What Is the Essence of Man?

By Bas Rijken van Olst

Before we ask "What is the essence of man?", we might well ask ourselves: What is man? What is he composed of? St. Paul was of the opinion that man is composed of body, soul, and spirit. Where would he have placed man's consciousness? In the spirit, in the soul, or somewhere else? What forms the essence, the deepest, most fundamental principle of man?

When enumerating man's components in this way, it seems reasonable to say: the body is not the essence; the body is an aid to something else -- an aid to our feelings and thoughts. But our thoughts, in their turn, can be viewed as an aid to our will; or, conversely, there is a part of our consciousness that uses our thought. This consciousness, this part of our self is thus more essential than our thinking. The essence of man, therefore, goes beyond the mind and the body.

Do our feelings then constitute our essence? This seems not to be the case, for our feelings are quite variable. Our sense-organs often give rise to divergent feelings. If we are moved by the changeable nature of our sense-perceptions and the way we react to them, will our essence be moved in the same way? Sometimes we can control our reactions with our thinking, though this can be achieved only after continual practice. This leads us to the conclusion that these kinds of feelings do not form the essence of man. Our word "self-control" implies that there is a "self" which is more essential than our feelings and which can control them.

Sometimes we use the word "feelings" for other levels of consciousness -- feelings such as love and unselfishness, conceived in the highest sense. In this light, man may be viewed as a series of interlinking levels of consciousness; the body is the last or lowest link in the chain, and every link above it is more essential. At the level of consciousness where man's higher feelings come into play, such as the feelings of unselfishness and love, the limits of our personality fade away -- indeed, we begin to work for the welfare of the greater whole.

If we follow these interlinking levels of consciousness upwards in a figurative sense, or further and further toward the innermost essence of man, then we draw nearer and nearer to the idea that all of us are essentially one -- and this is the very basis of the idea of brotherhood.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, December 1988/January 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press)

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