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Self-Directed Evolution

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

As human beings, we are developing self-awareness. We can reflect on our thoughts and feelings and make conscious decisions about what we will and will not do. Our present human level seems to be at a turning point where instinct is waning but an intuitive, conscious working with nature has not sufficiently developed. It seems that learning to work consciously with nature may be the major lesson facing the human race.

We, like the rest of the cosmos, are not fortuitous material amalgams that cease to exist when our bodies disperse. Every being in its inmost is a spiritual individuality. This innermost aspect evolves by projecting for itself various centers of consciousness, each of which expresses itself through different types of substance -- spiritual, mental, energic, astral, and physical. These consciousness centers are what evolve. They express themselves repeatedly in substance in order to bring out from themselves more and more of their divine potential. The physical evolution studied by science is but one facet of this individual inner process.

In one sense, then, we can consider all evolution as self-directed in that it is directed by each individual's inner self or consciousness center. By its urge to greater self-expression, this inner self brings about growth in faculty and the concurrent changes in the various bodies -- physical, mental, and spiritual -- through which it expresses itself. H. P. Blavatsky explains this process as one of the fundamental concepts behind her Secret Doctrine, saying that there is an "obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul . . . through the Cycle of Incarnation (or 'Necessity') in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law," so that no divine Soul "can have an independent (conscious) existence before" it has "passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that" period of manifestation and acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, . . . from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. -- 1:17

Although our inner self is directing our evolution, for the most part we are not in touch with this aspect of ourselves -- we are unconscious of it. Instead we are very much involved with the outer self, our ordinary everyday, self-centered consciousness which to us is who we are. Generally we feel that this personal self is directing our life. Very often even this process is largely unconscious -- perhaps we don't reflect upon our thoughts, motives, and acts, and the consequences they have for us and others. Part of self-directed evolution is becoming more aware of this ordinary self and its actions, consciously deciding where we want to go, and controlling ourselves so we can get there.

Of course, many people have objectives, control themselves, act to reach their goals, and analyze their progress. But self-directed evolution raises another issue: which "self" is doing the directing? Is it our ordinary, self-centered self? Or our more universal, inner self? For most of us, it is the outer, egocentric self that is seeking always to be in control. But in the theosophical sense, self-directed evolution is allying oneself with the positive, spiritual forces in nature and in oneself. It is a process where the outer self continually strives to become a truer reflection of that divine consciousness at the heart of every being. One thinks of the prayer of Socrates: "May I have beauty in my inward soul, and may the outer and the inner be as one."

Buddhism, like theosophy, stresses self-directed living. Buddha provided an analysis of the human condition and a goal for future action in his Four Noble Truths: that suffering exists, that it has a cause, that suffering can be ended, and that it will cease by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path consists of right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Following this path entails taking conscious control of all aspects of one's life and undergoing spiritual, mental, and emotional discipline in order to transcend human existence as we know it. This goal appeals to many people.

One important difference between the Theravada and Mahayana Schools of Buddhism concerns this goal. The Theravada emphasizes saving oneself from suffering by entering nirvana, and the evolutionary ideal is the arhat or buddha. The Mahayana puts more emphasis on saving others from suffering by remaining in the world to assist all beings in reaching spiritual bliss. It holds out the ideal of becoming a bodhisattva. This distinction lies at the root of the two paths of spiritual evolution, the path for the self and the path of compassion. Choosing between these aims is part of directing our future course.

Self-directed evolution is the opposite of floating along passively with the general evolutionary current, or reacting to circumstances in an unconscious way. We may ask: if our inner self is in fact directing our evolution all the time, why not flow along with the common evolutionary stream, realizing that eventually we will progress? This was the Buddha's point: we are each responsible for every aspect of ourselves and our circumstances, and we have the power to mold our future self and circumstances as we see fit -- and we do so at each moment, regardless. Indeed, why not take control of our future heredity, character, and environment, instead of merely being passive or, worse, actively creating unpleasant future conditions for ourselves and others? The question is whether we will continue to learn slowly by trial and error, by unconscious or semi-conscious actions and reactions; or whether we will choose our course and move forward deliberately along it? Certainly, it is a truism that "experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other"; and while "the burned hand teaches best," how many times need we burn our hands through suffering and difficulties before deciding to take a different approach?

Self-examination is an important key to self-directed evolution. As divine beings, we are miniature universes and contain in potential everything that our parent, the larger universe, does. Therefore, to thoroughly know oneself is to know the universe on all its levels. By seeing ourselves as we are, by understanding our different aspects and how they relate to each other, by understanding why different things happen in our life and consciousness, we are able to act from knowledge instead of ignorance, to base our decisions on reality instead of illusions or misunderstandings.

An old Sanskrit saying provides another key: "whatever a divine being desires, that very thing the divine being becomes." We are divine beings, essentially and fundamentally. What we desire -- what we set our hearts on, imagine, wish for, fill our minds with -- that is what we become. What do we desire? Many things, and often contradictory ones. But by the thoughts and feelings we choose to entertain, by our motives and aspirations and acts -- in other words, by the life we live -- we show what we actually desire most, and we make ourselves what we will become. Deliberately seeking harmony with the divine within inevitably brings about an ever greater harmony with all around us, aligning us with the fundamental purpose of evolution: the urge toward selfless love for our fellow beings everywhere.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, December 1996/January 1997. Copyright 1997 by Theosophical University Press.)

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