Recently I emailed around details of a western esoteric course a friend is about to offer. Soon after I received an indignant reply stating the course was outrageously priced. I pondered this and at first thought, yeah maybe it is a bit out of the reach of somepeople. However, the costing was based on an adult TAFE education course, which thousands of people sign up for every term.
There are a number of issues here which I do not want to go into now: the legitimacy of charging for spiritual tuition; supporting teachers who offer their time to train students in the esoteric arts; and how we value the traditions that nurture us? All these are fruitful avenues for discussion.
However, for me the most interesting aspect is this. On a per hour basis the course was less expensive than most yoga or fitness or exercise classes. Hundreds of thousands of people, including myself and many other esoteric students, attend these classes every week. Here we are guided (hopefully well but often only competently) through variants on the same set of exercises. We happily do this, giving time and money to keep our outer self healthy.
The inner life equivalent would be repeated meditation or prayer or worship or other spiritual practice. But as soon as someone charges for these processes the magical-pagan community throws up its arms in outrage. Why? It seems that despite our avowed focus on the inner life we simply do not value it as much as our outer life.
Of course, many people argue that meditation and prayer are practices which are really solo in nature; that we do not need to be guided. The same however could be said for physical exercises. And the truth of the matter is actually the opposite – we do need guidance and holding from an experienced teacher. It is exactly this lack of ongoing and careful tuition of the basics – meditation, concentration, effective prayer – which plagues the western esoteric community and causes all sorts of pathologies from ego-boosted inepti to abusive power structures in magical groups.
Because the results of meditation and prayer and spiritual practice are seen to be inner (when in fact that are actually beyond the inner/outer dichotomy), we all have a distressing tendency to fool ourselves. This I feel is a major cause of the discrepancy between valuing outer over inner work and instruction. We cannot easily fool ourselves, much less the gym instructor, that we are fit when we are not. We can however easily fool ourselves and some teachers that we can meditate when we cannot. And because one of the unwritten dogmas of new age esoteric practice is never to question or criticize another person’s experience we are seldom corrected and pulled into line.
In eastern esoteric traditions the role of the authentic teacher of meditation and spirituality and the training they offer are valued far more than an aerobics instructor with nine weeks part-time training. The fact that we do not offer the same value shows the incipient influence of materialism within our spirituality. If we do not address these sorts of issues are we really practicing conscious spirituality at all?
I am not saying that financial payment is the only way of showing our respect and support for our traditions. And indeed some traditions and teachers, like myself, consciously refuse payment. When asked about costs, Swami Alokananda, a Tantric Yoga teacher in Perth says that if she charged the real value of the Yoga she teaches no one could afford it. How true – the chance to commune and connect with the One is beyond price.