The Teachings – The Second Point of the Triangle of the Tradition
Over the last few posts I've had the opportunity to introduce you to several of the people that have had an impact on my life and path. They are by no means the only ones, simply among the more famous ones. As we proceed, I'll introduce you to more people you may like to know about, to realize that if we look closely, there are many good people out there we can learn from, if we just learn how and where to find them. Now men like Dr. Lisiewski and Dr. de Coppens that you may have heard of have made significant and visible contributions as a result of their professional work, writings, or having been at the right spot at the right time, to see the development of contemporary occult movements from the inside perspective. Each one had one or more teachers who made a significant impact on their lives, and, in turn, they were able to help and assist others on the Path of Return when the time came. It is here that we see the real importance of the teacher, teachings, and community of practitioners, as they come together as a living link or links in the Chain of Tradition.
In addition to having well-trained and qualified teachers—something very difficult to find and identify these days within the Western esoteric traditions—we also need a solid curriculum of teachings. It is not enough to have something to teach: teachers and students must have an understanding of how teachings progress through the various stages, just as in any area of study, from Elementary School to the University, or from an apprentice plumber up to a master plumber and contractor. Stages and progress on the path must be measurable and identifiable—be it the degrees of an esoteric order, or the ten stages of enlightenment of a Bodhisattva. Measurable and identifiable is the key, as it lets each individual know what they know, what they don't know, and what they need to learn or practice to progress.
On this note, it is important to note that we have an abundance of curriculum and teaching guides, and “enlightenment-in-a-year”-type books. These have flooded the market in recent years in an effort to do the impossible—fill the void and act as a substitute for a genuine relationship with a teacher and/or other students. Aimed at the 'solo practitioner' they repackage old material and emphasize heavy-handed ritual work over self-reflection and analysis. In short, they turn spirituality into a series of mechanical techniques rather than demonstrating what it is—methodical self-examination, deconstruction, and re-construction of our sense of self (or ego) based around an ideal rather than the narrow and limited material limitations of our birth.
While each system of spirituality is different, they do have some things in common. You can learn to be a technician, a skilled learner, or a scholar. Or as the guild systems of Medieval Europe, the basis for Freemasonry state it, respectively: Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master. In a general spiritual sense: Aspirant, Disciple, and Master (or Teacher). In an esoteric or occult school these would be: Neophyte, Adept, and Master. This is roughly the equivalent of saying: you can get a two-year, four-year, or eight-year degree in your chosen area of professional study. However, whichever degree you choose, you still need a means of learning the material—be it in a bricks-and-mortar school or by way of distance learning and correspondence courses. Either way, you need to decide what level of training you want and how you are going to get it—no one can do it for you. This often means being with other people—even if that means speaking to them long-distance or with Skype.
In any case, you are relying on other human beings (the teacher) to direct you and to assist you, and you, in turn, assist others (your fellow classmates or lodge members) in the journey. Even after completing your formal education your learning is not over. Even those with doctorate degrees, the highest level of academic achievement, still go on for a further two to six years of post-doctoral work under the guidance of a specialized researcher—research aimed at contributing to advancing our understanding of a given topic and resulting in one or more professional-level publications for others to read, review, and duplicate if they so desire.
Now, while few individuals pursue such advanced degrees in academic circles, few also desire to pursue such levels of advancement in esotericism; and that is fine—that is the way it should be. Each must find his or her own level of involvement, and what they seek to both get out of it, and to contribute to it—“it” being the tradition of which they have knowingly or unknowingly become a living link.
The ideal goal is to have students working towards what we can roughly call the Baccalaureate level, or that of a skilled learner, or adept. They have a good overview to solve most problems or know where to go to get the information to do so. They can assist those both of lesser learning and experience as well as those with superior learning and experience. While some may go on to the next level, it is neither essential nor desired. It is at this level where the most important work for both the individual and group is performed.
The Skilled Learner may never publish an article or book, but if they are well read, level-headed, and of good nature, they are the heart of sustainable groups and therefore any tradition. They are the householder yogis of the Orient, as compared to the Scholar Abbots of the monastic traditions. Both have an important role to play, but it is the lay practitioner that keeps traditions alive when times are dark. It is from this group that the future leaders and scholars can be identified and nurtured.
Those who seek a lesser level of learning are important in that they are the foundation that sustains the group. They assist in whatever it is they are good at, and do so under direction. Over time, once they are comfortable, or as time and circumstance permits, they can be encouraged to take on larger roles and areas of practice. These are the future that needs to be gently nurtured through the growing pains of initiation.
Now I will say more about these different levels of students later when we discuss the Household of the Faithful or the Community of Practitioners—more simply put, the students. It is important, though, to recognize these different levels of students, as the teacher, (or Lodge Master if one is using traditional language), is responsible for having teachings that meet the needs of the various levels of students that he or she will encounter. If this is not the case, and the teachings are a 'one size fits all' situation, then one will find very quickly that they have a very small body of students, be it on the beginner level or the advanced.
At each step of learning, the teachings must be clear on what is to be learned, what is to be practiced, and what is to be derived from the practice. It is this clarity that helps us to overcome one of the greatest problems in modern esoteric practices: confusion, and thereby failure to get the sought-after results.
Mysticism is not magic, nor is magic mysticism. One can move from one to the other, and even merge them in theurgic practices, but they are not the same. Wicca, as we are so often told, is not witchcraft, Wicca being worship (i.e., Nature mysticism) and witchcraft being magic; they are not interchangeable, but quite capable of being merged. The list goes on. Maybe the greatest sin in this area is in the study of alchemy. Jungian psychology can be psycho-spiritual transformation, or simply intellectual abstraction, but it is not intended to cause, nor does it lead to, physical transformation as in mineral alchemy. Clarity is critical.
When we discuss results in magic we are most often discussing the achievement of some kind of paranormal phenomena of either a subjective or objective nature. In Chapter One of Between the Gates – Lucid Dreaming, Astral Projection, and the Body of Light in Western Esotericism (Red Wheel/Weiser), a considerable amount of space is spent outlining the specific types of phenomena that fall into either of these categories, but it can be summed up like this: if someone else can touch, see, hear, or verify it, it is objective. If it is limited to your own mind or experience, it is subjective. In general, mysticism is subjective, magic is objective. Teachings need to be clear on these points.
My close friend and mentor, Dr. Joseph Lisiewski, (known to many of you, and who was the subject of a previous post), discussed this confusion at length and wrote a book whose goal was to help students overcome this problem of confusion-leading-to-failure in their magical or objective occult practices, entitled: Kabbalistic Handbook for the Practicing Magician – A Course in the Theory and Practice of Western Magic (New Falcon Press 2005). In his work, Lisiewski details the process of assimilating the symbols used in ritual magic into our consciousness so that we know what to expect from them when we use them—he calls this process “Subjective Synthesis”. Now, whether we know it or not, we are ALWAYS performing some kind of subjective synthesis. In esoteric studies and practice, we need to perform this act consciously and with purpose. Now pay attention here: it is CONSCIOUSLY and WITH PURPOSE. What we put into our work and expect to derive from it will be the sum of our RESULTS.
In Kabbalah for Health and Wellness, I referred to this process (independently calling it the “subconscious synthesis”) and wrote:
“The subconscious synthesizes our experiences to produce 'order out of Chaos'. To assist it, we need to pick a spiritual discipline and stick to it. Hopping from system to system looking for the magic key, or for the false ideal of some kind of multicultural eclecticism [New Agism], produces only confusion and spiritual failure. Universal truths exist, but they are always presented and used in a synthetic manner in authentic systems, not attached to each other like poorly designed additions to a home.”
Furthermore, there are five key areas which authentic spiritual practices focus around; they proceed in the following manner.
“These practices will demonstrate the importance of the five key steps in both healing and spiritual awakening, or Illumination: (1) purification, (2) imprinting, (3) activating, (4) transmuting, and (5) direct experience.
Purification – Preparing the mind and body for new experiences and energy by first clearing out the old, worn-out, and defective energies that are creating emotional, mental, or physical illness.
Imprinting – Consciously imprinting new ideas, images, symbols, sounds, and other useful devices into the etheric and psychic bodies so that the desired state of health and consciousness can be facilitated.
Activating – Consciously, methodically, and confidently turning on the new 'imprints' so that they may work towards the desired end. This along with imprinting is critical to any genuine esoteric initiation.
Transmuting – Working directly with destructive or negative energies and using them in a new context or modifying them so that they are no longer an obstacle in your spiritual path or that of another. This phase does not 'purify' negative energies by getting rid of them and replacing them with new energy, but instead works directly with them and literally changes them into something more desirable.
Direct Experience – This phase is a synthesis of the previous phases and involves direct experiences of wellness either in body or consciousness without the intermediary steps of the new states as they arise—or after consciously creating them—and simply resting or sitting in the experience while holding it as long as possible.”
It is easy to see how these five phases or stages also have specific areas of the psyche they most easily affect: purification is emotional and mainly what we call the subconscious; imprinting can easily be simply an intellectual exercise as it actively involves the conscious mind, but it must also affect the subconscious. As such, if purification is not done, and old habits and ideas hold sway, the new ideas cannot take root, or be imprinted deeply enough to grow into fruition. This fruition is Activation, or having an experience under the right causes and conditions as a result of previous work. Transmutation is the ability to bring our skill set and consciousness to play regardless of conditions, and directly managing our negative energies and conditions, shaping them into something desirable. The strength of our ability to transmute is directly a reflection of our degree of inner awakening from the previous stages. Finally, Direct Experience is the ability to perceive things as they are, free of any psychological imprints—positive or negative: direct experience of reality, its causes, conditions, and outcomes. This is Illumination—pure consciousness, pure perception of people, places, and things regardless of time and space; it is whole and complete from both the relative and absolute aspects.
Regardless of what path you take, from the edges of the occult extreme to the furthest reaches of religious fundamentalism, each path in theory claims to function around these five stages. Those spiritual movements that are competent in the first two will be the most successful and largest. Those that offer the tools for the third and fourth will be smaller. It is no surprise that so many people convert to fundamentalist Christianity and Islam in prison, with a smaller number converting to Buddhism, as few people will persevere to that edge of inner transformation. Those that offer the methods of direct perception will be fewer still, as many esoteric movements, including initiatic ones, see this as a 'grace' or 'gift from God' rather than the result of one's own efforts and work, such as in Oriental practices.
However, even here, it is those schools of Taoism, yoga, and Buddhism in the west that focus around healing, finding inner peace, and joyful living that have the largest body of followers (and with it cash flow), whereas those who challenge their students to deeply address—even confront—their own foolishness and stupidity, and to transform it into wisdom, compassion, and service, are less commonly known. This does not mean that an organization should appeal to the lowest common denominator and stay there, but that there must be a graded series of teachings and practices, and with them, an increase in intensity for those individuals who have chosen to undertake them and demonstrated competency in the preliminary work. That is why we often go from spagyrics to mineral work in alchemy, because safe practices must come first, and spiritual work—be it with a laboratory, ritual circle, or prayer group—is not safe.
The fundamental goal of genuine spiritual practice is to slowly destroy and transform our sense of self, and nothing is more dangerous. Thus, we have fundamentally two paths to pick from: the long and winding, or the Path of the Serpent, or the fast and direct—the Lightning Path. If we pick the slow and winding path we need not worry much about who our teacher and companions are, as we will have time to right our spiritual ship. If we pick the latter, then we must be careful about our teachers, their teachings, and our companions. If we do not like what we see or hear, and there is considerable dissonance or disparity between the theoretical teachings and how our teacher or companions practice them—if they even practice them at all—then we need to recognize this and rethink our relationship to them, even if we enjoy the teachings and practices themselves. It is better to practice a good path alone than to practice a fantastic path with hypocrites and those who have violated their oaths and obligations without remorse or contrition.
In closing, we leave you with the words of “The French Magus” Eliphas Levi:
"The destiny of man, as we have said, is to make or create himself; he is and will be the son of his works, both for time and eternity. All men are called into the lists, but the number of the elect, that is, of those who succeed, is invariably small. In other words, the men who are desirous to attain are numbered by multitude, but the chosen are few. Men who are masters of themselves become easily the masters of others; but it is possible for them to hinder one another if they disregard the laws of discipline and of the universal hierarchy. Life is a warfare in which we must give proofs if we would advance; power does not surrender itself; it must be seized. Initiation by contest and ordeal is therefore indispensable for the attainment of the practical science of mysticism. The essential law of nature, that of initiation by effort and by voluntary and toilsome progress, has been misconstrued fatally."