Essays from "The Theosophical Path" by Talbot Mundy

As to Success and Failure

By Talbot Mundy

April 1925

There was once a nobleman, or there is said to have been one (Las Casas mentions him), who caused thirteen Indians to be burned alive in honor of Christ and the twelve Apostles. Applause perhaps appeased his morbid appetite for adulation, though there may have been concomitant emotions. He achieved success, precisely as he measured it. And though he may have passed out of the world less painfully than did the victims of his orgy of aspiration, the permanence and quality of his success are unconvincing.

And there was Caesar, who came, saw, conquered -- his genius, brain, influence, and hardihood all concentrated on the one determination to assert himself and yoke the strength of conquered peoples to his chariot. He even deified himself and set his image in a Roman temple. There are more who envy Caesar than who crave to emulate the nobleman who burned the Indians to death; he has more apologists because he peacocked on a grander scale. And yet, if numbers are significant, and if attainment shall be measured by extent and aftermath, it needs not much discernment to observe that Caesar merely wrought more havoc, more titanically than did the immolator of the Indians.

So much depends on how we measure failure and success; and, probably, each individual on earth possesses secret standards of his own, in many cases secret from himself for lack of self-examination, by which he measures both his own attainments and those of others.

There was Hypatia, who taught that happiness may be attained by searching for the truth, and living, reckless of the consequences, decently. The advocates of the accepted dogmas of that day not only slew her but in indignation at the purity she preached defiled her body, scraping every scrap of flesh from off her bones. Said they, 'that proves she failed.'

And there was Socrates, whom the Athenians put to death. That obstinate old hero, sweetly reasonable and unreasonably (so said the Athenians) impulsive in his efforts to direct attention to contemporary evils, resisted all persuasion to desist from breaking up the molds of thought -- until the rulers of the city made him toast the tired humanity he loved in a cup of hemlock. Did he fail? Or did the tyrants fail, whose very names have vanished?

H. P. Blavatsky came into the West within the memory of men and women who have spoken with her and have heard from her own lips her message of the Ancient Wisdom. Measured by the standards that apply to commerce and the race for personal advantage, she could not be called a 'favorite of fortune.' She did not die rich. She left no legacies of carefully invested funds whose income should endow establishments for proving to the world how thrifty Wisdom is, and how materially buttressed are its children. She did not taste fame, but infamy. No legislatures voted her a tablet on their walls. The satirists and journalists aimed stinging jibes at her; religious dogmatists persecuted her; her very ill health, caused by her unselfish efforts for humanity, was made a butt for ridicule. She died. The evil her accusers coined still echoes faintly here and there. She died tired; she was doubtless glad enough to go; but did she fail? No. She succeeded amazingly. Her work lives after her as a world-wide movement, yearly growing in power and influence.

The human mind is an amazing breeding-place of paradox. We hero-worship when the mood is on us, but the mood depends, too often, on the comforts we imagine that we need. Our military heroes are the men who died defending gaps in a material defense, providing safety for the rest of us. We can admire that sacrifice. We can admit that their failure to preserve themselves was glorious, and justly we inscribe their records in the rolls of fame.

And we are willing -- all the nations of the earth have done it in their years of decadence -- to go a step or two beyond the totally material, when things material have somehow lost their taste and death seems more than formerly convincing -- we are willing then to hero-worship at the shrines of saints and prophets who are said, however falsely said, to have performed self-immolation for remission of our sins.

But he who dares to challenge all the hatred of reaction by suggesting to us that we should think and, thinking, make ourselves a battlefield of light against the darkness, higher against lower nature, inspiration against habit, that one becomes a nuisance, not a hero in our eyes, however selflessly he suffers in his fight for all humanity.

What is success? We live this little life and leave behind us bones that crumble into dust; what else? It is a platitude to say that money never purchased happiness; all know it, he who wallows in his wealth as well as he who winces for the lack of half enough. Possessions, though we crave them, simply add their ball-and-chain to the encumbrances with which we litter up our lives; and though some seek their happiness in dying rich, that their survivors may enjoy the fruit of all their energy, it remains yet to be shown in any instance that wealth resolves life's handicap, though many of the rich have sought to buy contentment for the poor.

And nations are as individuals. In all recorded history there is not one instance of a nation's happiness increasing as a result of material conquest, which, on the contrary, merely magnifies the problems to be met and leaves to generations yet unborn an aftermath of rancor and revenge.

Analysis of motives that impel humanity along its turbulent and constantly repeated course, each generation deeming itself wiser than its forbears, yet adopting the same methods to escape the same old pitfalls and lamenting with the same cries when the same results ensue, reveals that competition holds a foremost place. Men, cities, nations, races, even continents of people, judge their progress by material advantage. Life has been accepted as a 'struggle for existence.' The profound experience of ages, out of which was minted the immortal warning "Give, and it shall be given unto you," when not forgotten is reduced to a refined, far-seeing selfishness. We give, that we may get. We sacrifice, in order that "bread cast upon the waters" may return to us. The wise words "unto him who hath shall more be given" have been tortured into a command to grab -- get -- keep -- and get more, whether it be wealth, fame, authority, or (subtilest of sensual deceptions) self-esteem.

Not many of us like to see conceit in others. We ignore it in ourselves., or misinterpret it to mean the consciousness of goodness. Most of us have met at some time persons who inflict the pride of their humility on neighbors, and not many of us have refrained from the commission of that impudence at times, when the reaction from our positive conceit set in. The ebb and flow of ugly pride and uglier humility will never cease until we change the basis of our thought and judge ourselves by what we are, not by what we would like to seem to be.

We presuppose, in theory, a universe that is exactly what it is; that is becoming what it is becoming; that has purpose, possibly inscrutable; whose government is Law, unvarying, admitting no exceptions. And in practice we proceed to try to break that Law, to be exceptions, to become something different from what is purposed for us, and to be what we are not. The result is failure, which persists in myriads of guises just as long as the delusion lasts that we can break eternal Law. Ignorance of the Law avails us nothing, nor does remedy consist in an attempt to change the Law, but in discovering what the Law is and in directing our own efforts in accordance with it, when discovered.

Failure is at least unpleasant, and its sting lies in its inescapable conclusion: it obliges us to reconsider life -- but that, too, is the reason why so many failures are precursors of success. Failure so convincing that the clamor of dissatisfaction dies and silence supervenes, is victory at last. No pig under a gate can yell more self-intently than a failed man's pride can clamor against luck or against other people's falseness; but in the stillness of what seems uttermost disaster other impulses can find their way into the consciousness, and new hope dawns.

Success consists in being what we are, not in deceiving ourselves and others that we are something else than what we are. If we can recognise ourselves, and be, with all our might, that Man that we discern, if dimly, in our moments of true inspiration, no other purpose will remain, nor will any sense of competition cloud the issue. We shall see ourselves becoming, not by pretending to be, and not by theorizing, but by being something. In the death of our delusions, stung by discontent, eventually we are driven to discern that mere lip-service to ideals destroys the very vision of the goal we crave; and we must be the very spirit we aspire to, just as rain is wet and not a theory of wetness. Calendars, however beautifully printed, grow no crops; it is the spring that starts the seeds, the warmth that nurtures them in nature's breast. Ungoverned by the heart no intellect, no will, can find the upward way.

When aspiration enters consciousness, we waste time if we worry over consequences. Is the aspiration true, or is it false? Shall we accept it, or reject? Is it a glimpse of real being, or a whiff out of the swamps of the delusion-breeding lower consciousness that tempts us?

There, momentarily and forever, the dividing line between success and failure runs; but so intense is racial habit and inherited predisposition to adopting subterfuge, that we attempt all sorts of methods of evading exercise of judgment. There are those who go to 'advisers' for the decision; there are others who seek fortune-tellers; there are many who take whichever course at first appears the easiest, consulting none but their own surface-impulses. And there are not a few who steep themselves in what they have been told is occultism, hoping, as it were, to run before they have begun to learn to walk, aspiring to results before they have remotely made acquaintance with the causes.

No man knows more, nor can know more, of occultism than his hourly exercise of judgment demonstrates. The child, who is spontaneously joyous, is a vastly deeper occultist than he who strains his intellect in order to acquire 'control of forces,' which, if rightly his, he would possess as naturally and apply with as much ease as he does the law of circulation of the blood. Success in occultism, as in all else, lies in doing with the whole heart eagerly the instant task at hand, if that be chopping wood or intricately managing finance.

"That thou doest, do with all thy might," is counsel taken from the deepest wisdom of the ages; but -- be it noted -- it says nothing about watching for immediate results. Discouragement is always due to that peculiarly human vice of seeking instant, open recompense for effort. They who dabble in the dark of occultism, trespassing beyond the confines of the 'now and this,' are no whit wiser than the men and women who forget that deeds done in the dawn of history are hedging us today with consequences. He who strives, by delving into mysteries, to find a short cut to a higher dignity is actually more materialistic in his aim than is his fellow who digs and plants potatoes. Both seek to satisfy a human craving, but the man who digs the dirt goes straight to nature, doing what he knows and leaving nature to produce the consequences. He who tries to soar into the unknown by a short cut, making intellectual experiments too subtil for his present stage of evolution, seeks material phenomena no less than the potato-digger, with the difference that he ignores his own unwisdom while he violates his soul in the pursuit of intellectual sensation.

No issue can be taken with the man who fancies he has only one earth-life to live, whereafter night and nothing, or else the grim alternative of yelling hell or sentimental heaven. He can have no sense of ultimate responsibility nor see the value of the passing minute. If he can escape, or thinks he can escape, the outcome of his thinking and his doing, of his thoughtlessness and of his own neglect, by the accident of death or by the importunity of prayer, he will govern himself accordingly. He must be left to grow until, confronted by experience, he reaches for the deathless Spirit in himself, and learns.

But there are those who have escaped from the delusion of the one earthlife; who have abandoned fear of hell or hope of heaven; who have seen a nobler vision of their destiny than everlasting idleness in a Semitic sanctuary; who have replaced fear with feeling of responsibility; who know that there are many lives, and that the living of them is the means of evolution.

Nobility of purpose is revealed, and new horizons reach into an infinite, that is appealing and assuring because Now is of the very essence of it and no swamps of an incalculable chance waylay the pilgrim's feet. No longer is there any question what we leave behind us except bones that crumble into dust. Our very dust becomes ennobled; it becomes the stuff of which ensuing molds are fashioned in which infinite varieties of life shall have experience.

When the eternal vastness and the dignity of evolution has begun to dawn in consciousness, no thought, no deed, is insignificant. No minute lacks importance. The division between failure and success lies visible and comprehensible. Success is seen as new ennoblement, attained by effort and so fluxed into the character by Nature's alchemy that thought and act thereby forever more are governed. Failure becomes revelation of the next step to be taken in the ascending scale of Manhood; and the end of a material mistake becomes a challenge to dehypnotize the vision, to look for the ascending Path exactly at one's feet, to learn that lesson, and go forward wiser for the experience, more tolerant of others' blunders and more generous.

For generosity is of the essence of success. We judge a lamp by the effulgence of its rays. That lamp that gives the brightest light, with least annoyance and expense, is a suggestive symbol of the alchemy of evolution. There is no improvidence in spiritual living; not an effort made at spiritual self-improvement that can fail of its proportionate effect on all the universe. Incessant self-control, so governing ourselves as to become more capable of spiritual vision and less capable of false enthusiasms, is our objective; its attainment is the greatest gift we can bestow on all mankind.

Now a lamp that burns in daylight might be put to better uses. They who cavil at unequal distribution of the world's material rewards may well consider the suggestiveness of lamplight wasted while the sun shines. A no less authority than Jesus is reported to have remarked "the poor ye have always with you"; and a countless series of sermons has been preached, an utterly innumerable stream of books brought forth, in efforts to explain that saying or to twist it, either into an apparent compromise with human hopes or else into a brief for fatalistic resignation. Yet its paradox is easy to interpret if we bear in mind that evolution goes on simultaneously on the spiritual plane and the material.

We being here to make experience, through which we may evolve into a higher state of consciousness and simultaneously change, by our employment of it, the particular material environment at which we have arrived, there is a dignity -- and more than that, a glorious responsibility in being born into the stratum of society where quality of manhood obviously most is needed. The illogic of the situation vanishes when that viewpoint is realized; for who shall know the needs of poverty unless he learn them at first hand? Who otherwise shall learn compassion?

Is it beyond the reach of human comprehension that a great soul, rich from the experience of aeons of earth-lives, as daring as the ray of light that plunges into gloom, and having reached that stage of self-directed evolution when it even can select its own next line of effort, should deliberately choose a birth into the very depths of poverty? Of what use else were all its well-earned alchemy? Shall it paint the lily white, or shall it plunge into a sea of misery and transmute that? Which effort is the nobler?

Shall a soul learn all the intricate economy of Nature through a series of births into -a world of lethargy and ease? And may there not be souls whose turn has come to test themselves in that wide realm of opportunity that poverty presents?

Too readily we all identify ourselves with matter -- shapes with which time clothes us when we go forth into earth-experience. It would be as sensible to call ourselves the clothes we wear. Brain, body, intellect, the senses, are the aggregate of what we have deserved through previous exertion; our environment is the exactly measured scope of our ability to play the man.

The paradox, so baffling to the men and women who believe they visit earth but once and then are done with it, grows clear as daylight if we keep man's true essential divinity in mind. The mystery of how, and why, "the poor are always with us" and no money can be made to buy more than a momentary anodyne, ceases to be a mystery at all. Materiality can no more change itself than darkness can. It is through spiritual consciousness that matter yields and men grow masters of their destiny; and disregard of mere material results, while aiming at the spiritual goal, lays matter in subjection.

To try to place matter in subjection by manipulating matter is the snare that traps the would-be 'higher occultist,' who, if he should expend the half of the amount of energy in striving to identify himself, by wholesome living, with that true divinity that is his higher self, would earn more virtue in a minute than a life-time of ambitious conjuring can gain for him.

The higher knowledge comes of higher living at the stage at which we are, not of trying to obtain it by manipulations of the intellect. All Nature is exactly balanced and the individual who leaves the royal road of duty, seeking to escape responsibility by stealing marches on his Karma, though he may attain a sort of misty half-acquaintance with another plane, will be unbalanced by it, having not the necessary wisdom. And the end of that is chaos, with the way out difficult to find.

We forget that Wisdom seeks us; that its line of least resistance is a balanced character; that he who has attained to self-control and a delight in duty is inseparably one with Wisdom, which will find him out and feel its way into his consciousness exactly in proportion to his value to the human race.

The survival of the fittest is undoubtedly a law of Nature; but the fittest are not necessarily the fattest, nor the richest, nor the most successful on the plane of mere material results. Viewed through the distorting lenses of materiality, Lao-Tse, the Buddha, Jesus, and Pythagoras, the Druids, and all truly spiritual teachers, have been failures; it is not recorded that they slew their tens of thousands, or excelled in sport, or left invested money to endow associations that should standardize religion and enforce its rule. With a convincing unanimity they all ignored the weight of popular opinion, the threat of violence, the said-to-be omnipotence of numbers and the lure of gold. Is there a financier on record, or a demagogue, or an elected ruler, or a conqueror by force of arms, whose efforts have achieved one fraction of the benefit that theirs did? How many men were happier or wiser as a consequence of Caesar's triumphs? Was it Croesus who expressed the Golden Rule? Did Roman arms, or Roman gladiators, pave the way for Vergil's poems, or was Shakespeare raised on the rapine of Drake? There have been great kings; which of them has wrought surviving changes on the earth remotely comparable to the bloodless revolution set in force by Lao-Tse, to cite one simple instance?

What then is fittest to survive? that is the question -- not whether to be or not to be, as Shakespeare makes the unhinged Hamlet ask. The dullest wit can answer, if the elementary and fundamental fact is not forgotten, that we shall return to earth -- it may be a million times, or oftener -- to meet the consequences of our action and neglect. What nature of conditions do we choose to meet when we revisit earth? And do we wish to be the victims, or to be the agents through whom the regenerative forces of the universe may find expression and prevail over materiality?

Success reshapes itself in that perspective. Failure dons new hues. Time loses its significance in the importance of the everlasting Now. Desirable results appear less tangible and not so measurable in the scale with dollars and political control. Intolerance of other men's and other nations' vanity succumbs before alertness to our own imprisonment within a mold of prejudice that we begin to work to break. Self-discipline replaces the desire to govern others. True self-interest is seen to be attainment of such self-command as shall admit more wisdom into our own complex nature, driving out the dregs of ignorance in front of it, thus fitting us for manlier life now. So destiny is fashioned. So are laid the genuine foundations of success.

The problem is one and the same, whether a man possesses millions, or owes them; whether he has been elected to a legislature as the representative of millions, or whether a community, for lack of wisdom, in itself and him, has thrown him into prison. Destiny appoints no favorites, anoints no specially favored sons, avoids no issues, and ignores no subtilties of surreptitious lapses from integrity. We carve our own careers; and he who wrings extravagant amounts of money from the sweated labor of men, women, and children driven to obey him by the pressure of necessity, will learn inevitably, in experience, the sharpness of that shape of selfishness. Death may afford a breathing-spell, but it avoids no consequences of the acts that we commit; and there is many a man in prison, brought up short by that predicament, and so provided with an opportunity to think and look for the solution of life's problem in himself, whose destiny will uplift and enrich the world.

Success and failure are twin frauds until the mask is stripped from them and we discern that dread of one is as unjustified as craving for the other. Then, those frauds exposed, we see the true direction for expenditure of effort and thereafter we permit the Lords of Destiny to measure our success exactly, by providing us with opportunity to prove, now, in experience, how far we have identified ourselves with the divine in us. That is the only test worth taking, and the only evidence that counts.