Printed in the Spring 2012 issue of Quest magazine. Citation: Besant, Annie. "Occultism and Occult Training" Quest 100. 2 (Spring 2012): pg. 67-73.
By Annie Besant
Annie Besant (1847-1933) was one of the seminal figures in the Theosophical movement. Joining the Theosophical Society in 1889, she rapidly moved to the vanguard of leadership, and was elected president of the international TS in 1907, a position she held until her death. She was the author of numerous books, including Esoteric Christianity, Thought Power, A Study in Consciousness, and The Laws of the Higher Life, and was active in numerous social and political causes as well.
The little-known lecture reproduced here was given at the first annual congress of the Federation of European Sections of the Theosophical Society, held in Amsterdam in June 1904. TS member and Quest contributor Kurt Leland drew it to our attention as being a succinct and comprehensive survey of the occult path. The lecture is reproduced in full, with no changes except for the correction of typographical errors and some modernization of orthography and punctuation. —Ed.
Occultism has been defined by H. P. Blavatsky as the study of the Divine Mind in Nature; and, taking it in its broadest and deepest sense, I do not think that we can better that definition—the study of the Universal Mind as shown forth in the universe. Now those who have made such study, and have given some of the results of their study to the world, tell us that the universe exists first in the Universal Mind-that it exists there as Idea before it comes into manifestation in the grosser forms of matter; and, as you know, that view of the universe is found in all the great philosophies and religions of the world. We find the Greek philosophers speaking of an intelligible world, then of an intellectual, and later of the worlds of grosser matter. We find the Hebrews speaking also of a world of Mind, of which the physical world is but a gross and rough reproduction. We find it stated in the teachings of the Hindus and Buddhists that the universe is but the thought of the Supreme. And Theosophy, dealing with this a little more closely and more precisely, as its fashion is, draws for us a picture of the beginnings of a universe in which these ideas in the Universal Mind are drawn out by the great Architects; and then the Builders take them from the Architects and shape them into grosser kinds of matter, mental, astral, and physical.
The occultist, in trying to carry on his studies, finds himself face to face with two kinds of evolution, along both of which he must go. He is bound by the very name of his study to devote himself to the understanding of the Divine Mind in Nature; and inasmuch as that mind manifests itself through form in subtle matter, on which the grosser forms are modeled, he finds it also necessary, in his study of the thoughts of the Supreme Thinker, to prepare himself for the observation of the subtle forms in which those thoughts are clothed. His evolution, then, must be twofold.
On the one side he must evolve his own consciousness, so that that consciousness, working on higher planes, may be able directly to contact, to see, to study, to vibrate with, the thoughts in those subtler worlds; and, while he is evolving his consciousness to be able to intuit those thoughts, he must also evolve his subtler vehicles in which that consciousness may function upon the higher planes, and so be able by the development of his subtler senses to observe the various forms on those planes and see their relations with the physical plane.
For when we say—as we say truly—that Mind underlies the universe, and when we say that Nature has a life-side, we are dealing with rather different kinds of ideas, although ideas that are closely allied. For, in studying the Mind that underlies the universe, we are clearly on the side where Form is not; we are in a realm of Ideas in the subtlest sense of the term, where formlessness (as is often said) is to be found. When we come to deal with the manifestation of these ideas in the worlds we call invisible, and also in the visible, then in those worlds invisible we have to do with what is called the life-side of Nature—for by that phrase we intend to say that Nature is no dead mechanism, no soulless apparatus: that all that science knows as forces or as energies are really expressions of subtle lives; that all those forms and energies in Nature that form one great part of the study of scientific men, are really, on the higher planes, living beings; and that these living beings express themselves on the physical plane as the forces or the energies of the physical universe.
So that we may trace down a line along which the occultist would study the evolution of the form-side in Nature. He would begin with the Logos of a system; he would pass from him to his Viceroys, those we call the Planetary Logoi, each ruling over a department of his own; and then he would see round each Planetary Logos the great Rulers of the Elements which are to be the fundamental forms of matter in that department of Nature. He would see there those who are called in Hindu parlance the Kings of the Shining Ones, those who have for their bodies the great Elements in nature-meaning by that word â€œElements," not the chemical elements of the physical plane, but Elements as spoken of in ancient philosophies describing the types of material used in the shaping of a universe. So that we should find one of these elements, Earth; and one that we call Water—(not water on the physical plane, but on the plane above the physical, the astral); and then above that the plane of Fire; and above that the plane of Air; and above that still higher the plane of Akasha, the Ether—the five planes with which here we have to do, and two higher yet, at present unmanifested and to us unknown.
Now each of these Elements from the occult standpoint forms in its entirety the body of one of these great Kings of the Shining Ones, whose who in Christian parlance would be called the Seven Archangels, rulers of the angels, having each beneath him and under his control a vast angelic host. And the conception of the occultist with regard to such an immense life is that you have a great spiritual Intelligence, who has evolved in past universes and comes into this world to be one of the great Builders of a universe, having as his body all the matter which is of one kind. Thus one of these Beings would be clothed in Ether as a totality, and every force that played in the ether would be the working of his intelligence, the expression of his thoughts. Another would be clothed in the supernal Fire, and all forms of fiery matter would be his body, or made of the material of his body, and all the energies that play in those forms would be his thoughts, the life, the fire, the energy, that play in that fiery matter. And so on all the way down.
So that you have this conception of Nature—that it consists on the side of life in great spiritual Intelligences, each of them ruling over a vast department of Nature and each of them clothed in a particular kind of matter—matter which is one of the Elements in the ancient sense of the term. And when we come down to our physical plane, we find that each of these Elements and each of these great Beings has his own representative in the physical universe also; for that which is a subplane of matter in the higher world is a plane of matter in the physical universe, and each subplane in the physical corresponds with or represents a plane in the higher, and each element is reproduced in the physical as a subplane of the physical and gives its name to that subplane. Thus down here on the physical plane, while the whole is all the great Element, Earth, the solid earth would be taken as the corresponding subplane; while the watery matter belongs to the great plane of the astral, and liquids on the physical plane would be the corresponding subplane or subelement. So again with Fire, which here is repreÂsented by the gaseous bodies in Nature; and above that, in the occult sense of the word, Air, by the lowest of the ethers is repreÂsented; and above that, the next higher great plane, the Divine Flame, is represented down here by the second of the ethers. The subatomic and atomic subplanes are the representatives of the two highest, the unknown Elements.
In this way, finding in the physical universe subplanes corresponding to each great kosmic plane, and thus subplanes corresponding to each of the primary Elements in the Kosmos—in this way the occultist, in studying even the physical, would not look on it quite from the standpoint of the ordinary scientific man. For he would see what he would call the subelements here—the solid, the liquid, the gaseous, the etheric, etc.—as directly connected with the great Lord of the Element in the kosmos or solar system. And so, if he is studying the life-side, that which is behind the phenomenal appearance of the subelement, he would then study the workings of the intelligence of that Being as shown out in the countless hosts of lower intelligences, who reproduce his thoughts in miniature and manifest his powers in miniature. Thus the whole of his study would be conditioned by this greater thought, and he would see in the manifestations of the physical plane the lowest expressions of the thought of a higher plane, and that would have a very practical bearing upon his dealing with Nature in a fashion I will return to in a moment.
The occultist who is trying to develop himself would deal first, in far more detail than I have outlined, with this great theory of worlds or systems of worlds and would become quite familiar with it in detail. That would be his first step, and a necessary step; for until he has mastered it as a theory it would be hopeless to attempt to practice it as an occult science. He must learn this theory as laid down by those who have verified it and studied it at first hand, in order that when he starts on his first practical and first hand study he may bring to it a trained intelligence, a cultured mind, and a consciousness which knows at least in theory what it is going to study.
Our would-be occultist, then, having mastered this theory in its details, will next concern himself with the evolution of his own consciousness. He will endeavor, by hard and strenuous thinking, by prolonged and careful meditation, to train the mental instrument with which he is to work upon the higher planes. And now will come his first great difficulty: he cannot begin to be an occultist until his mind is thoroughly under his control. As you know, men are for the most part under the control of their minds, where they are not under the control of their senses; but even the more developed are under the control of their minds, and do not control them. Until the mind is under control, it is useless as an instrument of occult research; for if it is to run about here, there, and everywhere, as it pleases, dragging its owner with it, it is clear that it will tend downwards towards the lines along which it has come in its evolution, impelled by desires, moved by attractions and repulsions; whereas the occultist who desires to know cannot afford to have attractions and repulsions; he is to study everything in the clear dry light of reason, and is not to shrink from one study nor to be attracted to another. The whole universe is before him; the Divine Mind is manifested in every part of it, and all that the Divine Mind has thought is worthy of study; there is nothing in that Mind, rightly understood, that can possibly repel. So that he must master his mind completely, and that is the first step the would-be occultist must take.
I say the first step, because I take it for granted that no one is thinking of becoming an occultist until he has purified his life and laid a firm foundation of virtue, of noble thinking, and of noble living. It does not do to leave that out of regard, though I am taking it for granted as being well-known to you, for it is of vital importance to him in his later studies. No man whose life is not pure, whose thoughts are not noble, whose character is not unselfish, should venture to touch occultism at all; for every fault he has will assail him, every failing will dig pits for his feet; and until he has laid his foundation of virtue he must not try to build on it the Temple of Occultism. Nor must he try to build that Temple until his emotions and senses are thoroughly under his control.
Let me put to you very briefly why this complete control of the senses, of the emotions, of the thoughts, is necessary for the occultist. Presently we shall find that he is going to move on subtler planes and use subtler vehicles. Now these vehicles he is going to practice in, made up as they are of very fine and delicate matter, will move and vibrate under far less force than will move and vibrate the physical body. It is a very simple fact known to every one of you, that the same amount of force put to the moving of a light body will drive it farther than if applied to a heavy body; a push that would not move a railway wagon would send a ball skimming many yards away. Now apply that well-known law to the vehicles in which the occultist is to work. So long as he is in the physical body he thinks and feels, but before the thought expresses itself it has used up almost the whole of its power in making the brain work at all; before an emotion shows itself as an emotion the greater part of it is exhausted in moving the heavy physical matter by which that emotion is expressed-so that you get only a very small residuum of thought and emotion showing themselves in the physical world. But now let the emotion go on to the astral plane. What happens? The same amount of thought, of emotion, moving in the astral body, will throw it into the most violent and fearful passion. If the man is not careful at first, he will run the risk of tearing his own astral body, and of doing great damage to those who are around him on the astral plane by the treÂmendous vibrations he sends out. He might knock another senseless, or even shatter his astral body, by the thought which down here would only show itself by a strong emotion.
Hence the need to control the thoughts and emotions. That is one of the reasons why, until the control of thought and emotion is achieved, no one will help another to go to work upon the astral plane in the definite, wide-awake, fashion. Uncontrolled people are like so many crackers or rockets flying all over the place—a danger to others, useless to themselves. So it is necessary that our would-be occultist should get the mastery of his mind and emotions, in addition to that purity of nature of which I have spoken.
Then comes the time when he is to work for the development of what are called the subtler senses. I am supposing he has gone along the line of evolution by which his consciousness has been unfolÂded, so that his consciousness is ready to understand, ready to receive impressions, ready to answer. When the consciousness is ready, the vehicles must be brought up to a fine point of response and the subtler senses must be evolved. Now these must be evolved in very definite ways, still all along the line of meditation, of a somewhat different type from that which evolves the consciousness: a meditation that deals directly with the astral and the mental senses, sets them to work, makes them active, and brings them under his control. When he has made progress along these two lines of evolving the consciousÂness and the subtler senses, the occultist will be ready to work upon the next two higher planes.
Then, as he begins to work, he will find a difficulty facing him—the difficulty of distinguishing between what he contributes to those two planes and the things which exist there independently of himself. And here he will make many a blunder for a very considerable time. Every feeling he has there takes to itself astral matter and presents itself as a living being; every thought clothes itself in mental matter and presents itself as an independent existence; and the first blunder that he will make, when he is able to see and to understand, is that he will always be getting back his own thoughts, he will always be finding his own ideas confirming themselves apparently by external agency. Hence many of the mistakes made by those whom we call untrained seers. If any such has a strong desire in his mind, he is sure to find it on the astral plane presenting itself as a most magnificent picture, and he will be convinced that it is his duty to follow out that image he has seen; and if it be one that can be reproduced on the physical plane he will be able to reproduce it here.
So also with doctrines, beliefs, convictions, of all kinds--the nearest thing to him will be the crowd of his own thoughts, emotions, and wishes. They will crowd all round him when he wakens on the higher planes, and it will be some time before he learns to quietly put all that crowd aside and to study the plane itself and not only his own creations upon it. Here comes in the value of his moral and unselfish training: for the more his thoughts are pure, the more they are under control, the more easily he will be able to manage them on the higher plane and give them their proper place; and the more they are free from all the promptings of desire, the safer he will be against the danger of hearing the echo of his own voice as his Master's voice, and regarding the figments of his own brain as commands put upon him by his Master.
As he goes on he will learn to distinguish, and there is one kind of touchstone which is very useful in the earlier days. If the thing he brings back is only the reflection of his own thought, a wish he desires to carry out upon the physical plane, then you may be sure there will be a great deal of feeling mixed up with it, grievous impatience, hurry, excitement, and anger, if the carrying out is opposed; whereas, if it be really a teaching of his Master, then he will show down here on the physical plane a calm, a peacefulness, an utter absence of excitement and passion of any kind. Now inasmuch as it is his Master's will, he will know that. His will must work itself out if only he does not oppose it; and that what is wanted on his side, that the Master's will may be done on the physical plane, is simply devotion, calm, and patience, putting no obstacle in the way but waiting until the impulse comes from the higher plane, which has in it the certainty of self-realization.
And the man who is trying to be an occultist will test himself in this way. If he finds himself very excited he will refrain from action, knowing that excitement is alien from the spiritual impulse. But if he finds a steady conviction which is able to wait for its realization, with no hurry, no excitement, which knows that every necessary circumstance will be brought into being by the Master, he may be sure his inspiration is from above and that he is not being led away by the echoes of his own desires. Hence, again, the enormous importance of that purifying process I alluded to, before real advance is made in occult knowledge and power.
Now a great change takes place in the higher vehicles of the occultist, a change which is slow but steady and which must be completed before he is really available as an instrument on higher planes than this. You have read in some of our Theosophical books, mostly in some books or papers of Mr. Leadbeater's, that the astral and the mental, as well as the physical, matter of which our bodies are composed, is elemental essence with a tendency downwards, that is to say, the ordinary mental body is made up of elemental essence, that of the higher kingdom, coming downwards towards the astral plane. So on the astral, the essence of which our astral body is composed is striving to come downwards to the physical; hence a continual downward movement in the very matter of our bodies.
Now as the occultist evolves, a change takes place in the material of which his astral and mental bodies are composed. The change consists in the rearrangement of the matter, and that rearrangement of the matter gives vehicles respectively for different kinds of life. The former arrangement of the matter gives vehicles for the downward-coming wave of the life of the Logos; the new arrangement of the matter of the astral and the mental bodies gives vehicles for the upward-climbing life of the Monad, the spirit of the man himself; so that, as this change goes on, the downward wave of the life of the second Logos leaves his astral and mental bodies, and his own life, the life of his own spirit, takes the place of that downward-sweeping wave. The result is an entire change in the direction and tendencies of these bodies; before, they tended to go down; now, they tend to go up. Before, the life pushed them downward; now, it is drawing them upward; so that in the perfected body of the occultist his own spiritual life is the ruler of the molecular arrangement, and it is that life which forms its vehicles of the subtler matter and shapes the matter into the bodies that thereafter he uses on the higher planes. This vast and wondrous revolution makes his body useful to him in the future instead of a hindrance, taking away that downward pulling of which he has ever been conscious and giving him as it were wings in his body, wings that lift him instead of clogs that drag him down. Here again comes in the need of that moral growth in self-consciousness of which I spoke. The only safety in this process is in the moral character, in the inner power of the man himself.
When he has thus builded his bodies, when he has thus evolved his consciousness, when he has thus developed his psychic senses, then is he an occultist indeed. Then he will be able to study without fear of error, then he will be able to investigate without fear of failure: for at that point he will be at the threshold of liberation, he will be ready for the Initiation that makes a man a Master. All through his discipleship he has been going through these stages, working along these different lines, and improving himself year by year. In his earliest studies he will make many blunders, and there is no mistake greater on the part of those who have not yet developed any of these faculties, or opened up their consciousness, than to suppose that when a person unfolds some of the astral or even of the mental subtler senses, that he becomes an infallible prophet, an infallible seer. Quite the contrary: he is liable to endless blunders, continual mistakes, and his only safety lies in the honest statement of what he believes to be the truth, and in a readiness to correct and amend it when clearer vision shows him to be mistaken; for there are many possibilities of mistake that open before the growing occultist. I have told you of those that face him on the very threshold.
Putting these aside, his next difficulty will be that there exist on the plane nearest to the earth many who will deliberately try to deceive him, to lead him wrong, to delay his growth, and to impede his gathering of knowledge. He can only gradually eliminate those, feeling them, sensing them, rather than seeing them, recognizing that subtle touch of magnetism which puts him on his guard, the signal of danger. And even when seeing straight and clear, the limitations of his vision are a fruitful source of error, for a thing does not look the same when you see it out of proportion. Seeing a fragment of a picture, you will have very little idea of that portion of the picture hidden from you, and you will not even see correctly the color of the bit you are able to sense, for colors are very much modified by surrounding colors and are not really the same to your vision when you see them surrounded by many other colors that influence the whole, as when you see one fragment shown with perhaps a white surrounding surface. Nor only is this true of color, but it is also true of form, and shapes seen out of proportion look quite different from the same seen in proportion; and seeing a fragment of the higher planes is often misleading because out of proportion to the whole.
So this lack, this limitation, bringing about a disproportion, is also one of the dangers against which the growing occultist must guard himself. And then there is the subtle temptation of pride and power, of thinking himself different from others and not realizing that he can only be an occultist in the higher sense when the forms are as nothing to him and the one life represents all being. Therefore is separateness called the great heresy, for to the occultist there is no more dangerous noose in which his feet may be trapped. If he thinks of himself as separate, at once he drops downward; if he thinks of others as separate from him, at once he is enmeshed in the web of delusion. He must keep clear the vision, which depends on unity, nor allow the pride of superior knowledge to make him hold himself as distinct from the ignorant and the unevolved. Such are some of the difficulties that surround him; and yet none of these difficulties can daunt the soul who has set his heart on knowledge, on the greater service of the world. True, they are difficulties; but difficulties exist only to be overcome. True, they are dangers; but dangers make brave the heart, make strong the muscles of the spirit. So that one who is ready for the occult Pathway will not be affrighted by the dangers nor depressed by the difficulties; but, taking patience in both hands, and with the perseverance that marks the true student, he will address himself to his difficult task, secure in his faith in his Master, secure in his faith in the God that is himself, profound in his love for humanity, whom he is resolute to serve. And thus armed with patience, perseverance, faith and love, he will tread his difficult Path and become an occultist indeed.