I put off reading Charles W. Leadbeater's The Inner Life for quite a while -- it has the stamp and bar code of the Tucson Public Library, where I bought it at a book sale, and it's getting on for nine years since I lived in Tucson.
Why the hesitation? The Inner Life consists of transcriptions of lectures given by Leadbeater at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adhyar, India, around a century ago. I was afraid that the book would exhibit the excess verbosity of some of the writing at the time; I'm a busy person and both in my own work and in reading I prefer a leaner style. As it turned out, that was no problem. Although some of it is hard to understand -- see below -- its discussion, although the language is a little dated, flows smoothly enough without rhetorical overload.
The second reason why I'd put the book aside was my own ambivalence about Theosophy. Leadbeater was, after Helena P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant, perhaps the most significant figure in the Theosophical Society. I've read a little of the Theosophical literature -- dabbled in it, to be honest -- and don't know whether "HPB" and her followers had the inside track on secret spiritual wisdom, were self-deceived, or were frauds. I suspect some of each.
Richard Hodgson, an investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, went to Adhyar to observe HPB at work and report on claims that she was a fake extraordinaire. His report published in 1885 (as his own opinion; the SPR had and has no corporate views on any paranormal issue) found HPB guilty as charged. Much more recently, another SPR researcher, Vernon Harrison, reviewed the Hodgson report and concluded that it was biased. The whole controversy will make fascinating reading some day when I have time to read both Hodgson's and Vernon's full accounts, but for the moment, I'll admit that descriptions of Hodgson's report and other stories about HPB probably prejudiced me against Theosophy.
Whatever; Leadbeater was not Blavatsky, and deserves to be read for himself. If he has a claim to our attention, it is because (if you accept what he says) he was the most talented clairvoyant of all time, or at least the most talented who ever left extensive writings. In his books (e.g., Man Visible and Invisible) he minutely described the geography of the higher planes of existence, including the astral (where many spirits dwell), the mental, the etheric, and the buddhic. While the lectures edited and published in The Inner Life may not contain the detail he provides about the spiritual realm in the books, they still offer a glimpse of the big picture and the phenomena within it -- not only the planes but the human aura, thought forms, the chakras, and beings on a non-human evolutionary path such as devas and nature spirits.
Here and there, my misgivings about theosophical doctrines seemed to be borne out; come on, "Lords of Karma"? "The Great White Lodge"? But while I reserve my right to be skeptical of some of the terminology and supposed facts, I'm also conscious that words change over time, and what might have seemed an appropriate term a hundred years ago can sound ridiculous now. And the phenomena of the higher planes simply don't fit well into language designed for ordinary sense perception.
Other parts of Leadbeater's lectures that I find obscure may be baloney, or may be true and I simply lack the necessary intuitive or spiritual development to process them.
At many points, though, he has a knack for clarifying aspects of the hidden side of life through analogy and explanations which are both precise and open ended. Take this, on the Buddhist concept of nirvana, which is superficially understood by Westerners as extinction of the individual, or even non-existence:
It is quite true that the attaining of nirvana does involve the utter annihilation of that lower side of man which is in truth all that we know of him at the present time. The personality, like everything connected with the lower vehicles [i.e., bodies], is impermanent and will disappear. If we endeavor to realize what man would be when deprived of all which is included under these terms we shall see that for us at our present stage it would be difficult to comprehend that anything remained, and yet the truth is that everything remains -- that in the glorified spirit which them exists, all the essence of all the qualities which have been developed through the centuries of strife and stress in earthly incarnation [i.e., multiple incarnations] will inhere to the fullest possible degree. The man has become more than man, since he is now on the threshold of Divinity; yet he is still himself, even though it be a so much wider self.
The Inner Life is probably not recommendable for anyone just setting out on a study of the mysteries of existence. It is something of an advanced textbook (and like any textbook, not to be accepted uncritically). But for those with a background of knowledge of spiritual traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism -- Theosophy was among the first of their transmission lines to the West -- it is likely to be, at the very least, stimulating and at best, inspiring. We who are far from the threshold of Divinity can still benefit from reading about the much wider self that we truly are.
As the Theosophist Hugh Shearman has written, "The truth about things beyond the separate details of our material existence comes to us more through the liberating emergence from within us of a unitive awareness or perception of ourselves and our world rather than through the occasional revelations handed down to us by sages and seers, valuable though these can sometimes. The best that the sages and seers give us is not so much authoritative and definitive information as evocations addressed by implication to a concealed potential which, collectively, we carry within us."