The Golden Dawn as Institutionalized Esotericism.

Next week I begin helping teach the Fire of Azrael course in the western esoteric tradition. The course is auspiced both by the Servants of Isis and a Golden Dawn order. In preparing for the course, and in a recent esoteric discussion group, it seems some people are attracted to the GD over other esoteric paths because of its established track record and visible magical curriculum. This is sensible; a tradition should commend respect and choices of paths made, at least in part, based on history, accessibility and reputation. However, I wonder if the GD is becoming the path of choice for some people simply because it is the old grandfather of western magic; that they are being less conscious than an esoteric student should be in making these very important choices.

All esoteric paths and systems are worthless in themselves, the GD included. They can only point us to the One, and at worse they lock us, often unconsciously into a system of practice that feels good but ultimately produces no transformation. Most esoteric paths, the GD included, are predicated on a two value premise and a ‘promise’ to move between the two: ourselves now, ourselves later (enlightened, transformed, healed, more in tune etc.) and the practices/initiations that move us between the two.

The danger in such a view is that it can become a closed loop. The person I ‘am’ now can never be the person I foresee at the ‘end’ of the process, since my definitions have already separated the ‘I’ now and ‘I’ desired. The gap between the two, while impossible for ‘me’ to bridge, is the spiritual practice and while I engage in that I have the sense of moving forward. Of course ‘I’ can never actually reach the goal, but simply having this mental structure and doing some practice I will experience the sense of moving ahead.

Any tradition that has a well developed ‘path’ between the two ‘I’s will naturally draw people, as we all like to see how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’. The Golden Dawn thus is very attractive with its clearly mapped out path of transformation and rituals/practices at each stage of the way. Ultimately of course, most GD people (like most esoteric students) don’t really transform in any deep way at all – as amply demonstrated by the lives of both historical and contemporary GD magicians.

It is this comprehensive curriculum approach of the Golden Dawn that seems to lure esoteric students today: ‘by doing this, then this, with these initiations, I will develop the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel’. I’ve met people like this, both within and outside the Golden Dawn, and generally they are either very nice but ineffectual with their shadows oozing out in almost visible appearance, or very arrogant and lacking the basic compassion and humility that are signposts of spiritual presence.

What makes an esoteric path effective, what makes it actually able to lead us to the One is death. The ‘I’ now cannot become the ‘I’ we desire, so we must die. Effective esoteric paths shake us all the time; they invite us to die continually and completely. It is up us to choose death or not. The worry I have is that even the ‘death and rebirth’ instigated by the highly developed Golden Dawn initiations, like the Adeptus Minor, is becoming part and parcel of the intellectual and lower self framework of magicians. If this happens, then death becomes just another magical experience and therefore we block to death as it truly is.

This is a danger of having esoteric paths made exoteric and then taught by people who have not died, who are still in the two value mindset I mentioned above and do not know it. The Golden Dawn suffers from this considerably, and Vajrayāna Buddhism is beginning to suffer the same fate in the west. From this perspective then, a newer less exoteric, out-there esoteric path may be more effective than the Golden Dawn. At least its processes, myths and deaths will be unknown to the initiate.

Repeating the bleedin’ obvious: our modern western society and therefore all of us are afraid of death. We hate it, we fear it, we deny it, and we handle it incredibly badly. Death though is the key to the esoteric, and as anyone who has experienced esoteric death will tell you, it is no metaphor. To quote that greatest of Priestesses, Dion Fortune: “There are two deaths; the death of the body and the death of initiation. And of the two, the death of the body is the lesser”.

We need to die. This is the message I will be trying hard to instil in the students next week.

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