Psychic vs. Spiritual Development

Roundtable Discussion with James A. Long

Question -- The two of us here belong to a group of young people around the ages of sixteen to twenty-two. We meet regularly to discuss all kinds of questions, ranging from social and cultural matters to philosophy and religion, as we are interested in finding more satisfying answers than the usual religious sources have so far offered. We've looked into the ideas of reincarnation and karma, and even psychism, and should like to know your viewpoint on these things, especially on psychic development.

Comment -- I emphatically do not encourage psychic development. It cannot be denied that man has such hidden powers and far more subtle forces within him, but they will come into active function naturally as the inner consciousness of the individual is able to utilize them properly. But this proper and wise use will not occur unless we first accent the fulfillment of our dally responsibilities.

Question -- But when man has these inner powers, why should it be wrong to develop them?

Comment -- Let me make this clear: while I myself definitely frown upon the forced development of extra-normal powers, I have no criticism of the individual member of any group who may believe otherwise. My criticism centers upon the misconception and misapplication of ancient spiritual principles. For millennia the sages have warned against an unnatural delving into the psychic, and have stressed the cultivation of the moral and spiritual as the chief line of endeavor. I speak only in principle, with no wish to influence you at all. But if we try to live what we can grasp of the truths that have been enunciated by all the world teachers, with no emphasis on psychic powers, then we will, by karma, attract to ourselves the very experiences that we require.

Spiritual enlightenment is something that is going on all the time, every hour of every day, and not just in organized gatherings or on Sundays or in special circumstances with particular ceremonials. Our main responsibility is to do our full duty -- not only to our family, to our profession, but to our nation, our fellowmen, and not least to our higher self. After that, if we have any time and energy left, we can think about doing specific calisthenics in order to develop our spiritual muscles!

Question -- Some of us believe in the rebirth of the soul, but what exactly is it that reincarnates?

Comment -- What is the continuum of guidance in the experience of any human being? It must be something connected, either directly or indirectly, with the immortal self that takes birth from life to life. Some call it the reincarnating ego or element, that permanent part of us which has brought with it a portion of the assimilated experiences of the past, and which thus gives the impulse to action in any one lifetime, setting the stage for the soul to act and react. Where does the stage setting come from? The reincarnating ego does not consciously manufacture it. Karma sets the stage by drawing from that great reservoir of experience which each one of us has accumulated. Thus it allows our higher self to bring a personality to birth which will help round out and strengthen and increase the value and spiritual quality of the reincarnating ego. In the university of life the classroom is the family and environment in which we are born. And the teacher? Every one is teacher as well as pupil. All whom we contact in the course of growing up and living either will teach us something, or we have something that will give them what they need -- it may be only a smile or a frown -- a natural exchange that works infallibly, both ways, whether we are aware of it or not. It is our attitude toward the circumstances of life that makes our future, and gives us in the process the exact training that will allow our consciousness to expand into a broader understanding of our responsibilities.

Every great world religion has stressed in its own way the importance of cause and effect as a moral guide in the lives of earnest students. I say "earnest students" advisedly, and let me go a step further: every leader in spiritual thought has emphasized what I like to call the unfolding karmic script of our lives. Now you probably have studied something of man's threefold nature: the higher self, the middle self and the lower self. In our present stage of growth we are gaining firsthand experience in our middle self, the realm of the soul or the human ego. We can associate our thoughts and interests with the upper and find inspiration and guidance; or we can look toward our lower natures and become depressed and confused.

Question -- Do you suggest any organized program for young people like ourselves?

Comment -- My feeling is this: As every program of necessity encompasses individuals of differing character and karma, once you develop a set agenda of activity immediately you run the risk of trying to force everyone into the same mold of thought. You begin to crystallize something. This is wrong from the standpoint of the reincarnating ego that is striving so hard to work out its own pattern of growth. I know this sounds strange, and perhaps it is on the surface, but I am convinced of its fundamental soundness.

Among young people especially, at this point of the century cycle, there are egos who are entering earth life with a wider wave length of experience back of them than a formalized religious concept could possibly satisfy. They are seeking the living truth -- not dogmas. The moment you try to fit one or more of those open-minded individuals into a prescribed plan of action, of thinking, of aspiration, he will revolt against such hemmed-in limitations.

Moreover, the climate of world thought will not be affected permanently by flash effects, by importunings. Too many organizations today work with that sort of thing, but their efforts, however sincere, peter out because serious-minded men and women are beginning to suspect that truth cannot be attained without individual sacrifice. There never has been, nor will there ever be short cuts to spiritual growth; and it would be a cardinal error to attempt to create such an impression.

Also let us not stumble into the pitfall so common in our highly specialized society, and think that if we deliberately organized a body of thoughts, or worked out a group of intricate formulas, just for the sake of achieving good results, our goal would be accomplished. We would find in the end that those very "good results" sought for would be nullified insofar as lasting benefit to humanity is concerned. Right here the ancient injunction to become unattached to the "fruits of action" is applicable. How often we act, even compassionately we think, and yet the undercurrent of our action is tinged with a selfish desire to see the good results, and to feel that we had a part in bringing them about. If we really wish to serve, then we should take no thought of results, for they are the concern of the Great Law whose operations are wiser and kindlier than man could devise. So let us shy away from formulas and incantations, or concentration on given thoughts for given ends. They lead us into byways that in most cases lure us from our main objective.

Question -- This is very different from the manner of teaching as found in the churches, and even in education, where we are grooved to think along certain lines.

Comment -- All of us must achieve understanding in our own way. Why should anyone who professes to have an interest in the welfare of his brothers try to make a 'canned' vehicle of thought into which to pour their spiritual energies? It would be absurd. It is that very approach which has killed the work of the great teachers who have tried to inject into the thought-life of the world the pure stream of truth.

What happens when you and I exchange thoughts as we sit here together? Unconsciously to yourselves, you are pulling from me exactly what you need; and you in turn are helping me. That is the way karma works. It is not man-made; it is a law that flows from the Divine Intelligence. If we are acting within the moral structure of life, we shall know it and reap benefit; if we act against the laws of nature, we shall also know it, sooner or later, and will reap difficulty and suffering until we adjust our thinking and our attitudes. We cannot assess the karma of another, for we do not know into what areas of experience his higher self is leading him so that the proper values may be impressed on the soul. The wonderful part of it all is that our very mistakes are often our greatest teachers, for no one reaches a successful outcome except through conquest of failure. We need never be afraid therefore to make mistakes, for the light that will follow our learning from error will help us on the roadway of our future. Thus each one teaches himself; and, if the motive is sincere, when he slips, instead of falling with his face in the shadow and with darkness ahead, he falls uphill with his face toward the sun. That is occultism in its purest sense. The true occultist -- not the false teacher of psychism or of the so-called 'occult sciences' which are fraught with peril -- does not force teaching or instruction on anyone, but by the enlightening quality of example quietly points the way.

It is surprising how deeply these truths, which have been taught down the ages, are being activated today in the consciousness of our fellowmen. Thousands upon thousands are searching, just as you are. They are not interested in spiritual gymnastics; they want to know how to integrate their thinking with basic spiritual values in order better to meet the problems that are grinding into their consciousnesses. Certainly no demonstrations of psychic and extrasensory power will teach us. Only in the mill of life's discipline, at the end of each experience, will be found a measure of wisdom.

Question -- In our group we have recently started inviting leaders in various branches of thought in order to compare their ideas with ours. But we have found that there are so many different brands of teaching. Do you think it is possible that some day all those who believe in higher things will work together in one organization?

Comment -- I don't believe there ever will be a formal merging of outer organizations. Spiritual unity is an inner thing, and no amount of exoteric maneuvering will ever bring it about. However, in decades to come, perhaps in future centuries, it may be that a far greater number of individuals and societies will rediscover the common stream of spiritual principles and put them into practice in their lives. When this occurs, the outer framework of separate organizations will pass out of existence, and the inner unity of thought will consolidate the true values. Nothing could stop that, because these spiritual units in the vehicle of the heart of humanity would be working together, and the pulsebeat of truth would be circulating the lifeblood of evolutionary progress through the whole of mankind.

Question -- But don't you think that all religions, all groups, have tried to do just that, only they have crystallized in different ways?

Comment -- Unselfish endeavor, wherever expressed, will always contribute to the strengthening of the efforts of that small but potent nucleus whose goal is a wider exemplification of brotherhood among all men. In the course of each individual's doing his natural duty the peregrinations of goodness that occur will be unlimited. They do not stop at the two or three people with whom an exchange takes place, but continue on and on. Just as the ripples in a calm lake will widen into infinity, so will a sincere interchange of good works affect the entire body of mankind. It will be a genuine benefit, too, because it is a spontaneous expression of godhood and not a manufactured antidote for selfishness. Right action does spring from Divinity, from the wellspring of inspiration that spurs each of us on; and that is why the effect of a selfless act carries on ad infinitum.

Have you read the Bhagavad-Gita?

Question -- No, but we have heard of it. Would you advise our studying it?

Comment -- I think you would profit by a careful perusal of the Gita. There have been many translations into English and other modern languages. I myself prefer W. Q. Judge's Recension because, while not in poetry, in its prose form it has kept close to the original in spirit. It is a beautiful little book, profoundly esoteric beneath the surface of the exoteric story. The Bhagavad-Gita itself is but one small episode from the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and relates the adventures of two armies "drawn up in battle array," in the midst of which stands Arjuna who sees in the opposing army his "preceptors and friends" of old and refuses to fight. Krishna, standing for Arjuna's higher self, admonishes him to "arise" and face the foe of his former self. In the dialogue that follows, this principle among others of great value is enunciated by Krishna: out of hundreds of thousands, only one strives for perfection; and out of all those who do so strive, only one comes to know me as I am.

Now that same principle applies not only to the churches and all of these spiritual 'teachers,' but to the entire world of ideas: out of these there may be just one or two who have a relatively untrammeled perception. All the great religions in their first beginnings were expressions of truth. But alas, among the disciples who were most devoted to the 'new' thought, how many truly understood with the eyes of the soul? Only a portion was glimpsed; and when that portion was committed to writing it became fixed, and finally became a dogma. Their concepts may have been accurate from the vantage point of their own consciousness, but they were not necessarily truthful for everyone. Take any group of men, and go to any city or spot on this globe, and give them all identic views to look at, and then ask them to tell you what they saw. Each will give you a different story. So with truth -- each of us perceives but a facet of a facet of truth.

Question -- Would you say that people who try to develop their psychic powers are definitely going the wrong way?

Comment -- How could we possibly say to someone else: "Your way is wrong; follow my way, because I know it is right." Only his inner motive can determine what is the right or the wrong path for him. But if anyone has as his prime objective the development of his psychic nature, then I would guess he was following a road that would eventually lead him into a blind alley.

Take mediumship, and the ability to see visions and thought-forms and to have power to read another's mind -- all of these things have nothing to do with the spiritual nature. They are hindrances rather than helps, because they tend to entice the soul away from its goal. Why do I say this when there is such interest today in these extrasensory powers? As said, it is not because they do not exist; obviously, if they were but figments of the imagination, there would be little danger in them. But it is because of their very real existence that they pose one of the greatest challenges. You remember what the Master Jesus said: Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things will be added unto you. This is what every world teacher has said: Seek first the path of spiritual enlightenment, the sunlight of the divinity within, rather than the moonlight of the psychic nature; then the rays of light from above will flow down through your entire nature, illuminating the daily affairs of your life. When this happens, "all these other things" will indeed be added unto us in their natural cycle. Then, and then only, will we be prepared to handle them wisely, and without hazard to ourselves and others.

Question -- But that is rather a slow process. Many people don't like to wait for this, but prefer to hasten their growth.

Comment -- Actually, the pursuit of psychic development, while seeming a faster and more colorful route, is a much longer avenue of experience, and eventually may lead into the dead end of psychic imbalance where, for the time at least, the soul finds itself out of alignment with the spiritual and physical poles of its nature. The unnatural forcing, by wrong meditation, breathing exercises, and other questionable practices can develop the psychic centers in man. But if this is done before the natural time for their flowering when understanding of their proper use would come, there is great danger that the soul's progress may be delayed for lifetimes.

If our motive is earnest and our aspiration is strong and impersonal in the direction of truth, we will eventually find that roadway that is essentially right for us, no matter how many wrong steps we may take in getting there. As Krishna says in the Gita: "In whatever way men approach me, in that way do I assist them; whatever the path taken by mankind, that path is mine." In other words, in the largeness of time, regardless of what road we follow, ultimately the divinity within us is going to link up with its child. The task of the greatest as well as the least of the helpers of mankind is to quicken this process by being midwives to the souls of men. That was the mission of Socrates: to stimulate the soul qualities of the youth of Athens to fuller birth.

Spiritual unfoldment is one of the most moving experiences a man can have. However, if an individual is looking for some high-powered development, he will be sorely disillusioned. The only real drama is that of his own soul becoming wider and wider awake. When that happens, his vision of life and of all that is taking place in his inner nature as well as in the universe becomes intensely radiant with the fullness of spirit. That is drama at its highest.

  • (From Expanding Horizons by James A. Long. Copyright © 1965 by Theosophical University Press)

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