We’ve never done a guest post before in Sacred Solitude – there is always a first. Steve Dee is a magician from Devon, UK. How a School or Initiatory Organization can support the Left Hand Path Initiate seems to be a perennial theme for our blog, and we more than welcome Dee’s take on the topic. He’s the author of the books The Gnostic’s Process and The Heretic’s Journey, and co-author of the book Chaos Craft. Links to where to find these books, as well as more essays by Steve Dee, can be found over at The Blog of Baphomet.
But let his text speak for itself.
On the Wisdom of Getting Schooled
One of the central paradoxes faced by those of us seeking to follow a psyche-centric spiritual path relates to how we balance the pursuit of our unique self-awareness with the need for connection and support so that our journey is sustainable. For those of us who choose to walk the Left-Hand Path, while the initial flame of our inspiration may come from our sense of difference and separation from the norms and expectations of the tribes and cultures we are born into, for our transformation to gain both depth and intensity we need to find the others.
In seeking to work with this paradox, one of the books that I have kept coming back to is Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. Now anyone who has had a go at engaging with this book’s densely typed 400 pages knows that it is hardly easy reading. Not only do we have Ouspensky’s own vivid struggle to develop a relationship with the teacher/ anti-hero G.I. Gurdjieff, but we also have to wrestle with the detailed explanation/obscuration of their rather “out there” Gnostic cosmology. Part of the reason that I keep returning both to this challenging tome and the “4th Way” teachings that it describes, is the way in which they seek to grapple with the nature of what awakening might mean and also how we do this collectively.
A sly man in action.
As in most things Gurdjieff is refreshingly unapologetic in insisting on the importance of needing to have a “School” or group in order to make real progress in esoteric work:
The point is that a “group” is the beginning of everything. One man can do nothing, can attain nothing. A group with a real leader can do more. A group of people can do what one man can never do. (p. 30)
For Gurdjieff the School provided an essential reflective environment in which the spiritual progress of an individual could be plotted against a more impersonal/transpersonal measure. Whatever the benefits of close personal friendship and its value in enriching our lives, the concept of the School or Order ideally provides a context where the “work” of initiatory endeavour can be framed by principles and boundaries that hope to minimize the unpredictability of whimsy and clashes of ego.
Now this all sounds well and good, but the observation that we need a School doesn’t necessarily get us any closer to locating and participating in one. For many due to their past experiences of disappointment at the hands of other religious or magical groups, participation in a School may sound like a pipedream or an environment fraught with the potential misuses of power and authority. Of course it would be naive to assume that such abuses do not take place, but it is also possible that part of difficulty lies in bringing the same expectations to the School that we would to other (more conventional) religious contexts. Many enter a School seeking a Church and then seemed shocked that it feels more like a dojo! Many religions want us to remain as children; the School asks that we become adults.
Personally speaking, being part of a more formal magical Order has provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn. While undertaking any deep spiritual work will inevitably lead to the forming of close relationships with others, one of the strengths of an Order is that they usually have a solid corpus of techniques and perspectives to engage with. Even if I might not agree with some of what’s being proposed, the content and structure of such systems provide me with something solid to bash up against and thus refine my own initiatory understanding. The pursuit of grades and curricula may become yet another form of “spiritual materialism”, but at best they can fulfill our need for structure and a way of mapping our development especially in the early to intermediate stages of training.
Working with others can be tricky. In traditions that involve truly transformative perspectives there is a certain inevitability that we will need to challenge existing values and certainties. While they will never be perfect in their execution, many Orders out of necessity, have had to spend time reflecting on how they provide boundaries and guidance to ensure that ethical standards are understood and respected. Such reflection often takes decades of shared work to develop maturity and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Groups will always make mistakes in the doing of the great work, but what feels critical is that they have mechanisms for feedback and reflection so that the inevitable mistakes are learnt from. The presence of such processes for self-reflection are vital in ensuring that a School’s core philosophy is both truly life promoting and able to counter any organizational excesses.
Given that those seeking the Left-Hand Path may struggle to find members of their chosen School geographically close to hand, it may be beneficial to seek links with other spiritual freethinkers who are closer to home. The desire to evolve more informal groupings of practitioners working together is hardly a new impulse, and such sodalities are often the beginnings of many formal orders, covens and hearths. These smaller circles of practitioners often rely on a fair degree of pre-existing magical competence and a shared focus on working with a specific theme or group of deities. My own experience is that they can provide a great arena for magical experimentation, but that they inevitably have to manage the issues of who sets the agenda and the necessary grounds for inclusion/exclusion. It’s probable that most groups evolve a basic leadership and initiatory structure in response to emergent dynamics within the life of such groups. Often issues of power and direction need to be brought “above ground” in order to reduce their disruptive potential should they remain at an unconscious or shadow level. We may wish to work hard in minimizing the negative aspects of hierarchy, but equally most of us don’t enjoy sailing in a rudderless ship!
Each of us has different learning styles and our personal biases and sensitivities that will shape the type of magical environment that will be most conducive to our development. We may stick with one style of group process or we may feel the need for necessary diversification or counter-balance. For some, the realities of geographical distance may mean that relationships are primarily reliant on cyber-interactions as a means of deepening engagement. What feels critical to me is that we retain the insight that the Great Work is an act of both doing and connection that can only be understood in attempting its undertaking and in receiving support and feedback from others. As necessary as our theologies and ideologies might be, their true value only becomes clear when we pressure test them in the forge of praxis and weigh them according to the extent to which they expand our initiation and humanity.