Blavatsky’s Psychology

The title of this piece is rather ambitious. I’m not going to go in depth into this topic right now: I’m sure there is enough material on the topic to write a book about, which I might just end up writing. 😉 Just not today.

Usually when theosophists talk about Madame Blavatsky’s psychology, which implicitly they do a lot, they will start and finish with the sevenfold constitution of man (which includes women).

This view of individuals is linear: body, emotion, mind, something higher than mind, and the representative of the divine in each of us.

This scheme has the advantage of simplicity as well as fitting in with a straight forward linear view of spiritual growth. Frank Dyer, a frequent visitor of this blog, commented on my blog about theosophical organizational issues as follows recently. I quote it here because while I disagree, I would have agreed not too long ago.

One can be completely well adjusted by mental health standards and still be at a comparatively low level with respect to spiritual advancement. Let the mental health system take care of individuals who have mental health problems that interfere with their daily lives. Theosophy was never meant to address this. Once the individual has mastered the presenting mental health problem at least partially, then he or she may be ready to do Theosophical work.

Implicit in that quote is a view of spiritual growth which is linear: only the mentally well adjusted can go beyond that to something more spiritual. However, those with mental health problems often experience things that can only be called ‘spiritual’. So… is it really true that there’s mentally ill people, mentally healthy people, and spiritual people – and never shall the first and the latter meet?

I think that’s nonsense. Such a linear view does not correspond to my experience on the path, my reading of psychological literature or the deeper teachings I have gleaned from Blavatsky’s collected writings.

Funnily enough, I was already of that opinion, or something much like it, at the age of 21: I devised an eightfold constitution of man in which the eighth ingredient corresponded to what Blavatsky called the probationary stage of the path: when everything hidden inside will come out and some people go quite mad. This was also referred to as ‘pledge fever’.

On Frank’s side of the bargain however, we have Blavatsky stressing the following qualifications for spiritual discipleship (becoming a chela):

  1. Perfect physical health;
  2. Absolute mental and physical purity;
  3. Unselfishness of purpose; universal charity; pity for all animate beings;
  4. Truthfulness and unswerving faith in the law of Karma, independent of any power in nature that could interfere: a law whose course is not to be obstructed by any agency, not to be caused to deviate by prayer or propitiatory exoteric ceremonies;
  5. A courage undaunted in every emergency, even by peril to life;
  6. An intuitional perception of one’s being the vehicle of the manifested Avalokitesvara or Divine Atman (Spirit);
  7. Calm indifference for, but a just appreciation of everything that constitutes the objective and transitory world, in its relation with, and to, the invisible regions.

How is that relevant? Well, it relates to the central role in blavatsky’s esoteric teachings of the concept that people are ‘tested’. I interpret that as a psychological mill people go through when they are serious about the bodhisattva vow – surely an analogue to the third requirement here ‘unselfishness of purpose, universal charity, pity for all animate beings’. (The Text of the Pledge ES members took during Blavatsky’s time)

I take a few mental leaps to get to that conclusion, which I’d have to substantiate if that book ever gets written. For now however it suffices to note that this concept of being tested, and the risk of madness that it involves for the overly ambitious who don’t know themselves, hardly fits the neat view of the Theosophical Society as a place only the sane have any business in. The fact is, the line between sane and in need of help is not nearly as sharp as the psychologically naive might hope.

Frank is of course hardly alone in a linear view of spiritual development. Ken Wilber is equally guilty. The main difference? Ken Wilber thinks anybody who is serious on the spiritual path should go into therapy at some point. He also thinks people at all levels of spiritual development get breakthrough spiritual experiences. Now it’s not clear whether he talks about the same spiritual path as Blavatsky does, but it’s surely much alike.

I don’t agree with the part about everybody on the spiritual path needing therapy, but I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons and I challenge anybody who agrees with me with the following question:

Is it fear that stops you from considering therapy, or are you absolutely sure it would do you no good?

No, I don’t expect an answer in the comments. Personally I think the people who are sure therapy could have nothing to offer them are the most likely to benefit from it. The spiritual path does require a practical understanding of psychological processes and therapy is one way of getting that.


For the Blavatsky loving reader a few more details. A non-linear vision of the individual and their relation to the universe see The Inner Group Teachings of H.P. Blavatsky: To Her Personal Pupils (1890-91). Note that manas and buddhi are in the same level on p. 107 (though admittedly not in the majority of charts in the book), and that this is effectively a three dimensional view on the situation.

My late teen and early twenties selection of quotes in the esoteric studies guide. See particular w.q. Judge on being tested and Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement.

6 thoughts on “Blavatsky’s Psychology”

  1. It has been my observation that time is not linear and since humans use time as a point of reference, neither are we. I found Frank Dyer’s quote intelligent but nonetheless a bit lacking. It’s not very holistic and seems to discount human interconnectedness with the myriad of things within our environment that can affect us in the most subtle of ways.
    In my 17 years as a social worker (not to mention personal experience), the average mental health patient was as likely to achieve spiritual awakening and yes, were often plagued with what seemed the anitithesis of his requirements for spiritual discipleship.
    Therapy is a tool nothing more and everyone can benefit from it and the tools a therapist chooses to employ in their practice can be wide ranging. It just so happens I feel that that some of the more effective tools are spiritual ones.
    It’s a pity that some view therapy with the same reverance as the ivory tower. I’m not knocking therapy but to say what is or is not therapeutic is to me like saying tress have no use beyond being green. That may be a bit silly but you know what I mean. To truly understand we must be willing to embrace all it’s aspects. Just Saying…

    Happy New Year

  2. Perhaps Ken Wilbur found a new direction on his spiritual path through traditional therapy. So he speaks from his Truth.

    Could not ‘therapy’ be found in picking up a book and diving into the study of some esoteric subject that just ‘somehow’ comes to your attention?

    If one has the ‘wisdom’ that can be found by ‘listening very closely’ and being open to new ideas that just sort of ‘appear’ – one may not need ‘therapy. On the other hand if one is feeling lost or floundering in spiritual matters, etc. one is wise that seeks the advise of another for comfort and positive direction.

    I enjoyed this Blog. As a closet spiritual mystic of the 60’s I remember checking into Gurdjieff, Alexander and Jung in that time of my life.

    Best Wishes for a Great New Year!


  3. In many cases people who are labelled “mentally ill” are in position where they have not taken responsibility for there own thoughts and actions. Our society encourages this lack of responsibility and these people are invariably put on medication, which tends to makes their “condition” worse.

    1. I really did not want to make this about blaming anybody for anything. I only know about my own path, and it is certainly not linear.

      I do wonder which ‘society’ you’re talking about. The US? I do agree that putting people on medication isn’t always the best solution. However, I also think that many people simply get more than their share of troubles – and blaming them for not taking responsibility is an easy way for society to continue not supporting them.

      On the whole I don’t think the US has a culture that is overly supportive of people in need.

      The fact is, in an individualistic society people who thrive best in supportive communities are going to have a rough time. While I’d prefer a social solution, I don’t think medication can be ruled out in all cases.

  4. I agree. Growth is hardly linear. If we ever get to that point, we are either deluded or don’t need to be here.

    HPB was hardly a perfect physical specimen, nor were Olcott or Leadbeater. Nor were they absolutely mentally and physically pure. HPB was an emotional wreck – maybe because she was missing some marbles, probably it was a principle.

    The Masters use people who will do the work regardless of their defects.

    The problem with Therapy, as with Medicine and Science as well, is “They know not what they do.” HPB and the Secret Doctrine were saying this in general terms repeatedly generations ago and it hasn’t changed.

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