According to ancient esoteric wisdom, we are each endowed with certain innate powers involving the body, the emotions, the mind, the intuition, the spiritual will, and the atma, or state of pure consciousness. This book draws on ancient wisdom traditions and modern depth psychology to enhance self-knowledge for practical benefits. Discussion includes meditation, the practice of compassion, and how to gain insight into the deepest spiritual truths.
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About the Author
Shirley Nicholson, an eminent Theosophist and the former editor of Quest Books, is also the author of Ancient Wisdom: Modern Insight. She currently lives in Ojai, CA, where she is the Resident Head and Executive Vice President of The Krotona Institute of Theosophy.
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The Seven Human Powers
Luminous Shadows of the Self
By Shirley J. Nicholson
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2003 The Theosophical Society in America
All rights reserved.
Psyche and Cosmos
The heart is the dwelling place of that which is the essence of the universe.... If you draw aside the veils of the stars and the spheres, you will see that all is one with the Essence of your own pure soul.
Farid al-Din Attar
Many stories are told about Nasrudin, the wise fool of Sufi tales. Some of them are traditional and ancient, and some have a contemporary flavor, undoubtedly invented more recently. In one story of the latter sort, Nasrudin goes to the bank to cash a check. The teller asks him for identification. So Nasrudin whips out a mirror from his pocket, looks into it, and says, "Oh, yeah, that's me, all right."
We are often like Nasrudin. In our times, we are under the admonition inscribed at the entrance to the shrine of the Delphic oracle: "Know thyself." But if someone asks us who we are, we are likely to say something like, "I'm a teacher," or "a business person," or "an American," or "a liberal." We tend to look superficially at a reflection of ourselves in our accomplishments and role in the world, at what we do rather than what we are in our innermost being. Like Nasrudin, we say, "Oh, yeah, that's me."
Our century has seen unprecedented development in knowledge about the psyche, our inner being. We know that there are aspects of our inner life of which we are not conscious. We know the almost insuperable strength of automatic habits formed by conditioning. We are becoming aware of the powerful connection of our bodies with our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions, especially with regard to health. We are learning about extrasensory perception, by which people know things they have had no opportunity to learn through the usual channels. We have even glimpsed states of consciousness in which superhuman feats are possible and states of meditation in which profound alterations of mental and bodily functions have been measured. Psychology has unearthed a wealth of information that helps us know and understand ourselves.
The Hidden Structure of Human Nature
Yet there are still depths and layers within us that psychology is only beginning to suspect. Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of the subconscious as the realm of our worst antisocial selves, the sewer of the mind and heart. C. G. Jung expanded that idea to include the collective unconscious, including the memories and capacities that all humans have shared since the birth of humankind. Roberto Assagioli and other more recent transpersonal psychologists have added the concept of the superconscious, the part of ourselves that, though unconscious, is grander and more noble than our ordinary conscious selves. Transpersonal psychology now includes parts of the Self that transcend the individual—universal experiences of higher consciousness that are not limited to a personal mind.
Traditional wisdom has inspired some recent psychologists, whose work is throwing new light on human nature and enriching the knowledge that has come down to us through the ages. An adept teacher of modern Theosophy offered "to exhume the primeval strata of man's being, his basic nature, and lay bare the wonderful complications of his inner self—something never to be achieved by ... psychology in its ultimate expression" (Mahatma Letters 68). Yet transpersonal psychologists are exploring just such "primeval strata."
Some parts of the "primeval strata" have already been discovered. C. G. Jung defined four human functions: sensation, feeling, intuition, and thinking. Huston Smith (60–95), an authority on the world's religions, writes of four levels in nature and in humans that most spiritual traditions recognize. The highest is the infinite, the celestial void, unbounded, undifferentiated. The next level is the celestial, in which individual minds can be distinguished from the universal mind, although they are not separate from it. The third level is the intermediate or psychic plane, the locus of subtle bodies. And the lowest is the terrestrial plane, whose dense material bodies derive from the subtler ones of the third level. Esoteric traditions throughout history have understood in precise detail the many functions and levels of consciousness. They offer a model for the realms that comprise the human psyche, with its depths and shallows, its beauties and horrors. These traditions have also taught us how to develop latent aspects of the self and how to awaken our finer unconscious potentials.
Buddhism, for example, refers to material and psychic elements or "aggregates" that make up the individual mind-body. They are the physical body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations (or emotions and thoughts), and consciousness of the other aggregates. Vedanta philosophy teaches about "sheaths," which are bodies or vehicles of consciousness at various levels. They include a "food sheath," the physical body; a sheath made of vital forces (prana); a sheath for the mind and senses, including emotions; a sheath of higher understanding; and a sheath of bliss. The ancient Egyptians knew how various aspects of personality function in life and death. They held that the physical body is inhabited by the ba, its animating principle of spirit, and the ka, the magnetic powers we call the personality, which can gravitate to either the higher or lower principles; as well as a number of other powers, including the shade or ghost (khaibit), which persists for a while after death. Plato taught that the passions and affections are at different levels within us and have different functions in our lives. Today we might say that the passions are personal and what he called the affections are transpersonal, or not limited only to our personal concerns.
Theosophy, which is a modern statement of the wisdom of esoteric philosophy, offers a clear and comprehensive map of the different layers and functions of the human psyche. These basic powers are termed "principles." Principles are not things but rather powers or ways in which our consciousness can function. All the principles are inherent in everyone. Some principles are developed and consciously used. Others are partially developed and used only to a limited extent. Some are only potential and not used at all. Some principles have not yet dawned into human consciousness, except in a few rare individuals who are ahead of our species as a whole.
The principles include the physical body; the emotional or desire nature (kama in Sanskrit, also called the "astral body"); the mind (manas) with its concrete, everyday functions and its abstract, philosophical aspects; intuition and a sense of unity (buddhi); and pure consciousness (atma), which is the ground of being and encompasses will in its most profound sense: the will to be.
All the other principles are inherent in the last, atma, which is their spiritual core. If we think of ourselves as atma, as pure consciousness without content, just knowingness or the ability to be aware, we might think of the principles as television channels on different frequencies that we can access. When we as atma tune in to WBOD, for instance, we feel the gurgling in our stomach, our chest rising and falling as we breathe, our muscles contracting as we walk. All our senses come into sharp focus. We see how the green of the pine is different from the green of the oak. We are aware of the fragrance of a rose and the pungency of onions. The tinkle of the wind chimes and the auditory quality of our partner's voice come in loud and clear. We are acutely aware of physicality and sense experience.
When we tune in to KICK, we get emotional highs and lows as our emotions rise and fall. Peppy music exhilarates us, or news of a friend's misfortune overwhelms us with sorrow. We are aware of those nuances of anxiety, jealousy, or irritation that we usually ignore. We are in our emotions.
KNOW highlights our intellect and thoughts. On this channel, a flash of memory reminds us to pick up our dry cleaning. Questions about changing our job stay on the screen for a while. A puzzlement appears, raised by a book we are studying. Here we are aware of thoughts of all kinds—logical and irrational, cosmic and personal, significant and trivial.
WAHA shows flashes of intuition. The screen may light up with a sudden insight as to the meaning of a recent illness and how we should change our lifestyle. We may see the cyclic nature of our life and of nature from a new perspective. Sometimes we may even see the oneness and unity among ourselves, nature, and the entire cosmos—or even within the PTA board, in spite of its heated disagreements.
Theosophical writings usually refer to seven principles. H. P. Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society and its seminal teacher, in her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, and in other writings, refers to seven principles. Two of the principles she lists are associated with the physical body: the "vital body" or "etheric double," the physical body's subtler counterpart, and the universal energy or life force (prana) that permeates every level of being, but is especially connected with the vital body. Seven Human Powers highlights five of the principles and covers the vital body and energy with the physical body in chapter 3. The Sanskrit terms for the principles are given below so that the reader may be familiar with them, as they are used in most Theosophical books. They are widely used because it is hard to find an exact English equivalent for many of them.
These principles are amazing powers, but we take most of them for granted because they are so common. Even ordinary mental powers—such as memory, delivery of the word we want, or the ability to grasp an idea—are mysterious and almost miraculous. Neuropsychologists cannot explain them. But in a sense these powers are only shadows of our true identity. They reveal the light of atma, which, as Indian sage Shankaracharya says in The Crest Jewel of Wisdom, "causes all things to shine, but which all things cannot make to shine." Atma is the One Light that illumines all creation. The other principles reveal some of the powers of atma but are like two-dimensional representations or shadows that lack the fullness of the real thing. Still, the principles light up our inner being in the world. We can think of them as luminous shadows of our true being, or atma.
Consciousness and the One Life
According to Theosophy, as well as to Vedanta and other Indian systems, "The reality behind all is Brahman, pure consciousness," as the Indian sage Shankaracharya put it. Atma, which is also pure consciousness, is one with Brahman, the ultimate Reality. Individual consciousness in its pure, unclouded state is one with God or the One Life that sustains the cosmos. In Indian philosophy, this fundamental Reality is referred to as sat-chit-ananda: being, knowing or consciousness, and joy. Ultimate Reality is an unbroken continuum of consciousness, and consciousness, not matter, is primary, the ground of all being.
Leading scientists are finding support for this ancient idea in contemporary quantum physics. Saul-Paul Sirag says, "There is only one consciousness in a cosmic sense." Fred Alan Wolf concurs that there is "one basic consciousness in which we are all one" (Mishlove). Amit Goswami goes farther when he states that consciousness is primary. "Consciousness is the ground of being; it is the one and only, the absolute" (Goswami 72). This is the Theosophical position, and although these theorists do not claim to prove that position, their research and thought lends additional credence to the reality of one source-consciousness, from which comes everything that exists.
Although it is universal, this continuum also exists in individuals. As the Upanishads have it, atma is "greater than the great and smaller than the small." The states of consciousness we humans ordinarily experience are rooted in pure universal consciousness, but our minds become limited and clouded through involvement in our different principles and through conditioning. As Blavatsky (Secret Doctrine 1:15) put it, the One Reality is "the field of Absolute Consciousness, i.e., that Essence ... of which conscious existence is a conditioned symbol." It is, however, possible to break through the limits of individual consciousness to the boundless One, as seers and mystics have reported, for "the mind, sense organs, and so on, are illumined by atma alone," according to Shankaracharya (Nikhilandanda 143).
Intuition, mind, emotion, and body (with energy and form)—all the other principles—express something of the immense potential of atma. "The six principles [are] the outcome—the variously differentiated aspects—of the SEVENTH and ONE, the only reality in the Universe" (Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine 1:17). Although atma can be thought of as a continuum of consciousness, an unbroken field, it also expresses itself as points. Each individual is a point of localization in the universal field of atma. We can think of ourselves as a point in the eternal encased in different layers, the six lower principles, a white light surrounded by globes of different colors through which it shines.
Three Levels of Being
The six principles plus atma can be grouped into three aspects of ourselves: the personality, the transpersonal Self or soul, and the spiritual core or atma. Theosophy gives a precise meaning to the term "personality"; it combines the functions of the body, the vital body and its energy, the emotions and desires, and the concrete, everyday part of the mind. You can easily recognize this aspect of the self as you function in daily life. When you make a to-do list, when you feel a surge of anxiety or excitement, when you want an ice-cream cone or a new car, when you feel energized or depleted, you are experiencing aspects of the personality. It is the most familiar part of ourselves.
According to C. G. Jung, the soul or subjective "inner personality," which stands outside time and space, consists of a certain "limited complex of functions." In Theosophy, too, though the soul or transpersonal Self is seen somewhat differently than from Jung's view, it is not vague and unformed. It has specific powers: the abstract, philosophical mind; the intuition or unity sense; and the spiritual will. You are familiar with these functions in yourself, but you use them less often than those of the personality. When you get a sudden rush of compassion, when you reach to understand the nature of an abstract idea, when the solution to a persistent problem dawns on you, when you act heroically without thinking of yourself, when you resolve to follow a spiritual path, when you are taken out of yourself by music or a sunset, you are calling on the powers of the transpersonal Self. Ken Wilber, a principal theorist in the transpersonal movement, refers to this level of experience as a deeper within and a wider beyond.
The transpersonal Self serves as a bridge between the personality and the pure transcendent unity of atma where there is no separate self. It is the locus of individuality, the refraction of the One Light into an individual ray. Many Theosophical sources use the term individuality for that soul or transpersonal Self.
The myth of Narcissus illustrates the relation between the personality and the soul or transpersonal Self. In this story, Narcissus, who is a beautiful youth, sees his reflection in a fountain where he goes to drink. Believing the reflection to be the nymph of the fountain, he falls in love with it. When he smiles, the reflection smiles back at him, and when he opens his arms to it, the reflection opens its arms to him. But when he plunges his arms into the water to embrace it, the reflection flees from his touch. When he finds his beloved unattainable, he pines away, dies, and his shade turns into a flower.
The myth is usually interpreted as a warning against self-love and narcissism. But in Hermetic Gnostic versions of the story, the soul projects its image into the world. It then falls in love with the image and thus becomes captured by the world. The transpersonal Self mistakes its temporary reflection, the personality, as something real that can be grasped and held on to. We become attached to our reflection in the personality, forgetting who we truly are. The Tibetan teacher Nyoshul Khenpo understood the myth of Narcissus in a similar way; he says that "beings become alienated, confused (like Narcissus), and through their own ignorance get lost in self-deception" (110–11). The personality is only a temporary reflection of the soul. When we identify ourselves with it, we become limited to a small range of functions and powers and closed to our higher principles.
Atma, our deepest spiritual core, is outside the sphere of individual selfhood. It is universal and impersonal, one with the divine or Brahman, the one essence of all. We may have occasional intimations of the oneness of pure atma, which is consciousness itself, not colored by the principles, though normally we function only through the other principles.
Figure 2 depicts the principles grouped according to the levels of consciousness. Atma is represented in the chart as spiritual will, the will to be. The Theosophical teacher and social activist Annie Besant called will "the power aspect of consciousness." It is the charioteer that drives the horses of both the personality and the transpersonal Self.
Excerpted from The Seven Human Powers by Shirley J. Nicholson. Copyright © 2003 The Theosophical Society in America. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 ~ Psyche and Cosmos,
Chapter 2 ~ The Mystery of Consciousness,
Chapter 3 ~ The Body: Our Physical and Energetic Instrument,
Chapter 4 ~ The Emotions: The Powerhouse of Life,
Chapter 5 ~ The Mind: Bipolar Consciousness,
Chapter 6 ~ The Intuition: Knowledge by Fusion,
Chapter 7 ~ The Spiritual Will: The Transcendent Principle,
Chapter 8 ~ Ego and Atma: The I and the All,