The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
December 2011 – Vol. 14 Issue 10
As we enter the sacred time around Christmas once again, I wonder about the deeper meaning of our celebration of the Holy Night. Is a Christmas tree really nothing more than a decorative addition to the celebration? We can perhaps see behind the outward glamour of the tree with its lights, balls, silver tinsel, and a shiny star at the top by looking at it again with an open heart and listening to what it can tell us.
In ancient philosophies and religions, we find that the tree has often been used as a symbol for the universe, whose roots sprang forth from the divine heart of all things and whose trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves were the different worlds and spheres. The colorful glass balls then stand for the manifold planets and globes, connected with everything else throughout the cosmos by the symbolic tinsel and festoons. And the lights: in one way they represent the divine spark in every living being, linking us all together on a higher level and making of us potential gods. But they also denote light itself, which brings forth and is all life in the universe. Finally, the star at the top of the tree may symbolize our own highest self or even the divine essence of the cosmos towards which all of us as godsparks are striving.
In Genesis we read about the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. H. P. Blavatsky describes the tree of life as inverted, with its roots generated in heaven, growing out of the Rootless Root of all-being. Its trunk grew, crossing the expanses of space: it shot out crossways its luxuriant branches, first on the plane of hardly differentiated matter, and then downwards till they touched the terrestrial world. Thus the universe was formed. Of the other tree the Bible says: "thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Adam, an unself-conscious godspark, disregarded that warning and ate from the tree of knowledge, thus entering upon the path of evolution. From an unself-conscious state he then became self-conscious and was on his way to becoming a fully self-conscious god through suffering and experience in the lower realms of matter. For, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." Only by becoming fully evolved or completely awakened beings can we recognize our divinity and take a conscious part in the cosmic work which is the purpose of evolution.
The tree also appears in the Eddas as an expression for the embodied universe. The Scandinavian tradition explains that the fruit of this cosmic tree contains the seeds of future "trees," beings who by inner growth have reached the end of their development on any one level. These entities are each a small universe and are destined in the future to enter upon still higher evolutionary paths in new forms of existence, to become eventually beings like their cosmic parent. These various thoughts may give us clues as to the hidden meaning behind our celebrating Christmas with a tree. In trying to find this meaning, each person will certainly have his own ideas, but isn't there a deep sense of joy in catching a glimpse of a larger dimension within the outer beauty of the decorations on our Christmas tree? – Regina Z. Thackara .
But in response, UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue points out that “governments are using increasingly sophisticated technologies and tactics which are often hidden from the public to censor online content and monitor and identify individuals who disseminate critical or sensitive information, which frequently lead to arbitrary arrests and detention.” Unless enough people stand up for open, unobstructed use of the internet and social media, they will find them used to suppress rather than promote human rights.
As members of one human family, what can we do to bring human life and institutions more in line with this reality? In his recent Sharing the Rock: Shaping Our Future through Leadership for the Common Good, social justice activist Bill Grace offers a vision for transforming human culture as well as detailing the steps he has found most valuable in working for the common good in higher education and in his own foundations. Several Branch members had the pleasure of attending one of his presentations on November 12th, sponsored by the Interfaith Outreach Committee of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound at their center in Redmond, WA.
Inclusive thinking has grown in the last half century as it becomes increasingly obvious that one humanity shares a small, beautiful, fragile planet. Mr. Grace believes there is a tremendous and urgent opportunity today to move beyond “us vs. them” thinking to embrace the good of all, not merely as a sentiment or abstract ideal, but as a way of life. The common good needs to motivate action on all levels: personal, community, national, and global. He pictures moral development in three stages: self-oriented, for the good of oneself; social-oriented, for the good of one’s group; and principle-oriented, for the good of all. As infants everyone begins at the first level of self-absorption, and through childhood moves into making decisions based on family, friends, school, and religious, ethnic, national, or other groups. Whether such decisions are beneficial for the whole depends on whether the outlook of a group promotes the common good. It is very challenging to act consistently at the level of concern for all, especially since people are often trained to view their highest duty as advancing their own family or other group even at the expense of others.
A paradigm shift from self or faction to the whole can only happen when enough people of goodwill are willing to lead this effort in their own spheres, particularly in the one or two areas that mean the most to them and so inspire them to action. Mr. Grace defines leadership as “the ability to inspire a group to move freely with clarity and purpose in a new direction. Leadership can shake us out of our propensity for sleep-walking and challenge us to look at the difficult truths of the day. Leadership can also encourage us to believe that the important action required for change is possible.”(p. 25)
Important in working for the good of all is being able to be in opposition to others without feeling ill will, or as Cornel West put it, “to speak truth with love to power.” It is essential to reach out and give those opposing change the opportunity to be part of solutions promoting the common good. Even if they won’t cooperate or choose to work against change, Mr. Grace emphasizes holding them in one’s heart with love and refusing to hate or despise them. At the same time, those working for the good of all must not allow their efforts to be rendered ineffective by opposition willing to do whatever it takes to keep things as they are or to further its own agenda. One way to counter such opposition is to be our authentic selves – “discovering who we really are and having the courage to be just that” (p. 120) – which is very challenging.
To work for the common good is not to choose the easy course: Mr. Grace stresses that this work is often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. People who do it must be courageous enough to make waves, risk conflict and disapproval, stand up when it’s difficult, and speak out when it’s easier to remain silent. It requires putting themselves on the line rather than going along with a status quo that may be more comfortable, perhaps even personally rewarding. They may fail in their efforts repeatedly; progress may be hard to see. Yet change only comes from being willing to try again and again.
Believing that it’s worthwhile to work for a better future and that change can occur is vital. Strangely, hope often comes once people are committed and begin to act. In this task they are supported by their deeply held personal values. Also, they can draw wisdom from personally experiencing the conditions they are trying to change, drawing on the insights of people enmeshed in these conditions. Or perhaps they already have this experience on “the margins” of power and privilege, and need to accept their own worth in spite of society’s messages to the contrary. Once they have crafted a vision that truly inspires them, they are in a position to discover their voice, the skills they have for expressing their vision effectively. Finally they must act with courage, working to make their vision a reality.
Mr. Grace seeks to give tools to the many people who wish to see constructive change. He is advocating an informal movement for the common good that anyone can join by forwarding the good of all wherever he or she may be by fostering the causes that speak most directly to them.