Re: Membership decline
Dec 29, 1999 11:05 PM
> JRC wrote:
> > > Actually, I really don't.
> > Good, I don't particularly care to either. It's all pretty much moot.
> Great. So, do you have any ideas to reverse this membership decline
Truth is, I had a good number of them, and could back them up with evidence
that they worked ... unfortunately none that would be, or could be,
implemented in the current mileau.
But because you did ask - and I'm now finally completely done with a Society
that has made it overwhelmingly clear it doesn't have any interest in my
contributions (this is the last I'll address the official American TS, which
will make several people quite happy I suppose) - I'll try to sum up (it'll
probably be a long post though) - the essence of what *would* not only
reverse the trend, but make the changes necessary to once again flourish.
This is my final salute to the official TS. Not to Theosophy ... but to
Wheaton and Adyar.
It *is* offered in good faith - as your question was asked - in fact, I even
hope John Algeo reads it. But whether he does or not is no longer my
concern. Someday soon Wheaton may be horrified to discover that they've
chased away the very people they needed to keep the TS alive.
I'll use the best explanation I can ... a discussion of what demonstrably
*worked*, and the attitudes behind the people that made it work.
I was a member of a Lodge in Montana. A group of 5 or 6 of us started it
from scratch in the late 80's. Our entire attiude, however, was that we were
dealing with astute people who had no use for philosophy that didn't hit
them where they lived. We didn't begin by holding any meetings on any
"traditional" Theosophical topics, but merely presented the Three Objects as
the sole requirements, didn't bother with trying to sign up members, and in
fact our common meeting format was to simply present a topic, do some small
(10 minute or so) presentation to initiate discussion, and basically just
facilitated explorations of the topic. Most of the core group had been
Theosophists for a good long time (our first President, a life member, was
first made a Theosophist by John Coats during travels to India) - but we
were fairly rigorous about keeping this quiet, in fact decided we'd
delibrately create an environment where we expected to be *taught* by people
that were attending.
We also focussed a lot on aesthetics ... chose places for meetings with warm
colors, candles, and we always served kickin' treats. We watched something
very interesting ensue. Ultimately I think close to 10 or 12 people become
actual members, and a lot of our public meetings had 40 or 50 people in
attendance (sounds small, but this was in Western Montana - in a city with a
population of 4,000 - 5,000, in a valley that had maybe 15,000 total - in a
state whose entire population is still less than 1 million). Many of them
probably would have become members if we would have pushed the issue ... but
we frankly couldn't really see any reason why we should recommend they
join - the benefits from Wheaton really just aren't worth the money (this is
not a shot, just a very honest opinion that our entire Lodge held).
What we did was talked to people after every meeting - and listened to them,
what they were wrestling with in their own lives, the difficulties they were
having attempting to live what they considered spiritual lives in the late
20th century western world. And we used those discussions to guide our
topics, to simply be responsive. After a lot of discussion, we had concluded
that it was no longer appropriate to be obsessing on the books - in the late
19th century such knowledge was scarce ... and Theosophy introduced many
ideas for the first time - but we are now living in an age when there is
positively an information *glut* - people, we found (most people anyway),
were not in need of Books or concepts (which in the last century have
exploded in quantity beyond anyone's comprehension), but rather were deeply
in need of a place to *process* it, to digest. We found the framework
provided by the 3 Objects was strong enough to narrow the focus (we weren't
interested in running something where people had long discussions about
their cars, or plumbing <g>), while still being broad enough to adapt to the
needs of this age.
Disccussions? ... Topics like "What, if any, effects do food and diet have
on spiritual growth and evolution?"; "How do you balance the time required
for spiritual disciplines with that required to work and properly raise
children?"; and even things like "What is the role of sex on the spiritual
path?" (that was a doozy ... that took thoroughly unexpected twists and
turns). In short, we *started* not with the assumption that we possessed a
secret wisdom only a few others would even be ready to "learn", following
the standard model of small discussion groups on esoteric topics like
"karma" where people read from books and discussed them paragraph by
paragraph (the first TS Lodge I experienced, and a good number of others,
did and still do exactly that ... which may be one reason why Lodges are in
decline - that model is appealing to fewer and fewer people as the days
pass) ... rather, we assumed that our little region of the US contained a
good deal of advanced souls, decided to figure out what exactly these souls
needed - in *their* opinion, not ours - and determined to see if there was
some way we could contribute.
Approaching it with this attitude, we very naturally discovered it to be the
case (just as if the attitude is that America is full of "new agers", the
"masses" who just don't have the discipline to study Theosophy, and aren't
yet spiritually evolved enough to appreciate it, but that a few, humble
souls just might be ready to exposed to it ... *that* is what will be
We did, after a time, have people ask of their own accord about the older
Theosophical literature - and as several of us had libraries full of the
stuff, we gladly lent out books, and a couple of times 3 or 4 people had
short discussion groups, but for the most part we figured people were fully
capable of reading on their own if they chose to, would go to a book club if
they wanted a book club, but that was *really* missing in their lives was a
place (according to what they told us) where genuine *exploration* was going
to happen. Most of them had been through more than one belief system, or
school of philosophy - but most of them had also found this ultimately
limiting, had gone off on their own quite delibrately, were most vehemently
still searching, still pursuing what they considered "spiritual" work, but
not doing it within the confines of any one ideology. They didn't come to
our meetings to be handed yet another ideology, nor be told what the "basic"
Theosophical concepts they should "learn" were ... and we had no interest in
handing that to them.
What they *did*, above all, seem to desire is a place with active and open
and wide ranging discussions - they appreciated the minimal constraints we
used to frame discussions to particular themes, and to start the
discussions, but it was the *spirit* of everyone ultimately pursuing a path
they were choosing, trying to figure it out as they went along, engaged in
attempting to evaluate the opinions of many schools of thought - in addition
to modern science and philosophy - on specific topics, and (with far more
difficulty) trying to figure out how to harmonize all those viewpoints into
something they could plant on earth and live in their lives.
We rarely advertised anything. In fact, word of what we were doing spread
all over the valley we lived in, completely of its own accord, and almost
entirely by word of mouth. People simply told their friends about it. The
meetings often got quite intense - more than once voices were even raised -
and trying to facilitate such things was *truly* challenging ... to sense
when something was happening that was *growth*, and when wisdom suggested it
more appropriate to "take a short break" (during which we'd delibrately tell
the most outrageous jokes we could think of, give everyone great little
treats to munch, and do everything we could to shift the energy).
What we found was a world literally brimming with "esoteric" people - people
we'd bumped into in day to day life in the valley and never even suspected
were pursuing topics far off the beaten path, and wondering whether there
was anyone else they could just *talk to* about it. I've never experienced
anything like watching what to all outward appearances was a redneck Montana
rancher, in a corner during a break with a guy that looked like he'd just
gotten off a Rastafarian boat from Jamaica, explaining to him the nuances of
Hindu Astrology (that he's apparently been exposed to during the Korean
war). At times it got positively surreal. But we made sure - set our
*intentions* to make sure, that everyone left every meeting feeling like
their souls had breathed fresh air, and that their batteries had been
We also had some people that wanted to pursue training, work, and
experiements in things that I suppose would be called "occult" ... and we
did do meditation groups sometimes - but again, they were not beginner's
courses (though we did give people resources if they asked about this) ...
rather, they were people that had already passed the basics ... had already
experienced one - often a number - of forms of meditation and invocation -
and had reached the point of asking "is there something *more* than this?"
So I can clear my mind and focus without scattered thoughts, so what do I
now *do* with this? A *surprising* number of Americans *have* pursued such
things. And most of them still keep very quiet about it - until they find a
*place* where they can let that part of their persona emerge.
Our only experiences with the official TS at the time were, unfortunately
terrible. Or rather, were fairly normal, but in such marked contrast with
what we were trying to build that difference seemd terrible. In one
instance, we made the mistake of saying we'd show our Lodge a videotape
someone at Wheaton had made about the principles of Theosophy or something.
Serious mistake - after what these people were used to, watching a tape of a
guy speaking on a TV in a dull, monotone voice, and referencing a "workbook"
*literally* put several people to sleep. Bad mistake - we stopped it before
it was over, but it took a couple of meetings ... and a sincere promise
never to subject them to such a thing again ... to recover the energy the
group was used to . But the worst incident was a National Speaker.
(Remember, most of these people knew of Theosophy from what *we* were doing
...). I won't mention the name - she is quite well known - but she arrived
(we had rented a room in a larger city and invited everyone - probably 20
people or so made an hour's drive to get there) ... she started in on a talk
about a "mirror". Telling people to think about when they looked at
themselves in the mirror that morning. Then suggesting that the *physical*
body might not be everything, that there was something perhaps *deeper*
behind that image. I saw our President's mouth drop open - and I fear I must
have looked like a gut-shot panther. The group at first was polite, giving
her the benefit of the doubt, thinking that she *must* be leading to
something, that it just wasn't *possible* that she was actually talking down
to them *that* badly, that an experienced speaker simply could not be *that*
totally oblivious to her audience. Imagine a junior high school teacher in a
room of college students, seemingly utterly unaware that she was teaching
fractions to a room of people that were already through a couple of years of
calculus ... *that* is what the room felt like. By the end of it I think one
of our more vocal members just outright said "just who the hell do you think
This ... this contrast ... *THIS*, Bart - (and I genuinely mean this with
the best of intentions for Theosophy) - *this* is where current Theosphy is
wrong, *THIS* is what must be changed, *THIS* is why membership is down to
4,000 ... in an era with an explosion of people seeking exactly the sorts of
environments it is capable of providing. This model is *dead*. It does not
speak to the needs of the age - the spiritual desires of the population we
are supposed to be serving ... not the needs that *we* believe they *should*
have ... for long discussions of hundred year old books, and simplistic
introductions to spiritual concepts that even people's hairdressers have
already talked to them about ... but the needs as the population *itself*
I am not saying that the particular way we did it is the way it is supposed
to be done ... only that it *worked*, and many other things could work if
life and creativity were permitted back into the TS. If the *spirit* of the
founders came around again. In but a year or two, as a joint expression of
what we considered a pure expression of the three objects adapted to this
age, we built a lively, thriving group from scratch, in what might have been
considered one of the most difficult places to do such a thing ... sparsely
populated, rural America, containing a strong presence of conservative
Christianity. The same spirit, the same attitudes in a larger city, with a
much more diverse and sophisticated population ... hell we would have been
talking about hiring staff just to handle the business of a single Lodge.
Our formal Lodge died when the new bylaws ... that we considered the precise
opposite if the direction Theosophy needed to go ... began to be passed. As
the grip at HQ tightened ... it simply squeezed out everyone but those
content with what it currently is. At the root ... the question was ...
*why* pay anything to Wheaton? Why should we? Why should anyone? For the
publications? The fundraising letters? The opportunity to study at the
"university"? Walk the labyrinth? A number of the people we cultivated, I
believe, still even meet (most of the original founders have now left the
state) ... but it would never occur to any of them to try to form an offical
TS Lodge. They have absolutely no reason to ... in my opinion the TS needs
the likes of them *far* more than they need the TS. It is serving none of
their needs ... and *they* are all over the place - *they* are those with
the life, the energy, they are the ones carrying the spiritual fire in the
next century. The model of the current TS - well - it *was* correct,
appropriate, even in its own way revolutionary and dynamic in its time. It
*did* serve the needs of those it was born to serve. It does not anymore.
To sum it all up as succinctly as I can - on the verge of a new millenium
that will either see the final death, or the complete re-birth of the
Theosophical Society ...
A thousand different things can be tried ... we *never* ran out of ideas,
because we continually had open ears and rooms full of people brimming with
ideas. But behind all of them needs to be one intention if Wheaton genuinely
wants to stem the membership hemorraging, only one massive energy shift
required of Headquarters:
The simple understanding that what was necessary at the turn of the last
century *was* teachers introducing ideas to pupils ... ideas that to large
numbers of the western world were dramatically new, but what is necessary
*now*, in a world where people are daily deluged in more information than
they can handle, by a world of people and businesses and causes and cults
all trying to pierce their attention with ideas, what they need now is a
place to *digest*, a place to talk, to actively relate to people interested
in whole ranges of topics growing numbers are studying and thinking about
and trying to *live*, but that they have no place to talk about.
The population we are now on earth serving deeply desires places where *they
can permit what to many of them is the most hidden, yet most important,
interests in their lives to emerge, look at daylight, and find a room full
of people they not only do not need to conceal themselves from , but who
*desire* their full revelation.
And we, the TS, if we want to *serve* them, need to make the painful, but
necessary shift from the attitude of being *Professors* in a room of
*students*, or *Gurus* in a room of people that need to be goaded into
starting to grow spiritually ... to being *Gardeners*, faced with a field
of strong, growing plants, not required to tell the plants how to grow or
what to become, but providing the service of making sure there is a field,
enriched with nutrients, moist with water, in which their own growth, in the
directions that are embedded in the very core of their souls, is unleashed.
These aren't just words ... the are the final result of having lived it, and
watched it work. If the TS makes this shift, it will *not* need to worry
about declining memberships ... but about limited size of many of the places
Lodges currently hold meetings.
There. End of the century ... and this is the last thing I'll write about
the current official TS ... a final parting attempt from someone that
probably should have given up, as so many others already have, long ago.
With Genuine Love, -JRC
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