the will to find an atom floating in the atmosphere around. One is selected. You may not know what it is, but you have before intensified vision the form of an atom. You then intensify more and more, just as you would screw a microscope into focus, until there comes out clearly before the intensified vision the subdivisions of the chemical atom. The first thing you get after seeing the atom as a  whole (by intensification, like magnifying it more and more) is the  first  subdivision of the atom on the next etheric plane, and by a further intensification the subdivisions within those; and so on, until you come to the ultimate atom. If you try to press it further you suddenly find a mass of astral matter. It is through those stages the observation goes, the will steadily kept at work and a slow, careful seeing of the parts, just as you would look at them through a microscope. And when you have done you are very tired. Your brain, your nerves, your attention, are tired. It is absolutely necessary in a task of that sort for the attention to be fixed on the one thing without wavering. You have to hold your attention for half-hours at a time without wavering. That process you must repeat over and over again, to be sure you have not blundered. You leave out all kinds of things you do not see, and, going back later, find these things out. It is the same as a physical observation carried on with a microscope, and you have to do it as carefully and as repeatedly. No answer on these matters is worth having which is not worked out in that way. Research work on the astral plane is as laborious as research work on the physical. I want students to realise that, because they ask one the most extraordinary questions, to find a really honest answer to which would mean weeks of research given to that one thing. And you know how much time the people who do this have left from the other pressing claims on their strength and their time. You cannot have much of this occult research unless a certain amount of time is set aside for it, and that has to be taken from other work, and it is all a balance as to which work is the most useful, not to a few people, but to the world. I want to ask you to be a little patient with those who have heavy burdens of work upon them, and who cannot, with the best goodwill, answer the innumerable questions poured upon them. The moment one fact is stated, twenty new questions start up, and the moment one of these is answered another crop immediately comes.

     There is one very great difficulty in occult research which very much limits its value for the outer world: you have absolutely no proof. We could not prove what we saw about the atoms; we could only say we saw them. When you look at a thing you see it; you cannot prove anything about it. We have not the mathematical, chemical, electrical knowledge necessary to explain the whole of that in the scientific way, and the occult researcher must always lie under the imputation of dogmatism. He can only say "I do not ask you to receive the results of my sight as though I could prove them." And he has no right to be offended if anyone says, "I do not accept your observation." If their minds or prejudices reject it, he can only repeat, "I see it." And that is not proof.

     What, then, is the value of occult research, if we cannot prove it? I think this: that it may give hints which may possibly, if scientific men would take them as working hypotheses, facilitate investigation and quicken the discoveries which otherwise might be long delayed. I do not claim any more than that. I do not think any scientific man ought to accept our visions and think them true, but I think he might utilize them if he sees anything in them to give a hint of a line of possible discovery. Therefore I think we ought to continue to make such observations as far as we can, and publish them without caring for what people say. Only, on the other side, let those who make the observations say, "That is the thing as I see it, but I may be reading into it conclusions that are not there. I may be drawing entirely erroneous deductions. I give you my best, but your best attitude towards it is that of careful analysis and rigorous scrutiny." That is the service that I think the occult researcher has the right to demand at your hands. For if you blindly swallow everything he says, if he is an honest man you make him hesitate to say; while, if he is a dishonest man, he is likely to mislead you. The honest man leaves it to time to justify his observations. Those observations on the atoms, by the way, I find are being justified. They have been verified because along other lines scientific men have gradually built up scientific proof, which we can never give. We are simply people who see, and record the facts seen.

     And another thing to remember is that we are not omniscient. Our observations are often very imperfect. We see a little bit of a thing, and give it out as the whole, or we see it out of relation, and that gives a wrong impression. There are so many difficulties in the way, and so few ways of getting help. For there are few people who have come to the point where they can look quietly on the astral world and record what they see there. Those who can have often difficulty in comparing observations, because separated far from each other, and have difficulty in meeting and joining forces so that the observations may be confirmed. I think, then, that in observations made by only one person they ought to be issued as seen only by the one person, leaving them open for later confirmation if that should come. So that we may gradually get a body of literature, however small, founded on occult research, which no one is asked to accept, no one blamed for rejecting, which shall be gradually verified by repeated observations of different people. If that is done, occult research will play a great and useful part in our movement; if it is not done, it is more a danger than a help—a double danger, for the seer may be misled by not having other observations to correct his own, and a danger that the readers may be misled by taking as some infallible revelation the single observation of a fallible man. It is under these conditions that I desire that occult research should go forward—a willingness to correct wherever wider knowledge shows error to have been made; a willingness to repeat and verify, and to accept no observations without investigation and careful thought. If that be done, there will be no danger in it, but there is a danger to-day where only a few people observe; where those people say they see and are continually warning people there may be errors, but where others who do not see but perhaps love and respect those who do, take criticism of them as though it were an insult instead of being the best help that can possibly be given to the researcher. And, on the other hand, I would say that ungenerous criticism, unkind remark, imputation of motives, which we find from those who are not in favor, perhaps, of these lines of research, are as mischievous as the over- receptivity on the other side. Cannot we be sane and rational, and keep our equilibrium in these matters? Give fair play to the researcher, but not blind acceptance. Do not accuse him of being conceited, opinionated, dogmatic, because he speaks out the things he sees honestly and frankly; but do not hamper him by giving blind faith where intelligent thought is demanded.

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