In mainstream society, we believe that knowledge exists outside of ourselves, something objective. Knowledge — the data collected by the hard sciences, for example — is thought to be detached from our state of being or level of personal realization. People attend universities to learn skills, master techniques, or study a body of information with which they can influence the world and receive social or secular validation. They seek instrumental, rather than experiential, knowledge. They don’t go to universities looking for inner transformation or self-realization.
People in the ancient past and in traditional cultures understood knowledge differently. The most important form of knowledge, for them, was initiatory. The goal of learning was self-transformation, illumination. The mystical philosopher and teacher G.I. Gurdjieff sought to bring this kind of knowledge back to the West. In the early twentieth century, he founded a school, The Fourth Way, where his students would engage in practices designed to strengthen their willpower and overcome their conditioning. His student P.D. Ouspensky wrote a book on Gurdjieff’s teaching and method, In Search of the Miraculous, where Gurdjieff lays out his ideas and proposes a system based on his work with ancient Mystery Schools.
According to Gurdjieff, being and knowing are intimately related. We can only gain more knowledge — attain deeper levels of insight into the nature of reality and the Self — as we transform our inner state of being. He believed that people in modern society were “man-machines,” living mechanically, controlled by external influences. By undergoing an experiential process aimed at esoteric development, one could achieve a “crystallization,” where you develop a permanent essence. Gurdjieff said the Christian doctrine that everyone had a soul, just by virtue of being born, was wrong. An immortal soul — some element of yourself that continues beyond death — was something each individual had to work diligently to acquire. The path for doing this required, in his terms, “conscious labor” and “intentional suffering”.
He believed a certain level of self-sacrifice was needed, at first, to pursue the path of knowledge. “Sacrifice is necessary only while the process of crystallization is going on,” Gurdjieff said. “When crystallization is achieved, renunciations, privations, and sacrifices are no longer necessary. Then a man may have everything he wants. There are no longer any laws for him, he is a law unto himself.”
Rudolf Steiner, another occult teacher of the early twentieth century, also established a system of esoteric development: Anthroposophy. Today Steiner is mainly remembered as the founder of Waldorf Schools and Biodynamic Agriculture. But Steiner’s metaphysical inquiry — the philosophy he developed in dozens of books and hundreds of lectures — is extraordinary. It deserves to be revived.
Steiner believed, along with our ordinary senses — healing, sight, smell, and so on — we possess a number of organs of “super-sensible perception.” He called these organs that allow us to perceive hidden levels of reality “imagination,” “intuition,” and “inspiration.” We can only develop these organs — which can also be understood as higher or subtler forms of cognition — through following a path of esoteric development. Because our state of being and our level of knowing is intimately connected, this requires adhering to a high standard of ethical conduct. Steiner developed a set of meditations and practices for students of Anthroposophy to help them develop these higher forms of cognition.
Contemporary civilization remains in the thrall of a reductive scientific materialism based on experiments that produce repeatable and verifiable results. From an initiatory perspective, there is another kind of knowledge available to us, based on inner experience rather than any presumed objectivity. As Ouspensky discovered, if we want to attain this other kind of knowledge, it requires experiment and research. Initiatory knowledge can produce tangible effects in the world, but it functions according to a different logic and set of laws.
Today we are confronted with oncoming global catastrophes that seem inextricably linked to our society’s current state of consciousness. This includes the reductive worldview of materialism that requires secular validation in a society that denies the value of inner experience. One way to address this deepening crisis — perhaps the only way — requires the creation of new schools of initiation. To make it fun, let’s think of it as a new game for adults.
In such a game, we come together to investigate occult philosophy and undergo processes for achieving self-knowledge and inner transformation. The exploration will be based on the knowledge that comes from direct experience, rather than received wisdom or mediated ideas drawn from secondary sources. In future columns, we will explore the various elements and disciplines to be woven together to make up such a modern system of esoteric thought and experiential education