This book is a collection of study material compiled by John Sell over many years of leading very successful study groups in New Zealand. The book explores a variety of Theosophical subjects and includes practical exercises and meditations that support the various topics and concepts under investigation.
The book is ideally suited for groups and individuals who wish to study the subjects introduced in the book and are willing to partake in the practical exercises included.
Practical Spirituality: Selected Works of John Sell
Edited by Elizabeth Sell. Auckland: Theosophical Publishing House, 2019, xii + 495 pages, cloth, NZ$60 + postage (free within New Zealand).
Called “one of the greatest Theosophists I have known” by John Vorstermans, National President of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand, John Sell was active in the work of the Theosophical Society for over 65 years. With a background in both psychology and education, John was deeply involved in developing a wide variety of innovative theosophical study courses and training programmes, including a course in public speaking. These efforts formed the basis for similar courses and curricula used by theosophical groups around the world.
While a charismatic teacher, excellent communicator and dynamic organizer, John tended to avoid the limelight and not call attention to himself, a rare quality in an age of narcissism, selfies and the number of followers one has on social media. Although John had long planned to prepare a book that contained many of his courses, workshops and other writings, he had put this project on hold in order to co-edit (along with his wife, Elizabeth) a landmark three-volume series of books called Sharing the Light, consisting of the writings of Geoffrey Hodson (1886-1983), one of the Theosophical Society’s most respected teachers, lecturers and writers. Due to ill health, John Sell was never able to complete his own book during his lifetime. Yet thanks to the herculean efforts of Elizabeth Sell, John’s essential teachings have been assembled in this highly practical and useful book that will secure his legacy as one of the Theosophical Society’s most knowledgeable, creative and inspiring teachers.
As a spiritual man with his feet planted firmly on the ground, John always stressed the importance of self-transformation and the need to apply spiritual teachings to one’s everyday life. He wrote, “Each of us is fundamentally a Soul who is using a physical body, and emotional body and a mind while we are living on Earth” and that our goal in life is to develop, align and refine these three bodies so that we become more soul-centered and responsive to the spiritual energies that surround us. This especially involves striving to live a righteous life of compassion, self-reflection, meditation, creative visualization, right human relationships and selfless motivation in all of our endeavours.
The impressive collection of teachings found in Practical Spirituality contains a wealth of material suitable for both individual and group study. Chapters focus on recognizing and utilizing incoming spiritual energies; techniques for self-transformation, meditation and prayer (for both individuals and groups); the path of discipleship; understanding karma; aligning physical and subtle human bodies; understanding The Seven Rays; the power of forgiveness and understanding death. I personally found the chapters about karma especially interesting, especially how it can help explain many of life’s mysteries. I feel that I now have a deeper and broader understanding of the mechanics of this ancient law than ever before and how it has worked in my life.
The chapters about death were equally enlightening. Rather than to be feared or rejected, John teaches that death should be viewed as an essential part of one’s evolutionary journey and a source of creativity and freedom. He wrote, “Theosophy teaches that we are not bodies that possess a Soul, but Souls who possess a body… As Souls, we are immortal beings that will live and grow throughout all eternity.” As in earlier sections, he offers practical advice: in this section, he offers suggestions on how to assist others in the process of dying and send loving energy to those who have recently died.
Several of the sections, especially those concerning techniques for self-transformation, meditation and karma can be stand-alone books and study courses.
Each section includes easy-to-understand step-by-step instructions to help integrate the various ideas into one’s daily spiritual practice, followed by practical examples and useful summaries that help the student better understand the subjects discussed. Through self-evaluation forms, readers are encouraged to honestly confront and transform psychological issues that can hinder their journey to self-transformation. Yet two aspects that come through in this book are John's sincerity and his ability to engage the reader. I imagine that’s why his talks and workshops were highly effective, in part because attendees felt that John truly cared about them. His personal feelings of concern and caring are evident in every chapter, and provide uplifting support as the reader delves into what are often difficult and complex issues on the path to self-understanding and personal transformation. Concluding his chapter on “The Radiant Soul,” he wrote:
“Seek for the Spiritual Light of Wisdom and Truth,
The Omnipresent and Eternal Light.
Walk towards the Love filled Light.
Become the Light,
Radiate the Light,
Illumining the world and all Beings.
In addition to John Sell’s writings, Practical Spirituality contains a useful article by Elizabeth Sell titled “Service: A Dynamic Challenge” that focuses on the importance of committing ourselves to practical activities that are of lasting value to both the local and world communities. In addition to illustrations by John Sell and Lionel Taylor, Practical Spirituality also contains several full-colour reproductions of rare paintings by Elizabeth Sell that are as beautiful as they are inspiring.
This book is recommended for students who have at least a basic understanding of theosophical teachings and terminology. At first, one can feel overwhelmed by the quantity and range of material found in Practical Spirituality’s nearly 500 pages. Rather than study the book from beginning to end, some readers may wish to focus primarily on subjects of greatest personal interest, and then move to other writings later on. Others may prefer to study Practical Spirituality from beginning to end, either alone or as part of a study group. In wide-ranging compilations such as this one, some overlap of material is inevitable, but any repetitions are appropriate to the subject matter presented in each chapter.
Practical Spirituality: Selected Works of John Sell offers a wealth of useful, step-by-step teachings of Theosophy that will challenge, inform and inspire. In addition to being an important addition to the library of every theosophical lodge or study center, this book will be a “core text” for individual students who wish to expand their insight, compassion and understanding life’s mysteries.
Nathaniel Altman, New York, USA
Nathaniel Altman has been a member of The Theosophical Society in America since 1970. He first met John and Elizabeth Sell in Adyar in 1975.
Practical Spirituality by John Sell
It is probably unusual to describe a book as beautiful.
This was my first impression of this crisply bound, elegant, hard-back copy of “Practical Spirituality”.
A cube, edged in purple, framing a reproduction of an original artwork.
The contents were equally inspiring;
Meditation: An Inner-space adventure
Workshops on astral and mental fields.
With twenty other applications of the facets of life we call spirituality.
I skipped backwards and forwards through the book, getting engrossed in the unravelling of the many jewels it contained. There are poems, art works, quotations, exercises and questions to help us (more practically than intellectually) in our searches for our individual spiritualities.
The book is a treasure trove of useful gems;
page 238, How can I practise harmlessness in my life.
page 441, Determining your ray, from the way you shop.
page 178, A Taoist Meditation; Close your eyes and you will see clearly.
This book, to me, is beautiful.
Allan Morse, Wellington, New Zealand