Compass Newsletter Summer 2011 No.14
By Sarah Belle Dougherty
Sometimes our awareness of entrenched human selﬁshness and amorality is almost overwhelming, particularly when it is found in so many organizations — local, national and international, governmental, commercial, and nonproﬁt. Faced with powerful, widespread greed and exploitation, manipulations, brutality, and indifference to individuals — cloaked at times under idealistic or humanitarian motives — it is easy to become cynical, yet shrugging off such behavior as “just human nature” is by so much supporting and insuring its continuation. Is there anything that we as individuals can do to change practices that occur on such a large scale? The two commandments of the New Testament hold a key, I think: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and — “the second is exactly like the ﬁrst” — to love our neighbour as ourselves. By love Jesus did not mean attachment, which originates in our limited sense of self and consequently brings with it fear, possessiveness, and self-centeredness. The love Jesus spoke of, rooted in our spiritual depths, is as all-encompassing and all-knowing as divinity itself. When we love divinity wholeheartedly, it cannot help but manifest in our heart and, in time, transform us. For, as the ancient Hindu precept has it, Yadyad rupam kamayate devata, tattad devata bhavati: whatever a divine being loves or desires, that thing it becomes — and we are divine beings, though we seldom realize it, all springing from the same spiritual source. It is our inability to truly love that allows us to ignore, if not promote, the behavior that makes human life so tragic. By centering our consciousness in the superﬁcial aspects of our natures we see ourselves as fundamentally separate and disunited. We tend in this state to feel that spiritual values and views, while true in principle, are utopian and impractical. But to live according to the basic spiritual imperatives of mankind is neither naive nor unreasonable; any impression to the contrary comes only from our being out of step with the cosmos. Divine love, freeing us from our individual limitations, lets us see reality more clearly, undisturbed by self-centered emotions, opinions, and preferences. In replacing fear and self-centeredness with compassion, we become what we can and should be — nobly human. While adopting such a course will not always mean success, basing decisions onthe worldly wisdom of selﬁshness and fear often turns out to be the most foolish and imprudent course of all.
Changing our own way of living and thinking may seem an inadequate response to large human problems because individually we seem insigniﬁcant. But by who we are, each of us has a profound inﬂuence on human life everywhere. Humanity exists in a psychological atmosphere fully as real as the earth’s physical atmosphere, and every individual draws upon and contributes to it. By a deliberate effort to aspire toward the divine within us and see the divine in others, we automatically produce a strong impact on this psychological atmosphere, raising the whole by strengthening the positive elements in it.
Conversely, when we are selﬁsh, fearful, self-important, or uncontrolled, we emphasize those negative energies which are also available to mankind. By our aspirations and actions we are having an inﬂuence for good or ill on countless members of the human race who attract those same psychological energies to themselves. We also, of course, have many opportunities to make a difference at home, at our jobs, as local, national, and international citizens, and as members of various organizations. When we attempt to make divine love the core of our life and aspirations, we add something of value to whatever groups we are part of. Looking at life constructively, we can make a conscious effort to appreciate and bring out the best in those around us, whether or not we agree with them or like them personally. So-called “enlightened self-interest” is still promoted by some as a social good, particularly for organizations; yet self-interest can be “enlightened” only when our self includes all mankind, indeed all the planet. We are only fooling ourselves if we think we can make positive contributions and changes through self-seeking activities designed to bring about our own personal vision of what is ﬁtting. The ends cannot justify the means — we live in a universe of realities, not just appearances. Our motives and attitudes at least equal in inﬂuence the visible consequences of our actions: egotism and arrogance, conscious or unconscious, will neutralize whatever good we wish to accomplish. The minute-by-minute process of living, the inner quality of our life and consciousness, these comprise “reality,” not any set of outward appearances or results we would choose to point to. We become what we think, feel, and do, and by these choices constantly shape our future self and at the same time contribute to the destiny of mankind.
We cannot expect organizations to act on principles that we in our own lives are unwilling to practice. If we wish to have organizations and governments of vision and compassion which seek to practice their professed ideals, then we each must do our part by striving to live up to our own individual ideals: by refusing to become apathetic or cynical so that practices and policies go unexamined, and by participating constructively in our many contacts with others. We each bear the karma of the actions of the various groups or bodies we help form, and by our consent or indifference take part in their decisions. Often it takes a great deal of courage to practice what we believe, yet perfect love does cast out all fear, and with love of divinity and our fellow human beings at the center of our aspirations, we can ﬁnd the inner stamina we need in trying to live up to whatever decisions and commitments we undertake, whether to family and friends or to society at large. Only when enough people make a deliberate effort to rise above egoism and fear, and to embody the spiritual values they feel are true, shall we see a reduction in institutionalized selﬁshness and amorality and real, lasting improvement in the lot of mankind.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)
(Sara Maitland is author of ‘A Book of Silence’)
From The Independent Newspaper, Sunday, 14 November 2010
We have a strange love-hate relationship with silence. We believe we admire and honour it. We certainly acknowledge that silence is good for our health, not just mental but physical. For all the evidence suggests that, among other beneﬁts, regular periods of silence lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve concentration, aid digestion and improve memory. Too much noise is damaging to our hearing, our sleep rhythms and our ability to process information.
More, we venerate silence as the wellspring of creativity, wisdom and profound thought – the “school of genius”. That was said of solitude originally, but since the Romantic poets took to exploring their true inner selves in the most sublime places they could ﬁnd, uncontaminated by the “shades of the prison house”, solitude and silence have become inextricably linked.
Culturally, we give full assent to Kafka’s claim that “there can never be enough silence around one when one writes”, and to Woolf’s assertion that a woman writer needs “a room of her own”. We agree with Carlyle that “under all speech lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time”, and with Keats that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”. We declare that creativity is a universal human good, and silence and solitude are needed to develop it.
Similarly, we in the West have a respect for and fascination with the religions of the East, particularly Buddhism, and this seems to be grounded in the silence of meditation. Within the Christian tradition too, there is now a renewed interest in silence; the retreat movement is booming; the spirituality of the Desert Fathers is newly popular. In the 18th century, William Lecky wrote of them as “hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac[s], without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection”.
What underlies this whole strand of thought is that silence enhances self-awareness and allows us to be in touch with our “inner” (and more real) life and is therefore somehow “authentic” even if we are not all creative geniuses. We seek the silence of the wilderness, or the psychoanalyst, in a noble pursuit of our own true identity. In a slightly different way, the “proper” response to extreme feelings, positive or negative, is held to be silence. Awestruck and dumbstruck are synonymous. Whether it be the spontaneous silence before the applause when a performance deeply moves us or the banner headline about an”unspeakable crime” (which always means the newspaper is about to speak of it at great length), words are supposed to fail us at extreme moments, and only silence is appropriate.
So, yes, we love silence. Why then do we do everything possible to avoid it? Why do we willfully and determinedly set about eliminating it from our actual lives? There are now more mobile phones than people in Britain; instant and constant verbal communication is experienced not so much as a pleasure, but as a necessity. Background music, even in shopping malls where there is already a great deal of noise, so that no one can actually hear the music, is ubiquitous.
The length of an acceptable silent pause on the radio has been reduced steadily over the last decade. Silence in public places, like libraries or churches, is increasingly considered oppressive rather than valuable.
Modernity is necessarily noisy, even in the simple sense that cities are noisier than villages. The progression from walking through riding and and motoring to ﬂying is a progression in volume as well as speed. A tumble dryer is noisier than a washing line; a hairdryer than a towel; a vacuum cleaner than a broom. Nothing is getting any quieter. One might somehow expect then that silence would be more valued, treated as precious, protected like a species in danger of extinction; but this is clearly not happening at any physical or social level.
It is not happening at the cultural level, either. More and more people are urged to “talk about it”. To speak out is a virtue; the oppressed must “come to voice”, men must learn to “express their emotions”, women to articulate their discontents. Despite the broad acceptance that quiet reduces stress, enhances and enables calm, no such peace is offered to the over-stressed. No mental hospital makes any provision for those who need some silent space – on the contrary, liberal and progressive psychiatry offers “talking cures”. And indeed this may be right for many, even most, highly anxious, depressed or disconnected individuals. But it seems strange that there should be no provision for silence even for those who want it, and that solitude is seen only as an extreme punishment, amounting even to torture.
In 1988, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr commented: “The burden with which we are at present loading personal relationships is too heavy for those fragile craft to carry…. Love and friendship are of course an important part of what makes life worthwhile. But they are not the only source of happiness.” Thirty years later we have still not taken this on board, but instead seek ever more and more social connections, however thin, rather than seeking silent nourishment. We may believe that silence is a crucial source of creativity and strong identity, and that creativity and strong identity are good, but we do not encourage children to enjoy or use silence. Indeed, we actively prevent them from doing so. We ﬁll their private space with noise: most teenagers have a television, as well as music in some form, in their own bedrooms. This is surely the worst of allpossible worlds: the young person is neither silent alone, nor engaging in genuine social interaction.
We monitor and manage their lives, ﬁlling them with social activity. A large number of adults recall times of solitude, ideally in the open air, doing “nothing” quietly, as among the most positive memories of childhood – and yet they energetically prevent their own young from experiencing these delights. Overall, our young people are materially better off and have a longer life expectancy than ever before, but are not happier. It does not seem extreme to wonder whether there is some link between the painful increase in both behavioural problems and depression in adolescents and the constant over-stimulation and compulsory noise that we adultforce upon them.
Silence is coming to feel sinister. Nervous chatter breaks out to cover even brief moments of social silence; “sulking” is experienced as threatening and any failure to respond as both aggressive and judgmental; “loners” are now represented as dangerous and psychopathic, and the more socially retiring as selﬁsh or neurotic – bad or mad. All this suggests a cultural fear of silence. A recent manifestation of this fear is the withdrawing of the right to silence, with the presumption of innocence, from suspected criminals who do not choose to answer police questions or to take to the witness stand in their own defence. This ancient privilege, based in a Christian culture’s recognition of Jesus’s original refusal to answer to his court, could only be sacriﬁced by a society that sees silence as intrinsically dangerous, anti-social or abnormal.
We are terriﬁed of silence and, as with most truly frightening things, we honour it in the abstract and resist it in the quotidian. We construct silence as merely an absence, a blank, rather than an autonomous and powerful force. But I am not sure why we have become so fearful. Perhaps we are terriﬁed of silence because we are terriﬁed of death. Because death is silent, it is easy to believe that silence is death, so perhaps making a lot of noise is a symbolic way of denying death. Any silence becomes a reminder of the long silence of the grave. Yet many of the great forces by which we live, are silent. The vast immensity of space is silent, because sound waves, unlike light or radio waves, cannot travel through a vacuum. Gravity, electricity, the warmth of sunlight, the turning of the tides are all silent. Organic growth, life itself, the division of cells is silent.
Silence creates and sustains not death, but the circumstances and possibility of being alive. Silence is a very subtle and lovely thing; it requires practice, discipline and nourishing; it gives back grace and growth and well-being. We lose it at our peril.
Sara Maitland – ‘A Book of Silence’
“Everything you can imagine is real” – Pablo Picasso
There is a plan, a design, a secret, that is locked in our hearts. It’s always been there, throughout the journey of Evolution. Each opportunity we encounter (which really means everything that presents itself to us in our daily life) is like a drop of oil working on a tumbler in the lock that guards the plan. The oil enables the tumbler to turn more easily when the key locates itself. It turns, a little more, and we know that each drop of oil, each turn of the tumbler, each daily encounter with Life, takes us one turn nearer to opening the lock, nearer to the plan making itself known to us. Once we catch a hint of what the plan is, we are changed forever and we remember that everything that is inside of us and everything that is outside of us has no boundary of separation. We begin to understand that we, and the Universe which surrounds us, are a part of each other. Our limited vocabulary may prevent us from giving voice to the experience that fundamentally moves us but in our actions we can ﬁnd a means to show and share the change that takes place. One way of making a connection with daily life is through the example we show to others. This may be the best, even the only vocabulary we need. Being the best we can, in whatever situation we ﬁnd ourselves, with whoever we ﬁnd ourselves, is all we can do. The best of ourselves will wing itself to the best in others, for like attracts like when done in earnest.
There will be times, we may think too many times, when we feel there is no reciprocation, but looking for a result is not part of the deal. When we give the best of ourselves, that’s it ! The job is done for that particular instance and what returns to us, if anything, has little to do with us. The quality of what we give, through example, contains all. If we don’t hit the mark the ﬁrst time, then try again when the opportunity arises. For if we really give our best then it will always be the right thing to do. If nothing else we will have developed a habit, feeling the pulse that radiates from deep inside of us, of giving our best. Is there any need to seek out circumstances to develop this ? Why not let the events that present themselves each day be our guide and deal with them as best we can. We can do no more. We may ponder on the following from Henri Frédéric Amiel, the Swiss philosopher:
‘Never to tire; never to grow cold; to be patient, sympathetic, tender, to look for the budding ﬂower and the opening heart; to hope always; to love always – this is duty…Every life is a profession of faith, and exercises an inevitable and silent propaganda…Every man is a centre of perpetual radiation like a luminous body: he is, as it were, a beacon which entices a ship upon the rocks if it does not guide it into port…Such is the high importance of example.’
Amiel, Journal Intime (Private Journal). And that, as the saying goes, is Life.
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Newsletter from Abroad
Newsletters received from “Theosophy Down Under”, “Impuls” from our Dutch colleagues, “Contact” from our colleagues in South Africa and “21st Century Path” from our American friends. Each contains very beautiful and interesting articles and topics, for which send our thanks. Copies of these Newsletters are available on request.
Dormit in Astris
Arthur passed on to his reward on 25/5/11. A regular at London meetings, travelling some distance from his home in Leicestershire he was a loyal member whose nuggets of wisdom were always welcome and valuable contributions to the public meetings. We thank a stalwart and a friend and give our love and support to carry him on until the time comes, once again, when he returns to follow the yearning that will reside in his heart.
The greatest gift of kindness to another person is to be in the moment in their presence, to be listening with care, and to be genuinely attentive to them.
Act as if what you do makes a difference. – William James
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is perhaps ﬁghting their own hard battle”
Pat & Sandy Powell