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Carolyn HarrodThere is Wisdom in Action
Carolyn Harrod

In this world of manifestation, we cannot avoid action. Every thought and feeling, every choice to speak or remain silent, to walk away or become involved, to meditate or try to influence political decisions, is an action. The question for ourselves is: Are they choices imbued by the attributes of our spiritual transformation into ‘knowers of wisdom’ and therefore choices that will benefit humanity and all life?

From the first days of the Theosophical Society, members have been reminded of the importance of both our inner work related to our spiritual development and transformation, and our outer work in service to all life.

HPB saw these two aspects of theosophical work as being of equal importance. In one of her essays in Collected Writings, Vol. 11, "World Improvement or World Deliverance", she writes this about the inner work we must do:

  • One of the fundamental laws is, that ordinary morality is insufficient to deliver one from rebirth; one has to practise the six Paramitas or cardinal virtues for it: 1. Charity. 2. Chastity. 3. Patience. 4. Industry. 5. Meditation. 6. Ingenuousness (or openness of heart, sincerity). And how can a hermit practise charity or industry if he runs away from man?

HPB leaves us in no doubt as to the importance of our work in the outer world. In her editorial in Lucifer in November 1887, she writes:

  • He who does not practise altruism; he who is not prepared to share his last morsel with a weaker or a poorer than himself; he who neglects to help his brother man, of whatever race, nation, or creed, whenever and wherever he meets suffering, and who turns a deaf ear to the cry of human misery; he who hears an innocent person slandered, whether a brother Theosophist or not, and does not undertake his defence as he would undertake his own – is no Theosophist (no seeker of Divine Wisdom).

A similar message was given to us in the famous Jubilee Address of 1925, attributed to one of the Great Ones:
You cannot truly be students of the Divine Wisdom, save as you are active in the service of the Divine Life. Where trouble is, where suffering is, where ignorance is, where quarrel is, where injustice is, where tyranny is, where oppression is, where cruelty is – there must we find the earnest members of Our Society.

This is a call to the service of all life, but it is service of a particular quality. It is action that flows naturally from a nature in which wisdom-compassion is awakened.

Daily life in our society provides us with multiple opportunities to be of service and these opportunities are on a variety of levels. We are encouraged to contribute to international campaigns related to human rights, disaster relief and animal welfare. Many of the problems brought to our attention cause us to feel distressed over the misfortunes that befall groups and individuals or the treatment of the people or animals involved and we take up our pens to write to politicians and to contribute donations for programs aimed at relieving suffering. For some individuals, their feelings and beliefs are so strong that they move to the country in question so that they can directly aid those in need.

At the level of our local communities, there seems to be an increasing number of avenues for us to be of service to others. Again, this service can consist of giving moral support, donations or hands-on help to groups engaged in direct action, including of course the TOS itself. Or we can serve others on an individual basis by giving our time to volunteering in animal shelters, providing companionship to lonely residents of aged care facilities, tutoring and befriending refugees in our community, mentoring young people, working on local environmental projects, painting rooms in refuges for homeless women so that they have pleasant surroundings… the list could go on and on.

Our own families, work places and circle of friends also provide constant avenues for service. The unasked for act of kindness, the decision to put someone else’s needs ahead of our own convenience, the silent eye contact and smile, the willingness to work alongside someone to assist them towards their goal, giving time to a relationship, can all be acts of service.

It is unlikely that anyone would deny that these examples of action were positive and the sort of behaviour that should be encouraged. But are they necessarily actions that flow from the wisdom of spiritual transformation?  No, they aren’t.

Our motivations behind our actions are most important. If we act from a position of viewing ourselves as superior and the recipient of our act of service as inferior, then the recipient may feel resentment, discomfort, embarrassment or some other emotion tinged with negativity. If we feel coerced into providing a service, then the relationships involved in the service are unlikely to be positive. When we are attached to the outcomes of our service, our relationships can be affected. There may be anxiety on our part about our image, or about getting a particular outcome; we may be wanting to control the recipients of our service to act in a particular way, and if they don’t live up to our expectations we can resent them and feel unappreciated and let down. This can result in our putting up barriers that strengthen the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ or ‘me’, rather than reducing the barriers to allow a feeling of ‘we-ness’, fellowship or oneness to flourish.

Our act of service may, on the other hand, result in the recipient feeling less weighed down by circumstances and events, feeling more optimistic or less angry or alienated, more positively connected with other people, aware that someone is interested in them and cares about them. Even then, our actions may still subconsciously be selfishly motivated because we have a sense of separation from the other person. Our actions do not yet spring from the well of wisdom-compassion brought forth from our inner transformation. In Letter 2 of The Mahatma Letters, we find this advice: the highest aspirations for the welfare of humanity become tainted with selfishness if, in the mind of the philanthropist, there lurks the shadow of desire for self benefit, even when this exists unconsciously to himself.

Action arises in the mind and is given power by our emotions. To alter conditioned, habitual action, we need to develop self-awareness. This can be achieved through contemplation and meditational practices that include self-reflection and observation of our actions and thoughts. Meditation itself can be an act of service. It contributes to our own sense of peace and sense of the oneness of all life and this in turn influences our relationships with others. The Dalai Lama suggests that we activate the centre of love within ourselves and focus it outwards in ever-widening circles so that love and compassion enfolds friends, unknown people, non-human life and eventually those whom we might have once categorised as the opposition or enemies.

Action motivated by love and compassion is our aim. Compassion arises from a deep acknowledgment of oneness – there is no ‘other’; we share the same pain, the same happiness. Compassion leads to a strong commitment to acting for the welfare of all. This is unbiased service toward all beings, without reference to their values, beliefs, habits or relationship to ourselves. Compassion arises from our expanded circle of love that enables us to be a friend to all sentient beings. Compassion enables us to act selflessly, without attachment.

Three profound little books familiar to most members of the Theosophical Society set out the task needed for our inner transformation – The Voice of the Silence, by HPB, Mabel Collins’s Light on the Path and At the Feet of the Master by Alcyone or Krishnamurti. Each of these texts is said to reflect the Wisdom Teaching and to be inspired by the Great Ones.

At the Feet of the Master sets out four qualifications that we must work towards to enter the Path – discrimination, desirelessness, good conduct (incorporating self control of mind and action, tolerance, cheerfulness, one-pointedness and confidence) and Love.

Desirelessness embodies the idea of non-attachment – of letting go of our attachment to and dependence on things, events and people as our motivation for action in the physical, emotional and lower mental worlds.

Non-attachment and desirelessness do not imply inaction. As The Voice of the Silence advises us:

  • Sow kindly acts and thou shalt reap their fruition. Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin. (135)
  • Shalt thou abstain from action? Not so shall gain thy soul her freedom. To reach Nirvana one must reach self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is of loving deeds the child. (136)

So the Masters, the Great Ones, give us guidance for both our inner work of self-transformation and our outer work of service in the world.

At the Feet of the Master describes the characteristics of service taken up by those on the path of spiritual unfoldment:

  • They who are on the path exist not for themselves, but for others; they have forgotten themselves in order that they may serve others… they are a living plume of fire, raying out upon the world the divine love that fills their hearts.
  • The wisdom which enables you to help, the will which directs the wisdom, the love that inspires the will – these are your qualifications.

Fully realising the unity of all life gives rise naturally to the transformation of our outward behaviour. Turning to the guidance in Light on the Path, we are advised to kill out all sense of separateness. This includes the separation inherent in the dichotomy of good and evil. We are then counselled:

  • But if you allow the idea of separateness from any evil thing or person to grow up within you, by so doing you create karma which will bind you to that thing or person till your soul recognises that it cannot be isolated.

In At the Feet of the Master we are advised to fill our beings with Love so that there is no sense of separation from the Divine and therefore no separation from all life. – Of all the qualifications, Love is the most important. In daily life this means two things – first, that you shall be careful to do no harm to any living thing; second, that you shall always be watching for an opportunity to help.

The importance of recognising the need for this inner transformation in order to serve selflessly is highlighted in the philosophy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There will be no future worth living, he writes, unless everyone now takes personal responsibility for their own inner lives and universal responsibility for the pain and misery in the world. None of the major terrible problems that threaten survival of the earth can be solved by merely institutional or political methods. Humankind, to survive, must undergo a massive and unprecedented change of heart, an ordered and passionate spiritual revolution that changes forever our relation to each other and our relation to nature. It is only from such a revolution that the new vision the planet so desperately needs can arise – a vision that sees the connections between every thought and every action, the relation between the obsession with the individual self and its hunger for false securities and every kind of exploitation.

In this article, it has been proposed that There is Wisdom in Action insofar as our inner transformation is reflected in the outer transformation of our actions. The two go hand in hand as we see in HPB’s description of the spiritual journey on which we are embarked:

A clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for all, a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction, a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defence of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection which the Sacred Science depicts – these are the golden stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the Temple of Divine Wisdom.


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