Premise 1: The core aims of most modern western spiritual traditions, esoteric, new age or whatever, are similar to the aims of most of the major religious traditions since the Axial Age. Our quest for meaning and fulfillment is bound up with the collective and the communal. Compassion is both the goal and the guiding light of our spiritual traditions. Of course much of this is not played out in practice and religions are often the source of much misery and pain and some doctrines that are definitely not compassionate. However, the central aim is there and is similar within both exoteric and esoteric traditions. Within western magic we ‘desire to know in order to serve’ and in religion we try and live by the Golden Rule, loving our neighbours as ourselves.
Premise 2: Depth and esoteric spirituality is designed to actualise and achieve the goals described above. It provides tools – symbols, practices, metaphors, teachings – which change us into more loving and more effective human beings, able and naturally willing to change the world, to effect restoration, to engage in Tikkun Olam as the Qabalists put it. Karen Armstrong describes this well:
It is clear that the meditation, yoga and rituals that work aesthetically on a congregation have, when practised assiduously over a lifetime, a marked effect on the personality – an effect that is another form of natural theology. There is no ‘born again’ conversion, but a slow, incremental and imperceptible transformation. Above all, the habitual practice of compassion and the Golden Rule ‘all day and every day’ demands perpetual kenosis [emptying of the self to disengage the ego] … The effect of these practices cannot give us concrete information about God; it is certainly not a scientific ‘proof’. But something indefinable happens to people who involve themselves in these disciplines with commitment and talent. The ‘something’ remains opaque, however, to those who do not undergo these disciplines, just as the Eleusinian ‘mystery’ sounded trivial and absurd to somebody who remained obstinately outside the Cult Hall and refused to undergo the initiation.
Premise 3: Since 1875 there has been more and more readily available esoteric and depth spiritual wisdom and teachers available in the west. The Theosophical expansion, the magical and pagan revival and the new age boom have effected millions of us and continues to do so everyday. In 2006, the New Age industry in the US was worth $300 billion USD and affected 70 million people. Once secret esoteric techniques and practices are now available on the Internet and at the local bookstore.
Therefore: With more and more people engaging in esoteric and depth practices over the last 100 years we should by now have a large group of compassionate and active ‘change agents’. The effects should be noticeable. But they are not. Simply look around you or turn on the news.
Something is Wrong.
One of the areas I think we are getting it wrong I have touched on before – much of what we call spirituality is not actually spirituality. We are not changing the ego or emptying ourselves but merely rearranging the blocks within the ego-personality into a more pleasing and pleasant whole. And again, I get it wrong and do this as much as the next person; I claim no moral superiority here but am merely trying to analyse an intractable problem within our western spiritual traditions.
I recently found this video on Phillip Carr-Gomm’s blog and I think it illustrates what I am saying. Watch it please, it is quite short.
Here Alan Watts, one of the most lucid and influential spiritual teachers of the 60s and 70s presents the eternal verities. However, these are bound up in a package which is designed to please and pleasure the ego. The images, the music, the sound effects are all designed to allow us, as one of the YouTube commentators puts it, “to chill with Alan Watts”. The result is a package customised for our modern shortened attention spans, allowing us to feel good, ponder some spiritual wisdom but never actually transcend the ego-pleasure self barrier. Sound bite spirituality.
This packaging of the spiritual verities and the spiritual traditions is one of the biggest problems we face. Yesterday I discovered a week long yoga course being offered out of the one luxury resorts in WA’s north. The teacher is a brilliant Iyengar trained instructor and I know from personal experience has much to offer. The course however, which consists of a total of 12 sessions, is part of a whole package designed to please and pleasure. The location, the beach, optional massages, beauty treatments, sight-seeing, fine dining on the beach etc, are all elements that appeal to our ego-pleasure self. This is, of course, the antithesis of the aim and intention of classical yoga which, like all authentic traditions, aims to free us from the ego trap. Including airfares the cost will be $4000, which effectively precludes most folk from attending anyway.
At this point, Rev Dr Cynthia Bourgeault:
As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of selfworth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual wellbeing, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego.
If Rev Bourgeault is correct, and there seems every reason to assume she is, our spiritual traditions and techniques are mostly high end immersive self-help tools. They will never help us transcend and transform our ego and ultimately serve the world. With millions of people engaging in depth spirituality everyday and failing in this transformation, it is about time we look at our techniques and traditions and not the failings of individual practitioners. It is easy to ascribe failure of transformation to the individual – I have done this myself – with lines like ‘they didn’t want to change’, ‘they couldn’t open to the Gods’ etc. It is less easy but more honest to pare back and unpack our traditions and techniques and see where and how they simply rearrange the blocks of the ego.
In magic we can very easily assume we are engaging in transformation but are not. A good example is auric manipulation using techniques such as the Middle Pillar exercise. Engaging in these processes feels good. They increase and cleanse our energy flow, increase blood supply, raise our endorphin levels and integrate the personality self. However, they are not in and by themselves spiritual. It is only when the deeper levels of intention, aspiration and openness are activated that we can even come to close to using them as a depth spiritual technique. The popularity of such techniques, as with all techniques that give a strong sense of ‘energy’ or ‘power’ or induce astral visions, speak to their pleasure ego-based side. It should not be forgotten that the auric manipulation processes that Regardie used in the Middle Pillar were originally Inner Order material - that is only given to the student once she had (hopefully) created some deeper spiritual aspirations throughout the Outer Order. Similar techniques in other traditions were also never given to Neophytes.
Any ritual, any process we engage in needs to to scrupulously stripped bare and examined. How and what level does it change us? How is it taught? Does that teaching foster spiritual transformation based outside the ego-pleasure-pain principle? Are we seeking a ‘peak experience’ for the sake of the experience or for how the divine may change us through the experience? Are we, as I said in a previous post, seeing the magic circle as place where we stand ready to control the universe or a place where we acknowledge our interdependence with all things and the non-existence of our temporal self?
It is of course easier to engage in packaged ego-based ‘spiritual’ forms, changing our temporal selves so we are happier and healthier. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not actual spirituality and is often based more on fantasy than reality. Look again at the Alan Watts video. The images of nature included are appealing both to our innate need and connection to the land and the ‘scenery’ based packaging of nature within the modern west, complete with spiritual tours to sacred sites and nature getaways. This is not the reality most of us find in our urban lives, waking to the alarm clock to travel to office or factory again. It is a fantasy, one designed to appeal to our ego need to escape. Does conflating the eternal verities with this fantasy help us or hinder us?
Father Matthew Fox talks eloquently about the need to create modern forms of spirituality that work with and honour the conditions we find ourselves in, right where we are now. As he said, even in a modern city creativity is displayed, concrete and steel came from the earth and can lead us back to Her; it is just more of a challenge than being ‘in nature’. But it is a challenge we need to accept. This is why I maintain the western lodge tradition is one of the most important and hopeful spiritual tools we have. It was created by urbanites in the modern era to meet the spiritual needs of modern men and women. Despite reaching its peak numerically in the early 1900s, I believe its spiritual potential has yet to be reached.
I keep coming back to the stark reality; if indeed our spiritual traditions were mostly spiritual we would see a different world. Accepting this we need to look hard at our traditions and techniques, seeing where and how we fail, how we simply rearrange the building blocks of the ego into a more pleasing whole. I do not know how to fully do this examination and much needed change . But I do know we need to. I do know, as our masthead says, spirituality is meant to shake us to our core. And I do know that our traditions, our symbols, our sacred names are such a vehicle for the blessings of the One that, even if we have used them in a limited fashion previously, they offer a continual chance to transform to the depths. “For the moment of death is every moment and at every moment we may rise in the Light as One, knowing ourselves for the first time.”