From our position in the early 21st century, spirituality appears to be an ill-defined area of human experience not verifiable by current scientific means. Nonetheless, whilst not provable by today's standards, it has been directly experienced, writtenand talked about by thousands of individuals over millennia. Understanding this teaching is the essence of grasping the concept of a world of the spirit.
Contents of this page:
Mystery Schools, Esoteric and Exoteric teaching, Ancient Greece, Renaissance, 19th Century, 20th Century, 1960s and 70s, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Academia, Depth Psychology, New Age
The first clear historical record of this eternal Wisdom is seen in the mystery schools of Egypt and Greece. These schools taught the ‘Greater Mysteries’, reserved for a select and trained few, and the ‘Minor Mysteries’ available to all.The Greater Mysteries were held to be unsuitable for revelation to those not suitably trained. These secrets were for methods usable both for positive good and for evil, and in consequence, were only safe in the hands of those tested for their purity of purpose. The conditions for entry were strict and a vow of silence was imposed on every pupil, hence few written records survive.
Esoteric and Exoteric Teaching
The Mystery School traditions led to the emergence of an understanding of an ‘Esoteric’ secret inner core to religions, confined to ordained priests and monks, containing the teaching of spiritual truths and practices and the concept of the Divine being directly accessible to the individual. The outer ‘Exoteric' component contained ceremonies and parables suitable for illiterate and untrained minds. This outer teaching could lead to raising an individual’s awareness, so enabling the comprehension of the inner spiritual essence of the faith.
Clear indications of this teaching appear in the writings of the classical Greek philosophers. Plato defined human reality as having three components –
the external material world,
the internal world of the individual mind
and the numinous, divine eternal world.
With Plato, we see a clear definition in the historical records of what we are calling the ‘Wisdom’. Many of these Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras, were ‘polymaths’ – people deeply inspired by the numinous of the spiritual, but also highly practical musicians and natural scientists.
The teaching of the Greek philosophers was lost to Western Europe for hundreds of years, but re-emerged with the innovative flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures in the 14th-century resurgence of the Renaissance Since then, Plato's thinking has been the foundation of much Western philosophical and spiritual understanding. From this time on, the concept of the Wisdom begins to gather momentum and the term ‘Philosophia Perennis or ‘Perennial Philosophy’, appears in the early 16th century in the writings of Agostino Steuco. Later the idea was carried forward and expanded by Gottfried Leibnitz in a book, published in 1687. The fear of persecution by the church led to the teachings of the Wisdom continuing but remaining hidden.
In the 19th century, huge strides were made in the advance of science and understanding of nature. The steam engine was invented, and Charles Darwin published his book on the ‘Origin of the Species’. This growth in awareness of how the material world appeared to operate led to an undermining of the acceptance of dogmatic religious beliefs and openness to other concepts of the spiritual world. Inspired by a renewed interest in the Greek philosophers and a feeling of freedom from the authority of the church, the thesis of the Wisdom re-emerged. Ralph Waldo Emerson established the ‘Transcendentalist’ movement and published several classic books including ‘Self-Reliance’ and ‘The Over-Soul’.This new ‘awakening’ brought the idea of spirituality, independent of religion, into a new and respectable acceptance. These hypotheses were further elaborated and defined at the end of the 19th century, with the publication of various books by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. She sought to teach that the same underlying principles lay behind not only Christian, but also Hindu and Buddhist traditions. She set up the Theosophical Society to promote her ideas, referring to them as ‘Wisdom-Religion’ and the ‘Ancient Wisdom’. From this Society emerged the teachings of Annie Besant and a number of other streams of thought, including those of Rudolf Steiner (the Anthroposophical Society) and Jiddu Krishnamurti.
In the early 20th century, Alice Bailey left the Theosophical Society and set up her own organisation, the Lucis Trust. She wrote several books, channelling the words of an ascended master, Djwhal Kuhl, and used the term ‘Ageless Wisdom’ for her teaching. These emerging schools reiterated the ancient concept that, provided certain spiritual disciplines were followed, the individual could make direct contact with Divine, without the intermediary of priests and or the need to follow a specific religion.
The Wisdom teachings of these early exponents were complex, intellectual and not easy to understand and hence followed by only a small number of committed people. An exception was perhaps Rudolph Steiner who achieved wide acceptance amongst scientists and professionals.In 1911, Evelyn Underhill’s classic book ‘Mysticism’ was published. There was little initial interest in the subject but this changed when, in 1945, the popular author, Aldous Huxley, published his book the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ - where he defined the eternal Wisdom and its origins. In the early part of the 20th century, only a small number of people took an interest in these concepts.
1960s and 1970s
n the 1960s and 70s, the so called ‘Flower Power’ and the ‘Hippy Movement’ emerged, bringing a growing awareness of ‘New Age’ philosophy reflecting the Wisdom. We begin to find the Wisdom bubbling up in new forms in numerous places and guises. Let us look at some of the specific ways in which it manifests.
In the West, the early part of the 20th century saw a gradual decline in the support for traditional religions. The exoteric side of these religions was losing support, but this was partially balanced by an increased interest in the esoteric side. The conventional churches mistrusted mystics for their perceived potential for disruption and mysticism was mainly confined to monasteries and books published by mystic writers. The increasing openness of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the availability of popular books on every conceivable esoteric subject, lead to a new interest in these aspects of the established churches some of which are defined below:
There is a growing interest in the Kabbalah, known in other teachings as the ‘Tree of Life’. This is a collection of esoteric teachings explaining the relationship between the ever-changing material world and the unchanging, eternal and divine One, and exploring the relationship between the human and divine aspects in a classical Wisdom manner. Interest in the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life is now found far beyond the confines of the Jewish religion.
Christian mysticism sees the ultimate purpose of the Christian life as union with Christ. Whilst this is the belief of mystics, it has not always been taught to members of Christian congregations. In recent years, a wider public has become aware of these beliefs through the writings of Christian monks, including Bede Griffiths and Thomas Merton. Their teaching follows the classical Wisdom in including the practices of meditation and contemplation as ways of enabling the individual to attune directly with the divine and the acceptance of Christian meditation using a mantra or sacred phrase is becoming more widely accepted. Interest in Christian mysticism increased with the publication of the recently discovered Red Sea Scrolls and the gospel of St Thomas.
The classic form of Islamic mysticism is the Sufi tradition, made popular in the West through the teachings of Rumi. Sufism is held to be a science that enables the individual to attain the presence of the divine and thus purify the inner self. Once again, this tradition emphasizes the ability of the individual to approach the divine directly, without the necessity of an intermediary. Sufi beliefs have found a significant number of followers in the West during the last few years and these people are not necessarily Islamic practitioners. An interesting aspect of contemporary spirituality is found in followers of the esoteric side of an established religion not always being practicing members of the exoteric side.
Several Buddhist monks and teachers are practicing in the West. The Buddhist teaching of compassion, kindness and tranquillity as a path towards Nirvana has created a strong following and the word ‘mindfulness’ is becoming part of everyday language. It is now an accepted practice for individuals, who are not overtly spiritually minded, to go on meditation retreats in Buddhist centres.
The Hindu tradition covers a range of practices leading to enlightenment and one-ness with the divine and has had a powerful influence on the emerging contemporary spiritual beliefs in the West, particularly in the writings of Mme Blavatsky and her followers. This faith is the basis for much of New Age philosophy, not only in theories of meditation but also in the practice of Yoga, now seen as a conventional secular exercise and practice.
The faculties of Comparative Religion in the universities are becoming aware of spirituality existing outside the established religions. The term ‘Contemporary Spirituality’ is now in use and various academics are investigating the subject and producing theses. This subject is difficult for academics as individual spirituality is only understandable as a subjectively experienced process and cannot be adequately described in a detached objective manner. Some researchers are now writing two different versions of their findings – an academic, objective observation of the phenomena and a separate paper describing their own personal subjective experience.
Psychology purports to be a science. As such, it needs to study the mind and consciousness in a detached, objective fashion, which makes it difficult for the subjective experience of the client to be understood. This inherent problem led to deeper research into the unconscious and super-conscious. Sigmund Freud was the pioneer, followed by Carl Jung. More recent years have produced the full flowering of what is now called depth psychology, particularly in the work of Abraham Maslow and Roberto Assagioli. This new psychology accepts a personal Higher Self as being a part of a universal consciousness. Conventional psychology still mistrusts the views of some of the depth psychologists.
The emerging spiritual awareness of the 1960s and 70s was then called the New Age. This was not a specific spiritual path but rather an eclectic collection of beliefs, loosely based on aspects of Hindu mysticism, brought into public awareness by Mme Blavatsky and her colleagues. Over the years this expanded to include elements of Native American, Shamanic and early Celtic beliefs taken in different selections by individual centres and practitioners. Underlying these teachings, are the basic principles, which we have defined as being the Wisdom. Recently, the all-embracing New Age concept has tended to be replaced by specific contemporary spiritual paths, including the various branches of paganism.The common denominator of these new belief systems is an understanding of spiritual awareness existing outside the established religions. With this goes a growing awareness of the many valid paths to the divine, the one to follow being a personal choice. This leads to an acceptance of the opinion that each of these paths is worthy of respect. This open-mindedness to other beliefs is a marked feature of New Age consciousness.
‘Unity in Diversity’ has emerged as an acceptable phrase in which this diversity is honoured. All paths are different and special in their own way, but all are a part of the divine One. The expression itself dates back centuries and was quoted by the Hindu Patanjali in the second century BC.
A number of new mystery schools are emerging, where the Wisdom is taught in various guises. Despite the huge amount of literature now in the public domain on the ‘mysteries’, there is still an element of secrecy about these contemporary schools. The key teachings are only revealed to those committed to going through the stages of ‘initiation’ as defined by the particular school. The underlying eternal concept remains - mastery of the mysteries leads to the ability to handle spiritual ‘energies’. Understanding the use of these energies enables the practitioner to bring into being whatever the individual desires. Once acquired, these skills may be used for good or ill. The potential for misuse of this knowledge is the reason mystery schools keep such tight control of the teaching, as it is believed to be safe only to impart this understanding to individuals committed to the good and showing the ability to apply the necessary discipline.There is a growing number of such schools. Amongst the better known are the Theosophical Society, Lucis Trust, and the Wrekin Trust in England, the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland and the Essalen Centre in California,
The original meaning of the word Pagan was ‘a villager or rustic’. More recently, it has come to mean a person who follows beliefs or practices outside the established religions. Modern paganism takes many different forms, including Druidism, Wicca and the Goddess movement. The essential beliefs are to honour the spiritual nature of the landscape, the rhythm of the seasons and the non-human entities present in nature. This can be thought of as in contrast to the perceived view of Christianity, i.e. the worship of a single ‘sky god’ and contempt for the physical earth. The term ‘pagan’ is taken to include the original cultures emanating from North America, Africa and Polynesia. Few written records exist of these beliefs, which originate pre-Christianity. In the 20th Century, these ancient pagan beliefs were rediscovered and defined and today they strike a chord with the modern sense of individuality and ecological awareness.
Some scientific research is being carried out into the spiritual world. The difficulty here is science’s present stance of confining itself to the study of clearly recorded and repeatable phenomena, does not allow it to accept as valid subjective, intuitive ideas. In consequence, phenomena are observed and commented upon without little real understanding of what is being experienced. For this reason, most physical and biological scientists avoid any public suggestion of spiritual influence on material reality. Nonetheless, some scientists do privately consider science and spirituality to be complementary and recognition of this as being essential to interpret the physical world.
Perhaps the most remarkable symptom of a growing spiritual awareness is the explosion of books, teachings, workshops and courses on what might be called ‘Self-Help’, whether these be the 12-step course of Alcoholics Anonymous, the original books of Norman Vincent Peale, or the multitude of books on ‘how to stop smoking’ and ‘how to live a more satisfactory life’.
Many of the late 20th century teachers believed a new spiritual awareness was bursting upon the world leading to a universal understanding and acceptance of mysticism. If the tenets of the Wisdom were universally accepted then all would directly experience the Divine Truth and attitudes and behaviour would change accordingly. Sadly, with unrest, violence, distress, misery and uncertainty in so many parts of the world, this ideal situation is far from being realised and these views now appear to be rather naïve. There may not have been the anticipated growth in spiritual understanding but there is hope in that some progress is being made in the growing awareness of ecology and human rights. The galloping advance of pure materialism has many positive benefits, but this progress comes at a high price. We cannot but observe, whatever the cause, the climate changes leading to more violent storms, flooding and drought. With the feeling that nature is turning against us, has come the increasing disenchantment with the previously respected structures of banks, politicians, the services of the state, and even the established religions. Wherever we look, previously apparently sound systems are being shaken to their foundation.
Perhaps, the dying of the old, will allow room for the new to be born, followed by a real step forward in human understanding, consciousness and compassion to the benefit all living creatures and our precious earth. Maybe we are not far away from a new blossoming of the Wisdom and with it the beginnings of an understanding of how to achieve peace amongst the warring and divided peoples of the world.