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Acquired Habits

by A.I.R.

Reprinted from LUCIFER, May, 1888

and reproduced from Theosophical Siftings - Volume 2 - of 1889-1890

IN attempting to deal with problems which only find their solution worked out to the full on planes and in terms incomprehensible to our ordinary senses, it would seem possible that illustrations drawn from the science of physiology should serve to explain these problems somewhat more fully than those illustrations which are drawn from physical science alone. Physiology is at least the science of life, and though, when pressed, we must admit that we know very little indeed of the main factors which lie behind the phenomena of life; and that, with all the means of research which we possess, we know nothing of even the physical forces in themselves, but only study their manifestations and correlations, yet we may, at all events, argue from the little we do know, and attempt to correct our conclusions by comparison with the analogies which we can draw from every science. The principle involved in the "as above, so below", is shown to be true in all departments of science, and has formed a most valuable means of verifying the results obtained by pushing a theory to its legitimate conclusion. Thus, by correcting the phenomena of vital force by those of physical, we may arrive at many more or less just conclusions. Therefore, it is probable that by proceeding a step further, and drawing analogies from physiology, we may form an idea of what, for want of a better term, may be called the life of morality, and the forces whereby it is governed. By the term moral, I do not mean to convey any idea of that which underlies what is ordinarily known as morality, but a very much wider idea than that, namely, the force which really lies at the base of and inspires all our motives of action. Of course, these are indirectly also at the root of our physical and what may be called our animate life, in which we men are in contact with the life of animals; but at present we need not endeavour to make a distinction between man and the animals which are endowed with the physical and animate life force, but in whom the moral life is entirely latent, save in the case of a very few of the higher species, such as dogs and elephants. Though, even in these cases, it may be argued with good show of reason that this "moral life" of the higher animals is the result of education.

Now, in man and animal alike there are great nervous centres which govern the vital phenomena, and hence, as a consequence, the physical phenomena of life. These centres, as they are called, are formed by collections of nerve cells, which occupy a very fairly defined area. They are found in the brain and the spinal cord for the most part, and to a lesser degree in the great vital organs themselves. Further, there is what is known as the sympathetic system of nerves, with its closely meshed network of nerves and ganglia, which lies outside, but in front of, the vertebral column, the whole length of the body; this system is closely connected in its whole extent with the brain and spinal cord, and the branches therefrom, which are known as the cerebro-spinal system of nerves. Again, to some extent the control of the nerves lies with the Will of any man, and the actions which result are termed "voluntary", but a very large majority of the processes and functions of the animal body are what are called "Reflex". These "Reflex" processes for the most part take place thus: —An impression is made on what are called the nerves of sensation; these conduct a stimulus to one of the nerve centres above mentioned, and from this centre the stimulus is reflected along a motor nerve, and the action or function ensues. Thus the sensation is "reflected" into motion independently of the consciousness of the individual. Perhaps the best example of a limited reflection is in the case of the eye, when, in response to the stimulus of light, the iris alone, of all the muscles in the body, moves. Now, all reflex actions are essentially involuntary, although they in great part admit of being controlled, modified and prevented by the will. They, most of them, are directed for the preservation of the well-being of the body, and markedly show how the nerve centres combine and arrange in order the action of the muscles, so that they may unite for this common end. Among "Reflex" actions there is a large class called "Secondary", which require for their first performance, and for many subsequent performances, an effort of the will more or less intense, but which, by constant repetition, are habitually and almost mechanically performed, and in many cases almost without the intervention of consciousness and volition; such are reading, writing, and walking. This capacity of the nervous system, which consists in "organizing conscious actions into more or less unconscious ones", is that which makes education and training possible. It is by "association" of the reflex actions frequently repeated in a definite order that these actions come to take on a species of "automatism". To such an extent is this carried that we are all familiar with instances of persons, when in the somnambulic condition, writing and playing the piano in a state of complete unconsciousness to physical surroundings.

In fact, "automatism" is a very important point in the argument. It is employed by physiologists to indicate the origination in nervous centres of impulses and their conduction from those centres independently of the reception of a stimulus from another part. And in this sense it is not possible in the present state of physiological knowledge, to say what actions are "automatic". But the nearest examples are certainly the functions of respiration and the rhythmic action of the heart, which will be considered later on. Suffice it at present that it is a very important point that actions, which are distinctly reflex at the beginning, may be organized into unconscious actions which have a very strong character about them of automatism, and that the two above-mentioned functions are those which are all at the foundation of vital phenomena, and hence, by the passage of time and by education, would necessarily most nearly approach to being automatic.

We may now consider the sympathetic system of nerves. This system of nerves at first sight appears to be anatomically too complex to be understood. In reality, however, it is much more simple in arrangement than the cerebro-spinal, and its complexity is due to the manner in which each part is linked to the neighbouring and distant parts and to the cerebro-spinal system as well. When dissected out, it is found that the essential parts of this system consist of a ganglion, or nerve centre, and two nerves — afferent and efferent — leading to this centre, and from it to one of the organs. Thus the sympathetic system is made up of an enormous number of small systems, and the whole are united into the greatest complexity. But there is one essential difference between the two systems. In the case of the cerebro-spinal system, the majority of the actions taking place under its guidance are voluntary actions; in the case of the sympathetic system, not only do the majority of actions take place without a voluntary effort, but they are never controlled by the mind save under the strong excitement or depressing influence of some passion; or, secondarily, through some " voluntary movement" with which the involuntary region of the body is "associated". But in this latter case the action is really involuntary. Thus, in exceptional circumstances only does the mind control the action of the sympathetic nerves, and then only under undue excitement or depression; while, for the most part, the various centres of the sympathetic system, and also of the spinal cord, are reflex centres, which, subject to the "inhibiting action" of the brain or more highly-organized centre possess an independent action of their own that, aided by custom, habit, and frequency of use, almost amounts to automatism.

In the consideration of automatism we find that there is a nervous region of very great importance, situated at the top of the spinal cord and immediately below the brain, and which, roughly speaking, is just within the skull, about an inch behind a line drawn horizontally through the lobe of the ear. This region is so important that it has been experimentally found that the entire brain and spinal cord with this sole exception may be removed and still the heart will continue to beat, and the animal will go on breathing. But when this region is injured, death ensues at once. Now, the most important of the functions of the Medulla Oblongata, as the region in question is called, is that of respiration, and this one function may serve as the type of automatic actions, although there is some dispute about it. Like all the functions which are necessary to life it is essentially involuntary, but its action is also, to some extent, under the control of the will, for otherwise man would be unable to speak or to sing. It is argued that the act is a reflex one owing to the stimulation of nervous fibres which are distributed to the lungs; on the other hand, it is stated that respiration takes place by direct stimulation of the Medulla Oblongata by the increasingly venous condition of the blood. Probably both functions exist, but the nerves leading from the lungs to the “respiratory centre" may be cut or may be paralysed by chloroform, and still the complicated muscular movements which constitute respiration take place in an orderly manner. As said above, respiration can to some extent be controlled by the will, and the breath can be “held" for a varying length of time, which increases with practice. But the need of breath eventually overcomes the strongest opposition, and even the most determined attempts to commit suicide in this manner have failed. Still, there is no doubt that by practice persons have increased the time during which they can hold their breath; as in certain well-authenticated cases of suspended animation; which have occurred in various parts of the world and especially in India, and thus there is shown to be a power which may be exercised in control of the natural automatism of the body, and which, so far as the bodily frame is concerned, is independent of it. Were this not the case, the instances of sudden death which occur through shock, and without injury to any part of the body, would be impossible, for there is no reason why the functions of respiration and of the heart should be interfered with, and the body would go on breathing and the heart beating under the stimulus of the Medulla Oblongata.

Thus, then, it is this “organizing conscious actions into more or less unconscious ones", but which may still be under the control of some force that we may call the will, which is of the highest importance to the occultist, as will be seen later on. Speaking in terms of planes it enables a man to do two or perhaps more things at the same time. Starting an original impulse to walk from point to point, a man may take the necessary steps with no other guidance than the reflected sensations of one step to make another, and during the time occupied his mind may be engaged on matters of a totally different character. But waiving these considerations and the assumption that the brain is physically a registering “organ of mind", it is evident that to a considerable extent the brain has the control of the body.

To those who have studied metaphysics, the term “personality" is a very familiar one. In reference to the present subject it would seem to stand to the “higher self" in very much the same relation as the body does to the brain — or rather to the brain only as the organ of mind; that is to say that the personality is, on the moral plane referred to previously, the other covering more or less gross, of the real man within — the higher self. This latter is the gradually increasing product of ages and is added to by the “personality" only when it carries out the spiritual aspirations which arise beyond, but which are communicated to the personality by the higher self. Consequently we may compare the actions dictated by the personality to those physical ones which are governed by the lower reflex centres and which have no concern whatever with the brain.

And this brings into prominence a curious fact in physiology and pathology, that if either a nerve centre or nerve leading from that centre be stimulated without the impulse passing to and through that centre, the actions which result are tumultuous and disordered. This fact has a very important bearing by analogy on those actions which are dictated reflexly or not by the “personality" only, for, as regards the higher self or brain, they are found tumultuous and disorderly, and are, as a rule, not “directed with a view to the welfare of the organism", and more especially of other organisms. It would be impossible to enter on an elaborate analysis of what the personality really is — and as tedious as if one were in these pages to enter on a detailed description of the minute anatomy of the brain and spinal cord. Man is a compound, in his personality, of “desires, passions, interests, modes of thinking and feeling, opinions, prejudices, judgments of others, likings and dislikings, affections and ambitions, public and private". For the most part this personality constitutes the horizon of man, and identifies him with this narrowed circle of interests. ln other words, he becomes exceedingly “Selfish". Of course, the circle is very frequently enlarged, as in the case of a family, of a society, of a church, or a state, and other individuals esteem men in proportion as their circle enlarges. Now, the enlargement of the circle to and beyond these limits is a process of extreme difficulty, and especially when the circle is enlarged beyond these limits. But there is also another element which has to be eliminated — the thought of Self must not enter into the consideration at all. That is to say, that the personality, as a source of motive, must be entirely eliminated and destroyed; and this is the process which occupies ages, and is accompanied by such pain and suffering that it can only be faced by the aid of a consciousness of the higher self, and that this work is the only work worth doing. It is not very difficult to understand why this should be so difficult, and why it should take ages to accomplish, for we have to remember that it is the accentuation of personality against personality — the competition to live — which is at the base of all our modern education. In every age the strong man has kept his citadel against all comers until a stronger than he came, and the question is whether he can find a deeper and greater source of strength. To some extent that has been found, for “union is strength" ; and the only problem has been amidst the clashing of personalities to make union possible. The parallel in physiology is seen in the difficulty, only obviated by long practice, experienced by divers in holding their breath. Murder will out, respiration will recommence, and the educated personality reasserts itself as the body insists upon the breath it is accustomed to have. But, again, it is possible for man to lay aside the limitations of his personality and merge his living interests with those of the world in which other personalities have an equal right and share. He can force himself to no longer feel separate from them, and to live in companionship with that which in them is beyond their personalities — their individualities, their Higher Selves. But this is a process which needs an enormous strength of will and an application to which most men are unequal. The ordinary senses have to be stilled and quieted before — if one may misapply a term — the sense of the higher self comes into play, and the divine companionship of the higher self is felt and realized. Thus, then, the analogy of physiology is maintained: the bodily functions are reflexly fulfilled, and by long education, in some cases, automatically; but are subject, in proportion as another education has trained the mind and will, to the brain. Equally so on the moral plane, the desires and tendencies of the personality act more or less reflexly and automatically without other control. But in proportion as the limitations of Self have been transcended, so also is the extent of the power increased which controls the personality. The brain in one case, the higher self in the other, being trained and educated to send down impulses sufficient to control the physiological needs of the animal mechanism, or the desires of the personality.

But a further and yet more interesting problem now presents itself for discussion. We have seen that it is rational to conclude that conscious acts are by education organized into unconscious, and that the two functions most important to the physiological health of the body, viz. : respiration and the action of the heart, have been rendered automatic and independent almost of any voluntary conscious effort, although this control may be, in some instances, recovered. Consequently, by analogy, the control on the moral plane may be vested in the higher self, as against the personality, by an effort to unite the consciousness with that higher self. That is, the higher self, or brain, will be able to control the physiological personality, or a higher centre dominate a lower. But a still further point would seem to consist in this. Why should it not be possible to make of the higher self a reflex centre, and finally an automatic one, which shall control the personality absolutely. On the physiological analogy it would certainly seem reasonable that this should be so. Let the personality send up a suggestion for action to the reflex centre, which may be in or below the level of the higher self, as is the case in the relative positions of the cerebral hemispheres and the Medulla Oblongata. Supposing that the motor point be in the higher self, it would only seem natural that the corresponding motion excited by the suggestion of the personality will either be in accord with the higher self, and be accomplished, or will be nullified. If, however, the motor point be below the higher self, then the communication must be handed on in order that the higher self shall have the control and the personality not allowed to exercise sway.

Finally, however, the real importance of the argument does not rest with the higher self, but with the spiritual life beyond; or, as “Light on the Path" states it, “the life beyond individuality".

Let us grant for the moment that it is possible for the consciousness to be identified with the higher self, and that the personality as militating against that better part of man, and consequently interfering with “the life beyond individuality," is entirely subjected and controlled by a centre of force certainly reflex, and, if possible, automatic, which is vested in the higher self. What, then, is the consequence ? The personality as a source of separateness is done away with, and only used as an instrument in the same way that the physical body uses a finger. The real life is centred in the higher self, which maintains an automatic action over the personality, and prevents it from becoming a source of mischief. The force which is vested in the higher self or individuality, is derived from that united Spirit of Life which is beyond individuality, and the man is left free to concentrate his attention and aspirations on that Spirit of Life, and draw more and more of its influence through his higher self into the world around him. Just as the physiological needs of the body are controlled by an unconscious, involuntary mechanism, so the personality becomes a conquered instrument, used for ends greater than it knows of. Man, as man, is no longer swayed by his changing and temporary desires, and has reached the happy “Waters of Oblivion".