The question arises: are mystics to continue playing the old part of being passive spectators of the world-show or are they going to measure up to this unique opportunity to render timely service? Those who have been gifted with a glimpse of the far-off divine goal, toward which all things are moving, should realize that they have a worthwhile place in the present scheme, a place that they alone can fill. They can contribute what no one else can.
They can not only help, as every decent person is helping, the forces of righteousness to secure outward victory over the forces of wickedness, but they can also assist in the equally important inward struggle of the forces of knowledge against those of ignorance.
How can people of head and heart remain foreigners to the tragic external forces around them today? How can those who feel with and for their suffering fellows, who recognize this unique war for the spiritual conflict that it really is, who understand the tremendous moral consequences for humankind’s future involved in its outcome—how can such persons shut themselves up in the ivory towers of yogic ashrams and monastic retreats?
This callous disregard of other people’s miseries, this encampment in a splendid oasis kept all to oneself, this ostrich-like immurement in a cold ivory tower, is not a sign of sagehood, whatever the populace believe. It was Vasishta, an ancient sage not an ascetic, who said: “Unless the good of all becomes your good, you will add only fetters to your feet,” when urging a young prince, who Buddha-like sought to renounce the world and escape its duties to gain an egocentric peace.
Whoever truly understands and deeply feels an inner relationship with and a shared responsibility for fellow creatures can never subscribe to the cult of indifference. In a world crisis like the present one, for example, such ones could never sit idly by, babbling with shrugged shoulders of people having to bear their karma and of everything being just as God wishes it to be, while aggressive human instruments of unseen evil forces strive to fix spiked manacles upon the human race and mind. On the contrary, they will rise to the imperative call of the hour.
The Necessity For Altruistic Service
It is on this point of the necessity for altruistic service that the philosophic path diverges strikingly from the mystic path. Such a divergence, needful though it was at all times, has become more needful than ever in our own times.
The day of spiritual isolation has passed. Such a self-centered doctrine can make little appeal to those who have been touched by the desperate and urgent needs of modern humankind.
Mysticism seeks a static condition, whereas philosophy seeks a dynamic one. Mysticism is content with withdrawal from life, but philosophy would embrace all life. Mystics are happy when they obtain their own inner peace, but philosophers will be happy only when all get such peace.
The serene state that mantles philosophers is not bought at the price of self-centered indifference to others and does not isolate them from their struggles. Philosophers are subject to an inner necessity to serve humankind.
The great sages saw the desperate need of humankind and compassionately gave what help they could. They never stood aloof; they did not despise those who had to participate in worldly life and flee from them accordingly, but understood their situation and helped them.
They did not spend their lives sitting apart in mountain caves and forest retreats, in ashrams and monastic hideouts, but went where the crowds were, where they were needed, in fact. This is what Jesus did. This is what Buddha did. Jesus indeed worked so untiringly for the enlightenment of others that he often took no time to eat. This, indeed, is the outstanding characteristic that distinguishes them from mere yogis. They had pity; they had fellow feeling.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna makes it perfectly plain that the yogi who lives in and serves the world is far superior to the yogi who flees from and renounces it. Yet despite this explicit teaching by the one most-revered Indian sage, many Hindu ascetics will tell you that self-centered monasticism is superior!
The Transcendent Consciousness of Pure Mind
Whoever has attained true and permanent insight does not need to spend his or her time always in meditation. For meditation is a form of mental exercise to help its practitioner get into the transcendent consciousness of pure Mind. One who sees pure Mind all the time does not need to practice any exercise for its possible perception.
When, therefore, we are told that a sage lives in remote places and mountain caves in order to practice his or her meditations undisturbed, we may be sure that this person is only an aspirant, only a would-be sage. The populace, impressed by this asceticism and awed by his or her trance, often regard such a yogi as a sage. He or she may accept such a valuation. But this yogi will really possess the status only of a mystic, perhaps even a perfect one. If mystics reach such perfection and are bewitched by transient trances, they will feel that they are all-sufficient and do not need anything from the world.
The Limitations of Mystic Practice
The corollary of this, unfortunately, is that the woes of others have nothing to do with them also. If they begin fascinated by the emotional satisfaction that envelops their achievement, they develop an indifference toward suffering humankind and end by becoming complacent recluses and nothing more.
This does not mean that sages will never practice meditation. They will. But they will do so more for the benefit of others than for their own. They will carry out all their other personal and social responsibilities, as their wisdom and karmic circumstances dictate; sages will certainly not seek to run away from them nor believe that their enlightenment has relieved them of others.
An appreciation of all the admirable benefits of mystic practice should not blind us to its limitations and make us commit the error of setting it up as the only goal for all humankind. Reflective people will sooner or later come up against these limitations and the discontent thus generated will cause them to bestir themselves once more upon this quest of the Overself. Thus they may eventually enlarge their horizons and perceive that the ideal type is not the mystic but the sage.
What is a Sage?
The sage is the person who has finished all three stages of religion, yoga, and philosophy, has realized the Overself, and has come in consequence to a wide compassion for fellow creatures. Because the sage comprehends that the root of most human troubles and sufferings is ignorance, he or she likewise comprehends that the best form of service that can be rendered is to enlighten others. Hence so far as circumstances and capacities permit, and so far as the aspiration of others indicates, sages devote themselves to their inner welfare. In such a beneficent occupation they will therefore incessantly engage themselves.
Through all history the mystic has been confused with the sage simply because the latter has rarely existed, being usually an aspirational ideal rather than a realized possibility. The highest type of the former achieves what may be called “yogic immobilization,” which is brought about by following a path of abstraction from entanglements, a path that is a necessary mental and physical discipline but still a negative one.
It is not enough. Beyond it lies the ultimate path, which leads the person back into the world again but allows him or her to keep a secret interior detachment. The aura of intense mental peace that is felt in the presence of perfect mystics is not necessarily a sign of perfection, as the ignorant think, but a sign of successful inward-turned concentration. They consciously exert a mesmeric force on the disciples who sit passively around them. Sages, on the other hand, spend all this concentrative force in action intended to render real service to others while at the same time spontaneously and effortlessly also giving that which is given by the mystic to those who search.
The Practical Difference between a Mystic and a Sage
The mental differences between them are too subtle and complex for the uninitiated multitude to grasp, but it is easy to understand the practical difference between them. A simple analogy will help us here.
There are two kinds of electricity: static and dynamic. The first yields at best a single useless spark, whereas the second yields a flow of continuous useful power. The electric current that we tap for light, heat, and power belongs to the second category.
Mystics, seeking to contract activities to a minimum, are like static electricity. Sages, seeking to render the utmost possible service during their lifetime, are like dynamic electricity.
Mystics, in their genuine need for solitude and silence, deliberately turn away from the world. Sages, in their compassionate consciousness of the darkness that overspreads it, deliberately turn toward the world.
Psychologically, mystics are at the stage where they need to silence thinking and refrain from action in order to eliminate their disturbances, whereas sages have long passed that point and can afford to let both thinking and action have full free play without harm.
Squatting mystics have to neglect the earth because they seek to soar in the heavenly sky; working sages have to stand upon the earth because they find it mirrors that sky! And whereas the first find God within and Satan outside in the world, the second find God everywhere.
Mystics take pride in negligence of material affairs and in the half-heartedness with which they attend to material duties. Sages take pride in the efficiency and concentration with which they attend to material responsibilities.
Mystics may self-righteously believe that paying proper attention to material life is the same as practicing materialism. Sages will sensibly believe that failing to do so is practicing foolishness. Thus the aim of philosophy is not, like that of mysticism, to turn us away from the world—quite the contrary. It wishes us to embrace life fully, but to do so with self-mastery, complete understanding, and disinterested helpfulness.
©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/