Whilst pondering on the (re)inclusion of children in western esoteric spirituality I became aware once more of the fragmented nature of our tradition. I remember in Earth God Rising Alan Richardson writing:
“I would … predict that occult historians in a century’s time will look back upon this decade [the 1990s] as the moment when the scattered parts of the dismembered Western Mystery Tradition were finally reconstructed, all save one piece. When that is piece is found (and it will be soon), when the shaman/animist elements make their necessary and transforming return to the Tradition, then it will twitch into real life once more. This will be the moment when Osiris, the Horned God, will finally be given back his balls.”
I asterisked this passage when the book first came out (1990), eager to behold the hope within it. However, the Western tradition is still as scattered, broken and dismembered as ever.
The inclusion of ‘shamanic’ aspects has been sidelined into commercial weekend workshops where people find their power animals, then return home never to meet or see a living animal of the same type. The powerful, direct approach of ‘shamanism’ within the west is watered down by two important points.
Firstly, normally only certain aspects of the shamanic traditions are imported or rediscovered in the west, such as the sacredness of the land, power animals, soul retrieval etc. The more problematic aspects, found in all traditional and indigenous cultures, such as evil spirits, spirit sickness and land sickness are not imported. This selective importation is based on personal, cultural and commercial forces, not higher transpersonal spiritual perspectives, and thus taints the whole enterprise.
Secondly, shamanism only makes sense and only exists within a community; the shaman served the community, the community served the shaman. Individual health was not separate from tribal health, individual spirituality was wedded to the communal. To paraphrase that awful saying from the Wiccan ‘Laws’: ‘you cannot be a shaman alone’. There are a number of good resources that describe this, the first off the top of my head (for some reason) is David Abram’s wonderful, The Spell of the Sensuous, which is only peripherally about ‘shamanism’. Oh, also look at Ronald Hutton’s Shamans: western imagination and Siberian Spirituality.
Of course, the remembering of the tradition has been talked about for a long time now. Even the far too influential Aleister Crowley attempted to incorporate eastern yoga among other things into the Western ceremonial traditions. Dion Fortune worked a Threefold Path of the West, incorporating ceremonial, nature and mystical work within a western framework. Dion also quotes an unknown occultist’s advice to integrate yoga and spiritualism (something she did excellently) and Alan Richardson also correctly understands the need for the trance and healing abilities of the best spiritualist circles to be included in this mixed bag we call the western tradition.
We could go on listing the various aspects of spiritual practice, service and community needing to be brought together in a seamless whole. However, there is really little point in a forum such as this. The main problem, as far as I can see is twofold.
Firstly, and I think this will make me even more unpopular in some circles, the pure western tradition cannot easily be practiced by people outside of the Christian or Jewish religions. This is simply fact; the traditions grew up within these religious milieus and only make sense within them. For example, just look at the rich symbolism of hermetic mysteries and alchemy in literature and image produced from the medieval to enlightenment eras by Christians for Christians.
I remember the confusion I felt as a callow self defined ‘pagan’ youth learning the Golden Dawn and being told clearly the Inner Order was a Christian Order. Initially of course, I rejected this, but soon saw its truth. Gareth Knight is quoted on the back of the Zalewski’s Golden Dawn Equinox book, saying much the same thing: we cannot access the Rosicrucian mysteries without the Christian mysteries. And this does not mean just performing a few Rose Cross rituals now and then.
The second problem is that outside of some sacramental Christian sects, mainly Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Judaism, there are no unbroken western esoteric traditions. The tradition is not living in the sense there is an unbroken stream of teaching and blessing handed down from illuminated teacher to illuminated teacher, stretching back into time. The wisdom has been passed on piecemeal, often corrupted and often via textual sources not a living transmission of blessing.
So, really most ‘western traditions’ are but picking over the bones of a corpse of tradition, long dead while refusing to enter the living heart, which miraculously is still beating, that of the Christian mysteries. Most western traditions are also not western in any pure sense (western here in the same manner as how we define western culture, that stemming from the Greco-Roman worldview and world). Many are a jumble of ill conceived western adaptations of eastern thought (stemming ultimately from Theosophy). This includes many reconstructions of ‘native’ spirituality such as some Druid and Norse traditions.
The best modern western traditions are partly beneficial but ultimately ineffective in producing the deep states of illuminations and communal service they aspire to. The worst of them, mostly within the pagan traditions are, not actually spiritual traditions at all. Whilst I do not agree entirely with him, I appreciate what was behind Greek Orthodox Priest Father Efstathios Kollas’ recent dismissal of neo-pagans as, ” a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past“.
So what are we to do?
Personally, I have so far in my life adopted four strategies to cope with this mess and still stay within the western esoteric ambit:
Firstly, I honestly embraced the Christian mysteries (more on this in a future post).
Secondly, I practice and learn from the Qabalah (Jewish and Hermetic), which is the only tradition which is at the heart of many forms of both Christian and Jewish mysteries, and which transcends all traditions in its essence.
Thirdly, I rely upon the masters, as described in this post. Here the masters function, not so much to provide new teachings, but to take the place of the illuminated teacher absent in most western schools. Having a channel who can access the masters in this fashion though is rare, and sometimes we may need to be patient or practice within schools and traditions not to our personal, ego based ‘taste’ or preferences. And following the guidance of masters, like that of a living guru, is sometimes very hard and painful, taking you exactly where you did not want to be.
Fourthly, I chose to be connected with, study and practice a non-western tradition (Vajrayana Buddhism) that is living, enlightened and unbroken in order to ascertain what a tradition should be. However, this is not advice to spiritually shop around or jump from one ship to another. Until I had gained a solid foundation in my base tradition in terms of years (20) as well as wisdom, I largely only engaged in study, not practice.
I would love to think like Alan Richardson did back in 1990, but really I cannot easily see us getting our act together very soon. In the meantime if anyone has a fifth piece of advice, I would love to hear it … 🙂