Overview of Paul Brunton’s philosophy
About PB’s Terms and Teachings
The six essential terms in Paul Brunton’s writings are Mind Alone, World-Mind, World Idea, the Overself,Mentalism, and Philosophy. The first four terms refer to the highest and most fundamental principles of Reality, whose presence is at once the source and the goal of all spiritual questing. The second terms, Mentalism and Philosophy, refer to the two levels of PB’s later writings. Mentalism refers to a particular approach to the problems of epistemology—an approach that considers all of our experience to be in the (true) mind of the experiencer. The last term, Philosophy, may seem odd to include here, but PB was meticulous in working out his own meaning for that hoary word, so we’ve included a brief introduction to his unique perspective here. In fact, the entire category 20 of The Notebooks of Paul Brunton is titled “What is Philosophy?” and is an invaluable guide to PB’s later thoughts.
The first of the three terms, Mind Alone, can be correlated to the highest principle of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Platonism, and of some modern Philosophers. This is not to say that any or all these terms are perfectly equivalent. While it is possible to associate PB’s usage of Mind Alone with the Void Mind of Buddhism, the Godhead of Christianity, the Brahman of Vedanta, and the Platonic “One,” it is not possible to make a perfect substitution of one term for the other, for as PB points out, these are all-too-human expressions of a Non-human Mystery.
Indeed, PB makes no claim of synthesizing the various teachings and traditions of the world, but rather seeks to draw on the best they each have to offer to our modern minds. Thus we find that he describes Mind Alone this way: “The ultimate reality is one and the same, no matter what it is called; to the Chinese mystic it is TAO, that is, the Significance; to the Christian mystic it is GOD; to the Chinese philosopher it is TAI CHI, that is, The Great Extreme; to the Hindu philosopher it is TAT, that is, Absolute Existence. It has its own independent, everlasting, invisible, and infinite existence, while all worldly things and creatures are but fragmentary and fleeting expressions of IT on a lower sphere altogether. It lies deeply concealed as their innermost substance and persists through their changes of form.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 28.1.4)
The second term, “World-Mind,” is the unique term that PB uses when referring to the active or creative aspect of Pure Mind. He uses this term in lieu of a Deistic one to emphasize the tremendous impersonality—and lack of anthropomorphic characteristics—to be found in this fundamental Agent. The precise meaning of “World-Mind” varies considerably according to the context in which it appears, something PB deliberately chose to do, in order to inspire independent thinking in the advanced student while providing simple clarity for the novice. Thus in some contexts the World-Mind refers to “the Mind of this world, our Holy Mother Earth,” while at other times PB employs World-Mind when discussing the Mind of the entire manifest Universe, and in rare cases it parallels Plotinus’ Intellectual Principle or, in PB’s own terms, the Act of Mind Itself.
PB describes the World-Mind this way: “There has been so much friction and clash between the different religions because of this idea: whether God is personal or impersonal—so much persecution, even hatred, so unnecessarily. I say unnecessarily because the difference between the two conceptions is only an apparent one. Mind is the source of all; this is Mind inactive. Mind as World-Mind-in-manifestation is the personal God. Between essence and manifestation the only difference is that essence is hidden and manifestation is known. World-Mind is personal (in the sense of being what the Hindus call “Îshvara”); Mind is totally impersonal. Basically, the two are one.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 27.3.56)
And he also says, “Behind it all is the Great Silence, broken only by the projection of new worlds and the re-absorption of old ones, the unutterable and unknowable Mystery, unreachable and untouchable by humans. Tiny creature that we are, with the tiny minds we have, THAT is utterly beyond us. But from the Grand Mystery, the active God of which this planet Earth is a projection has in turn projected us. Here, communication in the most attenuated intuitive form is possible, even holy communion may be attained. This is the God, the higher power, to whom people instinctively turn in despair or in aspiration, in faith or in doubt. Sometimes a mere fragment of His work is revealed to a chosen prophet in the Cosmic Vision, an awe-filled experience.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 27.1.3)
PB’s term for the divine order of the universe, the nature of the world as a vast thought held by the World-Mind. The World-Idea is at once the order revealed in “scientific laws,” and the evolutionary push observed in Nature and in humankind. World-Idea is not for humankind alone, nor limited to this earth; therefore its actions (if they can be called that) do not always appear benign to humankind and other creatures, nor is it entirely comprehensible to the human mind and yet it guides all our ultimate evolution toward the good. It carries us within a greater flowing consciousness that eternally rests within the Awesome Stillness of the World-Mind. Even though we can have but limited success, it is our task to consciously align our actions with the evolutionary direction of the World-Idea; for to do so is to honor the spiritual destiny of humankind, while to exist in ignorance of this Presence is to wander in the byways of ignorance.
Of World-Idea and World-Mind PB writes, “Whatever we call it, most people feel—whether vaguely or strongly—that there must be a God and that there must be something which God has in view in letting the universe come into existence. This purpose I call the World-Idea, because to me God is the World’s Mind. This is a thrilling conception. It was an ancient revelation which came to the first cultures, the first civilizations, of any importance, as it has come to all others which have appeared, and it is still coming today to our own. With this knowledge, deeply absorbed and properly applied, people come into harmonious alignment with their Source.” (Perspectives p. 360)
He also says, “In glimpses of the World-Idea, human observational and intellectual beings discover an arrangement of things and creatures, of activities and circumstances, whose beauty and wisdom in one place evokes their constant wonder, but whose ugliness and horror in another place draws forth their strong protest. There is no answer to this enigma but simple religious trust for the shallow multitude and movement to another level by mystical experience for the serious seekers. In the first case there is the hope that in a God-governed world all is arranged for the best, while in the second there is the overwhelming feeling that it is so. The philosopher is also possessed of hope and feeling but, venturing into a wider area, adds knowledge.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 26.1.47)
And, “The World-Idea contains the pattern, intention, direction, and purpose of the cosmos in a single unified thought of the World-Mind. Human understanding is too cramped and too finite to comprehend how this miraculous simultaneity is possible.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 26.1.87)
The third term PB developed is the ‘Overself,’ which is his term for the Higher Self, Soul, or Âtman. It is a literal translation of Adhyâtma. For PB, the Overself is many things: at its most exalted it is in eternal union with Mind Alone and in eternal dialogue with World-Mind, and at its most personal, it is present as ‘the God within us’ of whom we can become aware during meditation and in life. The living, conscious human being is the child and student of the Overself, sent forth to evolve, learn, and create in the great field of Creation that the World-Mind provides. Throughout our lives, the Overself is ever present as our inner light, guide, and protector. A ray of the Overself is in all of us all the time; when we turn our hearts and minds towards it and it alone, we can follow that ray first into a Glimpse, then into the Witness-I (sâks:in), and thence into the first phase of Enlightenment, when one “makes Real” the relationship (but not identity) between the Overself and Mind Alone.
Here are three quotes from PB’s Notebooks about the Overself:
“Nothing could be nearer to a man than the Overself for it is the source of our lives, minds, and our feeling. Nothing could be farther from him, nevertheless, for it eludes all his familiar instruments of experience and awareness.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 22.3.184)
“There is a godlike thing within us which theology calls the spirit and which, because it is also a portion of the higher power within the universe, I call the Overself. He is wise indeed who takes it as his truest guide and makes it his protective guardian.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 22.3.235)
“It is a fallacy to think that this displacement of the lower self brings about its complete substitution by the infinite and absolute Deity. This fallacy is an ancient and common one in mystical circles and leads to fantastic declarations of self-deification. If the lower self is displaced, it is not destroyed. It lives on but in strict subordination to the higher one, the Overself, the divine soul of man; and it is this latter, not the divine world-principle, which is the true displacing element.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 25.2.198)
PHILOSOPHY & MENTALISM
The two final terms, Mentalism and Philosophy, are the two basic fields of study and practice through which we can become attuned to the Overself, World-Mind, and Mind. Mentalism is PB’s unique approach to the problem of the knowledge of truth (also known as ‘epistemology’), while he describes Philosophy as a balanced integration of all phases of Consciousness. PB, along with many others, patiently teaches us that the problem of how we know the truth of anything is no mere scholarly flourish, but is fundamental to our process of self-discovery, our presence in the world, and our preparation for mystical practices. Similarly, he points out that we need to have a clear idea of what we expect of his philosophy if we are to pursue it, for even our earliest steps can take us nearer or farther away from its doors.
PB says the following of Mentalism: “Because I am a conscious being I am aware of physical sensations and mental thoughts; but the consciousness which enables such awareness to exist itself existed before sensation and before thought, and this is as true of newborn babies as it is of dying adults. This is what the materialistic anatomist dissecting the body fails to perceive. This is the forgotten self of the fabled ten persons crossing a river in Indian mythology, and this is the great secret which mentalism unveils for us.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 21.2.175)
And of Philosophy: “It may be asked why I insist on using the word “philosophy” as a self-sufficient name without prefixing it by some descriptive term or person’s name when it has held different meanings in different centuries, or been associated with different points of view ranging from the most materialistic to the most spiritualist. The question is well asked, although the answer may not be quite satisfactory. I do so because I want to restore this word to its ancient dignity. I want it used for the highest kind of insight into the Truth of things, which means into the Truth of the unique Reality. I want the philosopher to be equated with the sage, the man who not only knows this Truth, has this insight, and experiences this Reality in meditation, but also, although in a modified form, in action amid the world’s turmoil.” (The Notebooks of Paul Brunton 20.1.127)
As PB says, Mentalism teaches us that the world around us and in us and we ourselves are naught but Universal Mind, and that individual minds work in concert to generate experience, perception, and even life itself. This is not a doctrine of illusion, for PB tells us that to labor for lifetimes only to return exactly from whence we came is both a waste and an untruth. There are real lessons, skills, and experiences to be had here in this life and in this world that contribute to the spiritual journey of all humankind. Our only error is believing these experiences to be based in matter, to be ‘other’ and ‘objective,’ as existing in some pre-sentient world while living in un-blissful ignorance of our own true Self. PB corrects these beliefs and painstakingly guides us to the eminently rational—and accessible—understanding that we are neither inside or outside the world, that the body is a merely a sensual structure within the mind, and that the ‘gap’ between mysticism and science is as thin as a single word. Once it is seen for the truth that it is, the fundamental teaching of Mentalism smooths the way to deepening meditation, clarifying the practical value of ethical practice and the essential importance of metaphysical understanding.
The engagement with philosophy comes quickly on the heels of the realization of Mentalism. When meditation, right action, and metaphysical understanding are all combined, they give birth to Philosophy, as PB uses this hoary term. Perhaps the simplest definition of Philosophy is a balanced integration of all phases of Consciousness. PB, along with many others, patiently teaches us that the problem of how we know the truth of anything is no mere scholarly flourish, but is fundamental to our process of self-discovery, our presence in the world, and our preparation for mystical practices. Similarly, he points out that we need to have a clear idea of what we expect of his philosophy if we are to pursue it, for even our earliest steps can take us nearer or farther away from its doors.
Philosophy is the pinnacle and purpose of human existence, itself culminating in the state of enlightenment sometimes called Sahaja—or “Liberated in Life.” The Philosopher is at once fully alive to the beauty, politics, suffering and multi-tiered evolution of humankind; the Philosopher is centered in his Higher Self—the Overself—in dialogue with the World-Mind, and awakened to Mind Alone. Balancing this world and the beyond, the human and the impersonal, detachment and compassion, the Philosopher is the exemplar for all who encounter him or her in whatever context he or she is to be found. PB himself became such a Philosopher in the course of his long and adventurous life, so we have in him the perfect union of the ideal and the realization—not of The Perfect Man (perish the thought!) but of an Original Human, begun at last to journey henceforward through Eternity, illuminating the stars amongst which he wanders, and ever enriching his own Wisdom.
Anyone inclined towards a traditional path will benefit from spending time studying these teachings, as they will truly deepen one’s appreciation of the subtler meanings found along one’s own path, and stimulate reflection on the variety of teachings available to us all. While PB himself encouraged a broad study of the teachers, teachings, and cultures of the world, he also acknowledged that his own writings contain a complete path in themselves, so in the end, we are invited to think (and choose) for ourselves. For those who are drawn to an eclectic practice, a thorough study of the Notebooks of Paul Brunton will provide them with all the tools needed for a daily—and lifelong—practice of spiritual seeking.