Practical Spirituality: Selected Works of John Sell

Auckland, New Zealand: Theosophical Publishing House, 2019. xii + 495 pp., cloth, NZ$60; available from

Called “one of the greatest Theosophists I have known” by John Vorstermans, president of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand, John Sell was active in the work of the TS for over sixty-five years. With a background in both psychology and education, he was deeply involved in developing a wide variety of innovative Theosophical study courses and training programs, including one in public speaking. These efforts formed the basis for similar courses and curricula used by Theosophical groups around the world.

While a charismatic teacher, excellent communicator, and dynamic organizer, John tended to avoid calling attention to himself. Although he had long planned to prepare a book that contained many of his courses, workshops, and other writings, he had put this project on hold in order to coedit (along with his wife, Elizabeth) the landmark three-volume series Sharing the Light, consisting of the writings of Geoffrey Hodson (1886–1983), one of the TS’s most respected teachers.

Ill health prevented Sell from completing his own book during his lifetime. Yet thanks to the herculean efforts of Elizabeth Sell, his essential teachings have been assembled in this highly practical and useful book, which will secure his legacy as one of the TS’s most inspiring teachers.

As a spiritual man with his feet planted firmly on the ground, John always stressed the importance of self-transformation and the application of spiritual teachings to everyday life. He wrote, “Each of us is fundamentally a Soul who is using a physical body, and emotional body and a mind while we are living on Earth.” Our goal in life is to develop, align, and refine these three bodies so that we become more soul-centered and responsive to the spiritual energies that surround us. This especially involves striving to live a righteous life of compassion, self-reflection, meditation, creative visualization, right human relationships, and selfless motivation in all of our endeavors.

This impressive collection contains a wealth of material for both individual and group study. Chapters focus on recognizing and utilizing incoming spiritual energies; techniques for self-transformation, meditation, and prayer (for both individuals and groups); the path of discipleship; understanding karma; aligning physical and subtle human bodies; understanding the Seven Rays; the power of forgiveness; and understanding death. I personally found the chapters about karma especially interesting, and feel that I now have a deeper and broader understanding of this ancient law than ever before.

The chapters about death were equally enlightening. John teaches that death, rather than being feared or rejected, should be viewed as an essential part of one’s evolutionary journey and as a source of creativity and freedom. He writes: “Theosophy teaches that we are not bodies that possess a Soul, but Souls who possess a body . . . As Souls, we are immortal beings that will live and grow throughout all eternity.” As in earlier sections, he offers practical advice, including suggestions for assisting others in the process of dying and sending loving energy to those who have recently died.

Several sections, especially those concerning techniques for self-transformation, meditation, and karma could be stand-alone books and study courses. Each section includes easy-to-understand, step-by-step instructions for integrating the ideas into daily spiritual practice, followed by examples and useful summaries. Self-evaluation forms encourage readers to confront and transform psychological issues that can hinder their journey to self-transformation.

Two aspects that come through in this book are John’s sincerity and his ability to engage the reader. I imagine that’s why, at least in part, his talks and workshops were highly effective: attendees felt that he truly cared about them. His concern and caring are evident in every chapter and provide uplifting support as the reader delves into what are often difficult and complex issues on the path to transformation. Concluding his chapter on “The Radiant Soul,” he wrote:

Seek for the Spiritual Light of Wisdom and Truth,
The Omnipresent and Eternal Light.
Walk towards the Love-filled Light.
Become the Light,
Radiate the Light,
Illumining the world and all Beings.


Practical Spirituality also contains a useful article by Elizabeth Sell titled “Service: A Dynamic Challenge,” on the importance of committing ourselves to practical activities that are of lasting value to both the local and world communities. In addition to illustrations by John Sell and Lionel Taylor, Practical Spirituality contains several full-color reproductions of rare paintings by Elizabeth Sell that are as beautiful as they are inspiring.

This book is recommended for students who have at least a basic understanding of Theosophical teachings and terminology. At first one can feel overwhelmed by the quantity and range of material in this book’s nearly 500 pages. Rather than studying it from beginning to end, some readers may wish to focus on subjects of greatest personal interest and move to other writings later on. Others may prefer to study Practical Spirituality from beginning to end, either alone or as part of a study group. In wide-ranging compilations such as this one, some overlap of material is inevitable, but repetitions are appropriate to the subject matter presented in each chapter.

Practical Spirituality offers a wealth of useful, step-by-step teachings of Theosophy that will challenge, inform and inspire. In addition to being an important addition to the library of every Theosophical lodge or study center, this book will be a core text for individual students who wish to expand their insight, compassion, and understanding of life’s mysteries.

Nathaniel Altman

Nathaniel Altman has been a member of the Theosophical Society in America since 1970. He first met John and Elizabeth Sell in Adyar in 1975.