Beyond the Maps:

Paul Brunton’s View of Self-Transformation
by Paul Cash

“Because something deep down in the subconscious knows that the ego is destructible...a longing arises for that which is indestructible...This is the beginning of the Quest, and may take a religious, a mystical, or a philosophical form, according to one’s maturity.”  - Notebooks 1.2.284

Paul Brunton, who traveled extensively in the Orient to learn directly from many spiritual teachers, is best known for his books A Search in Secret India and The Quest of the Overself. One of the most influential of this century on meditation, yoga, and mystical philosophy, Paul Brunton maintained a literary silence from 1952 until his death in 1981, compiling over 10,000 manuscript pages of notebooks for posthumous publication. These notebooks abound in intimate, straightforward, and immediately useful responses to such practical questions as: What precisely is self-transformation? Why should one want it? How could one go about achieving it? Is it something that one does to oneself, or something that one asks or prays to have done to one? The following is a brief overview of Brunton’s later teachings on some of the issues involved in these questions, as recorded in the Notebooks. (All references are to the latter—the annotation is by Category.Chapter.Paragraph, thus 1.1.7 = Category 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 7.)


In Paul Brunton’s words,

“It is an endeavor to lift to a higher plane, and expand to a larger measure, the whole of one’s identity. It brings in the most important part of oneself—being, essence, Consciousness.” —1.1.2

Most simply put, self-transformation is the conscious and deliberate process of discovering and bringing in to one’s everyday life the genuine intelligence, purpose, and integrity of one’s unique higher individuality. In Paul Brunton’s writings this higher individuality, referred to in the quotation above as “being, essence, Consciousness” is generally called the Overself. It has a dual (but not dualistic) nature: on the one hand related to, and on the other hand utterly distinct from, the personal ego.

“Because of the paradoxically dual nature which the Overself possesses, it is very difficult to make clear the concept of the Overself. Human beings are rooted in the ultimate mind through the Overself, which therefore partakes on the one hand of a relationship with a vibratory world and on the other to an existence which is above all relations. A difficulty is probably due to the vagueness or confusion about which standpoint it is to be regarded from. If it is thought of as the human soul, then the vibratory movement is connected with it. If it is thought of as transcending the very notion of humanity, and therefore its undifferentiated character, the vibratory movement must disappear.” —22.3.390

Much confusion exists about the status of the personal ego in the process of self-transformation. According to Brunton, one reason that so few succeed at achieving genuine transformation is that most people anticipate and consequently work misguidedly toward, a liberation of the personal ego, when what is in fact called for is exhalation beyond or liberation from the personal ego. Another reason for failure is thinking that the person seeking enlightenment fails to appreciate the nature of the transformative process and its spiritual context.

The ego is, in fact, the (lower) self that is referred to in the very term self-transformation. Its transformation is indispensable if the higher individuality is to become effectively operational in daily life. But it is important to recognize that transformation can only occur when the ego has been brought to a rounded mature development, that is, when full human maturity has been achieved. Premature or unbalanced attempts to initiate the radical changes it calls for lead more often to psychosis than to enlightenment.

An anecdote involving two venerable Chinese philosophers speaks directly to a critical point in light of which all discussion of this process must be viewed. “If I could but develop my intelligence to its fullest potential,” the first is credited to have said, “my mind would be identical to heaven.” “That is true,” the second and elder replied, “provided that you first awaken the Original Mind.”

Though there are many steps leading to this awakening, and though those steps may lead through any one or any number of a variety of circumstances (great suffering, great joy, failure in achieving some urgent desire, perfect satisfaction of desire, a disgust with the world, desire to understand the truth of the world, etc.), this moment of awakening establishes the authentically spiritual context of the process that follow.

“With this event, a new era opens in his personal life. He feels that, for the first time in his life, he has touched real being when hitherto he has known only its shadow.” —1.2.309

Genuine self-transformation, in its immediate and practical (as contrasted with theoretical) sense, begins with a startling awakening to the inner reality of one’s true being--an inviolable identity and continuous presence beyond and yet intimately pervading the normal life, mind, and body. This moment of (higher) self-recognition precedes and prophesies the eventual state of self-realization. For the first time, the person is conscious of exactly what it is that he or she is to strive to make permanent. In this context, self-transformation becomes the ongoing adventure of fulfilling and ever-growing aspiration to establish conscious daily union and communion with that deeper Reality which is beyond and yet pervades the universe. It completes itself through the subsequent transmutation of one’s ordinary self in the face of that ongoing awakening. Throughout, it is the giant step beyond theoretical conviction, the step to firsthand knowing.

The mystical stages of this process involve a gradual displacement of the individual’s mind’s exclusive fascination with its own thoughts as “the whole of one’s identity” shifts to a higher plane. When this displacement is complete, or in parallel with its development, the philosophic stage begins. This stage involves re-embracing of the thinking processes in a radically different way by a vastly deepened continuous self- awareness. The mind rediscovers its own nature as thinker and substantial source of all that takes place within it, and the life it lives becomes an expression of an infinitely vaster vision.

The individuality, which previously pursued value and reality only in things outside what it took to be itself, find what it sought; but it does so now by converging upon its own depths. The narcissistic trance is broken: one no longer, like Narcissus, gazes with such fascination upon the images of the world in the mind as to lose the awareness and inner freedom of the unconditioned cognitive core of one’s being.

This reversal, inversion, or transmutation--call it what you will--of the lower mind’s tendency either to clutch at or flee from the world as though it were something outside of and totally independent of one’s own being is an essential characteristic of the transformation. It is not to be confused with psychological self-preoccupation or glorified egocentricity. It is more like a turning inside-out of the mind, followed by a discovery that the “inside” is and always has been the more real side...that the apparent duality of “inside” and “outside” was at best a highly questionable way of conceptually representing the true mental situation. The implications for daily living are immense.

“All that really matters is how one lives one’s life. But the relative-plane activities do not constitute all there is to living. Consciousness rises from the plane behind the mind, and this region; like the outer world, needs to be explored with competent guides--its possibilities and benefits fully revealed by each individual for himself. Living will begin to achieve its own purpose when one’s outer life becomes motivated, guided, and balanced by the fruits of one’s inner findings.” —1.1.191

Intimate exploration of this continuous presence ripens into the unshakable certitude that one’s own deepest inner being is truly a knowing divinity, a perfectly reliable source of inner guidance toward the proper conduct of life. Thus, the fruit of self-transformation is that the daily ego becomes a creature capable of consistently receiving and applying the intuitive guidance that comes to it from this reliable inner source. Brunton refers to this series of stages as a “quest,” and to the person engaged in it as a “quester.” He offers many “definitions” or explications of what it is and what it involves.

“Here is a goal for men and women which can bring them the fulfillment of their best purposes, the happiness of being set free from their inward bondages, and the calmness of knowing their own soul.” —1.1.36

“It is a quest to make a life of better quality, both inside and outside the self, in the thoughts moving in the brain, in the body holding that brain, and in the environment where that body moves.” —1.1.17

“It is a quest to become conscious of Consciousness, to explore the “I” and penetrate the mystery of its knowing power.” —1. 1.20

“[It is] an attempt to establish a perfect and conscious relation between the human mind and that divinity which is its source.” —1.1.21

“Many aspirants wrongly believe the quest to be a movement from one psychic experience to another and from one mystical ecstasy to another. But in fact it is a movement in character from animality to purity, from egoism to impersonality.” —1.1.31

“The quest teaches a man the art of dying to the animalistic and egoistic elements in himself. But it does not stop with these negative results. It trains him also in the art of re-creating himself by the light of the ideal.” —1.1.32


There are many levels of commitment to the quest, each level with rewards commensurate to the effort involved. In one sense, this process is a continual one that cannot be evaded by anyone, since life itself is an ongoing transformation requiring us to draw upon inner resources of which we were previously unaware.

“Shall we say that all humans are traveling on this quest...but most humans do so unconsciously and unwillingly? For then the person technically called a “quester” simply differs from others persons by his awareness of the journey, the demands it makes upon him, and his willingness to cooperate in satisfying those demands.” —1.2.460

This element of conscious, deliberate participation is what distinguishes self-transformation from simple transformation, which does not require conscious cooperation.

“Life compels no one to enter upon this conscious Quest, although it is leading everyone upon the unconscious Quest. Even among the students of this teaching, many are merely seeking for an intellectual understanding; their interest has been attracted and their curiosity aroused, but they have not felt called upon to go any farther.” —1.2.459

The fact seems to be that for most of us the idea of willingly restraining, and often opposing, the unregenerate ego’s habitual attachments seems questionable at the very least--if not outright perverted! But Paul Brunton addresses his notes to that smaller group:

“Such a goal may be unappealing to many, held to their attachments as they are; but it is fascinating to a few, “old souls,” much experienced after a long series of earthly lives, whose values have been altered, whose glamours and illusions have been eliminated. They feel like wanderers returning home.” —1.5.138

This background of experience lets them appreciate an ideal that is not set at becoming a sinless saint but at becoming an enlightened and fully balanced human being. Something deep inside resonates to such statements as:

“The first reward is truth realized in every part of his being, the lower self becoming the instrument of the Soul. The second is peace, intensely satisfying and joyous...” —1.5.354

“He whose resort is solely the personal ego is constantly subject to its limitations and narrowness and, consequently, is afflicted with strains and anxieties. He who lets go and open himself up, whose resort is to his Higher Self, finds it infinite and boundless and, consequently, is filled with inward peace.” —1.5.364

“It is only in the rational, balanced growth of the mind and the sympathetic heart, the disciplined body and the tranquilized nerves, the philosophic reflectiveness, mystic peace, and ultramystic insight, that one arrives at maturity and thus becomes really sane.” —1.5.404

“When this truth is at last seen, that heaven is not a place in space but a condition of being, and that therefore it can to a certain extent be realized even before death, a feeling of joy and a sense of adventure are felt. The joy arises because we are no longer restricted by time, and the adventuresomeness arises because a vista of the quest’s possibilities opens up.” —1.5.361

“If he lets this purpose penetrate his entire life, he will soon joyously feel that he is part of the eternal structure of the universe, that he fits into the idea of it at some point, and that with such a high relationship all things must work together for his ultimate good.” —1 5.423


Granting the maturity and willingness to see such a goal as desirable, what is one to do?  Is the undertaking one that can—or must—be accomplished in, by and for oneself?  Or is it something to be brought about by the sheer grace of powers beyond oneself and on which one must fully depend for any real success?
One of the great values of Brunton’s late writings is the extent to which he clarifies the personal responsibility--and also the limitations of that responsibility--for bringing about self-transformation. This responsibility is rooted in two elements: first, the absolute uniqueness of the higher individuality of each quester, and second, the equally unique personal history that has gone into the present state of the particular ego that is to be transformed. Neither is exactly duplicated in any one individual. Thus, a first principle of these writings on how wisdom-knowledge (i.e., Philosophy) is actually consummated in the individual is that

“Philosophy is faced with the problem of educating each individual seeker who aspires to understand...There is no such thing as mass education in philosophy.” —20.2.289

We are not to think that here is a standard doctrine of “cookie cutter” set of practices requiring only to be mechanically transmitted through patient individual instruction. Thus,

“ every individual there is an original, mysterious, and incalculable element, because his past history and prenatal ancestry in other lives on earth have inevitably been different in certain points....There is no one unalterable approach to the experience for all men. Each has to find his own way, to travel forward by the guidance of his own present understanding and past experience--and each in the end really does so despite all appearances to the contrary. For each man passes through a different set of life experiences...{and} it is partly through the lessons, reflections, intuitions, traits, characteristics, and capacities engendered by such experiences that he is able to work out his own salvation but also to work it out in his own unique way. Every description of a mystical path must consequently be understood in a general sense...In the end, after profiting by all the help which he may gain from advanced guides and fellow-pilgrims, after all his attempts to imitate or follow them, he is forced to find or make a way which will be particularly his own. In the end he must work out his own unique means to salvation and depend on himself for further enlightenment and strength. Taught by his own intuition, he must find his own unique path toward enlightenment.” —1.5.179

This point is central to assimilating the perspective Brunton offers on the self-transformative process. But it is one that is often misunderstood for two primary reasons. The first reason is that too little is understood about the role of a competent teacher at certain stages. The second is that self- reliance and independent thinking are often equated with continued reliance on the ego’s limited resources. Both misunderstandings lead to problems of the first magnitude. The issue at hand here calls fundamentally for a clarification of the interrelationship of effort and grace. On the one hand, nothing that the ego can do will directly bring about its own displacement. In truth, no matter how “spiritual” a guise the ego assumes.

“Although the ego claims to be engaged in a war against itself, we may be certain that it has no intention of allowing a real victory to be achieved but only a pseudo-victory. The simple conscious mind is no match for such cunning. This is the reason why out of so many spiritual seekers, so few attain union...” —8.4.316

This displacement of the ego is essential to triggering the final stages of transformation. The higher consciousness involves continuous self-awareness of one’s place--and the place of each moment in which one finds oneself--in the integral harmony of one infinite life; it appreciates in full sympathy the roles of all other individualities likewise rooted in the divine plan. Love is its fundamental law, and the goodness pervades even its frequently necessary sternness. The ego-consciousness in contrast, depends on the continuing illusion that limits the individuals life as if it were separate from the one infinite life. It is fundamentally characterized by that persistent sense of separateness. All its actions, deriving from that sense of separateness, are essentially lower-self-centered and lack the fundamental sympathy and sincere goodwill that characterize actions expressing the higher consciousness. Critical situations are always seen by this separative ego in terms of “me and them” or “us and them” rather than in terms of “we are all here to learn: how can all of us involved in this best benefit spiritually?”

No matter how cultured, refined, sophisticated, or clever the ego becomes, its own vested interests will always have priority: the tiny spark of consciousness imprisoned within its illusory sense of separateness will be unable to perfume the air of its human relations with the equitableness and unqualified generosity of higher individuality. For the ego-consciousness is a function of association and memory: it can only mimic the living, creative intelligence of the genuine soul. Only as this impostor is displaced and subjected to radical transformation does the individual firmly actualize its legacy as child and expression of divinity.
The difference between these two states of mind or being is the difference between spiritual and non-spiritual living. Nothing done in the absence of this higher consciousness can in the strict sense, be called spiritual activity; nothing done in its presence--not even the most menial labor--fails to express something of one’s divine nature. In the transition in full wakefulness while still alive from the one state to the other is the crux of self-transformation. It includes not only an elevation of ordinary waking life, but also involves progressively purifying the character of dream life and bringing unbroken awareness to the sleep states.

“Once he has attained the philosophic realization of the Overself, he goes nightly to sleep in it, if the sleep is dreamless and deep, or inserts itself into his dreams if it is not. Either way he does not withdraw from it.” —19.3.122

Some schools say that grace alone can produce this radical change and that nothing the ego can do will influence things one way or the other; others say that since grace, even if it does exist, cannot be counted on, we should put all our stock in self-effort. Paul Brunton considered both these points of view to have a part of the truth. He once used the analogy of rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. “You have to make the effort, a strong and continuous effort, in the beginning, to get started. But once the fire is going, you stop rubbing and let the fire do the job. Just like that, the lower self has to make effort to get the higher force to come into play, but once the higher force is working, you have to be open to its guidance and passive to its activity in you and let it put you through what needs to be done.”

“It seems as if grace visits us at moments of its own choosing. This is the truth, but not the only truth. For study, practice of exercise, training, self-discipline, prayer, aspiration, and meditation also form a total effort which must attract grace as its reward eventually.”


“Two things are required of a man before Grace will manifest itself in him. One is the capacity to receive it. The other is cooperation with it. For the first, he must humble the ego; for the second, he must purify it.” —18.5.206

The grace can come directly, but in so many cases it needs an intermediary.

“If the existence of grace is granted, the question of the means of its transmission arises. Since it is a radiation issuing from the Oversoul, it can be directly bestowed. But if there are internal blockages, as in most cases there are, then it cannot be directly received. Some thing or person outside him will have then to be used as a means of direct transmission.” —18.5.39

In a private conversation shortly before his death in 1981, Brunton states that he would like to reverse what had been his previous public position with regard to the need of a teacher. His position in the earlier books had generally been that a teacher is not needed: the individual’s own self can communicate whatever guidance or instruction is needed. He said in this conversation that, while this point of view is true in theory and in highest fact, the previous thirty years of observation on his part had shown that the vast majority of people who try to put it into practice simply make little meaningful progress. The reason he offered is that the ego is so tricky, so deceptive, that the ordinary individual definitely does need contact with some sort of qualified spiritual friend in order not to be continually fooled by it.  Brunton was concerned that students should be acutely aware of a “double bind.” On the one hand, the ego is so very clever at avoiding its own transformation that a qualified teacher is generally indispensable. On the other hand, the number of qualified teachers is so small that a chance of meeting one is quite rare.

The thinker within us and the mystic within us need each other desperately.  For most seekers, much if not all of their practice will have to be carried out without the benefit of a qualified guide. For them the most important issue in striving toward this radical change in perspective is that of not confusing self-reliance and independent thinking with enhanced ego-centricity.

“Such is the strange paradox of the quest that on the one hand he must foster determined self-reliance but on the other yield to a feeling of utter reliance on the higher powers.” —1.3.199


In Paul Brunton’s view, there are a number of major departments to the complete work of self-transformation. Though the amount of work needed at a given time in a given area varies with the individual involved, each person must complete his or her development in each area. The required completeness and balance which are to be established cannot be fulfilled while some faculties are well developed and others are in an underdeveloped state. The underdeveloped areas will continually thwart the radical transformation and distort the operations of the finer faculties.

All areas may be worked on either simultaneously or in sequence or alternation appropriate to the individual involved. When intellect, feeling, and will are all brought to the balance needed for that specific individual, the process will complete itself.

The body must be sufficiently purified to channel the subtler energies of the higher individuality: this usually involves some physical exercises, general attention to hygiene and cleansings, and dietary adjustments. The moral nature must be uplifted: this usually requires an intense self-examination of one’s motives, leading to a disciplining of self-centered emotions and a purifying of one’s passions. The mystical elements of one’s nature are to be developed through cultivating the finer feelings usually through regulated practice of meditative/contemplative exercises addressing spiritual themes, inspired art or music, and the beauties of nature. The intellect is to be sufficiently educated and clarified that it no longer distorts the voice of intuition: this is accomplished through careful and impartial metaphysical study of inspired works, coupled whenever possible with an impartial study of modern science. One of Brunton’s most frequently repeated themes is that the thinker within us and the mystic within us need each other desperately: both the ability to think deeply with great precision and the ability to withdraw at will from thinking must be cultivated. And, most importantly to the philosophic approach, all must be turned in the direction of altruistic service to humanity at large.

“In observation a scientist, at heart a religious devotee, in thought a metaphysician, in secret a mystic, and in public an efficient, honorable useful citizen--this is the kind of man philosophy produces.” —20.5.22

Each of these areas requires, at the very least, a paper in itself. Each also will have to be tailored by the individual or by a competent guide to the needs of that specific individual’s stage of development.  Paul Brunton’s Notebooks and his earlier writings provide a virtually inexhaustible resource from which the reader can draw useful and reliable information on such details, and apply what seems appropriate to his or her own situations.