The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Volume 9: Human Experience & The Arts in Cultureby Paul Cash
Here the devoted student of a mystical philosopher explains the teacher’s understanding of the complex purposes of suffering and gives advice for the development of a noble character. Brunton’s outlook “includes Eastern and Western ideas,” the author writes, “yet transcends both.”
“The same God who gives you the inner peace of profound meditation gives you also the storm of outer tribulation. Why?” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton Category 13 Chapter 1 Para 181)
Throughout his long career of spiritual service, philosopher Paul Brunton (1898-1981) stressed that every experience has meaning and is related to a universal purpose. He considered it “a paradox of the strongest irony that the place where we can best find the Overself [the individual link with God] is not in another world, but in this one, that the chance to grow enduringly out of darkness into light is better here.” (13.2.180)
Asked once how his own teaching differed from others he was aware of, he answered, “Most mystics, when they first realize that they really are the soul, much more than the body, react by trying to find some way to escape the body once and for all. Some of them,” he smiled with wry amusement, “even go on for many, many lifetimes, concocting all sorts of elaborate techniques, using the will in every conceivable way, trying to bring this about. But sooner or later they realize that they just can’t do it... and finally they are forced to ask, 'What does it mean to have a body and be in the world?' This is where the philosophic level of spiritual life begins.” And it’s in the way that this question is answered that PB’s teaching differs from others.
Through the early books he wrote from 1934-1952, Paul Brunton first became known to millions of readers in the West as a powerfully convincing advocate of what the West needed to learn from Oriental mystical techniques and philosophies. Yet, even in those early books, he was clearly not recommending a wholesale importation of Eastern religion to displace devitalized Western teachings. Though he had great respect for the religious devotion, intellectual capacity, mystical development, and ascetic hardihood he encountered on his extensive travels through the East, he came ultimately to the conviction that none of these possesses a value anything like that of noble character. In one of the late writings published from his personal notebooks, he declares, “I no longer admire a man because he has spent twenty years in the practice of yoga or the study of metaphysics; I admire him because he has brought compassion, tolerance, rectitude, and dependability into his conduct.” (excerpted from 16.2.90)
The comprehensiveness of his approach to full human spiritual development matured into an outlook that includes Eastern and Western ideas yet transcends both in its universality and relevance to modern spiritual practitioners. Unlike the secular humanist, he does not extol the virtues of human character as a suitable substitute for consciously acknowledging the omnipresence of a greater God and seeking ecstatic mystical union with it. Unlike the majority of mystics, he does not return to us from his ecstatic raptures to declare that normal human experience is a worthless and useless illusion. And unlike many naïve would-be mystics, he does not try to make either this world or our experience of it lovelier than God ever intended:
“In youth we suffer from an unreflecting optimism or an unknowledgeable pessimism but the years correct that. After we have gone through enough experience, we know better how to be cheerful without permitting our optimism to obstruct our reasoning faculties and without permitting our pessimism to dominate during reaction to difficulties. We know we cannot afford the shallow optimism which thrusts the thorn aside and sees only the rose. We prefer to view the red beauty in all her brutality while enjoying the fragrance.” (13.1.149)
According to Paul Brunton, “We suffer primarily because we have isolated our conscious being from the universal Being. Only when we renounce this isolation shall we be able to remove our suffering.” (13.1.182) He tells us that “pain and suffering belong to the worlds of limited being, not to the world of infinite being. If man has to endure them, it is because they serve to remind him of this, to warn him against self-deception and to arouse him to take the homeward path.” (13.1.183) But unlike many religious treatises that would simply have us bear such suffering as an act of patience and faith in a salvation in some hypothetical “Elsewhere,” he points to a more complex purpose in it right here: “It is as if the higher law provides penalties for ignorance of it; as if the higher power, having given man intelligence and intuition, bids him find out the spiritual facts of his situation or take the consequences.” (13.1.191)
If we look deeper into the apparent callousness of this last statement, we find a key to forming a perspective on human experience that combines the best points of both the mystical and the humanistic views. This key is that the higher power, God, has given us intelligence and intuition just as it has given us life and being and numerous other potential powers: “If I am asked why we can find no trace of God’s presence in ourselves,” we read in one of the notebooks, “I answer that we are full of evidence, not merely traces. God is present in us as consciousness, the state of being aware; as thought, the capacity to think; as activity, the power to move; and as stillness, the condition of the ego, emotion, intellect and body which finally reveals what these other things simply point to.” (22.3.409) In another section we find, “If we can bring ourselves to look upon events when they flow upon us as being intended to elicit our qualities and exercise our powers, we will learn to acknowledge and accept the responsibility of choosing whether those qualities be positive or negative, whether those powers be good or bad.” (13.1.9) Insofar as the qualities with which we react and the powers we exercise are positive, we actualize the godlike within ourselves, and our experience leads us into ever more intimate knowledge of, and conscious union with, the God who is the source of these powers and qualities, “for life itself is trying to develop that intelligence in us until it can make us aware of the highest meaning of all—the Soul.” (13.Intro) Insofar as the qualities with which we respond are negative, we suffer and add to the suffering of those around us; we have chosen, albeit in most cases unconsciously, to isolate ourselves from the godlike within us. The presence of the suffering ultimately has a positive effect:
“Suffering has a purgative place, in the scheme of things. If in the earlier stages of man's growth it tempts him to seek relief in evil courses, in the later stages it presses him to seek out its real cause and final cure. Next it has an educative place for it leads him to analyze experience and learn to understand its lessons. Last it has a redemptive place, for it drives him to confess his weakness and seek mercy, grace, and help.” (13.1.282)
This point of view acknowledges choice in the core of human personality. The inner qualities with which we choose to align ourselves and express in our reactions to what life presents to us, indicate what is needed for the next step in our spiritual growth. In this sense life tests us, not to give us a grade, but to show us ourselves and the consequences of the self we have chosen. Through the consequences we learn the wisdom or lack of wisdom in our past choices and revise our future ones on the basis of what we have learned. It is a process of forming our own character, and in so doing, contributing to our collective destiny—that is, to what life can offer humanity as a world to live in today.