An Ecology of Spirit
The following is excerpted from Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, available from Weiser Books.
Since the most ancient times on record, in every part of the world, a body of traditional wisdom about the nature of the universe and of humanity has been handed down from teacher to student. This wisdom has taken diverse forms and has borrowed the language and symbolism of many creeds and cultures. In all its many forms, however, it deals with the deepest mysteries of human existence: the nature, origin, and destiny of the universe and of the human soul; the hidden powers that lie concealed in humanity; and the practices by which these powers can be awakened, trained, and put to constructive uses. This ancient wisdom has carried many names on its journey down through the centuries; nowadays, in the modern industrial West, it is most commonly known as the mystery teachings.
There is every reason to think that this ancient wisdom had already reached its full richness and complexity long before the first cities emerged from tribal villages and the habit of painting images on wood and cloth gave rise to the first systems of writing. Certainly the oldest forms of the mystery teachings that have come down to us are every bit as rich and subtle as those in circulation today. Where and when the mystery teachings began is a question no one can answer with any assurance. Legends from various corners of the world make many different claims, none of which can be proven or disproven. Still, we do know that the wise men and women who passed down the oldest known mystery teachings were careful students of nature, and it may be that the forgotten founders of the mystery traditions drew their knowledge from the same source: learning the lessons that nature has to teach, and phrasing them in whatever ways their students would be most likely to learn and remember.
From ancient times straight through to the present, these mystery teachings were the public face of the mystery schools themselves. A great deal of confusion and misinformation has gathered around these schools in recent years. Some stories about them amount to little more than gaudy fantasies about immortal masters with superhuman powers hidden away in Himalayan fastnesses; others are equally gaudy horror tales about devil worship or political conspiracy. The truth is far simpler, and far more interesting.
The mystery schools are, first and foremost, schools. They have their teachers, who have qualified for their positions through many years studying and practicing the mystery teachings. They have their students, who have qualified to enter the schools by passing certain tests of character and willingness to learn, and who study and practice the teachings of the school. They have their curriculums, which include the study of symbolism, philosophy, and ethics, as well as the practice of inner disciplines such as meditation, ritual, and prayer. The studies are meant to train the students to think clearly, to act wisely, and to make sense of the experiences gained through the practices; the practices themselves are designed to open up states of consciousness unfamiliar to most people outside the mystery traditions, for it is in these states of consciousness that the hidden powers of the human soul are awakened.
The mystery schools also confer ceremonies of initiation. A great deal of nonsense has been spread about these ceremonies over the years by people who have never experienced them. In reality, initiation ceremonies are simply dramatic performances that present core insights of the mystery teachings in symbolic form. In an initiation ceremony, the candidate is shown the symbols and presented with the teachings that are central to the grade of learning he or she is about to enter, and makes a formal promise to accept the duties and pursue the studies of that grade. The course of study and practice that follows the initiation, not the mere fact of passing through such a ceremony, confers whatever inner capacities the grade of initiation is meant to develop in the student.
Even in ancient times, there were already several different mystery schools in most nations, and some of the most famous initiates of those days won much of their fame by traveling from one center of initiation to another, passing through the courses of training offered by different mystery schools, and mastering the studies and practices of each. Nowadays travel across long distances is easier and quicker than it was in the days when it might take a month of travel on foot, and another month or more on a sailing vessel, to go from the mystery temples of Egypt to those of Greece. This has created an even greater diversity of mystery schools in most modern countries. There is no central authority to which the various mystery schools answer; they function independently of one another, and present their own teachings to their own students in their own ways.
All this, at least in modern times, is done very quietly and with a minimum of publicity. The work of the mystery schools is carried on in small groups that meet in private homes or rented offices, or by correspondence lessons circulated by mail or the internet. The schools rarely publicize themselves or their activities, though a determined student who seeks training in the mysteries rarely has to search long before he or she finds a source of instruction.
Now and again it becomes possible for a mystery school to establish a center where the lessons can be taught and the rituals performed on a grander scale, but this has always had certain risks. Human ignorance, which always fears what it does not understand and always tries to destroy what it fears, is a danger that the mysteries and their initiates have always faced; and there is also the danger that a mystery school that becomes too prominent will attract people more interested in status and wealth than in the teachings themselves. The costs of maintaining a large complex of buildings, staff, and the like, is also not a small factor; in order to make their teachings available to as many people as possible, mystery schools generally ask for money only to the extent that is necessary to cover expenses, and thus only in very modest amounts. Any organization that demands substantial sums for teaching and initiation is engaged in the business of making money, not in the work of the mysteries.
While the schools are usually private, or at most semipublic, their introductory teachings have generally been made public whenever this has been possible. One sign that mystery schools are active and accepting students in any society is the appearance of the basic mystery teachings in some publicly accessible form. These public teachings may use the language of poetry, philosophy, or religion; they often borrow the commonplaces of popular culture in the place and time where they appear, but they always express a distinctive set of attitudes toward humanity and the universe, they always hint at the existence of unrecognized powers lying dormant in the human soul, which can be awakened by paths of discipline and devotion; and they always provide some basic instruction in awakening those powers and pursuing the path of the mysteries.
These public presentations of the basic teachings of the mysteries have a dual purpose. Their obvious purpose is to attract the attention of those who might be suited to the study of the mysteries, to give them some basic instructions, and to encourage them to seek the schools where further instruction can be obtained. Their less obvious purpose is to place certain ideas in circulation in society at large, to help remedy whatever imbalances have crept into the popular thinking of the time, and to further the cause of public education and enlightenment.
In the Western world, during recent times, it has become a common practice to present the core teachings of the mysteries in the form of seven clearly defined laws or principles and then to expand on these principles by way of commentary. While the number of principles is fixed at seven for symbolic reasons, the principles themselves vary from one presentation to another. Every expression of the mystery teachings is shaped by the needs of the time in which it finds its way into the public sphere, and must rely on the resources of language and knowledge available to its authors and its audience.
These resources change with the passing years. Words lose and gain meanings over time, and ways of using language that communicate clearly to one generation often seem difficult and obscure to the generation that follows. Nor will images drawn from the everyday life of one generation necessarily make sense to those who live in a different age.
In ancient Greece, for example, chariots were an everyday part of life. Most people had either driven one or ridden in one, and everyone knew what happened when the two horses who pulled a chariot decided to go in two different directions at the same time. Plato, the Greek philosopher whose writings presented the mystery teachings to the general reading public of his country and time, could compare the soul to a chariot pulled by unruly horses, and get instant understanding from his students and readers. That understanding comes harder to people of our time, most of whom have never seen a chariot outside books or movies.
Changes in knowledge and culture also play their part. In ancient Greece, geometry was a new and exciting science, still being developed by some of the greatest minds of the age, and most people in the Greek city-states had heard at least a little about it. Plato deliberately made use of this when he wrote about the mystery teachings, weaving geometrical patterns into his dialogues and borrowing geometrical metaphors to make his points more clear to his students and readers. At the time, it made his writings accessible to his readers; a few centuries later, another author, Theon of Smyrna, had to write a book titled The Mathematics Necessary to Understand Plato, because times had changed and ideas that were part of the common currency of thought in Plato's time were no longer familiar.
In the early twentieth century, when most versions of the mystery teachings that are in common circulation nowadays were written, psychology was the new and exciting science about which most people had heard a little, and so the authors of these later presentations organized their works according to psychological principles and borrowed psychological examples to pass on the same teachings as Plato's, in new and more easily accessible forms, to their students and readers. With the passing of time, in turn, many of the psychological references in these writings have become much less familiar than they were, though no Theon of Smyrna has yet emerged to write The Psychology Necessary to Understand The Kybalion.
Today, however, ecology -- the science of whole systems in nature -- occupies the same cutting-edge position that psychology had a century ago and geometry had in Plato's time, and most people know at least a little about it. Ecology is also the most necessary of all sciences today. The survival of our civilization, and possibly of our species as well, depends on how well we can learn to live in harmony with nature at this point in history, and the science of ecology offers crucial guidance in that quest.
As a way of talking about the mystery teachings, furthermore, ecology has a special advantage, because the mystery teachings themselves are a science of whole systems. It is not going too far to call the mystery teachings an ecology of the spirit, just as the science of ecology could well be called the mystery teachings of nature. One consequence of this pattern of parallel meanings is that the teachings of the mysteries can be clarified, and mistakes in understanding them put right, by comparing them to the ways that whole systems function in the world of nature, where the relationships between whole systems and their parts can be clearly seen and measured.
This allows a clarity that the last generation of presentations of the mystery teachings did not always allow. Those presentations, as already mentioned, drew their structure and symbolism from the science of psychology. That was a wise decision at the time, for popular ideas at the beginning of the twentieth century had come to treat the human mind as little more than a machine, and the mystery schools of that time found it necessary to give their students a higher and more accurate sense of the mind's potentials. Over the years that followed, however, misunderstandings crept in, subtle distinctions were lost, and ideas were embraced in a one-sided way; the important teaching that the mind participates in the creation of the reality it experiences, for example, was thus distorted into the half-truth that "you create your own reality."
This process of distortion is a familiar reality for students of the mysteries. It happens every century or two and gives rise to confusions of a sort that can be found all through popular spirituality today. People are always eager for teachings that tell them what they already want to hear, and in an age obsessed by the craving for material wealth, it was inevitable that those scraps of the mystery teachings that seem to promise the fulfillment of every material want would be taken out of context, reshaped to fit the ordinary habits of the unawakened mind, and pasted together into a set of ideas that essentially treat the cosmos as though it was some sort of infinite internet store that never gets around to sending the bill.
The gap between the resulting teachings and those of the authentic mysteries can be measured by the roles of greed and fear, the two great rulers of the unawakened consciousness. Those teachings that fixate on finding ways to get material wealth without earning it show the presence of greed; those teachings that insist that the normal and inevitable human experiences of suffering and death are unreal or unnatural betray the presence of fear. It is useful to compare both these traits with authentic mystery teachings, which recognize that the pursuit of material wealth becomes an obstacle to spirituality when taken beyond the point of meeting one's basic needs and serving the common good, and which also recognize that suffering and death are among the greatest initiations of human existence and are to be accepted by the awakening soul. In this light the gap between much of today's popular spirituality and the mystery teachings that these belief systems imitate is hard to miss.
It is also important to understand, however, that these garbled echoes of the mystery teachings are not simple falsehoods. They have their own truth; it is just that these are partial and unbalanced truths. It is both true and important, for example, that many of us prevent ourselves from making the best use of the opportunities we encounter in life because our assumptions and attitudes get in the way. Convince yourself that you are certain to fail, and you will generally be right; convince yourself that you are certain to succeed, and the confidence and energy that comes from that belief can lead to remarkable successes. Thus the belief that you create your own reality can sometimes make it possible to accomplish things that more restrictive ways of thinking can prevent.
The difficulties creep in because the belief that you create your own reality is a partial truth, not a complete one. It needs to be balanced with its opposite, which is that your reality -- the reality of the universe that was here before you came into being, and will be here long after you are gone -- created you, and continues to create you at each moment. Furthermore, the self and the rest of the universe join together at each moment to create the reality you will experience in the future. Thus there are things you can accomplish and things that no amount of tinkering with attitudes will allow you to achieve, because they are contradicted by the momentum of greater processes in the universe as a whole. Equally, there are things that you might be able to achieve but should not attempt, because the achievement will set patterns in motion in the universe that will not be welcome to you.
These difficulties are best treated as an opportunity for learning. A century ago, in fact, many mystery schools taught their students to believe that they create their own reality, as a first exercise in exploring the power of thought. The students would be assigned this and left to their own devices for a month or so. Very often they would return to their classes or write back to their tutors in a state of fair bewilderment, because some things that seemed almost impossible to them had happened easily, and other things that seemed easy had not happened at all. The teachers or tutors would smile and say, "Good. Now that we have your attention, we can start making sense of what the mind can do, and what it cannot."
The present article thus could just as well have been titled Now That I Have Your Attention. For those who have experimented with the power of the mind to change circumstances, and are puzzled by their successes as well as their failures, the ideas covered in the chapters ahead offer a next step in understanding. In the process, this book inevitably challenges many of the popular teachings of our time, and may prove upsetting to those who have become emotionally committed to those teachings. Still, that cannot be helped.
There are many ways to make sense of the teachings of the mysteries, some more relevant to the present age than others. Perhaps the most useful of all just now, as already suggested, is to trace the ecological laws that govern whole systems in nature, where they can be experienced directly with the senses. One of the core mystery teachings explains that the macrocosm (literally "the great universe," the universe around us) and the microcosm (the "little universe," the universe within us) are mirror images of one another.
Thus we can look to the world of nature around us for help in understanding our own nature, recognizing that if a theory about the nature of the universe proves to be a mistake when tested against the world around us, it will also prove to be a mistake when applied to the world within us. As the great 19th century teacher of the mysteries Eliphas Lévi put it, the core doctrine of the mystery teachings is that "the visible is for us the measure of the invisible."
Teaser image by mckaysavage, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet