AN ESOTERIC WORLDVIEW
Chapter 17 of Genesis Unveiled
© Ian Lawton 2003
The fundamental principles of reincarnation and karma are still those on which what I refer to as an ‘esoteric worldview’ is founded, but it also extends into somewhat more complex issues. In part it involves a fuller consideration of the concept of universal cycles, in terms not only of the universe’s repeated creation or emergence from nothing and ultimate reabsorption back into nothing, but also of the nature of the various ethereal realms and the ‘forms’ that inhabit them, and of the methods that we as incarnate humans might use to gain experience of or become more ‘connected’ to these realms. But, following on from the idea of the ultimate ‘unity’ of all ethereal forms, it also involves somewhat more scientific concepts such as that of universal energy or even consciousness, and of the interconnectedness of everything in the various realms or dimensions. We laid the foundation for much of this discussion in the last chapter, and those that remain will be devoted to further elucidation of this broader esoteric worldview.
We have already seen that the major modern religions of the West and nearer East – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – are not based on the principles of reincarnation and karma. Still, such an observation ignores the increasing impact on the West not only of Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but also of the ‘mystery schools’ that have survived and in some cases proliferated in the West and nearer East sometimes for several millennia. A number of authors have devoted attention to these schools in recent decades, but it must be said that often their focus is on their more prosaic aspects: on the links between them; or on their origins in, for example, ancient Egypt; or on their leading figures; or on their exalted bloodlines that can be traced back to remote times; or on the treasures they might have hidden. Similar attention has been paid to interpretations of the symbolism they employed, and although this is certainly a more esoteric area of study, nevertheless we are rarely given any sort of contextual overview of what these sects actually believed in and, above all, of how these beliefs might fit into a wider overall esoteric worldview.
In this chapter I aim to rectify this deficiency. We will examine the key original texts of these schools wherever possible to investigate the extent to which they share common principles.
Ancient Egyptian Beliefs
Clearly any review must commence with the ancient Egyptians, not only because so many commentators attempt to trace the roots of the mystery schools back to them, but also because they continue to exert a huge fascination for modern ‘seekers of truth’. Moreover, I have already mentioned their extensive use of symbolism, which is clearly displayed in the subtlety of their hieroglyphs, and the extent to which their astronomical, mathematical and medicinal knowledge has now been proved to be considerably more advanced than scholars once assumed. We have also seen that they appear to have believed, to some extent at least, in the principle of universal cycles.
All this is very well; but what was their view on the basic concepts of reincarnation and karma? I suggested in Part 1 that although they were hugely preoccupied with the afterlife there is no firm evidence of a widespread belief in reincarnation, and that the ancient Mesopotamians were very much the same. On the face of it, their conceptualisation of what happened in the afterlife, and of how the life one lived on earth affected one’s fate there, appears for the most part to have been somewhat primitive.
Let us look at this in more detail, because such a view may seem somewhat controversial – indeed, I risk coming under severe fire from those that have been indoctrinated into a belief that the ancient Egyptians can do no wrong. In Part 1 I mentioned the multitude of funerary texts that have been found, and although different influences affected these texts in different regions at different times, the broad underlying principles are the same. The oldest date to the Old Kingdom – more specifically to the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, circa 2350 BC – although it is commonly agreed that the contents were based on much older traditions. These are known as Pyramid Texts because they were inscribed on funerary chamber walls, and only the king and possibly the highest-ranking priests benefited from them. In the Middle Kingdom, which commenced around 2000 BC, the rather easier practice of inscribing the texts on wooden inner and outer sarcophagi became more frequent, hence the name Coffin Texts. Finally the advent of the New Kingdom in about 1550 BC brought the even more accessible use of papyrus, and the wealthy would select from an ever-increasing number of ‘magical spells’ that make up the Book of the Dead.
The principle was that the existence of these texts in the burial chamber would help the deceased to overcome the manifold dangers and rigours of the journey through the ‘underworld’ and arrive safely at the ‘abode of the blessed’. Clearly the number of people who could afford the assistance of their own copy increased over time, but nevertheless it was hardly a democratic right that was freely available to all. It is difficult for us to determine with any certainty how the fate of the ordinary and less wealthy people of ancient Egypt in the afterlife might have been conceived, but there would appear to be a strong suggestion that only the rich and powerful would gain the blessed abode – and this is our first demonstration of the somewhat distorted and materialistic nature of at least their exoteric religious beliefs. Moreover, their considerable efforts in mummifying their dead bodies, and in providing important material possessions and even food and drink for the journey, leaves us in little doubt that they had a strangely corporeal image of the nature of the afterlife.[i] Meanwhile, they also held the somewhat prosaic belief that the blessed abode was located either, in the stellar cults, somewhere in the region of the circumpolar stars or ‘imperishable ones’, or, in the solar cults, in the eastern horizon where the deceased was born again in the afterlife with the rising sun god; nor did they have any problem with mixing these two opposing ideas.
The underworld or duat, through which the deceased had to journey in order to arrive at the blessed abode, was thought to contain twelve divisions. The trials and tribulations that had to be confronted in each are described in great detail in the Book of What is in the Duat and the Book of Gates, the most crucial being the ‘weighing of the heart’ by Osiris – who made the final judgment about whether or not they could proceed to the blessed abode. Unfortunately those who gained an adverse judgment were immediately cast into a fiery abyss – although at least they were thought to be destroyed at once, and it was only the later Christian theologians who would come up with the idea of eternal damnation to keep the masses under their strict control. Nevertheless, we can see why even kings were anxious to practice and learn the spells and magical incantations that would allow them to pass these trials, and this more than anything else seems to indicate that reincarnation was simply not on the agenda.
What else can I say? Admittedly, the progress through the various gates of the duat might represent the distortion of an original concept of the initiatory trials of any neophyte under esoteric instruction while in incarnate life – something we will study more closely shortly; and the weighing of the heart is suggestive of a karmic appraisal after death. However, in the broad philosophical context of the current review there is little else to mitigate against the view that the ancient Egyptian worldview was, at least as far as the general populace were concerned, somewhat materialistic and unphilosophical.[ii]
The theological and cosmological ideas that Plato developed in the fourth century BC were most fully expressed in the Timaeus, and they are also commonly believed to have exerted a significant influence on esoteric thinking for many centuries to come. However, we have already noted that many commentators believe he spent several years in Egypt being initiated into the sacred mysteries by their priests. If the original source of much of his thinking is Egyptian – and if the origins of Hermeticism and Gnosticism also owe much to ancient Egypt, as most commentators assume – how can we square this with my broad rejection of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs?
My own view is that, if these assertions are correct, certain esoteric schools of thought must have existed in ancient Egypt – presumably right through the dynastic period – that held ideas and beliefs only hinted at in the various publicly available funerary texts. In effect, they would have known that these texts were something of a blind. Moreover, if the priestly initiates of these esoteric schools were the very ones who compiled and propagated the public texts, as seems likely, they were engaged in a continuous and extensive act of deception. What would have been the motive for such an approach? I can only suggest that the overbearing dominance of a political system that required the king to be all-powerful, and indeed the physical personification of the god Horus, could have spawned such elaborate skulduggery.
On the other hand, we also know that to a large extent Plato was picking up on themes that had been developed by his own Greek predecessors. The Orphic Mysteries contain some gems of esoteric insight, and they had already been influencing Greek thinking for some time – although because the identity of Orpheus himself is somewhat confused, with a number of influential authors of that name historically documented, it is difficult to point to any one set of texts as definitive. Moreover, Pythagoras’ mathematical work was another major influence on Plato.[iii]
As for the contents of the Timaeus itself, after Critias’ introductory descriptions of Solon’s account of multiple catastrophes and of Atlantis that we reviewed in Part 1, Timaeus picks up the theme of the nature of the universe and everything within it. This lengthy dialogue includes discourses on cosmology, on the nature of the four elements and of the human soul and senses, and on the physiology of the human body and the diseases that can affect it.
This is a complex dialogue, but the first thing we must note is that, in a number of cases, Plato’s attempts to use ‘rational thought’ to explain these features of nature fall a long way short. A fine example is his explanation of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Although he knows that the earth is round and does appear to hint at more complex phenomena such as precession and the retrograde motion of certain planets, it is somewhat surprising to find – especially given the context of other Classical Greek texts – that he clearly suggests that the sun, planets and stars all revolve around the earth.[iv] There are a number of similar examples of explanations of other features of nature that are clearly inaccurate and highly simplistic, being neither particularly scientific nor particularly esoteric, although it would be ineffectual to list them all here.
Still, his explanations of some features do appear to have a strong esoteric undercurrent, even if sometimes his language is veiled and the context is confused. For example, on several occasions he appears to hint at the mathematical and geometric basis of the entire universe, and he links this with music and harmonic frequencies.[v] Moreover, he does suggest that a universal energy underlies all things in the universe, both physical and ethereal, that it only changes its ‘form’ to create new ‘receptacles’, and that it is ‘invisible and formless, all-embracing, possessed in a most puzzling way of intelligibility’.[vi] Meanwhile, the following passage provides his basic thoughts about reincarnation:[vii]
To ensure fair treatment for each at his hands, the first incarnation would be one and the same for all and each would be sown in its appropriate instrument of time and be born as the most god-fearing of living things; and human-kind being of two sexes, the better of the two was that which in future would be called man. After this necessary incarnation, their body would be subject to physical gain and loss, and they would all inevitably be endowed with the same faculty of sensation dependent on external stimulation, as well as with desire and its mixture of pain and pleasure, and fear and anger with the accompanying feelings and their opposites; mastery of these would lead to a good life, subjection to them to a wicked life. And anyone who lived well for his appointed time would return home to his native star and live an appropriately happy life; but anyone who failed to do so would be changed into a woman at his second birth. And if he still did not refrain from wrong, he would be changed into some animal suitable to his particular kind of wrong doing, and would have no respite from change and suffering until he allowed the motion of the same and uniform in himself to subdue all that multitude of riotous and irrational feelings which have clung to it since its association with fire, water, air and earth, and with reason thus in control returned once more to his first and best form.
From this we can see that reincarnation and karma are a clear and fundamental part of Plato’s philosophy. However we can also see that – even if we ignore the appallingly sexist tone of his time – his conception of them is extremely simplistic and formulaic. Moreover, he also suggests that humankind was ‘created’ first, and that all other animals were created subsequently to act as physical receptacles for humans who had to reincarnate at a lower level because they did not follow the proper karmic path.[viii]
Another strong theme throughout Plato’s work is the representation of the macrocosm in the microcosm, in particular in relation to how the human body is a replica of the universe as a whole. He introduces the idea of the soul being split into ‘divine reason’ located in the head, ‘mortal emotion’ in the breast, and ‘mortal appetite’ in the stomach.[ix] Although his explanation once again appears somewhat simplistic and distorted, there is a clear link between this and the Eastern idea of ‘body chakras’. We will also see the extent to which Qabalistic thinking elaborates on the important macrocosm–microcosm issue shortly.
However, we cannot escape the fact that – even allowing for possible misunderstandings in the English translations from the original Greek, and for a degree of coded meaning – Plato’s work is, overall, nowhere near as full of esoteric inspiration as many modern commentators suggest. This is further illustrated in his lengthy discussion of the ‘transmutation’ of the elements of fire, air, water and earth from one form into another.[x] Transmutation in general is a central theme of many esoteric traditions, and the medieval alchemists were pursuing a similar line of inquiry, as we will shortly see. However, we must recognise that Plato himself is once again making rather clumsy attempts to explain the nature and origin of a number of common physical substances of all varieties – gas, liquid and solid – and that if there is any underlying and coded esoteric message it has, almost certainly, already become severely distorted. As to what the real underlying doctrine of transmutation might be, again we will have to wait until later in the chapter to discuss this fully.
Apart from the celebrated work of his pupil Aristotle, Plato’s ideas were most fully developed by the later Neoplatonists. This school of thought was founded by Plotinus in the first half of the third century, and subsequent key figures included Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus. Its main thrust was to emphasise the importance of the soul, to such an extent that all physical life was regarded as mere illusion, although its proponents varied in the extent to which they advocated complete withdrawal from the physical world.[xi]
I do not have the space here to review the works of the Neoplatonists in any detail. Still, Plotinus’ description of those who are obsessed with the physical world at the expense of their spiritual roots, taken from his essay Concerning the Beautiful, provides an eloquent rebuke to those who persist in this course that is as relevant now as it was a millennium and a half ago:[xii]
Let us suppose a soul deformed, to be one intemperate and unjust, filled with a multitude of desires, a prey to foolish hopes, and vexed with idle fears; through its diminutive and avaricious nature the subject of envy; employed solely in thought of what is mortal and low; bound in the fetters of impure delights; living the life, whatever it may be, peculiar to the passion of body; and so totally merged in sensuality as to esteem the base pleasures, and the deformed beautiful and fair. But may we not say, that this baseness approaches the soul as an adventitious evil, under the pretext of adventitious beauty; which, with great detriment, renders it impure, and pollutes it with much depravity, so that it neither possesses true life, nor true sense, but is endued with a slender life through its mixture of evil, and this worn out by the continual depredations of death: no longer perceiving the objects of mental vision, nor permitted any more to dwell with itself, because ever hurried away to things obscure, external, and low? Hence, becoming impure, and being on all sides snatched in the unceasing whirl of sensible forms, it is covered with corporeal stains, and wholly given to matter, contracts deeply its nature, loses all its original splendour, and almost changes its own species into that of another: just as the pristine beauty of the most lovely form would be destroyed by its total immersion in mire and clay.
Moreover, Plotinus also provides a glimpse of how the worthy soul is able to develop sufficiently to be able to perceive the true beauty of the divine:[xiii]
Recall your thoughts inward, and if, while contemplating yourself, you do not perceive yourself beautiful, imitate the statuary; who, when he desires a beautiful statue, cuts away what is superfluous, smoothes and polishes what is rough, and never desists until he has given it all the beauty his art is able to effect. In this manner must you proceed, by lopping what is luxuriant, directing what is oblique, and, by purgation, illustrating what is obscure; and thus continue to polish and beautify your statue, until the divine splendour of Virtue shines upon you, and Temperance, seated in pure and holy majesty, rises to your view. If you become thus purified, residing in yourself, and having nothing any longer to impede this unity of mind, and no farther mixture to be found within, but perceiving your whole self to be a true light, and light alone; a light which, though immense, is not measured by any magnitude, nor limited by any circumscribing figure, but is every where immeasurable, as being greater than every measure, and more excellent than every quantity; if, perceiving yourself thus improved, and trusting solely to yourself, as no longer requiring a guide, fix now steadfastly your mental view, for with the intellectual eye alone can such immense beauty be perceived.
I need add nothing to Plotinus’ description of the loftier spiritual aims that we would all do well to pursue. So, in conclusion, although we have seen that Plato’s own ideas are far less secure as a supposed foundation for many of the mystery schools that sprang up after his death than is normally supposed, there is much in both his and his followers’ philosophy that is consistent with our emerging esoteric worldview.
The Hermetica are a body of texts dating to the second century although, just as with the Book of Enoch, the suggestion that they contain divine revelations made to the original Hermes or Thoth himself has led many commentators both ancient and modern to argue for their far greater antiquity. They are of Greco-Egyptian origin, and are separated into two broad categories, the ‘philosophical’ and the ‘popular’ or ‘technical’ treatises. Although certain texts appear to contain elements of both, broadly speaking the latter include astrological, alchemical, and magical works.[xiv] However, it is the philosophical texts that we will concentrate on here, comprised of the seventeen treatises of the Greek Corpus Hermeticum, plus the Latin Asclepius.[xv]
I can make a number of general observations about this body of work. There are considerable inconsistencies between the various texts, and these must surely have arisen because of their repeated editing in antiquity, and also because of a somewhat haphazard approach to their compilation as one body of work. In particular it seems likely that the versions we have were based on shorter works that were repeatedly added to in the form of commentary. However, for the most part these inconsistencies need not concern us greatly.[xvi] As to the consistent general themes that do emerge, there are some that are again fundamentally incorrect – for example, the texts incorporate many of Plato’s flawed concepts about the nature of the cosmos and the creation and physiology of humankind.[xvii] A number of the themes, however, are broadly consistent with the generalised esoteric worldview that I am in the process of setting out, even if certain distortions have, as usual, crept in at some stage.
So, we find that reincarnation does form part of the Hermetic worldview: ‘Do you see how many bodies we must pass through, my child ... in order to hasten toward the one and only?’ says Hermes Trismegistus, the ‘thrice great’ who is the main protagonist in the dialogues, to his son Tat.[xviii] This is, as we might expect, backed up by the principle of karma – although, as the following extract shows, to some extent the Hermetica also display a belief in preordained destiny and fate, along the lines of astrology and oracle reading, rather than in karmic choice: ‘Everything is an act of fate, my child, and outside of it nothing exists among bodily entities. Neither good nor evil comes to be by chance.’[xix] Nevertheless, we once again meet the concept of the earthly karmic round, and the aim of release from it:[xx]
Is not the prize our parents had, the one we wish – in most faithful prayer – may be presented to us as well if it be agreeable to divine fidelity: the prize, that is, of discharge and release from worldly custody, of loosing the bonds of mortality so that god may restore us, pure and holy, to the nature of our higher part, to the divine?
In both the Hermetic and Gnostic traditions this release is gained by achieving ‘gnosis’, or understanding, although as I suggested in Part 1 perhaps wisdom is a more appropriate word than understanding, as it implies something based on more than just rationality and logic. The gaining of gnosis is described in the texts as an initiatory ascent through various ethereal realms that involves progressively leaving behind the fetters of the material and physical world:[xxi]
First, in releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body’s senses rise up and flow back to their particular sources, becoming separate parts and mingling again with the energies. And feeling and longing go on toward irrational nature. Thence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth the ruler’s arrogance, now freed of excess; at the fifth unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh zone the deceit that lies in ambush. And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.
So we can see that the ultimate objective is to ‘return to the source’ and once again become one with that which spawned us – which is described in these translations as ‘god’, but which is arguably far better thought of as a universal energy or consciousness of some sort. This idea is reinforced by the reconfirmation of the associated idea that, in the highest ethereal realms, ‘all are one’:[xxii]
There above, then, beings are not different from one another... . All think one thought, and all have the same foreknowledge; they have one mind, the father. One sense works in them, and the charm that brings them together is love, the same love that makes one harmony act in all things.
Now, we need to clarify a few points about this because it can become somewhat confusing. The suggestion of this highly esoteric schema is that we do not achieve gnosis and a return to the ultimate source simply through one incarnation that is ended by the death of the physical body and the passing of the soul into the ethereal realms, as a one-off process; rather we attain it by achieving full karmic advancement over repeated incarnations. Nevertheless, the Hermetica seem to imply that any incarnate human being can choose to make the full ascent through sufficient initiatory practice, whereas I would argue that the reality is rather more complex. I would suggest that not only must a person already be at a relatively advanced stage of karmic development from previous incarnations, but that also, unless they are of sufficient advancement that they have already escaped from the earthly round and only reincarnated by choice, they are unlikely to be able to ascend or make connections with anything more than the first few rungs of the ‘ladder’ of the ethereal realms. In this respect we can surmise that the degree of unity increases as we ascend the ladder, that the ultimate source is only at the very top, and that experience of the higher realms can only be achieved by karmic advancement within these realms themselves rather than while in physical incarnation. These ideas are explored further in the Qabalistic thinking that we will consider shortly.
In any case, the Hermetica themselves contain few practical descriptions of how all this is to be achieved, except that there are repeated suggestions that shutting out the distractions of the physical world and contemplating the nature of the universe and of the divine will lead to gnosis, and an inference that intuition will lead the seeker forward.[xxiii] We will discuss intuition more later on, because it is extremely important. However, there is a clear suggestion that to understand God, neophytes must make themselves like him:[xxiv]
Make yourself grow to immeasurable immensity, outleap all body, outstrip all time, become eternity and you will understand god. Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing. Go higher than every height and lower than every depth. Collect in yourself all the sensations of what has been made, of fire and water, dry and wet; be everywhere at once, on land, in the sea, in heaven; be not yet born, be in the womb, be young, old, dead, beyond death. And when you have understood all these at once – times, places, things, qualities, quantities – then you can understand god.
Moreover, a number of passages describe a ‘vision of the unity of all things’ that is a fundamental aspect of all experiences of the divine, as we will later discover:[xxv]
... in an instant everything was immediately opened to me. I saw an endless vision in which everything became light... .
Meanwhile, the nature of those who have achieved gnosis and are effectively ‘twice-born’ is described in some detail:[xxvi]
... seeing within me an unfabricated vision that came from the mercy of god, I went out of myself into an immortal body, and now I am not what I was before. I have been born in mind. This thing cannot be taught, nor can it be seen through any elementary fabrication that we use here below. Therefore, the initial form even of my own constitution is of no concern. Colour, touch or size I no longer have; I am a stranger to them. Now you see me with your eyes, my child, but by gazing with bodily sight you do not understand what I am; I am not seen with such eyes, my child.
By contrast, those who do not achieve gnosis, and ‘do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be’, are described as follows:[xxvii]
These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is wilful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that humankind came to be for such purposes.
As for their fate, the ‘irreverent soul’ is ‘not allowed to fall down into the body of an unreasoning animal’, but their mere addiction to the physical world, the pain that always accompanies the undue courting of material pleasures, and their resulting continuance in the earthly karmic round, is regarded as sufficient punishment in itself.[xxviii] We have already seen that I find this view eminently reasonable, and far more philosophical than either the Christian concept of hell or the distorted idea that karmic regression involves reincarnation as a lower form of species.
Two highly practical implications of the Hermetic worldview are worth emphasising. The first, repeatedly mentioned, is that the person who appreciates the roles that reincarnation and karma play has nothing to fear from death, whether it be premature or otherwise – because it is not an end but a new beginning or, more accurately, merely a change from one energy or vibrational state into another.[xxix] The second is the assertion in certain of the texts that, even if physical life on earth is not totally abhorrent, nevertheless it is still an illusion, and the only true reality is that which involves perception of the higher realms.[xxx] We have already seen that this was a fundamental tenet of Neoplatonic thinking, and it is one with which I am largely in agreement. However I should add the rider that in my view not everyone should feel forced to lead the life of an ascetic. We have already seen that it is an essential part of karmic development that souls incarnate in a variety of physical bodies specifically to experience the material or dense realm, and the variety of sensations that go with it, and that in no sense is this contrary to ‘karmic law’ provided that at least we humans are aware of and honour our spiritual roots. So I would argue that any decision to live the life of an ascetic is purely one of personal karmic choice to be made only when an individual feels fully ready to go down that route, and arguably because their ‘inner voice’ is crying out that it has completely had enough of physical sensations and experiences.
If we now backtrack somewhat to examine the Hermetica for support of the main themes from Part 1, not only do we have the excellent descriptions above of the difference between those who follow a spiritual path and those who do not, but we also find the possible idea that a loss of spiritual roots led to a previous catastrophe: ‘choosing the lesser [path] has been humankind’s destruction’.[xxxi] Moreover, there is a suggestion that humankind would go down this route again:[xxxii]
They will not cherish this entire world, a work of god beyond compare, a glorious construction, a bounty composed of images in multiform variety... . They will prefer shadows to light, and they will find death more expedient than life. No one will look up to heaven. The reverent will be thought mad, the irreverent wise; the lunatic will be thought brave, and the scoundrel will be taken for a decent person. Soul and all teachings about soul (that soul began as immortal or else expects to attain immortality) as I revealed them to you will be considered not simply laughable but even illusory.
Is this not exactly the state of affairs that the dominance of rationalism and logic in the last few centuries has produced? Meanwhile, although for the most part these texts suggest in a relatively prosaic way that humankind was created at the beginning of the world, an interesting angle on a possible original message more in keeping with my suggestions about the first advanced incarnations lies in the following description of what happened after the creation of the universe:[xxxiii]
Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended and kinds of things began to be.
Does this suggest that the relatively advanced souls of ‘humankind’ remained purely ethereal for a long time before they ever incarnated in physical form? Another passage seems to confirm this interpretation:[xxxiv]
... when the man saw in the water the form like himself as it was in nature, he loved it and wished to inhabit it; wish and action came in the same moment, and he inhabited the unreasoning form.
Meanwhile, another text describes how a variety of ‘classes’ of ethereal souls came into being before humankind and even the physical world were created, and also reveals how:[xxxv]
... when he [the divine creator] decided to reveal himself, he breathed into certain godlike men a passionate desire to know him, and bestowed on their minds a radiance ampler than that which they already had within their breasts, that so they might first will to seek the yet unknown God, and then have power to find him. But this ... it would not have been possible for men of mortal breed to do, if there had not arisen one whose soul was responsive to the influence of the holy Powers of heaven. And such a man was Hermes, he who won knowledge of all. Hermes saw all things, and understood what he saw, and had power to explain to others what he understood... .
These descriptions surely provide considerable support for my suggestion that certain angelic souls had to incarnate in human form in order to bring a spiritual worldview into the physical plane.
Turning now to the origin of the universe itself, we find the following wonderfully descriptive passage:[xxxvi]
In the deep there was boundless darkness and water and fine intelligent spirit, all existing by divine power in chaos. Then a holy light was sent forth, and elements solidified out of liquid essence. And all the gods divided the parts of germinal nature.
The same sense of awe pervades the multiple descriptions of the ultimate creative power, and of the universal energy that makes up the universe, in the Hermetica:[xxxvii][xxxviii][xxxix]
The monad, because it is the beginning and root of all things, is in them all as root and beginning ... the monad contains every number, is contained by none, and generates every number without being generated by any other number.
This is the god who is greater than any name; this is the god invisible and entirely visible. This god who is evident to the eyes may be seen in the mind. He is bodiless and many-bodied; or, rather, he is all-bodied.
... god, who is energy and power, surrounds everything and permeates everything, and understanding of god is nothing difficult, my child... . If matter is apart from god, my son, what sort of place would you allot to it? If it is not energised, do you suppose it is anything but a heap? But who energises it if it is energised? We have said that the energies are parts of god... . Whether you say matter or body or essence, know that these also are energies of god... . And this is god, the all.
Finally, the Hermetic texts include some interesting observations about memory, and the question of why, if we reincarnate, we do not automatically remember either our previous lives or our experiences of the ethereal realms between them. The following extract appears to represent a plea from the first advanced souls that incarnated on earth:[xl]
Ordain some limits to our punishment ... make us forget what bliss we have lost, and into what an evil world we have come down, and so release us from our sorrow.
Although this is placed in the distorted negative context of punishment, it does tend to suggest that if we did not forget our experiences of the bliss of the ethereal realms we would never be able to suffer the comparable torment of physical incarnation. This is an interesting adjunct to the idea reported by Michael Newton’s subjects in Part 1 that memory of past lives would limit our potential for action.
Overall, then, we can see that although the philosophical Hermetica have their deficiencies, they are full of useful insights that are consistent not only with the main themes in Part 1 but also with our broader esoteric worldview. Moreover, they allow us to place considerably more flesh on the skeleton of our this worldview of reincarnation, karma, ethereal realms and a universal consciousness from which we all sprang, of which we all form part, and to which we all return after achieving full gnosis.
I have already referred to the fourth-century Gnostic texts that were compiled into what is now referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library, especially in Part 1 when I examined extracts that, albeit in somewhat distorted form, appear to support certain of my main themes. They are similar to the Hermetica in that as a body of literature they contain many inconsistencies, and the close link between the two is proved by the fact that the Gnostic texts include four Hermetic tractates – three of which were previously unknown but can be identified because they are dialogues in which Hermes Trismegistus takes the lead role.[xli]
I would argue, however, that this is about as far as the comparisons with the Hermetica go, because as much as these two sets of traditions are often spoken about in the same reverential tones, the Gnostic texts are in my view significantly behind in terms of their philosophical insights. Some of the Hermetic texts do contain the idea that divine spiritual entities – intermediaries between the highest realm of the original source and the lowest physical realm of earth – were responsible for the creation of the latter. However, the Gnostic texts are dominated by the idea that one particular ‘lesser god’ created the physical world and everything in it because of his arrogant assumption that he himself was the ultimate creative power, and due to his ignorance of the true power above him.[xlii] Accordingly, in this schema the whole physical world is regarded as a mistake and an abomination that should never have arisen, and this oppressively negative view pervades the whole Gnostic corpus. This is in many ways comparable to, although even more severe than, the Judaeo-Christian theme of the first fall from grace that I dismissed as a distortion in Part 1, and at its heart lies a similarly unphilosophical attempt to account for the evil in the world.[xliii]
The only quest for the Gnostics is once again a release from the bondage of physical incarnation by achieving gnosis, but – and this is perhaps not surprising given the Egyptian heritage of much of their material, which has then been given at least a partly Christian veneer – nowhere is this placed in the context of reincarnation and karma. As a result, the implication appears to be that unless salvation is achieved in the current life, the soul is doomed. And, of course, we have already noted that only those from the ‘immovable race’ appear to have this opportunity in any case.
Another of the main problems with the Gnostic literature is the extent to which it concentrates on highly specific and lengthy descriptions of the hierarchies of angels and demons that inhabit the various ethereal realms, and on their responsibilities. This approach is found to some extent in Eastern traditions, but it appears to have been given greater prominence by the Zoroastrians, who in turn influenced the development of Judaism – and as we will see shortly, it is in the Qabalah that these hierarchies reach the nadir of their importance. As I suggested in Part 2, my own view is that undue concentration on these hierarchies – although it may well have some validity for advanced occult work if properly understood and applied – is not, for the less advanced seeker, conducive to a clear focus on the overriding philosophical issues that can help to produce real enlightenment.
This emphasis is amply demonstrated by the Gnostic text that reveals most detail about the ethereal realms, Zostrianos. Named after a relative of the Persian Zoroaster, it describes how he left his physical body and journeyed through these realms. The gaps that result from this being one of the less well-preserved texts do not assist its readability, but even then we find that it is encumbered by lengthy descriptions of the hierarchies in each realm, and that significant study is required to work out whether it is revealing anything of more general value about them. In fact, a simple summary is that between the highest realm of the ‘Invisible Spirit’ and the lowest of physical earth, there is a realm called ‘Barbelo’ that is divided into three ‘aeons’: ‘Kalyptos, the veiled aeon’; ‘Protophanes, the first-appearing aeon’; and ‘Autogenes, the self-begotten aeon’.[xliv]
This description shares some common features with Qabalistic thinking, as we will see in the next section, but it can also be contrasted with that in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, which is one of the Hermetic texts that the Gnostics decided to incorporate into their own body of literature. This framework is more Platonic, taking as its starting point the seven ‘spheres’ of the sun, moon and principal five planets that supposedly encircle and control the fate of the earth, and then postulating that beyond this are two divine realms or spheres, attainment of which is the reward for those who have achieved gnosis. Hermes Trismegistus’ description of his attainment of the highest realms is one of the more inspiring passages in the Gnostic collection:[xlv]
Let us embrace each other affectionately, my son. Rejoice over this! For already from them the power, which is light, is coming to us. For I see! I see indescribable depths. How shall I tell you, my son? [Missing] How shall I describe the universe? I am Mind and I see another Mind, the one that moves the soul! I see the one that moves me from pure forgetfulness. You give me power! I see myself! I want to speak! Fear restrains me. I have found the beginning of the power that is above all powers, the one that has no beginning. I see a fountain bubbling with life. I have said, my son, that I am Mind. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Mind, understand.
Moreover, despite all their shortcomings, the Gnostic texts do at least contain esoteric descriptions of the origins of the universe and the nature of the ultimate creative power. At the commencement of On the Origin of the World we find the following:[xlvi]
How well it suits all men, on the subject of chaos, to say that it is a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from a shadow, which has been called by the name darkness. And the shadow comes from a product that has existed since the beginning. It is, moreover, clear that it existed before chaos came into being... .
When the ruler saw his magnitude – and it was only himself that he saw: he saw nothing else, except for water and darkness – then he supposed that it was he alone who existed. His [missing] was completed by verbal expression: it appeared as a spirit moving to and fro upon the waters.
Here we see all the ideas of the possible misrepresentation of chaos, of the deity being alone, and of the power of the Word that we discussed in the previous chapter. It is even more intriguing that the ultimate creative power is described in the Tripartite Tractate as ‘a spring which is not diminished by the water which abundantly flows from it’, and as something that ‘cannot be grasped: nor is it possible for anyone else to change him into a different form or to reduce him, or alter him or diminish him ... who is the unalterable, immutable one ...’[xlvii] It is worth reminding ourselves that under normal circumstances energy cannot be destroyed but can change form. Is it going too far to suggest that this passage is attempting some sort of comparison between that state of affairs and the ‘immutable’ nature of the ultimate creative energy source of the universe when in its ‘dormant’ state?
On the Origin of the World also contains some intriguing passages concerning the creation of humankind:[xlviii]
And when they had finished Adam, he abandoned him as an inanimate vessel, since he had taken form like an abortion, in that no spirit was in him... . He left his modelled form forty days without soul, and he withdrew and abandoned it... .
Sophia sent her daughter Zoe, being called Eve, as an instructor in order that she might make Adam, who had no soul, arise so that those whom he should engender might become containers of light... .
Now the first Adam, Adam of Light, is spirit-endowed and appeared on the first day. The second Adam is soul-endowed, and appeared on the sixth day, which is called Aphrodite. The third Adam is a creature of the earth, that is, the man of the law, and he appeared on the eighth day ... which is called Sunday.
Despite the distinctions between spirit and soul that I have already admitted leave me somewhat baffled, and the fact that all this is placed in a somewhat confusing context – not least the references to forty days and then the eighth day – surely this can only represent a somewhat distorted appreciation of the fact that the soul of ‘humankind’ existed completely independently of the evolution of the physical body, and that these two did not come together at the moment of ‘creation’ but at some later time. I would therefore suggest this is further confirmation of my underlying interpretation of this and many similar traditions concerning the first incarnations of advanced souls.
To summarise, as with certain other of the ancient and supposedly esoteric traditions, the Gnostic texts contain a few gems but are in general, in my view, far less revealing than modern commentators often suggest.
The rise of alchemy in medieval Europe was intimately connected with the emergence of the Renaissance movement in the fourteenth century, and with a revival of interest in Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. The exoteric aspect of the art of alchemy was the search for the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that could transmute base metals into gold or silver, and there is little doubt that this branch of the art laid the foundations for the modern science of chemistry. However, there is also little doubt that there was a far more esoteric side to the work of many alchemists, and exactly what they were searching for – and in a few cases perhaps found – remains a subject of intense speculation.
One of the problems with attempting to analyse the alchemical texts is that even those that may contain genuine spiritual insight were inevitably encoded to avoid accusations of heresy from the dominant and paranoid Christian church. Therefore, for example, the Short Tract, or Philosophical Summary of the fourteenth-century alchemist Nicholas Flammel, regarded by many modern commentators as one of the leading Hermeticists of his day, appears on the face of it to be nothing more than a largely exoteric description of the transmutation of various metals. If this is indeed a cleverly coded esoteric tract it would take a finer scholar than me, and one with a lot more patience and time to indulge in speculation, to decipher its true meaning.[xlix]
On the other hand, an anonymous tract of probably similar date entitled The Glory of the World ... Namely the Science of the Philosopher’s Stone is somewhat more enigmatic, and contains repeated references to healing, which is more in keeping with the work of the leading sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus.[l] Ultimately, given their connections with Hermeticism and other esoteric movements, I take the view that the more spiritually minded alchemists were attempting to effect an entirely human transmutation whereby the soul could be released from the bondage of the physical body without physical death – which is, of course, the true experience of gnosis while still physically incarnate.
Whether they ever achieved this aim is also a subject of speculation, however, because there seems little doubt that a fair proportion of even those who were attempting a spiritual transmutation were basing their attempts on material that had been handed down from the earlier mystery schools – much of which was probably already corrupted or distorted from any true wisdom that might at one time have been possessed by, for example, the true hierophants of ancient Egypt. As a result of this, and perhaps their own misinterpretations of such earlier material, it may be that many alchemists had a reasonable appreciation of the ultimate aim, but tied themselves in knots trying to work out the practical means of achieving it.[li]
With that, we will now move on to consider some of the esoteric movements that are very much active to this day.
The Qabalah has its roots in interpretations of original Judaic texts on the basis, at least in part, of gematria or number symbolism – whereby each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is assigned a number, and combinations of letters that have the same numerical total can be interchanged to reveal a hidden meaning. These texts include the Torah, Sefer Yetzirah and Zohar, and the latter two in particular are almost incomprehensible in straightforward English translations of the original Hebrew. However, unlike many texts whose hidden messages have produced multiple and conflicting interpretations, the development of the Qabalah has produced a relatively stable and consistent mystical framework that also includes practical advice on spiritual development – which many people in all parts of the modern world are increasingly following.
It would be of little use even to attempt to trace the origins of the modern system back to the Judaic texts, or to examine the coded work of leading occult and Hermetic Qabalists of past centuries such as, for example, John Dee and Eliphas Levi; for once it is more appropriate that our review should be based on modern explanations.[lii] Two of the finest sources are Dion Fortune’s 1935 work The Mystical Qabalah, and her former pupil Gareth Knight’s 1965 follow-up A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism.
The fundamental basis of the Qabalah is the diagram of the ‘Tree of Life’, which is designed to be interpreted from two different perspectives: first, as a view of the different levels of the macrocosm of the universe, and indeed as an explanation of how it progresses in various stages from a night of Brahma into full manifestation; and second, as a view of the microcosm of humankind’s spiritual physiology, and in particular of the initiatory paths through the various ethereal realms that we must follow if we are to achieve enlightenment and, ultimately, full gnosis. Accordingly, the reflection of the macrocosm in the microcosm is implicit, and the idea that humans were created ‘in the image of God’ takes another interesting turn. Figure 1 depicts the basic Tree, which comprises the ten ‘sephiroth’ – with an eleventh, Daath, that is not numbered – and the twenty-two ‘paths’ between them, each of which has its own characteristics and influence according to the context.
Figure 1: The Qabalistic Tree of Life
In order first to apply the symbolism of the Tree to the macrocosm, let us look at Figure 2. Although I do not have the space to go into this in great detail, the general principle is one of different levels, dimensions or planes of existence – which we have already repeatedly encountered. The highest is the most sublime realm of the ‘Great Unmanifest’ itself, and, as we can see from the descriptions at the top, the idea is of the primeval limitless void from which the light emerges. The uppermost sephiroth, Kether, lies within the ‘archetypal world’, indicating that it contains the potential for everything that will come into being. Thereafter, in the ‘creative world’ the primeval forces start to sow the seed for the ideas of forms, which are then created, corrected, diversified and concreted until they receive their proper patterns in the ‘formative world’. Finally, these forms become manifest in the ‘physical world’ of the lowest plane of Malkuth. All of these ideas are consistent with the conclusions that I reached in the last chapter.
Figure 2: The Tree of Life as Macrocosm
Let us now see how the Tree is applied to the microcosm, humankind itself. Figure 3 again depicts the different realms, and the principle is that what I have so far called souls or spiritual entities occupy these planes primarily according to their level of karmic advancement. Looked at from the perspective of the neophytes who hope to accelerate their development while incarnated in a physical body, the path to advancement and gnosis leads away from the sensations of the physical world in Malkuth, and upwards through the stages of instinct and intuition in Yesod and Tiphareth. At this latter point they have progressed from their ‘incarnatory personalities’ through to their ‘individual souls’, after which point lies the realm of the pure ‘spirit’. I have said previously that I find these distinctions in particular unclear, but in this case they do not appear to detract unduly from the clarity of this description of the attainment of ever-higher levels of awareness, advancement and, ultimately, reunification with the original source.
Figure 3: The Tree of Life as Microcosm
During this process a number of hurdles are met that test neophytes’ determination to continue, in the form of the ‘gulf’, the ‘hurdle’ or ‘veil’ and the ‘abyss’, and Qabalists interpret a number of passages in ancient texts as descriptive of such initiatory trials in which the subject feels isolated and alone, and longs to return to the security of familiar surroundings. It is highly likely that this is the original or underlying meaning of the trials that are described in the Egyptian duat – except that arguably they must be attempted by the neophyte both in incarnate life and after physical death – and this theme of trials and testing is common to all descriptions of initiation into the sacred mysteries. Meanwhile, we can also see the six-pointed ‘Star of David’ superimposed on the Tree, composed of two overlapping triangles, one upright, the other inverted, which symbolise the perfectly balanced soul of the twice-born adept that can operate equally well in both an upward and a downward direction – with Tiphareth, the sephiroth of equilibrium, as their centre point.
I have little space to elucidate further on Qabalistic thinking except to confirm that, despite its clearly Judaic origins, modern Qabalists at least seem to have little doubt that reincarnation and karma play a vital role in this framework.[liii] So, in conclusion, when explained simply and clearly it is in my view a highly revealing worldview that is entirely consistent with the more general one that I am developing here. Moreover, we will examine how modern Qabalists apply this worldview to the practical achievement of karmic advancement and enlightenment shortly.
The ‘Fraternity of the Rosy Cross’, more commonly known as the Rosicrucian movement, came to prominence in 1614 with the publication of its manifesto, the Fama Fraternitatis. This school is still very much around today, and is another that continues to provide enlightened instruction to those who seek it. Unfortunately, although it welcomes anyone into its fold, it has always kept its teachings a closely guarded secret from outsiders, while all the original Rosicrucian material that has ever been published is either too bland to be of interest or, once again, requires decoding.[liv]
Still, it is quite clear that seventeenth-century occultists, alchemists, Hermeticists and Qabalists either were also Rosicrucians or at least had an interest in their work, and all these various movements interacted so closely that they may as well be considered as one at that time. Moreover, there is sufficient detail in some Rosicrucian works to reveal that its broad tenets are exactly in keeping with the general esoteric worldview that I am developing in this chapter and will summarise at the end.[lv]
Above all, it would appear that the modern movement provides practical advice and training about the ways of achieving varying degrees of enlightenment, and that it attempts to keep its methods up to date to keep pace with cultural changes in society – something for which it should be commended. Moreover, it is democratically open to all who truly wish to seek a spiritual path, and as such avoids the elitism of many of the more secretive movements.
We can see that the basic idea that there exists a higher level of consciousness that we can at least tap into pervades all esoteric thought. Some commentators, such as Jung, emphasise the universal nature of this consciousness, which is clearly consistent with the concept that in the higher ethereal realms the self becomes redundant and the soul merges with the original source. On the other hand, others emphasise the higher consciousness of the individual soul. Broadly speaking, both ideas have their place in an esoteric worldview, and for the most part the distinction makes little practical difference.
Seekers have used various ways of tapping into this consciousness to assist their spiritual development, and to achieve the ‘altered states’ that allow them to so do. However, before we examine these, I should place the discussion into context and assess what can be achieved by such actions, because the practical objectives can vary significantly. For example, some seekers are desirous of full gnosis, and the complete personal transmutation that it produces. As I have already suggested, on a practical level this requires a considerable degree of commitment and preparedness to remove themselves from the everyday pressures and distractions of physical life, and full gnosis clearly cannot be achieved overnight; indeed, it may not even be achievable in one lifetime, depending on how karmically advanced the individual is from previous incarnations. The ultimate goal is, of course, escape from the karmic round and the necessity of physical reincarnation.
However, in my view less-committed seekers can still make fundamental and huge strides in their karmic development while advancing at their own pace. The objectives of this less ambitious approach can vary enormously: for example, some may want to attempt to gain at least a glimpse of the ‘vision of unity’ that, as we have seen, underlies most mystical experiences; others might want to attempt to gain some idea of their past lives; most common of all, many just want to ‘open up their channels’ and synchronise their intuitive abilities as best they can.
This latter is important because to be candid, and in the hope of encouraging others, I can say that I have never been a particularly ‘aware’ person; but my own personal efforts over the last few years, as modest as they have been, have had two significant results. First, my intuition is far more noticeable and, more important, I listen to it far more than I used to – and few students of esoterica would disagree with the suggestion that intuition is the most obvious sign of communication with the higher self, and that it is also by far the easiest advance to achieve. Second, and related, is the fact that once we are more attuned we become aware of synchronicities that we might otherwise ignore – especially on the admittedly rare occasions that these are so statistically unlikely that even the most ardent sceptic ought to sit up and take notice. As Newton’s subjects indicated in Part 1, such synchronicities are never merely coincidence, and they happen for a karmic reason that often forms part of our life plan – either to teach us something, or to put us in touch with someone, or to give us some other message – but in all cases to provide an opportunity for karmic advancement. Of course, we are free to ignore these signs – which sometimes come in dreams as well, given that these are just another method by which our higher consciousness communicates – and we can do this precisely because karma involves choice and not destiny. However, if we do ignore them we clearly fail to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us.
It should also be quite clear that those who proselytise about ‘positive thinking’ are merely talking about progressive karma, and the principle that if we think positively about a particular desire or result we karmically and automatically attract it – unless it is something that is actually ‘not meant to be’, in which case the trick is to work out the karmic dynamics of why this might be the case. The flip side, of course, is that those who adopt a negative outlook also attract exactly what they predict, in that they miss their opportunities for advancement and remain stuck in a regressive karmic rut – and this, in my view, is the true nature of ‘hell on earth’. To clarify further, when discussing karma I deliberately use the words progressive and regressive rather than positive and negative or good and bad, because there is no moral imperative in all this. To be totally unaware of the concept of karma is not to be intrinsically evil, and indeed such a person may well be progressing their karma quite well without knowing it, just by doing the right things automatically. Nor is someone with regressive karma in any sense evil, but in my view they provide their own punishment; because our higher selves continually bombard all of us with opportunities and messages, which if we continually ignore them grow into full-scale disasters. I would argue that whenever we face major problems in life they are there to teach us some sort of lesson as to how to avoid the same in future; and if they are serious problems that come all at once on a number of fronts – personal, professional, financial and so on – they are there to act as a major wake-up call. If we still ignore the message the disasters will be repeated, not only in this life but perhaps even over many lives, until we do wake up. And in my view such ‘groundhog days’ are indeed the true nature of hell.
The foregoing analysis is necessarily somewhat simplistic, and ignores certain complications. For example, any one person may have progressive and regressive karma at work in different aspects of their lives at the same time. This means that even the most spiritually aware positive thinkers will on occasion attract the most appalling experiences, and like it or not these will be ones that are karmically necessary for one reason or another. Of course, the hardest aspect of all this is again working out the karmic dynamics of why these appalling things happen, something that may well only become clear long, long after the event in question. But we would do well to remember that if life was always easy we would learn nothing.
In any case, now that we have some idea of what we are trying to achieve, we are ready to examine how, in practical terms, we can attain higher or altered states of consciousness that will improve our connectedness to the ethereal realms and allow us to take more control over our karmic development. Every esoteric school or religion advocates one fundamental approach, and that is meditation.[lvi] I will not attempt to go into any practical detail on this – there are numerous books and classes on the subject – except to observe that almost all approaches tend to involve the use of symbols. For example, Qabalists focus on the Tree of Life and the Tarot – inasmuch as each of the 22 ‘Trumps Major’ of the ‘Greater Arkana’ is associated with one of the paths on the Tree. By contrast Buddhists, especially in Tibet, use ‘mandalas’ as a source of meditational focus. The reason for this use of symbols is partly that many of us find it extremely difficult to ‘clear the mind’ of unwanted conscious distractions, at least as beginners; but in addition, despite their disparity that arises from different cultural ‘impressions’, they are still effectively archetypes within the universal consciousness that act as catalysts for the awakening process. Moreover, all schools of thought indicate that controlled breathing is essential, while some even advocate mild hyperventilation as a means of increasing awareness. And in certain approaches various mantras are also chanted, especially in group situations, which is tied into not only the power of the Word but also the fact that harmonics are closely linked to energy vibrations, as we will see in a later chapter.
There is one other potential avenue available to those who wish to explore higher and altered states of consciousness, and that is hallucinogens. A number of seekers have gone down this route in a variety of ways and with a variety of results, and the works of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Carlos Castaneda, Stanislav Grof, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna and Alexander Shulgin all provide fascinating insights.[lvii] Some of them have reported intriguing experiences that have many similarities with divine visions, and a balanced view seems to be that the use of especially natural rather than man-made hallucinogens can act as a catalyst to speed up an initial increase in awareness, after which the real ‘hard yards’ must be gained by unassisted meditation.[lviii]
Of course a discussion of hallucinogens leads neatly on to shamanism, because they are a fundamental part of the shamanic experience, and a number of anthropologists have worked closely with shamans in native tribes in various parts of the world to experiment with them. Of particular interest is the work of Jeremy Narby, whose experiences with a tribe of Peruvian Indians are recorded in The Cosmic Serpent, first published in English in 1998. He describes how he first became intrigued by the shamans’ use of the drug ayahuasca when he established the extent of their amazing knowledge of the properties of various of the eighty thousand species of plants in the Amazonian jungle. For centuries they have used amazingly effective healing remedies derived from the extracts of these plants – often combining two or more of them, which makes the statistical likelihood of finding them by trial and error pretty remote – and they maintain that such knowledge is revealed to them by the entities that they encounter when they take ayahuasca itself.
Narby’s own view of this, having experimented with the drug and having encountered two huge serpents that he describes as communicating with him by telepathy, is that they were symbols for the double helix of DNA – and that the entwined serpent imagery of so many ancient cultures reveals a common experience that involves the transfer of biochemical and other knowledge directly through the DNA of the recipient. I am not necessarily convinced by the latter argument, although it is a fascinating one. The serpent imagery is clearly important, but the form that the entities take is likely to be largely subjective and, arguably, is culturally impressed – particularly because we know that shamans who use other hallucinogens or even induce trance states by hyperventilation conjure up different images. It is particularly striking that Narby’s predecessor, Michael Harner, had seen ‘bird-headed people’ when he experimented with another group of Peruvian Indians.[lix] Harner himself recognised their obvious similarity with the animal-headed gods of the ancient Egyptians, and such a link comes as no surprise when we realise that the latter were themselves no strangers to the use of hallucinogens – particularly the blue water lily or lotus plant that was also, as we have seen, symbolic of the primeval emergence.[lx]
My own view is, therefore, that hallucinogens can allow subjects – especially those who have been through the rigorous training, attunement and initiation of the professional shaman – to make contact with an ethereal intelligence, which may represent either their own higher self or some form of universal consciousness. Of course, we cannot avoid the possibility that this contact may also be with ethereal entities such as those that work through channellers, who as we saw in a previous chapter are not averse to playing games, but here at least some of the information supplied – concerning healing remedies, for example – seems to have been pretty reliable.[lxi]
While on the subject of shamanism, we saw in Part 2 how the cave paintings of the Solutrean period are regarded as having been used in shamanic rituals that also involved acoustics. In fact, important new research by acoustics expert David Elkington in his excellent 2001 work In the Name of the Gods has suggested that the chambers in many ancient pyramids and temples of the postcatastrophe epoch were deliberately designed with acoustic properties that, when brought into play by chanting and other ritualised music, would have produced an altered state of consciousness – and it seems clear that this knowledge would have derived from the experiments of their precatastrophe ancestors. We also noted the emergence of geometric patterns in the art of the Upper Palaeolithic; archaeologist David Lewis-Williams believes that these patterns derive from images perceived in the early stages of shamanic trance, and I find this a highly convincing argument.[lxii] Moreover, it seems to me that, for example, the circle with a dot, and the spiral, are exactly the sort of archetypes from the universal consciousness that would be used to activate a deep esoteric understanding of the underlying workings of the universe on all its planes – and this view will be reinforced in the next chapter.
There are a number of other ways in which shamanic beliefs and methods correlate with the broad esoteric worldview that I have now almost fully developed. For example, the Hopi Indians describe five ‘centres of vibration’ within the axis of the human body that correlate well with the Eastern idea of chakras.[lxiii] Moreover, the shamanic experience is universally one of initiatory death and rebirth – often accompanied by the extremely distressing perception of dismemberment of the physical body while in trance – and the various preparations and trials faced by the apprentice shaman have clear and close parallels with those of the neophyte seeking gnosis.[lxiv] Finally, the shamanic concept of the ‘dream time’ of old, to which everything must be referred back, is arguably related to the concept of the higher ethereal realms in which all time is suspended and earthly preoccupations are ignored, and also from which we all originally derived.[lxv]
We have covered a great deal of ground in this chapter. We have seen that certain of the mystery schools or their progenitors were somewhat less enlightened than they are often made out to be, and that the excuse that many of their works were coded to avoid persecution is somewhat overplayed when they are properly viewed in the context of the entire work rather than just selected passages – even if this excuse is probably valid in a few instances.
Nevertheless, we have also seen that not only do a number of these schools provide a good deal of confirmation of my main themes from Part 1, but also that their teachings are either based firmly on a universal set of esoteric tenets or, in a few cases, can be argued to be distortions based on the same original roots. In addition to the concepts that I summarised in the last chapter concerning the origins and cyclical nature of the universe as a whole, and its combination of ethereal as well as physical planes, the most important of these tenets are as follows:
· A belief in reincarnation and in a framework of ethereal realms inhabited by souls in various stages of karmic advancement.
· A belief that the fundamental karmic aim is to transcend the purely physical world, and that ultimate transcendence reunites the adept with the original source.
· A belief that such transcendence involves entering a higher or altered state of consciousness that is more often than not achieved by meditation.
· A belief that such transcendence, often termed gnosis, can only be fully achieved after a great deal of preparation, and many initiatory trials and tribulations designed to test the commitment of the neophyte.
We have also seen that it is not necessary to be committed to achieving full gnosis in order to gain significant benefits in life from gradually moving toward a more esoteric worldview. Even small steps, such as taking time out for proper contemplation and a degree of meditative effort, can lead to a significant enhancement in our ability to put our lives and existence into a more philosophical and meaningful context. In particular, if we concentrate on developing our intuition, recognising synchronicities and attracting positive karmic energy, we improve our ability to control and direct our lives towards more fulfilling and pleasurable ends, and also to cope with and understand apparently negative karmic experiences.
Moreover incarnate life is, broadly speaking, a game that can be better played if we know the karmic rules; and the fundamental rule is that physical ‘reality’ is not reality at all, but a set of limited sensations and experiences over which we can, if we choose, exert a high degree of control. When realisation of this dawns, relief from what had seemed to be impossible torments and unbearable burdens can be swift and effective.
Above all, the fact that these common tenets of an esoteric worldview remain at the heart of all the most enlightened philosophies of both East and West suggests strongly to me that within them lies the path to true enlightenment. And we can see that we learn far more by concentrating on their essential similarities and common factors than on their differences.
[i] Hall quotes Egyptian Magic by ‘S.S.D.D.’ – which turns out to be by theosophist Florence Farr and published in 1896 – in which she suggests that the Egyptians mummified their bodies to prevent the soul from reincarnating in them, but to me this does not seem to fit the context at all; see Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (Philosophical Research Society, 1988), p. 48.
[ii] The basic information used in this section – that is, excluding my own commentary – can be found in, for example, Budge, The Egyptian Heaven and Hell (Dover, 1996), Volume 3 (‘The Contents of the Books of the Other World Described and Compared’), Preface and Chapters 1 and 2; and Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (British Museum Press, 1996), Introduction.
[iii] See Taylor’s ‘Dissertation on the Life and Theology of Orpheus’ in his 1792 work The Hymns of Orpheus (Philosophical Research Society, 1981), pp. 90–2. For more information on Orphic works in general see West’s 1983 work The Orphic Poems (Oxford University Press, 1983).
[iv] Timaeus 6–7; see Lee, Plato: Timaeus and Critias (Penguin Classics, 1977), pp. 46–54. Note that Plato believed that the force that continually propelled any celestial body – indeed, that lay behind the movement of any body whatsoever – was its soul. As Lee points out in his commentary, at this time the Greeks appear to have had no conception of momentum and gravity.
[v] For mathematical and geometric passages see Timaeus 5, 6 and 22–4 in ibid., pp. 44, 48, and 73–81; for musical and harmonic references see Timaeus 14 in ibid., p. 65.
[vi] Timaeus 18; see ibid., p. 70.
[vii] Timaeus 10; see ibid., p. 58.
[viii] Timaeus 49; see ibid., pp. 122–4.
[ix] Timaeus 38; see ibid., pp. 97–100.
[x] Timaeus 24–30; see ibid., pp. 79–87.
[xi] For more information on the Neoplatonic movement see Wallis’ 1972 work Neoplatonism (Duckworth, 1972). The so-called Chaldaean Oracles also exercised a considerable influence on the Neoplatonists, and appear to have Egyptian, Zoroastrian and Judaic roots – the latter because of the similarity of their ethereal framework with that of the Qabalah, which we will consider in a later section. For more information on these oracles see Lewy’s 1978 work Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Études Augustiniennes, 1978), and Aude’s 1895 work ‘The Chaldaean Oracles of Zoroaster’ in Westcott, Collectanea Hermetica (Theosophical Publishing Society, 1895), Volume 6.
[xii] This is translated by Taylor in Part 3 of his compilation of The Hymns of Orpheus, pp. 22–4.
[xiii] Ibid., pp. 41–3.
[xiv] These are described in Copenhaver, Hermetica (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Introduction, pp. xxxii–xl.
[xv] For more information on the various original compilations of source texts see ibid., Introduction, pp. xl–xlv; and on the various commentaries that were then prepared by Arabian and European Hermeticists from the seventh century onward, see pp. xlv–lix. Cophenhaver’s 1992 translation is the most recent available, and given the problems of interpreting the many different versions of the original texts, and ensuring that the translation is as faithful to these originals as possible, it incorporates all the scholarship of his multitude of predecessors. By contrast, the popular translation by Walter Scott in the 1920s is regarded by most orthodox scholars as distorted and unreliable, even if his extensive commentaries are invaluable (see ibid., Introduction, p. liii) – although I should also note that his is the only modern version that includes the philosophical Stobaeus manuscripts, to which I will refer on occasion.
[xvi] A prime example is a degree of confusion about whether or not animals, plants, and even supposedly inanimate life forms have souls; in some passages they all do, in others not. Above all, in the Hermetica humankind’s soul is enhanced by ‘mind’, which no other animal possesses. See Corpus Hermeticum 1:15, 8:5, and 12:2, and Asclepius 4 and 27 in ibid., pp. 3, 26, 43, 68–9, and 83.
[xvii] For example, most of Corpus Hermeticum 2 is devoted to the Platonic concept that all movement is caused by the soul of the thing that moves; see ibid., pp. 8–12.
[xviii] Corpus Hermeticum 4:8; see ibid., p. 17.
[xix] Corpus Hermeticum 12:5; see ibid., p. 44.
[xx] Asclepius 11; see ibid., pp. 73–4.
[xxi] Corpus Hermeticum 1:24–6; see ibid., pp. 5–6.
[xxii] Corpus Hermeticum 18:14; see ibid., p. 66.
[xxiii] See, for example, Corpus Hermeticum 10:5, 13:4, and 13:7 in ibid., pp. 31 and 50.
[xxiv] Corpus Hermeticum 11:20; see ibid., p. 41. Note also that the previous passage appears to describe out-of-body experiences in which neophytes can ‘command their soul to travel’ to anywhere in the world instantaneously.
[xxv] Corpus Hermeticum 1:4; see ibid., p. 1. See also 5:5, p. 19.
[xxvi] Corpus Hermeticum 13:3; see ibid., pp. 49–50. See also 10:6, 13:11 and 13:13, pp. 31 and 51–2.
[xxvii] Corpus Hermeticum 4:5; see ibid., p. 16. See also 10:8, p. 32.
[xxviii] Corpus Hermeticum 10:19–22; see ibid., pp. 34–5. See also Asclepius 28, p. 84, which in addition contains the clearly Egyptian concept of the ‘merit of the soul’ being ‘weighed and judged’ after death.
[xxix] See, for example, Corpus Hermeticum 11:15 and 12:16 in ibid., pp. 40 and 46–7.
[xxx] See, for example, Stobaeus Excerpt 2A in Scott, Hermetica (Solos Press, 1992), p. 150.
[xxxi] Corpus Hermeticum 4:7; see Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. 16.
[xxxii] Asclepius 25; see ibid., p. 82. This passage is followed up in Asclepius 26 by the suggestion that the world will be cleansed by a catastrophe of flood and fire; it is impossible to interpret whether this is a confusion of something that happened long before the texts were prepared – even though the future tense is used – or merely a version of the Judaeo-Christian apocalypse, or a genuine suggestion that the same fate could befall us in the modern epoch if we fail to learn the lessons of the past.
[xxxiii] Corpus Hermeticum 1:17–19; see ibid., p. 4.
[xxxiv] Corpus Hermeticum 1:14; see ibid., p. 3.
[xxxv] From the Kore Kosmu, the best known of the Stobaeus manuscripts also referred to as Excerpt 23; see Scott, Hermetica, p. 179. Meanwhile Stobaeus Excerpt 25 describes how these classes of souls inhabited four ethereal ‘divisions’ of four, eight, sixteen, and thirty-two subdivisions respectively, with the division nearest to the physical earth being the domain of the least advanced souls; see ibid., p. 199.
[xxxvi] Corpus Hermeticum 3:1; see Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. 13.
[xxxvii] Corpus Hermeticum 4:10; see ibid., p. 17.
[xxxviii] Corpus Hermeticum 5:10; see ibid., p. 20.
[xxxix] Corpus Hermeticum 12:20–2; see ibid, pp. 47–8.
[xl] Stobaeus Excerpt 23; see Scott, Hermetica, p. 186. See also Corpus Hermeticum 10:15 in Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. 33. For a full discussion of the Platonic view of memory in the context of reincarnation, and of other views from around the world, see Eliade, Myth and Reality (Waveland Press, 1998), Chapter 7; another fine general source is Frances Yates’ 1966 work The Art of Memory (ARK, 1984).
[xli] These are The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, Scribal Note, and Asclepius 21–9. Another tractate contains an extract from Plato’s Republic. For more general background information on the Gnostic texts see Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library (HarperCollins, 1990), Introduction, pp. 1–10.
[xlii] It is interesting to compare this with a passage in the Hermetic Kore Kosmu, which suggests that the first incarnations into human form were a karmic punishment for souls that had already erred by ‘overstepping the bounds of their own divisions of the atmosphere’, and claiming ‘nobility equal to the gods in heaven’; the fact that this is so at odds with other Hermetic passages shows how self-contradictory these texts can become after centuries of editing and translation; see Stobaeus Excerpt 23 in Scott, Hermetica, p. 184. However, for completeness we should also note the similarity between the Gnostic view of the initial fall and that of Islam, in which a ‘lesser god’ is condemned to incarnation on earth because he ‘refused to bow before Adam’, and he in turn pledges to act as a negative influence on humankind’s development – which he achieves by making Adam partake of the ‘forbidden tree’; see Koran 7:11–25.
[xliii] The main Gnostic texts that all contain these same basic messages are the Apocryphon of John, the Hypostatis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, and the Tripartite Tractate. To a large extent they pick up on and elaborate the themes in Genesis.
[xliv] Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 403.
[xlv] Ibid., pp. 324–5. For confirmation of the idea of the seven lower spheres see On the Origin of the World in ibid., p. 174.
[xlvi] Ibid., pp. 171–3.
[xlvii] Ibid, pp. 61 and 64. Further descriptions of the ultimate deity can be found, for example, in the Apocryphon of John; see ibid, pp. 106–7.
[xlviii] Ibid., pp. 182–3.
[xlix] This work is included in a compilation of Renaissance alchemical tracts that was first published in Latin in 1678 and entitled The Hermetic Museum; see Volume 1, pp. 141–7.
[l] The anonymous tract is in ibid., Volume 1; note, however, that it also contains a highly literal interpretation of the creation of Adam in Genesis, including an apparent acceptance of the longer life spans of the biblical patriarchs that is supposedly related to them having possessed the ‘stone’. As for Paracelsus, his Complete Writings was first published in Latin in 1616.
[li] For more information on the history of alchemy and its leading figures see Yates’ 1979 work The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), and on its practices see Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pp. 149–60.
[lii] Dee’s major work is The Hieroglyphic Monad, first published in Latin in 1564; it contains a number of theorems based on numbers and planetary significance that clearly have a Qabalistic origin but are difficult to put into any real context. Levi wrote a number of books, one of the most important being The Key of the Mysteries, first published in French in 1861.
[liii] For example, Chapter 13 of Fortune’s Principles of Hermetic Philosophy – recently published in book form with additional commentary by Knight (Thoth Publications, 1999) – is devoted to a discussion of reincarnation in the context of astrology.
[liv] The Fama Fraternitatis and contemporary Confession Fraternitatis are both reproduced in Yates’ 1972 work The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (ARK, 1986), Appendix, pp. 238–60; on the face of it neither reveals much in the way of real details about the Rosicrucian worldview. R Swinburne Clymer’s 1965 work The Rosy Cross: Its Teachings (Beverley Hall Corporation) incorporates twelve Rosicrucian manifestos from various periods, but again they do not appear to be particularly revealing.
[lv] For example, H Spencer Lewis’ 1932 work Rosicrucian Questions and Answers (AMORC) discusses issues such as reincarnation at some length, while his 1938 work Rosicrucian Manual (Rosicrucian Press) also provides interesting insights. Meanwhile Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages contains considerable further background on the history of the movement and its esoteric worldview; see pp. 137–48.
[lvi] Some of the finest works in this area, which describe the authors’ journeys into spiritual enlightenment in autobiographical format, are by Paramahansa Yogananda (The Autobiography of a Yogi, Self Realisation Fellowship, 1994) and his pupil Norman Paulsen (Sacred Science: Meditation, Transformation, Illumination, Solar Logos Foundation, 2000).
[lvii] The major works of these authors are commonly known and easily found.
[lviii] This is the view expressed in conversation by my colleague Michael Carmichael, who as a dedicated alchemical researcher has ‘been there, done that’ on both fronts.
[lix] See Harner’s 1980 work, The Way of the Shaman (Harper and Row, 1980), pp. 1–10; cited in Narby, The Cosmic Serpent (Phoenix, 1999), Chapter 5, pp. 52–6v.
[lx] For a highly useful further discussion of these links, and of the work of Michael Carmichael in investigating the ancient Egyptians’ use of psychoactive plants, see Picknett and Prince, The Stargate Conspiracy (Little Brown, 1999), Epilogue, pp. 348–56. For more general information see also Rudgley’s 1993 work The Alchemy of Culture (British Museum Press).
[lxi] I might note, however, that Harner also describes seeing ‘giant reptilian creatures’ that showed him by telepathy how they had originally come to earth to escape from their home planet, and had as a result created all life here – a refrain that we have met before in different guises in channelled material; nevertheless, it is interesting that Harner himself felt that these creatures had something to do with DNA, which is of course the theme that Narby expanded; see Narby, The Cosmic Serpent, Chapter 5, p. 55. To the extent that we accepted in Part 2 that all life on earth may have been seeded by microscopic organisms from elsewhere in the cosmos, this is an interesting angle of investigation, and it just may be that DNA somehow holds a clue to a number of mysteries; however, I still have reservations about the idea that intelligent extraterrestrials deliberately kick-started physical life on this planet, and remain more inclined to see all this as a distortion of a more spiritual message concerning ethereal entities that I will further elucidate in the next chapter.
[lxii] See Clottes and Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in Painted Caves (Harry N, Abrams, 1998). The latter’s work is also described in Leakey, The Origin of Humankind (Phoenix, 1995), Chapter 6, pp. 145–9.
[lxiii] Waters, Book of the Hopi, Part 1, pp. 9–11 (including Footnote).
[lxiv] See, for example, Campbell, Primitive Mythology (Arkana, 1991), Chapter 6, p. 265. This entire chapter is devoted to shamanism. Another fine source of general information is Eliade’s 1964 work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Arkana, 1989).
[lxv] For further discussion of the dream time see, for example, Campbell, Primitive Mythology, Chapter 7, pp. 289–90.