Posts Tagged ‘theosophical society’

We theosophists appear to be an earnest bunch.  I suppose a deep and abiding concern for spiritual evolution can lend one an air of seriousness.  However, we’re also a community bound by laughter, joy . . . and bubbles. (more…)

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blog for institutional issues

I have created another blog specifically for the discussion of institutional issues.

Please visit http://theosophicalsociety.wordpress.com/ to participate.

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I’m getting into the sociology of modernity, for my bachelors paper. Anthony Giddens is one of the primary sociologists in that field. He wrote:

The problem for us – those who wish to see a cosmopolitan world prosper – is to reconcile commitment and skepticism.

(From Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity, p. 132)

This is relevant to our discussion of religion versus spirituality, because spirituality often doesn’t have commitment at all. Spirituality is deeply skeptical towards any and all authority. Spirituality only implies a commitment to ones own spiritual growth, and perhaps to the development of quality relationships with other people, perhaps the world.

Religion on the other hand implies commitment to a specific tradition, perhaps a church. Religion in a Christian sense implies community building. Communities can be stifling in their judgement of certain behaviors, but they give a home as well.

Theosophy is somewhere between the two. Our lodges are meant as places for community building, but as Chris mentioned, sometimes they aren’t so open to outsiders. In fact, community usually implies a firm marking of ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’. It does take work to become one of the insiders. Sects invest a lot in getting people to feel welcome and only show their ugly side when people are trying to leave. The TS does not make that mistake, but I do think it’s one of the duties of lodges to make newcomers feel welcome – which does mean that they should make a commitment to at least initiate a conversation.

How does skepticism fit into all this? It’s part of our modern lives that we mistrust all kinds of things we are in fact dependent on. The government is consistently mistrusted in the US, yet it obviously has responsibilities people depend on. The same goes for banks. They give people loan’s, and people trust in their own ability to pay them. They trust in the banks to be reasonable. That system got a big blow recently and the international stock markets are in turmoil because the trust is gone. When the trust is gone, there is less reason to invest – to commit.

Commitment builds trust. A relationship where both partners commit fully is one in which there is also likely to be trust. But it’s a gamble. The relationship doesn’t start out with trust on both sides. It starts out with a bit of trust – a bit of commitment – the dating system. At some point the jump to full commitment has to be made, in order for the relationship to succeed. But that is still a gamble: what if I commit and the other person is actually cheating on me?

Spirituality in its radical sense distrusts organizations to such an extent that there is no way people will make a long term commitment to a religious or spiritual organization at all. Many organizations therefor offer courses and retreats that only require a temporary commitment. Yet, like in any relationship, a spiritual organisation will give more back, if you do commit.

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Last week I attended Vol. 4 of Chicago Pecha Kucha (pronounced PEH-CHUH ku-CHUH). Essentially, it is an evening of presentations where each presenter gets to share 20 slides and has 20 seconds per slide. Someone gets up, has six minutes and 40 seconds to do their thing and then it is on to the next. Read more about it here.

I’ve long been fascinated with the relationship between form and content. The way material is presented is another layer of the material itself. That Michelangelo made frescoes, Van Gogh painted on canvas and Bill Viola uses video speaks equal volumes as their widely varying subjects.

Theosophy likewise comes in different forms. Palm leaves, oral teachings, precipitated letters, books, videos, podcasts (well, the last one has yet to happen, but it will soon, I promise!). Outside of the written word, the most common dispensation is the lecture, where a purported authority stands in front of and higher than an audience of individuals all seated in rows faced forward. The lecturer speaks for about an hour, maybe answers a few questions, and then everyone leaves. It is a classic model for information sharing: a single active authority giving, and a mass, passive audience receiving.

I have to confess I actually have a soft spot for this model. I love listening to John Algeo, Joy Mills, Tim Boyd, Ravi Ravindra, Huston Smith, etc. And these people are all far more informed than me, they have information and perspectives I want, and I’ll happily sit for an hour taking it all in. When I was studying at Oxford, the high point of my week was having the opportunity to listen to Stephen Mulhall ruminate aloud for an hour about Heidegger’s Being & Time.

That being said, I think the model is increasingly irrelevant and reflects out of date political and social models. Most people don’t want to sit passively, hell, most people can’t sit for that long. I have no desire to moralize on this point; it is simply a reality to be recognized. People have less time and attention; they want to be engaged. Lectures simply won’t cut it.

So, I attended Pecha Kucha with this thought in mind: can this provide an alternative model for how we present theosophy? The short answer is an enthusiastic ‘yes’. The event I attended was sold out. Over 300 people crammed in a bar on a Tuesday night to hear presentations by artists, designers and writers, and they were excited to be there. When a presentation worked, it left you wanting more, scribbling down names and websites to explore later; when one didn’t, well, it was over pretty quickly.

Now, theosophy deals with some rather complex and frequently abstract ideas, and 20 images at 20 seconds apiece isn’t much opportunity for depth. However, it is exactly limitations like this that inspire creativity and innovation.

My idea is this. Pick a theme. Invite four to six people (or teams) to give presentations, within the Pecha Kucha parameters, leave room for dialogue between each presentation, and then end with a panel discussion.


I think we would pack the house, inspire incredible discussions, encourage tremendous creativity and leave people wanting more. The presentations could then be housed online along with forums for further discussion and sustained treatments. If particularly appealing, they could even be packaged and distributed.

So, my fellow theosophists, especially those in Chicago, what do you say we pick a theme and commit to doing this next Fall at Olcott? If it works, we could then invite others from all around and do another event during the Annual Conference.

I’m in.


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Chogyam Trungpa wrote:

We have the idea that an enlightened person is supposed to be more or less an old-wise-man type: not quite like an old professor, but perhaps an old father who can supply sound advice on how to handle all of life’s problems or an old grandmother who knows all the recipes and all the cures. That seems to be the current fantasy that exists in our culture concerning enlightened beings. They are old and wise, grown-up and solid. Tantra has a different notion of enlightenment, which is connected with youth and innocence. We can see this pattern in Padmasambhava’s life, the life of the great teacher who brought the tantric teachings of Buddhism to Tibet. Here the awakened state of mind is portrayed not as old and adult but as young and free. Youth and freedom in this case are connected with the birth of the awakened state of mind. The awakened state of mind has the quality of morning, of dawn — fresh and sparkling, completely awake.

From “Primordial Innocence,” in CRAZY WISDOM, pages 26 to 27.

Not only does tantra have this notion, so did Jiddu Krishnamurti:

To live fully and completely, there must be freedom, not an acceptance of authority; and there can be freedom only when there is virtue. Virtue is not imitation; virtue is creative living. That is, creativeness comes through the freedom which virtue brings; and virtue is not to be cultivated, it does not come through practice or at the end of your life. Either you are virtuous and free now, or you are not.

In Tibetan Buddhism in general, Chogyam Trungpa’s path, some young people are sought out and trained to be spiritual teachers. The Dalai Lama was raised that way, and that’s given the world a remarkable public figure. That’s what happened to Jiddu Krishnamurti as well.

Obviously not all young people are wise, or on the path to wisdom – but I do wonder: why does the Theosophical Society (which I love BTW) put an age minimum on membership of it’s Esoteric Section (E.S.)?

Disclosure: I was myself too young when I applied and therefor not  allowed into the E.S.

I’ve spoken to many people about this – and most seem to agree: it’s because wisdom comes with age. I agree. People in their teens, even their late teens, are awful. I was very ignorant and foolish at 19. I made some of my worst mistakes back then. But I have to wonder: would I have made those same mistakes if some wise people had taken me on? I will never know, because they didn’t. Instead, a few years later, I got taken on by a scholarly theosophist, Henk Spierenburg, who gave me the Blavatsky Collected Writings among other things, but no practical life advice. Maybe I wasn’t meant to get that. Anyhow, I’m getting off track here.

The main issue with people getting spiritual teachings ought to be their motivation. Young people are often at their most idealistic in their teenage years. Moral issues are seen in black and white at that age. I’ve known quite a few people who were vegetarians in high school but turned back to eating meat in college. In college social realities catch up with them and the issue of animal welfare is suddenly no longer that big a deal. Does that mean they should not be allowed to be vegetarians in high school? Of course not. It just means that life isn’t through testing them yet. But is life ever through testing any of us?

[And no, this isn’t an application to get into the E.S. now. I probably could get in if I wanted to, but that ship has sailed, as far as I’m concerned.]

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