How well I remember John Algeo pronouncing in his sonorous voice the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. Both, he said, are meanders that one walks through hoping to achieve the centre goal. The difference is that if one continues pressing onward in a labyrinth, no matter how many crooks and turns, one will finally reach the goal. A maze is an entirely different matter. With many dead ends it is intended to confound.
Although life may often seem like an unsolvable maze, the design of our universe is beneficent. Our pathway may be long and tedious with many a surprise turn, but the magnetic draw is ultimately toward learning and growth. However, in any one lifetime we do have choices. These choices determine whether we are rather dazed in a maze or whether we have entered the labyrinth of sure direction. At the point we turn in our minds to follow our soul’s purpose, our steps can move forward with assurance on our pilgrimage.
“All things work together for the good for those who love the Lord,” a Biblical quote attributed to Paul, is often misunderstood. “To love the Lord” is a Christian way of saying to turn to a higher power. When life throws us nothing but lemons, we do not see how that can be for the good. Yet through karma, dharma, and the patterns of life, our divine-oriented spirit is able to make lemonade.
It is true that there are instances in which a person seems to stay in the dark for an entire lifetime, and yet over the entire scheme of evolution, the obligatory pilgrimage of each soul will be accomplished. Life experiences teach survival skills, problem solving, ways of coping, and finally move the individual toward choices responsive to the soul’s urgings.
Madame Blavatsky (HPB) spoke of it this way in the Proem of The Secret Doctrine in which she lists the Third Fundamental Proposition:
(c) The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul – a spark of the former – through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term... 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.
The saying, “No pain, no gain” may apply here. When everything is rosy we take our ease and languish in a relaxed lassitude. When the going gets tough the tough get going – or as the old adage says: “A woman is like a teabag; the longer she stays in hot water the stronger she gets.” Continuing with this line of thinking Shakespeare used the following phrase in the play, As You Like it:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in its crown.
So now we know that walking the labyrinth of life can be challenging, but we need to know why we travel this route. What is the goal? What do we want to discover? These are the age-old questions that we ask because we are conscious – self-conscious beings. Why am I here? Who am I and what should I be doing? What is the meaning of life and how do I relate to the All? In walking the labyrinth and living with these questions, we discover that the goal is inherent in the journey. HPB says in The Voice of the Silence (VOS): “Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that path itself.”
So if we have decided to walk this labyrinth of a spiritual life, what might be some road signs to help us walk this journey more effectively? In recent studies I have encountered several different sources that give somewhat similar advice. Consideration of these in comparison has enriched my journey as I hope it will yours.
Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott, a contemporary Christian author, was on the New York Times Best Seller List for quite a while in 2013 and onwards. This book came to my attention at an Episcopal Women’s Retreat with quite a bit of discussion on how these three terms define our relationship to the divine. First, we find ourselves in a pickle and seek assistance – “Help!” Ideally this is not asking for the great Santa in the sky to come and fix everything, but rather a call of the personality to something greater than itself. In Theosophical terms we might say that it is a call to one’s Higher Self. When one puts out a genuine call of the soul, amazing things can happen. This is a tenet of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program and most of us have experienced its efficacy. When we ask with inner intensity, recognising our need for a power beyond ourselves, an answer often comes to us – maybe not what we wanted or imagined but some sort of assistance. The realisation of the presence of that help naturally generates gratitude. More than that, however, a continuing sense of gratitude brings about a change in our psyche that we might term as awe or “Wow.” Our steps cannot stray far from the path with that sense of trusting expectancy.
These three petitions reminded me of another book: The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge, a mid-twentieth century British author, renowned in the UK and US. At the beginning of this book a strange mystic gives instructions for the three seminal prayers to be used in life: “Have mercy; Into Thy hands; and Thank you.” These three prayers then play out in the life of the fictional character. Again, it is basically “Help!” and “Thank you” with the additional instruction to surrender the impulse to have absolute control but rather to walk in trust, as previously mentioned
These pivotal points are seen in varying degrees in a number of traditions. In Buddhism the Four Noble Truths recognise that life is unsatisfactory – Dukkha as it is called – and that there is a cause and a way out. In order to tread the path one has to first recognise a deep need which can be resolved through following the 8-fold path. This path prescribes responsible living and an orientation to the inner life. Buddhist philosophy advocates orienting one’s entire lifestyle toward seeking inner resolution to life’s disappointments.
This then is the important first step in treading our labyrinth. We make choices all the time but this is the most critical – to consciously direct our steps on the pathway. Not until then can the Universe rally behind our efforts and “work for the good.” The twists and turns may seem to take us backwards but that is just a part of the growth process. Once we have made this decision we can feel a certain assurance that no matter how difficult things may seem, we are moving in the direction of the goal. In HPB’s Voice of the Silence (VOS), she writes:
Help nature and work on with her; and nature will regard thee as one of her creators and make obeisance.
And, as a Jewish prayer goes:
My heart cries out to You:
Please draw near to me.
The moment I reach out to You,
I find You reaching in to me.
In Masters and the Path, C.W. Leadbeater (CWL) lists four crucial instructions for enhancing our success in travelling this path: community, study, devotion and service. This list is very similar to the familiar Theosophical listing of the three legs that support our spiritual practice: study, meditation and service; but with the addition of community.
As to community, almost all traditions, whether implicit or explicit, recognise the importance of the camaraderie of fellow travellers. In Buddhism it is called the Sangha. Unfortunately for us as English speakers it is called “brotherhood” in the First Object of our Society. Possibly, we can call it “familyhood,” as an inclusive term that refers to the bond created by a mutual support of each other in our journey. Sometimes to our own detriment we may forget the importance of being present for each other in lodge meetings and other gatherings, but going it alone is not an option. “Believe thou not that sitting in dark forests, in proud seclusion, and apart from men ... that this will lead thee to the goal of final liberation.” (HPB: VOS) As we travel we need each other in order to serve as much as to be served. Whatever our situation, it is wise to take advantage of opportunities for like-minded fellowship.
For myself, I will never forget the joy of my first trip to Olcott, the national centre of the Theosophical Society in America. I had discovered the ideas of Theosophy through books and had occasion to meet a few Theosophists, but here I was, walking into an enchanted environment in which everyone present sought some aspect of the truths of existence. A number of people I met then and in subsequent years became my virtual Sangha, an inner support no matter where I lived.
CWL’s next support, study, is called “the Teachings” in Buddhist tradition but by any term it denotes the exploration of inspired writings as one seeks the truth. In the Episcopal Church ideas are supposedly assessed by three criteria: the scriptures, reason and tradition. In whatever vernacular, it is recommended to explore with open-minded inquiry in order to evaluate our thoughts and beliefs in light of wisdom that has previously accumulated. Such study requires the presence of like-minded pilgrims for contrast and comparison. Otherwise, isolated in our ivory tower, we can easily become deluded.
CWL’s third term: devotion, is the fuel that keeps us going. CWL recognised the power of devotion to carry one’s heart forward no matter what the difficulties. He was specifically devoted to the Mahatmas, or great souls who were the inner founders of the Theosophical Society. Having seen them and communicated with them, his devotion knew no bounds. While for us, lacking such direct experience, it is more difficult, but just as important. Buddhists see dedication to the Buddha as the third support for their journey. Hindus reverence various personifications of the ultimate. Christians honour Jesus and Judaism reveres the creative force called “I am that I am.” Each tradition has some point of reference for devotion.
As Theosophists, we recognise the validity of a series of higher entities, all manifesting aspects of the One unknowable. If evolution is true, then there absolutely must be beings far beyond our capabilities just as we are far beyond the lower animals. There must be other life waves, planetary beings, angels and, yes, those who have taken human form and who have advanced far beyond our normal imaginings. In their magnificence these entities, prophets, Masters, great souls of compassion, are gifts to us because of the admiration and devotion they inspire. We are free to explore what fits our particular psyche, but as human beings we need some lode star toward which we aim our devotion. However, as Islam especially warns us, in every source of our devotion we must look through the embodiment to the ultimate One beyond all beings. And in Buddhism there is the saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. In other words do not get lost in the image.
If we have sought and begun to travel this labyrinth with such aids as have been mentioned: devotion, gratitude, study, trust and the support of community, we naturally turn to service, the fourth pillar of CWL’s listing. The response of loving service pours out of a loving and devoted heart, not just to be seen as doing good, either alone or with others, but as an open sharing. What can we do but work for the greater good of the whole?
This brings us back to the earlier mentioned authors who place wonder and gratitude among the top attitudes for living the spiritually oriented life. Surely this kind of thankfulness can carry us far in travelling our path well. Several groups with which I am involved advocate cultivating the “Beloved Community,” reaching beyond ourselves into the world at large in recognition of our innate kinship within the grand scheme. In Judaism concern for healing our world is called Tikkun olam. Genuine service of this kind is the ultimate expression of gratitude toward a higher power.
Our labyrinthine path lies before us for the choosing. Whatever hardships we encounter, we will be supported if we seek out community, pursue understanding, are devoted to the highest we know, and serve with love. If we follow these road signs we will have the wind at our backs. We will gain the goal, the ultimate blessing: the power to contribute to the “Beloved Community.”
As HPB wrote in her famously quoted There is a Road:
For those who win onwards there is reward past all telling – the power to bless and save humanity... (CW XIII p. 219)
Betty Bland, past National President of the Theosophical Society in America now retired to Raleigh, North Carolina, has presented workshops and lectures on the spiritual life both in the United States and abroad. Professionally, she has worked as a teacher, employment counsellor, systems analyst and entrepreneur. In addition to being a social activist, Betty sings in the choir and plays the bells at her local Episcopal Church, is a cat rescue volunteer and chairs a local Theosophical Study Centre. Betty’s emphasis continues to be on the practical applications of Theosophical principles.