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We often hear that all religious and mystical paths lead to the same goal—God. This is doubtless true if we take a long-range evolutionary view of existence, if we think in terms of hundreds of lifetimes rather than a single one. But if we descend from ultimate to immediate considerations, we shall find that there are important differences among the attainments of the different paths.
Mysticism is a strange country. Mystical hermits who withdraw from their fellows physically may in time withdraw their fellow-feeling from them, too. When they settle down to enjoy the inward peace that world-shunning will admittedly yield, there arises the danger of a complete introversion of the sympathies, a callous self-centeredness in social relations and a cold indifference to the fate of humankind. We see it in the persons of ascetics and yogis especially, who—because they are so sublimely wrapped up in their own inner peace—are regarded as perfect sages by an ignorant populace and are honored accordingly.
We must not fail to note the implication that the millions of suffering human creatures would then share in this supposed non-existence. Such a crankily ascetic and confusedly metaphysical indifference to the world leads inevitably to an indifference toward all humankind. Its welfare is not their concern. Thus, from a social standpoint they become impotent. To show, in the face of world agony, an emotional callousness and an intellectual apathy is a spiritual greatness that I have no desire to attain. On the contrary, I would regard it as spiritual littleness.
I wanted to know why mystics play such an insignificant part in the collective life of humankind when, if their theories are true and their powers exist, they ought to be playing a leading part. For I believed then, and even more so now, that the ultimate worth of an outlook on life that inculcates the hidden unity of the human family is its power to find expression in the earthly life of humankind. I believe that those who possess such an outlook should endeavor to render it effectual, first in their own everyday existence, and second in that of society, and not be content only with dreaming or talking about it.
I believe that there is laid upon them the duty to try to mold, however slightly, the public mind; to try to guide the contemporary public welfare movements and to inspire; to try to influence or counsel the leaders and intelligentsia. They should not find an excuse for their failure to do so in the public distaste for mysticism, for they are not asked to obtrude the subject itself, but only its fruits in useful service and wise guidance.
Nor ought they to refuse the task as foredoomed to failure in the face of evil public karma. It is their duty to try, unconcernedly, leaving all results to the Overself. In short, if their claims to esoteric knowledge and extraordinary powers are worth anything at all and can be demonstrated by results, they ought to try to leave their mark on history in a most unmistakable manner.
Mysticism and Politics
There is a common belief that writers on a higher thought should avoid politics, but it is a belief common only among the mystically inclined or monastically minded, not among the philosophically trained. The only kind of mysticism I follow is the philosophical kind. Now it is, among several other things, part of the business of philosophy to examine political principles and ethical problems.
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Nevertheless, those accustomed to move in the fixed orbit of ascetic mysticism, with its aloofness from politics as an expression of its aloofness from all earthly things, may be surprised or even shocked at the thought that a professed mystic should put forth such ideas as will be found in the next few pages. Many may consequently misjudge them and think that I am stooping into the dust of politics or airing nationalistic prejudices.
Those friends, however, who really know me will not make this error. I can honestly say with Thomas Paine, “The world is my country!” I have found loyal, loving friends and bitter malicious enemies in every continent, among the Asians as among the Westerners, among capitalists no less than communists, and have come to regard all peoples with a more or less equal and cosmopolitan eye, knowing that it is always and ever the individual character that counts. If anyone speaks of God but dislikes another merely because of racial or color difference, be sure he or she is still living in darkness.
If I venture now into what seems like politics for a few minutes, it is only because I do not and cannot divorce anything—not even politics—from life and hence from truth and reality. I have no use for a goodness that wastes itself like a lonely flower in the desert air, nor for self-admiring monastic retreats, as I have no use for a faith or doctrine that is to be confined to the inactive shelves of libraries or the fitful gossip of tea tables.
Waking Up and Breaking the Bewitchment of Spectatorship
Those contemporaries—and they are few indeed—who fled from the turmoil of life and have found satisfaction and peace in secluded Indian ashrams or their Western equivalents, do not represent modern humankind but are rather atavistic throwbacks to more primitive times and more obsolete outlooks, persons quite understandably repelled by the complexity and strain of present-day life. Unfortunately, they overlook the fact that it is precisely to understand such complexity and to master such struggle that the God they profess to obey has thrown them into modern Western bodies.
Do they seriously believe that they are reborn on earth only to pass through the same experience and the same environment each time? No! Life is perennially fresh and they return to learn new lessons from new experiences in new surroundings. To shrink from the difficult present and retreat to the easier past, to evade the problems of modernity by taking refuge in antiquity, to gain no inspiration from their own resources and to lapse back into those of medieval people, is to become defeatists.
The war was their chance to wake up, to quicken their process of thought. If it did not open the eyes of these mystical Rip Van Winkles, then its bestial horror and fiery terror was for them in vain. If the war did not break their unhealthy bewitchment, then the postwar period certainly cannot do so. Mystics who remained mere spectators of the world conflict may have kept their inner peace undisturbed. But there is no need to practice yoga to obtain this kind of negative peace. Every inhabitant of a graveyard has it.
I write only for the others and they are the majority—who are sufficiently aroused not to fall into an escapism that merely evades the problems of living and does not solve them, who do not wish to revert to spiritual atavism in a progressive world, who have been stirred by humankind’s wartime agonies to seek the rugged road to truth no less than the smoother path to peace, and who have come to understand that the only satisfactory question is the one that combines the pursuit of both truth and peace with the unselfish service of humanity. [PB is referring to World War II, but his references to war and world crises also apply to the current world situation.]
From Theory to Practice: Growing Into Disinterested Action
Thought, however exalted, and feeling, however purified, are not of themselves enough to perfect us in the realization of the Overself. They are the seeds that must grow until they blossom into the flower of disinterested action. Therefore, the philosophy of truth knows no difference between theory and practice, for to it both are really one.
The student has every right to ask what practical purpose, what human benefit, what tangible result is to be looked for from these studies. No better test of a teaching can be devised than that simple one that Jesus bade his hearers apply: “By their fruits shall ye know them.” It is as sound and effective today as it was in his own time.
These same points are thrown into high relief by the two world wars and their aftermath. How can we remain indifferent or even indolent, isolated in our own peace, in the face of a world suffering as it never suffered before, if we really feel our mystical oneness with others? The answer, glibly given and gullibly accepted, is that the mystics know best what they ought to do, that it suffices for them to work on mysterious “spiritual” planes of being, and that it is sacrilege for us to criticize them.
But my answer is that the dreams become actual when they leave the head and reach the hand and that in Buddha’s words: “A beautiful thought or word that is not followed by a corresponding action, is like a bright-hued flower that will bear no fruit.”
Fulfillment Through Contemplation, Action, and Service
The mystical ascetic may stand indifferently aside, but the philosophic student cannot do so nor use the quest as an apology for inertia when faced with social responsibilities. Philosophy cannot fulfill itself in the individual alone. It must work through society also. The interaction of both, in obedience to the higher laws of life, provides the field for its complete expression. This is a fundamental difference between the ancient and the modern teaching. The first usually separated the contemplative from the active life, whereas the second always unites them.
The Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist mystics usually had to withdraw from society’s fold to pursue the inner life to its logical end, whereas philosophic mystics of today throw themselves ardently into the world arena to serve others. Everybody sees the historic struggle between the malefic and benefic forces in life, between what would arouse antipathy and stimulate selfishness among people and what would arouse sympathy and stimulate selflessness, but only the sage sees both this struggle and the concealed oneness beneath it.
The disciples of philosophy should not hesitate to become a power in the world, utilizing that power not only for their personal benefit but equally and even more for humanity’s benefit. Their social task is to adjust personal welfare to the common welfare and not to ignore either at the expense of the other.
To do something worthwhile in life for themselves is the fruit of ambition, but to do something worthwhile for humanity also is the fruit of aspiration. It is the nature of manifestation to be ever-active; hence we cannot escape being involved in action of some kind. But what we can and should escape is being attached to our actions.
©1984/1985, 2019 by Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.
Revised and expanded 2nd edition, published by:
Inner Traditions International. www.innertraditions.com.
Instructions for Spiritual Living
by Paul Brunton
No matter where we are in our spiritual development, we all have questions about our practice and what we are experiencing - both the challenges and opportunities. How can I overcome my struggles to meditate more deeply? Is there a need for a guru, or can I rely on myself? Can I trust my intuition? Is it possible to hear the "Inner Word", the voice of the soul, and how can I be sure that's what I'm hearing? Is the Higher Self in the heart? Offering trustworthy answers to these and many more questions, renowned spiritual teacher Paul Brunton provides instructions to guide one's development in three fundamental areas of the spiritual path: meditation, self-examination, and the unfolding of awakening. (Also available as an Audiobook and in Kindle format)
About the Author
Paul Brunton (1898-1981) is widely esteemed for creatively integrating the world’s spiritual teachings and meditation systems into a clear, practical approach best-suited for contemporary life. He is the author of more than 10 books, including the bestselling A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to the West. For more info, visit https://www.paulbrunton.org/