Spirituality: are we doing it right?

I’ll start with some premises, which of course can be argued but seem to be accepted by most folk. 

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.”



  1. Karma Dorje · January 27, 2011

    Two points:

    1) The world population is also much, much larger than it was traditionally. If one accepts the idea of rebirth, one has to ask where all of these beings coming from? Obviously not human rebirth if we had 1 billion humans in 1900 and have nearly 7 billion now. Most likely they are from animal rebirths that have strong attachment to food and sex and have little capacity for higher strivings such as you are talking about.

    2) I accept your estimation of the state of much of modern spirituality so-called. However, I place the fault not at the systems which were never intended to be used by people without proper instruction, but at the feet of the dearth of real teachers, real hierophants, real magicians to instruct properly, to challenge the proud and to ascend to the highest levels of understanding possible. When I look at how few really understand that the practice of the Middle Pillar is a form of pratyahara and that as you ascend it, you are getting not to more and more abstract states but more and more *intimate* ones, I despair that much else can end up right in the end.

    Which systems have a proven track record of producing strong realization AND character development? Hindu tantra and vedanta, Buddhist Vajrayana, certain Taoist sects, Zen, etc. All of these are traditions based on a strong concept of guru-student or of the meeting of minds more generally. Western magicians are too often seduced by glamour and their intellectuality is often an effective rampart against evolution. Lodges can definitely be effective, but only insofar as the initiators have actualized the highest levels and are able to bring down the light to the petitioners.

  2. JR · January 27, 2011

    Great topic/ retrospective Peregrin and some really solid questions that perhaps cannot be pondered simply by the mind alone I think…!?

    The ‘something is wrong part” grabs me the most here. Setting aside all the usual glitz, glamour, history and denominations, it is this realization that actually forms the foundation within Christian faith and it’s theology; where the conclusion to this realization of falling short no matter how it is attempted over time eventually leads to the need for a ‘saviour’- but interestingly a saviour that shares the experience of man but is NOT man, and perhaps more importantly, NOT created by man.
    Now one might come to know this concept literally (if this faith is your persuasion) or otherwise may attempt to understand the wisdom here being conveyed through myth if your faith/ spirituality lies elsewhere. In any case, this idea is often challenging to many beliefs and practices because it moves away from any sense of human ‘egoic’ control (positive or negative): the laws to follow and uphold, the men to impress, the steps to enlightenment, the shamanic gongs and direction the crystals must be placed, the self enquiry and the community fellowship meetings on Tuesday nights! Instead it seeks to drive out every ounce of self-centeredness and attempts for power and moves toward reliance on a diety or ‘other’ outside of human influence and efforts… and dammit… we have no control over that now do we?!!

    With what you have described above, it appears simply as the human prescription to that which is perceived to be ‘opposite’; the feeling of loss or perhaps lack of spirituality without stopping to examine if human effort is needed or ever was needed to regain this at all. As humans we seem to constantly get stuck in the idea that if we attempt something positive in contrast to what is percevied as negative, that in some way this is not ‘egoic’ and somehow better or transcendent to the circumstance before. A kind of Cognitive Behavioural therapy for our spirit perhaps- if I push the green button instead of the red, everything will be just fine and under control; I will make things change goddamit, I will make myself one with the universe whether it likes me or not!
    However pushing different buttons on/ off is an excercise of ‘will’; while it may make me feel better and remind me I have the power of choice it does not necessarily bring any real sense of transformation. For example, if I choose to drive North rather than South today, I experience the liberation and empowerment of executing this choice. However the circumstances that unfold from there on are still largely out of my control… and all the while I still remain as me, the driver inside of that car, not necessarily having to experience any personal challenge to myself at all!
    In my observations and personal experiences this preoccupation with the ego and self determination seldom gives us any real answer to the quest of what is missing- it simply reinforces the dynamic we are stuck in- often further contributing to stubbhorness and hardened hearts in the name of ‘self rescue’. That somehow there could be some final, static solution in life as we know it? And meanwhile, gently we are returned to this realization: ‘Something is wrong’…

    If the question is ‘are we doing it right?’ (as entitled here), I believe the answer lies somewhere in asking ‘what exactly are we seeking to “do” in the first place, and most importantly- why?’

  3. Arcad · January 27, 2011

    @ Karma Dorje

    to your first point: well that would depend on if we believe that each soul (let me call it that for this purpose) jumps right into the next body once it left the previous one. I guess we have to considder that this is not the case and that some souls – or the consciousnes – take a time out before jumping into teh next incarnation. Also, if I understand you right, there is a finite amount of “human” souls being reborn and the growing number of human beings is only possible because animal souls take the available free spaces. Also here it depends on our view. If we believe that all living beings go through teh process of incarnation with the possibility to switch between the various arts, then there would in fact be no general limit in the individual capacity for higher strivings per se considdering the growing number of human beings.

    However, there is a good point there about the growing amount of life forms on the planet as such. So, can a soul or consciousnes multiply? Or is there a huge storage place somewhere? We clearly have to see the individual conscious or the soul in a close context with the universe’s conscious and with the universal conscious. All beings are related by that and this may be (part) of the key to the answer?

  4. Peregrin · January 28, 2011

    Thanks, Karma Dorje for these interesting views and ideas.

    I think the number of ‘souls’ is interesting and this Buddhist conception is not the only way to look at things. For example, some forms of Kabbalah posit souls ‘splitting’ in subsequent incarnations until we find our soul mate and unite with them. So one generation, a single soul, the next two, the next four…which would more than account for the growth of human soul population. 🙂

    I agree, there are far too few enlightened or even genuinely adept western masters/teachers. Still, as explained elsewhere, I cannot easily give up the western traditions entirely. HH the Dalai Lama, advises, it is best to stick with one’s native traditions, and he is someone I do respect as a teacher and initiator 🙂 We just have to do what we can in the west. Thanks again 🙂

  5. Peregrin · January 28, 2011

    Thanks, ‘JR’ for your thoughts.

    I think I will go straight to your ending which replied to my beginning 🙂 What are we seeking – to become more compassionate, conscious and aligned to the divine. Why? Well, from an esoteric viewpoint, that is the natural state of being we are to unfold into; it is what we are becoming. From a Christian viewpoint, perhaps it is because it is the will of God – the great commandments to love God fully and to love our neighbour as ourselves. I see the two as the same in purpose and outcome but not theologically.

    As I was writing I was of course reminded of the Christian mystery. The understanding that God/mystery/whatever that is perfection sends forth perfection to become BOTH imperfect as a human being and perfect, to allow us humans to know perfection (God). I think if we have any theistic conception at all, we will arrive at accepting some form of Christ or Torah. That is, the theistic deity intervening and guiding us either through Law or Love. To have a disinterested theistic power brings us to the milk-water deism of the enlightenment, where secularism is the real God.

    That said, there are of course other ways to understand this mystery of life and being than theism. Buddhism is a prime example and the end results of a Buddhist living her teachings should be the same as a Christian obeying the laws of love to God and neighbour. Or indeed, an magician unfolding to express their core truth of service under love.

    I like your reasoning regarding human will and attempts to create something positive. I think you hit the nail spot on in many aspects. However, acceptance and submission to Christ is not the end of the story from the Christan esoteric perspective. We form a relationship with Christ, and nothing we do can change His love – we cannot earn it, reduce it, change it in anyway. What we can do is relate more deeply to it, accept his Will and change our lives accordingly more and more. The traditional Christian esotericist (i.e. before Leadbeater) would agree will all you relate here, I think. They would only then say the esoteric wisdom and work they undertake helps them accept more the love and will of God. However, the key is always the movement of God to man and His revelation in scripture and Christ for us to know Him.

    This key is something that I believe is universal and can be approached in different ways outside Christianity. Of course it has to be: by non-Christians and those who lived before Christ. I think what i am saying in the post is that all the changes we try and make in the ego, via various techniques, fall flat without this key. I talked about “deeper levels of intention, aspiration and openness” so as to avoid Christocentricsm and annoy most of my readers :). My personal practice is Christian in this regard. However, this openness, I believe, can and is achieved by non Christians who participate in the same mystery. As I have mentioned elsewhere though, I think in the western traditions which are based on Christian mysteries, we hamper ourselves severely by rejecting the Christian approach.

    Thanks, again for our comments 🙂

  6. Peregrin · January 28, 2011

    Good questions, Fr Arcad.

    From the teachings I have received, the general Tibetan Buddhist understanding is rebirth (in one of the six realms) occurs within 49 days of death. Now this to me seems symbolic, but some Buddhist teachers I know insist on its literalism.

    There are of course many world systems in some Buddhist cosmologies, which could supply ‘souls’ to our planet.

    While there may be more visible life forms on our planet at this time than previously, i do sometimes wonder about the microscopic life. Perhaps we have less of that now and the ‘souls’ there have become human 🙂 It all gets too much for me and I generally leave it in the unknowable pile. I mean, what about conception within petri dishes, cloning and all the rest? Are there ‘souls’ hovering above the syringe waiting to rush down into the new zygote? I think as soon as we try and get definitive on these things we end up looking like idiots at some point 🙂


  7. Karma Dorje · January 28, 2011

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not writing off the Western traditions as I practice them myself. I am just saying that it is likely that a solution will come from those who achieve realization in another system and revivify the Western traditions (perhaps without even revealing their sources). This already happened with Crowley, FS, the Isis Urania covens and various other Hermetic orders. All I am saying is that I am not so sure what we need is updating the tradition so much as upgrading the initiators.

    It’s hard to say what “one’s native tradition” is. I was raised agnostic. I know for a fact that my identification is far more with Hindu and Buddhist deities than anything Abrahamic. The tradition one is attracted to is simply a matter of karma (read: familiarity and habit). Personally I think splitting things up into East and West is a little parochial. In the case of W.E. Butler it descended to outright racism. How wide the Universe is, and how small this globe we are on! As humans we all share the same basic problems and the same basic faculties. I am not even sure what to make of what His Holiness said about this. What was the context? If he really believed that, he would not spend so much time teaching Dharma in the West.

  8. Peregrin · January 29, 2011

    Hi Karma Dorje,

    Yes I would agree we need to upgrade the initiators in the west; that is very true when we look at the public examples. Non public examples are better, but most certainly not the same as the dedicated Tibetan Vajrayana teachers for example.

    Yes, both Butler and Dion Fortune in some cases showed racism mixed in with their spirituality. And of course this was very evident in WG Gray. We do need to be careful not to allow our mind mapping and labelling for convenience to become a tool for prejudice.

    His Holiness has said this at each teaching I have received from him and a couple of the public talks too. It is in a few of his books as well. He explains that a few people in the west may genuinely be called to the Buddhist tradition, but overall the majority should stick with the tradition from their childhood. Hard, as you say if raised an atheist or agnostic. He expressed surprise in two of these teachings that so many westerners should want to practice the Buddha Dharma, but said if this is so he will teach it in case what he has to teach aids them and thus all sentient beings. He never said specifically those westerners moved to practice Buddhism were doing so from Karma, but that (to me at least) was implicit in his statements. Thanks 🙂

  9. Arcad · January 29, 2011

    I just found this and there are quite some interesting points in there. Apart from the truth that all we do to anyone else we do to us etc, the idea of the soul not being reborn in a forward moving timeline as we know it is seriously interesting.
    I also try to be more carefull with eggs now 😉

  10. Arcad · January 30, 2011
  11. Peregrin · January 31, 2011

    Care Fr Arcad,

    thanks for this and your own reposting on Solitary Dawn.

    It is good to see the full original. A good thoughtful piece. Thanks for the link 🙂

  12. Pingback: Spirituality: are we doing it right? (via Magic of the Ordinary) « Gitanorumano's Weblog
  13. John · February 12, 2011

    Hi, I am from Australia.

    Alan Watts died as a very unhappy man. He may have even been an alcoholic. The trouble was that he never practiced what he preached.
    He also wrote the foreword to the original edition of this remarkable book.


    Israel Regardie also endorsed this Luminous Wisdom Teaching.

    These two references summarize what it takes to live Spiritual Life for real.



    This reference and website give a unique Understanding of the Spirit-Breathing Spiritual Way of Life taught and demonstrated by Saint Jesus of Galilee while he was alive


    Plus a beautiful essay on death


  14. Peregrin · February 12, 2011

    Hi John,

    thanks for these links. Most of my study of Adi Da was when he was known as Da Free John. I hope some MOTO readers find something of use in these links.

  15. Pingback: Happiness and Depression, the Saced and Spirituality | The Allergic Pagan
  16. Pingback: I’m making it up | The Allergic Pagan
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