“The technique of a world-changing yoga has to be as multiform, sinuous, patient, all-including as the world itself. If it does not deal with all the difficulties or possibilities and carefully deal with each necessary element, does it have any chance of success?
“You have a special aim, a special mission, a special realization which is your own and you carry in yourself all the obstacles needed for this realization to be perfect….you have a capacity but also you have the negation of that capacity. If you have a very thick and very deep shadow, be sure, somewhere in you, of a great light. It is up to you to know how to utilize the one to realize the other.”
-Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother”
“This hidden foe lodged in the human breast, man must overcome or miss his higher fate. This is the inner war without escape.”
Spiritual practice in our times is full of pitfalls. Methods and techniques that were once reserved for initiates are readily available with the click of a button. Teachers are everywhere, but it can be difficult to tell the good ones from the bad, and even the good ones seldom succeed in producing anyone approaching their own skill level. Part of the problem is the mismatch between practices designed for an ancient or monastic culture and the modern world most of us live in.
What people need now is not just a reformulation of ancient wisdom with a new or modernized set of practices, or any singular or specific method, but an understanding of the principles and contexts of spiritual transformation and their evolution in our time. This has long been a crucial part of esoteric wisdom, but in modern times, with the proliferation of theories and practices—often completely disconnected from each other and any proper context—the ideas and resources necessary for integrating and understanding the value of and reasons for different systems and modalities are often lost in the bloated and frequently shallow New Age marketplace.
Thankfully though, unlike earlier times, a comprehensive understanding of the principles behind all methods and systems is more generally possible for the average thinking person. And we have had some great teachers in modern times to help us on that path. (I survey the best communicators of this kind of understanding in the “recommended reading” section). Of special note in terms of a comprehensive or “integral” approach to practice is Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga and Rudolf Steiner’s Occult Science. They are arguably the most clearly formulated, and most comprehensive modern approaches to what is generally considered the “occult” science of spiritual transformation.
People in modern society need and desire a path that can give them not only isolated spiritual experience but a transformation of their life and world. This necessitates working within life and nature, using them as a means to achieve insight and transformation of our own and collective nature. Traditionally this kind of knowledge was considered “occult” and clouded in secrecy and symbolism due to the dangers and difficulty of dealing with the secrets of the power of consciousness to affect the world.
Sri Aurobindo however, eschews many of the trappings of the occult and “tantric” traditions, staying closer to the practical psychology of India’s Vedanta philosophy, and uses it to frame a clear and safer journey through the mysteries of power. By doing so he formalizes and clarifies what is more ambiguous and, well, occult, in the esoteric/magical tradition of the West.
While Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga stays close to the workings of nature and in some sense merely intensifies the process of learning and soul-personality development that we all are on (more or less), through a process of surrender to the Divine working within all and everything, it also relies heavily on a purity of devotion and a purity of lifestyle that few are willing to maintain. Much like similar systems which emerged in the “Theosophical Enlightenment” of the West in the late 19th and early 20th century, Integral Yoga, despite its engagement with the world, remains rather austere and lofty in its focus. While there are many more worldly and sexually permissive traditions coming out of this time period, specifically in the Hermetic reaction to Theosophy, taken on their own, they seldom have the depth or breadth of understanding that we find in the loftier works of Aurobindo, or the Theosophists Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner.
Which is why a broad study is helpful along the occult path, since the point is not so much in the application of a system or method, but in the development of a creative and individualized consciousness that can see the truth and powers at work in all forms. Gurdjieff’s “Fourth Way” for example has much in common with Integral Yoga, though of a decidedly different flavor. Both movements come after Theosophy, as initiated by Madame Blavatsky, and in some sense seem like reactions emphasizing the practical and essential over the vastly speculative and baroque cosmology of Theosophy, and what was by their time period its declining quality. But unlike the Hermeticists whose pragmatic reaction was into practical magic, Aurobindo and Gurdjieff keep the emphasis on pragmatic transformation and spiritual evolution. Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy can be seen along these lines as well, though even in his reaction against the problems of Theosophy, and a renewed emphasis on the modern West’s style of rational critique and individual experimentation, he retains and even expands Theosophy’s speculative cosmology.
In all these movements, we should appreciate that a formerly secret path reserved for the few was made available to all of us willing to make the effort. Though they may embrace certain exercises and methods at times, the difference lies in that these paths emphasize the development of a sophisticated and individuated occult cognition, a path not open to the public before this time of revelation. Not only was the older secrets revealed, but they were given new form for a time period ready for a more “scientific” and “individualistic” approach to the Divine, justifying the appellation used above derived from a book by Joscelyn Godwin, called precisely the “Theosophical Enlightenment”, connoting not just spiritual enlightenment, but the liberalism of the European Enlightenment.
21st century spirituality owes much of its content to Theosophy. And while the more traditional methods of the East (and West) have had an important influence on today’s spiritual culture, by themselves, without an evolving occult philosophy and tradition, they are seldom effective at generating anything beyond isolated inner experiences in modern people. The occult tradition, whether East or West, has always been as concerned with developing the soul and its powers as a way to the Divine, as it has in merely applying some method to achieve contact with a spiritual reality. Crucial to this individual empowerment is the process of learning to think clearly and discern things for one’s self.
But of course, teaching people to think for themselves is a bit of a paradox, and what constitutes “clear” thinking has been revealed in our times to be tied up with difference and uncertainty. Too often “spiritual practice” is attractive to people as a way out of this dilemma, a way around the burden of thinking for one’s self, a promise of certainty and single-mindedness. And while this approach can lead one into a certain degree of health and coherence, it can also lead into a corner of narrow minded and deluded dead ends, which anyone can see litters the history of spiritual movements.
Modern Occult Science and Integral, Soul-oriented Yoga differ from common spiritual practice in that a top-down approach leads the way by taking advantage of the cognitive development of the modern mind to properly discern, and with great discipline, surrender to the powers of an intelligence with a high degree of coherence and power, allowing them to reorganize the mind, body, vitality, and through them work on the world at large.
Bottom-up, energy-oriented, repetitive practices, while on their own can be potentially misleading in a modern context, used together with a top-down cognition-centered esotericism, they can be very helpful. The Chinese tradition in particular, with its body-first methodology, (done in the right way, guided by the principles of Nei Gong), I find to be a crucial supplement to the lofty and often vague approach to the practical needs of the body we find in Western occultism or the rather linear bodily practices of Indian Yoga.
But whatever the path, without a comprehensive and modern philosophical context to guide the translation of spiritual experience into our worldly vehicle, so many things can go wrong or prevent further progress. No philosophy is a guaranteed protection against error, but the superiority of an integral approach to practice, just as in theory, is the possibility of connecting all paths, seeing the value and limitations in each, and hopefully, with a broad view of the possibilities, walking a path that is all our own.
Contemporary spirituality—especially what is pejoratively called “New Age”—has certainly made an emphasis on the individual finding their own path, or even “creating their own reality”, a central theme. And while this has sometimes left the individual adrift to merely choose whatever path or reality fits their least-challenging desires, to “create one’s reality” in the sense that Jane Roberts’ “Seth” books originally meant it, need not be seen as affirming a relativistic individualism, but rather as an acknowledgment of the open-ended and creative nature of existence and its meaning.
Seen in this light, the subjective emphasis of contemporary spirituality, despite its challenges and excesses, is part of an awakening of a new era of culture, grounded in the diversity of individual experience and the plethora of possibilities that beckon at the frontiers of consciousness.
In contemporary spirituality, exploring, understanding, and evolving these myriad possibilities becomes not only a higher potential of the era, but a necessity if one is to truly individuate as well as contribute to the evolution of all, and not merely choose or hybridize spiritual paths in a narrow self-serving or consumerist fashion. Broad learning and historical context can save one from the cult-like delusions so common in religion, a problem not solved by mere eclectic individualism.
The study of contemporary thought is particularly helpful in teasing out the problems unique to our period, problems that may remain blind spots to the devoted traditionalist. Besides the often helpful theory of academic philosophy, the aforementioned Seth books of Jane Roberts are a particular illuminating and accessible update, if not complete re-imagining of the deepest spiritual ideas in the esoteric and academic traditions. The material that emerged from Jane Roberts has not only deeply influenced most of the spiritual thought that has come in its wake, it has also helped inspire new soul-centered practices developed by Peter Wilberg, featured in his book “Manual of The New Yoga”, published by us here at Creative Coherence….
Practice without theory is blind. Theory without practice is impotent. But for practice to be more than a mechanical application of a decontextualized idea, for it to truly be an adventure of consciousness and not just a pious formality or pragmatic exercise, it must connect to where each person is aware of their own inner creative coherence, and is inspired to make of that spark, a fire that illuminates us all.