Warning: this is going to be a rambling post. I’ve got too many thoughts singing through my head about this – and they aren’t organized into anything clearcut yet.
Let me start by sharing a fascinating book I’ve started reading yesterday: Consciousness: an introduction, by Susan Blackmore. I read fast – so I’ve already started a review of the book (follow that link).
In her esoteric instructions Blavatsky advised her students to study the brain. She even had a picture of the brain listed. I never knew what she wanted with that – her explanations about the brain never made much sense to me (they are mostly hints) and I didn’t know how to get a book about the subject that would make sense to me without first having to study medicine.
I guess I found my book 🙂 This isn’t about the brain specifically, but then Madame Blavatsky’s interest in the brain wasn’t the brain itself either. She was into consciousness big time and had her own version of 19th century science to refer to. This book by Susan Blackmore is a great summary of the state of the art about consciousness, and what I love is that she leaves the questions IN. This isn’t a book telling you how it is, but a book telling you what’s known, what conclusions people draw from that (often opposed views) and leaves it at that. Great stuff. I’ve only read about a third (the first three chapters + the chapters on dreams and altered states of consciousness), but I guess I can’t stop raving about it.
OK, I’ll stop now. Back to Blavatsky.
What sparked this blogpost was a seemingly simple question: wasn’t Blavatsky a medium? and if so, why was she opposed to mediumship?
To understand the question (let alone my answer) you have to understand 19th century spiritualism. You also have to understand Blavatsky’s life. And if possible, insight into Eastern wisdom will also help. I’m great at short summaries, but this one is perhaps beyond me (and food for a longer article one day perhaps).
Let’s start at the beginning: 19th century spiritualism was in part a reaction against the materialist science of the day. Materialism was great at starting scientific progress, but not so great for daily life. I think most of you can empathize with that. Religion was put in the defensive. Then the famous Fox Sisters came along in 1848. Through raps and sounds they communicated with ‘the dead’. This caused a movement throughout the Western world: people communicating with the dead in séances and proving to themselves that the physical wasn’t all there was. It was a bit like the popularity of Near Death Experiences today.
As it was so popular science had to get involved. And to their surprise the some scientists found that they could not deny the phenomena outright. Not everything was tricks and mirrors. Move forward a few decades to the 1870’s.
I’m writing this from a theosophical perspective, taking what Blavatsky said about this in retrospect seriously. Imagine yourself as Blavatsky. You have traveled all over the world: seen America, India, the Middle East. Traveling sometimes as a man to give yourself and your female companion safety. (Remember, we’re talking Victorian times: women traveling had to take measures – in fact, even today they might be useful). In Tibet and India you’ve listened to guru’s and folk stories. You’ve learned to meditate and control your psychic powers. You’ve learned a lot about the Divine in Man (including Woman).
One day your teacher says (psychically or face to face): it’s time for you to go back into the world and teach some of what you’ve learned here. This will be hard. Use what you find brewing in people to get an opening. You go to Egypt where you start a ‘miracle club’ – after all psychic powers are something you know about. The attempt is a failure. You go to Paris. You’re French is good and you need time to recuperate. In a dream your master tells you: go to New York. So you go. New York at that time isn’t yet a world city. But it has a certain energy. You make a living making trinkets and eat up your inheritance.
You find that spiritualism is still alive and well and to check it out you go to Chittenden, Vermont where in a farmhouse a few brothers are causing a great deal of unexplained things. She met Col. Olcott there and the rest is history. See her account of those phenomena at the Eddy Farmhouse.
Follow that link and you will read several thing:
- Blavatsky defending the reality of the phenomena: they weren’t faked
- Blavatsky saying she pretends to be a medium, so the reality of what takes place is not denied.
- Blavatsky saying she is NOT a medium, but can produce the same effects at will (and she does not mean trickery or stage magic.)
I guess that just about sums it up: early in her career in public life she pretended to be a medium in order to make sure the existence of states of consciousness outside the ordinary weren’t denied. Yet she later claimed that generally what happened in séances was unhealthy and even dangerous for all participants, especially the medium. But she said this in a way that didn’t alienate some of her medium friends – though most in the spiritualistic movement felt she was offending them.
In other words again: she tried to find a middle ground between ‘scientific’ denial of phenomena she knew in many cases could be real – and the explanations of the spiritualists of those phenomena.
When she was asked again and again in later years if disciples were mediums, she answered with this article: Are Chelas (disciples) Mediums? It’s one of her most famous articles within the Theosophical Movement because it sums up her position perfectly: the word medium is explained. And the difference between her own position and that of mediums explained.
So, what is a medium – and why did Blavatsky soon start denying she was one?
A medium is someone, by popular definition, who is in touch with the spirits of the dead. More – in those days – mediums were generally thought to be in trance when they brought through their messages.
Blavatsky, a true Buddhist in this, felt trances were for the weak hearted. Her spiritual ideal was that of being fully awake and aware at all times. Her idea of an adept included being awake most hours of the night. When she brought through messages from beyond (from living masters, she claimed), she was fully conscious: watching while someone else acted. Learning from what was taught as everyone else was who was there.
How about channeling
I have been in personal communication about this topic a few months ago. I was told that to call Blavatsky a channel would be offensive to current day channels. Yet channels have some things in common with Blavatsky’s way of working:
- Most are conscious when writing
- They are in contact with a being who is usually NOT the spirit of a departed one
- The works produced are more abstract and less personal than those produced by mediums: the aim is to uplift humanity, not just to comfort a few tormented souls
- Money does not play a part in the procedure: while the writing is going on, nobody is paying the channel for the result (though of course in some cases the resulting book does turn out to make the channel money).
One thing Blavatsky has in common with spiritualists in her time: what she produced wasn’t just text: she also produced occult phenomena as they were called: cups found buried under roots for instance, without any sign of tampering the earth in the vicinity (with people checking).
Is that every aspect of the Blavatsky – mediumship question covered? I think so. Let’s close with something far more interesting: the weird ways our consciousness works. Watch the following video: