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The Effect of Occult Development Upon the Self and the Sheaths of Man
GA 145

Lecture I

20 March 1913, The Hague

I have to speak to you on a subject which may be important to many at the present day; it is important to all who try in any way to make Theosophy not merely a theory, but to take it into their hearts and minds so that it becomes a vital thing to them; something that enters into the whole of their life as human beings of the present day. It will be important, not only for true esotericists, but also for those who wish to take up theosophical thoughts into the forces of their soul, to know of the changes which take place in the whole human being when the exercises are carried out which are mentioned in my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment, or those which are mentioned briefly in the second part of my book An Outline Of Occult Science, or when merely the theosophical thoughts are absorbed in heart and mind and made one's own. Theosophy, when taken up seriously, whether esoterically or exoterically, brings about certain changes in the whole organisation of man. It may be boldly affirmed that the student becomes a different man through Theosophy, he transforms the whole construction of his being. The physical body, the etheric body, the astral body and the true Self of a man are all in a certain way transformed through his really taking Theosophy into his inner being. In their order we shall speak of the changes which these human sheaths undergo under the influence of esotericism, or even through the earnest exoteric study of Theosophy. It is especially difficult to speak about the changes in the physical human body, for the simple reason that although the changes that take place there at the beginning of the theosophical or esoteric life are indeed important and significant, they are often indistinct and apparently insignificant. Important, significant changes take place in the physical body, but they cannot be observed externally by an external science. They cannot be observed, simply because the physical is that which man has least of all under his control from within, and because there would at once be danger if esoteric exercises or theosophical effort were to be so directed that the changes in the physical body went beyond the measure of what the student is able fully to control. The changes in the physical body are kept within certain limits; but still it is important that the pupil should know something about them, and that he should understand them. To begin with, if we wish to describe briefly the changes which the human physical body undergoes under the conditions just mentioned, we might say: This human physical body becomes more mobile and inwardly active. More mobile—what does that mean? Now in the normal life of man we see the human physical body with its several organs in communication with one another, and in a certain way connected with one another. The activities of the several organs pass over into each other. When the pupil takes up esotericism or Theosophy seriously, the several organs become more independent of one another. In a certain sense the collective life of the physical body is suppressed, and the separate life of the organs strengthened. Although the extent of the suppression of the collective life and of the strengthening of the separate life of the organs is extremely small, yet we must say that through the influence of esotericism and Theosophy the heart, the brain, the spinal cord and other organs all become more independent of one another, they become inwardly more active and more mobile. If I were to speak in a learned manner, I should say that the organs pass from a stable condition to a more mobile condition of balance. It is well to know this fact, because when the pupil perceives something of this different state of equilibrium in his organs he is very easily inclined to ascribe it to sickness or indisposition. He is not accustomed to feel the mobility and independence of the organs in this manner. He only becomes aware of or feels his organs when they do not function normally. He can now perceive that the organs become independent of one another, even though at first this may be hardly perceptible, and he might think that it was an illness. Now you see how careful we must be when dealing with the physical human body. Obviously, what may at one time be an illness, may at another time be merely a phenomenon pertaining to the inner theosophical life. Hence it is necessary to judge each case individually; although what is here attained through theosophical life will really come without this, in the normal course of the development of humanity. In ancient periods of human development the several organs were still more independent of one another than they are now in external life, and in the future they will again become more and more independent. As the pupil of Theosophy must always, to a certain extent, anticipate in the various realms of life and knowledge the stages of development which will only in the future be reached by the general mass of humanity, he must not mind at this stage of development if his organs become more independent of one another. This change may take place quietly and gently in the several organs and systems of organs. I will give a particular example.

You are all acquainted with the fact that when a man is a ‘stay-at-home,’ when his calling does not allow of much travelling, he becomes in a way attached to his immediate environment, and does not wish to leave it. If you go into the country among the peasants you will find that this exists to a much greater extent than among those who live in towns, and who indeed frequently sojourn in the country; the people have grown one with their soil and climate, and when for some reason they are transported into another district or into a different climate they find it difficult to acclimatise themselves; you will find in their soul, in the form of a home-sickness which often cannot be overcome, the longing for their native soil. This is only to show how necessary it is for the pupil to do something which we see to be necessary in another respect when a man comes into a different region, that is, he must adapt his whole organism to this region, to this climate. Now, in our normal life, this adaptation actually does take place within the whole human organism. Everything is sympathetically affected, in a certain way, when we go from the plains to the mountains, or when we travel to a somewhat distant place. Now, in the esotericist, or in one who seriously takes up Theosophy, it is noticeable that all the organism is not equally affected sympathetically, but the blood-system separates, and the circulation of the blood is severed, as it were, from the rest of the organism, and when the student goes from one district to another the circulation of the blood is the most affected. One who has become sensitive to these things can observe an appreciable difference in the pulsation of the blood, in the beating of the pulse, when simply taking a journey from one place to another. While in the case of a person who is not permeated with esotericism or theosophical life, the nervous system is strongly affected by the necessary acclimatisation; in one who does take up esotericism or a serious theosophical life, the nervous system is but little affected. The intimate union between the nervous system and the blood-system is weakened and divided through the theosophical life, the blood-system becomes in a way more sensitive to the influences of climate and country, and the nervous system becomes more independent of them. If, my dear theosophical friends, you wish to have proofs of this, you must look for them in the most natural way in which they are to be found, that is, when you find yourselves in a similar position, when you yourselves journey to a different place. Try to observe yourselves, and you will find these facts of Occultism confirmed. It is extremely important to bear such facts in mind, simply for the reason that these things gradually develop into a very definite power of perception. A man who has become a Theosophist at heart can tell the character of a strange town by his blood. He need not go very much into other things, he can tell by his blood how the various regions of the earth are different from one another.

On the other hand, the nervous system separates from the whole organism in a different way. A man who studies Theosophy in the right way will gradually notice that he perceives the difference between the four seasons of the year—the difference between summer and winter, for instance—in quite a different way than does the ordinary man of the day. The latter only feels in his own physical body, as a rule, the difference in temperature. One who has taken Theosophy into his soul in the recognised manner, not only perceives the difference in temperature, but, apart from that, he has a particular experience in his nervous system, so that, for instance, it is easier for him in summer to think certain thoughts that are connected with the physical brain than it is in winter. Not that it is impossible to think one thought or another in winter, but one can experience quite distinctly that it is easier to do so in summer; such thoughts flow more easily, as it were, in summer than in winter. We can notice that in winter it is easier to form abstract thoughts, while in summer it is easier to make them concrete and ‘picture-like.’ This is because the nervous system, the instrument for the physical plane, vibrates in a more subtle manner in harmony with the change of the seasons, and more independently of the whole organism than it otherwise does.

But one fundamental change in the physical body is that the student begins to feel his physical body more strongly than before, and this can take very serious forms, the body becomes more sensitive to the soul-life, it becomes harder to bear. It is extremely difficult to explain this clearly. Imagine a glass of water in which a certain substance, salt for instance, has been dissolved, yielding an opaque solution. Suppose in the normal condition of man his etheric body, astral body, and Self to be the fluid, and his physical body dissolved in it to be the salt. Now cool down the fluid in the glass. The salt gradually hardens, it becomes heavier as it grows more independent. In the same way the physical body hardens from the whole structure of the four principles of the human being. It shrinks, though only to an insignificant degree. This must be taken quite literally. It shrinks together, in a certain sense. Now you must not picture this too intensely, the student need not fear that through his theosophical development he will grow very wrinkled. This shrivelling is an inward densification. But through this the body is really felt as something harder to bear than it was before. It is felt as being less mobile than before. On the other hand the other principles are more flexible. The pupil feels something that—when he was quite healthy—he never felt before at all; something which he had quite comfortably addressed as ‘I’ he afterwards feels as something within him which seems to have become heavier, and he begins to experience it as a whole. And he becomes especially aware of all those parts in his body which from the beginning, lead, as it were, a certain independent existence. And here we come to a question which can really only be fully understood in this connection. We come to the question of meat-diet—of course, we are not advocating any ‘cause,’ our business is only to present the truth of the matter.

Now, as we are dealing with the physical body, we must describe the nature of animal food, plant food, and food as a whole. This forms an item in the discussion of the influence of theosophical life upon the sheaths of man, which may be described as the perfecting, the regeneration of the physical body from outside, through the external substances he consumes. The relation of man to his food is only properly understood when the relation of man to the other kingdoms of nature, and above all to the plant kingdom, is borne in mind. The plant kingdom, as a kingdom of life, carries the inorganic substances, the lifeless substances, to a certain stage of organisation. In order that the living plant may develop, the lifeless substances must be worked upon in a certain way, as if in a living laboratory, and carried to a certain stage of organisation. In a plant we have a living being which brings the lifeless products of nature to a certain stage of organisation. Now man is so organised physically that he is in a position to take up this process where the plant left it, and to carry it on further from this point, so that the higher human organisation comes into being when man organises further that which the plant has already brought to a certain stage. Things have been so arranged that there is really a perfect continuation when a man plucks an apple or a leaf and eats it. That is the most perfect continuation. If all things were so arranged that the most natural thing could always be done, we might say that man should simply continue the process of organisation where the plant left off, that he should take the organs of the plants which he finds outside him and organise them further within himself. That would be a straight line of organisation which would not be broken through anywhere in any way: from the lifeless substance to the plant up to a certain stage of organisation, and thence to the human organism.

Let us now take the grossest case, when a man eats animal flesh. In an animal we have a living being which carries on the process of organisation further than the plant, it carries it to a certain stage beyond the plant organisation. We may therefore say of the animal that it continues the process of organisation begun by the plant. Let us now suppose that a man eats the animal; what then occurs is, in a sense, as follows: It is not now necessary for the man to exercise the inner forces that he would have had to exercise if he had eaten a plant. If he had been obliged to organise the food from where the plant had left off, he would have had to use certain forces. These forces are not used when he eats animal flesh, for the animal has already carried the organisation of the plant to a certain higher stage, and the man need only begin at this point. Thus we may say that he does not continue the work of organisation from the stage at which he might have done, but he leaves unused forces that are within him, and only continues the organising process from a later stage; he lets the animal do part of the work that he would have had to do if he had eaten the plant food. Now the well-being of an organism does not consist in its doing as little as possible, but in its really bringing all its forces into activity. When a man eats animal flesh he does with the forces which, if he were to eat plant food alone, would develop organic activities, exactly what he would do if he said: ‘I will do without my left arm, I will bind it down so that it cannot be used.’ Thus he fetters his forces within him when he eats animal flesh, forces which he would call upon if he were to eat plant food, and condemns them to inactivity. But, through their condemnation to inactivity, it comes about that the organisations in question which would otherwise be active remain fallow, they are crippled and become hardened. So that when a man eats animal flesh he kills a part of his organism, or at least disables it, This part which thus becomes hardened he carries with him through life as a foreign body. In normal life a man does not feel this foreign body, but when his organism becomes more inwardly mobile, and when his various systems of organs become more independent of one another, as happens in theosophical life, then his physical body, which even without this feels uncomfortable, begins to feel still more uncomfortable, because it now has a foreign body within it. As already mentioned, we are not promulgating any special cause, but are only concerned with presenting the truth; and we shall learn other effects of animal food; we shall go into this subject more minutely in the course of these lectures. Hence it comes about that progress in the inner theosophical life gradually produces a sort of disgust for animal food. It is not necessary to forbid animal food to Theosophists, for the healthy progressing life of instinct gradually turns against animal food, and no longer likes it; and this is much better than becoming a vegetarian from any abstract principle. It is best when Theosophy leads a man to have a sort of disgust and loathing for animal food; and it is not of much use, with respect to what may be called his higher development, if a man gives up animal food for other reasons. So that we may say: Animal food produces in man something that is a burden to his physical body, and this burden is felt. That is the occult fact of the matter looked at from one side.

We shall describe it from a different point of view later on in these lectures. As another example, I might mention alcohol. The relation of man to alcohol also alters when he seriously and earnestly takes up Theosophy. Alcohol is quite a special thing in the kingdoms of nature. It proves itself to be not only a burdensome product in the human organism, but it shows itself positively as producing within it an opposing power. When we observe the plants we find that in their organisation they all reach a certain point, with the exception of the vine, which goes beyond this. That which other plants save up solely for the young germ—that is, all the productive force which is usually saved up only for the young germ and is not poured into the rest of the plant—is in the case of the grape poured in a certain way into the flesh of the fruit as well; so that through what is known as fermentation, the transmutation of that which is thus poured into the grape, of the force already developed to the utmost in the grape itself, something is produced which has actually within the plant a power only comparable occultly to the power which the ego of man has over the blood. Thus what arises in the making of wine, what is always developed in the production of alcohol, is that in another kingdom of nature the same thing is produced as that which a man must produce when he works upon his blood from his ego. You all know the inner connection between the ego and the blood; this is expressed externally by the fact that when shame is felt by the ego, a blush rises to the face, and when fear or anguish is felt by the ego the face grows pale. This usual effect of the ego on the blood is occultly quite similar to the effect which appears when the plant process is reversed, and what is contained in the fruit substance of the bunch of grapes, or generally speaking, that which comes from the plant-nature, is transformed into alcohol. As we have said, the ego must normally produce in the blood—speaking occultly, not chemically—a process very similar to that produced by the reverse process, the retrogression of organisation through the mere chemicalising process when alcohol is produced. The consequence of this is that through alcohol we take into our organism something which from another direction works just as the ego works on the blood. This means that with alcohol we take into ourselves an opposition ego which is a direct opponent of the deeds of our spiritual ego. From the opposite side, the blood is influenced by alcohol precisely as it is influenced by the ego. Thus we kindle an inner war, and in truth we condemn to powerlessness all that proceeds from the ego when we take alcohol, which is its opponent. That is the occult fact. A man who takes no alcohol ensures for himself the power to work freely upon his blood from his ego; one who drinks alcohol is like one who wishes to knock down a wall and beats on one side, at the same time placing people on the other side who beat against him. In exactly the same way, through taking alcohol, the activity of the ego on the blood is eliminated. Hence one who makes Theosophy the element of his life feels the work of alcohol in his blood as a direct battle against his ego, and therefore it is natural that a spiritual development is only easy for him who does not create this opposing condition. From this illustration you will see how that which is also present normally becomes perceptible through the change of equilibrium which comes about in the physical body of the Esotericist or the Theosophist.

In many other respects also do the several organs and systems of organs of the human physical organism become independent; among others, the spinal cord and the brain become much more independent of each other. We shall say more in the next lecture about food, about the occult physiology of nutrition; for the present we will keep rather to the subject of the independence of the organs. The independence of the spinal cord of the brain may become evident, because through filling his soul with Theosophy the student gradually becomes able to feel in his physical body as if this physical organism obtained greater independence within itself. This again may give rise to very uncomfortable situations. Hence it is all the more necessary that one should know these matters. It may occur, for example, that whereas normally one has oneself in hand, as it is called, the more advanced student may suddenly find himself saying several words without really having intended so to do. He goes along the street; suddenly he notices that he has said something which may perhaps be a favourite expression of his, but which he would have refrained from expressing if he had not undergone what is known as the separation of the spinal cord from the brain. What is usually restrained now acts as mere reflex phenomena through the spinal cord becoming independent of the brain.

And in the brain itself certain parts become more independent of the other parts. For example, the inner parts of the brain become more independent of the outer, surrounding ones, while in normal life they work more in harmony. This is manifest in the fact that to the Esotericist or the true Theosophist, abstract thinking becomes more difficult than it was before, and opposition is gradually raised in the brain. As he develops it is easier for the pupil to think in pictures, to conceive of things more through the imagination; it is more difficult to think abstractly. This can very soon be noticed, particularly in ardent Theosophists. They appear to have predilection only for theosophical activity. They now begin to like to read Theosophy and to think on theosophical subjects, not merely because they are ardent Theosophists, but because it is easier for them to think along these more spiritual lines. So far as the physical plane is affected, these more spiritual ideas require the middle parts of the brain, while abstract thinking requires the outer parts; hence the disinclination of many over-ardent Theosophists to abstract thought and abstract science. Hence it is again that some Theosophists notice with some regret that while formerly they were very well able to think abstractedly, this abstract thinking now becomes more difficult. Thus the various organs become relatively more independent, and even certain parts of these organs become more living and independent. You will see from this that something fresh, as it were, must appear in one who experiences this. Formerly it was benevolent Nature which, without his doing, brought his organs into the right connection; now these organs, having grown independent, are more disconnected, he must now have within him the strength to re-establish harmony among them. This is attained in an orderly theosophical training, because all that upholds the lordship of man over his organs which are becoming independent is continually emphasised. Therefore, remember, my dear theosophical friends, why in our literature such a great role is played by something which many people simply describe by saying, ‘Oh! but it is so frightfully difficult.’ I have often had to give a very characteristic answer when I have been told that, ‘for beginners the book Theosophy is really too difficult.’ I have had to say: ‘It must not be easier, because if it had been, people would have taken certain theosophical truths into their souls, which would also have had the effect of making the several parts of the brain independent; but this book is built up as a regular structure of thought, so that thereby the other part of the brain should be brought continually into play, and not be left behind, as it were.’ This is the characteristic feature of a movement resting on an occult basis, not only to pay attention to what in an abstract sense is correct and simply impart this in any way one pleases, but it is essential to impart it in a sound and healthy way, and honourably guard against these matters being made known for the sake of popularity in such a way that they may do harm. In Theosophy it is not merely a matter of imparting certain truths in books and lectures, but it does matter how they are written and how they are imparted. And it is all the better if those who wish to be the vehicle of such a movement do not allow themselves to be turned aside from carrying out this rule for the sake of popularity. In Theosophy, more than in any other realm of thought, the point in question is the acknowledgment of pure and honest truth. And the very going into such a question as the change in the human sheaths through theosophical life makes us observe how necessary it is to bring Theosophy before the world in the right way. I might remark that these lectures are to be taken as a whole, and hence many difficulties that may arise in various souls with respect to what has been said in this first lecture will be smoothed out later.