The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
May 2011 – Vol. 14 Issue 3
How often do we think about what we do – not what we are doing, but what we do, why we do it, and what it means in the grand scheme of our life? Some more than others approach what they do with a mindfulness that analyzes their actions and their relationship with the whole. I actually believe that a more universal scope of thinking is on the rise and that this is primarily due to the advent of global interconnectivity and the last hundred years of thinking in a more connected, cosmic way, looking for commonalities rather than dissimilarities.
What does it matter whether we think about what we do? Isn’t ignorance bliss? Why not just do what we do without a care about its connection to others or the universe? The difference is between selflessness and selfishness. If we con-template the things we do and their impact on others and the world around us, with our analyses sometimes forging new thoughts and ways of doing things that change us, maybe that is personal growth and an opening to a selfless path. If we act in our lives with no thought of how our actions benefit or damage another, that is selfishness. Both these approaches to our personal evolution are self-directed, but one takes the right-hand path and the other the left-hand path.
Maybe ignorance and instinct is the animal side of us, and introspection and intuition is the human side of us. If humans don’t reflect on their actions, the values that drive their actions, or the ethics that inform their thoughts, are they operating from the human side of their natures or merely the animal side? Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Baha’i faith, maintained that "we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to life." This would imply that we are on a journey of self-directed evolution in which we are here to learn and to grow our lower self into the higher Self within. Socrates must have been thinking about this at his trial for heresy. His words were (and note the last four, which are often left off): “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”(Plato, Apology 38a).
Examining our thoughts and actions may reveal patterns of behavior that we would like to change. As philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Rather than being an unconscious repetition of old habits, we may chose to create a new mind-path of thinking, and therefore of acting, bringing to our life a fresh perspective and a clearer under-standing. “Know thyself,” as the Greek injunction simply puts it. As we begin to know ourself better, we may take more control of our life and create our destiny in a mindful and ‘present’ manner.
Where can we find guidance? Thinking of ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,’ perhaps we look outside ourselves too much, when each of us is our own teacher. Maybe we don’t need an intermediary, someone external; perchance each of us is in direct communion with the universe and its beneficent heart! – Scott Osterhage
* * * *
Nor Aught nor Nought existed; yon bright sky
Was not, nor heaven's broad roof outstretched above.
What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?
Was it the water's fathomless abyss?
There was not death – yet there was nought immortal,
There was no confine betwixt day and night;
The only One breathed breathless by itself,
Other than It there nothing since has been.
. . . . . . . .
Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here?
Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang?
The Gods themselves came later into being –
Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?
That, whence all this great creation came,
Whether Its will created or was mute,
The Most High Seer that is in highest heaven,
He knows it – or perchance even He knows not. – Rig Veda
Interfaith Discussion: Tending Adam’s Garden Study/Dialogue Circle concludes Sunday, May 1, by examining the question “How Do We Broaden Our Understanding of the Term ‘We’?” Join us from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at St Peter’s Methodist Church, 17222 NE 8th St., Bellevue. For more information or to RSPV, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. (flier)
Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month our topic is The Examined Life. Socrates held that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Do you agree? What might an examined life look like? What encourages it, or its opposite? What are some useful ways of discerning, analyzing and evaluating one’s beliefs, habits, values, and way of life? Is this best done solo or with others? Can there be too much self-knowledge? In self observation, what is doing the observing and what is it looking at? Socrates’ search for truth led directly to his death; why was such a search so threatening to others? We hope to see you there!
June 7: Democracy
July: The Big Bang
August: Living Beyond War: Nonviolent Conflict Resolution
How can we bring more compassion into the world? In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life Karen Armstrong sets out a practical plan that ordinary people can use to begin making compassion a living reality in their lives. To do this involves applying ancient wisdom to current challenges in new ways: “As we begin our journey, we should recall that the sages, prophets, and mystics of these traditions did not regard compassion as an impractical dream. They worked as hard to implement it in the difficult circumstances of their time as we work today to find a cure for cancer. They were innovative thinkers, ready to use whatever tools lay to hand in order to reorient the human mind, assuage suffering, and pull their societies back from the brink. They … insisted that every person had the ability to reform himself or herself and become an icon of kindness and selfless empathy in a world that seemed ruthlessly self-destructive.” (p. 64) She points to timeless principles in many traditions that remain valid despite the outmoded culture-bound specifics used to express them.
The program she outlines is twofold: changing the mind and expanding empathy. She begins with the first aspect, asking us to study different traditions' teachings on compassion and then explore deeply the tradition that interests us most or that we have the most sympathy with. Later steps encourage us, like Socrates, to realize how little we actually know and begin a search for truth that recognizes the second- and third-hand source of most of our views and "knowledge." Entering this search for truth entails focusing on learning from others and being less attached to our own views, which all too often are merely outgrowths of our egos. Later still, she encourages picking one country or culture to learn about in depth, and also reading books on each side of a current controversy to practice taking a impartial view.
The second aspect, developing empathy, proceeds at the same time. In this context developing self-knowledge requires having compassion for yourself because "The Golden Rule … asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behavior with others. If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people. So we need to acquire a healthier and more balanced knowledge of our strengths as well as our weaknesses." (p. 77) An important tool here is mindfulness: becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings and getting in the habit of stepping back from ourselves for a clearer view. "The faith traditions agree that compassion is the most reliable way of putting the self in its proper place, because it requires us 'all day and every day' to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there." (p. 87) Holding that imagination is crucial to developing empathy, she suggests a daily meditation from Buddhism that involves taking a friendly attitude toward oneself, then putting aside anxieties, tapping into the capacity for joy, and finally trying to achieve an equal-minded or nonattached view of oneself. This practice is gradually expanded to include those we are indifferent to, like, dislike, and even enemies, always ending by taking a more impartial view toward them. An additional imaginative path to expanding empathy is the arts, where we can vicariously experience the joys and sufferings of a wide variety of people.
Another practical step for enlarging our concern to include everyone is pausing occasionally during the day to think of all the people (and other beings) involved in producing the things of daily life: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our toothbrush, the machines we use. Hundreds of individuals are responsible for each aspect, whether with raw materials, transportation, manufacture, or retail. Human life is built on this interdependence which we rarely stop to consider.
But empathy and knowledge are not enough; there must be action. Armstrong recommends at first committing to doing three compassionate acts each day: one that embodies “treat others as you’d like to be treated”; one that embodies “don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like done to you”; and a finally changing a negative thought or attitude to a positive one. As this becomes routine, we can try to carry out two of each type of action daily, with the ultimate goal of filling all our days with such acts.
Even armed with many concrete suggestions, living a life filled with empathy and compassion is an ambitious task: "the attempt to become a compassionate person is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day – or even in twelve steps." (p. 192) Yet this is a practical, doable project that anyone anywhere can undertake in their own way and at their own pace. For each person’s efforts, however small they seem, contribute tangibly to the quality of human life