“[No one teaching has a monopoly on truth. Knowledge will be expressed in quite varied and sometimes apparently contradictory ways, depending on the needs of the time and place. …
Nonetheless, it is still meaningful to speak of western esoteric traditions, which have very much their own flavor and which may speak to those who find Taoism or Zen Buddhism alien to their needs. Because Eastern mysticism has received so much attention over the last few decades, it may be useful to discuss some of the differences between Eastern and western approaches.
The place of the ego
It has often been said that the West emphasizes the individual whereas the eastern emphasizes the group. The West is the individualist’s culture par excellence.
What this means in terms of spiritual development is that in the west, the conscious ego, the street level self that takes us through our daily lives, is no necessarily regarded as something to be denied or annihilated. Many Asian traditions tend to speak of “extinguishing” the ego– this is the root meaning of nirvana, the Buddhist term for supreme enlightenment– whereas Western traditions tend to see the ego as an essential element in the human character. Although it can rage out of control, it is not inherently bad. Ideally, the ego is a useful servant, firmly under the guidance of the master, the higher Self. …
The personal versus the impersonal
Eastern mystics tend to devalue the ego because they generally consider it to be unreal. Buddhist and Hindu teachings equate the “rea;” with the unchanging; since our egos and our bodies are in a constant state of flux and alteration, they have no ultimate substance. Smartly, God is ultimately not a person, but an Absolute such as the Hindu Atman or the Buddhist shunyata or ‘void.”
Western religions, by contrast, generally teach that God relates to his creation in a radically personal way. From its beginnings, Judaism has had a long tradition of individuals who speak to, pray to, and even argue with God ( Job being the most famous example) while for (traditional) Christians the ultimate relationship between self and other is embodied in the Trinity…
The possibility of a “way” in daily life
Many Eastern traditions are fundamentally monastic. Buddhism, for example, started as a discipline, and its earliest rules presuppose the monastic life….
Monasticism exists in the West, certainly, but many western teachings avoid saying that the life of seclusion is necessary or even preferable to ordinary life for spiritual practice. Some religions, such as Judaism and Paganism are even devoid
Of a monastic tradition. On such paths, daily life is not a second best setting, an indulgence granted to the weak, but it is the ideal place to put spiritual practices into practice. While it might be more difficult to maintain a discipline in the face of the world’s distractions, any gains you make are more stable and less prone to slippage. The monk who comes down from the mountain top, on the other hand, may find that the vexations of worldly life disrupt his practice and overturn his accomplishments.
The role of the teacher
Nearly all esoteric traditions stress the need for a personal contact with the teaching through a teacher or master. But eastern and Western traditions see the teacher’s role differently. …
Devotion to the guru is not a confusion of an ordinary human being with the divine, but rather a recognition that a certain individual embodies divine consciousness to an unusually high degree. Devotion is directed beyond the teacher, to the divine consciousness; the guru is simply a doorway.
In the West, this veneration of the teacher is rarely encouraged. The reason is obvious. Worship is for God alone. Even Eastern Orthodoxy, which cultivates devotion to the saints… Stresses ultimately that God must be worshiped as supreme.
The Western teacher or master provides advice, instruction, and most importantly, a connection to the living current of a tradition. As such, he or she is worthy of honor and affection, but the relationship is more like that between a professor and a student or mentor and protégé. And while any true esoteric teaching requires discipline, Western teachers, at least reputable ones, don’t exact unquestioning obedience from their pupils; that kind of power is regarded as too corrupting to the master. In western paths, the discipline may be stringent, but it tends to be a matter of keeping faith with oneself rather than with an outside authority.
There is one more clear distinction to be made between East and West. …
How can one tell what’s valid and what isn’t? Anyone who has lived through the past twenty five years, with the echoes of names such as Jones town, Waco, the Solar temple, and Heaven’s Gate will know how badly awry the spiritual quest can go.
On the mundane level, it’s easy enough to avoid the most egregious offenders. It is wise, for example, to stay away from groups that charge exorbitant fees, encourage members to cut off relations with outside friends and relatives, urge violence, or exact absolute obedience. But these guidelines only apply to extreme cases; they do not tell us how to identify groups and teachers who may be perfectly harmless but ultimately just do not have much to offer. After all, wasting your time is another hazard to be avoided.
This book will try to refrain from passing judgment on specific organizations, for two reasons. First, there are no objective universally accepted criteria for validating a “successful” esoteric group. If the esoteric work is ultimately internal, then the criteria will have to be internal, too. Second, even a good group can go bad, and this can happen in a relatively short time. Therefore any recommendations made today might not hold to be true tomorrow.
This fact means that the aspirant is responsible for finding his or her own way, and this is as it should be. ….
A Sufi proverb puts it bluntly:” If you can be fooled, you will be!”
… The spiritual path demands a degree of refined discernment. You need to check out credentials and do all the research in the ordinary way, of course, but you must also bring something much subtler into play. … This subtler discernment uses what is called “emotional intelligence” and it is closely connected to the quality that is best described by a somewhat old fashioned word: decency.
Books on spirituality abound with exhortations towards purity of heart and cleanliness of motive… These warning are to be taken seriously.
Nobody comes to the path totally pure. Along with all of our hopes of communion with the Infinite, we bring along our ordinary obsessions with money, sex, and power and our dreams of unearned gain. Much of the spiritual path in fact consists of a subtle purification whereby the dross of these base motives is removed– sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently– so that something purer and finer may emerge.
There is one final demand that the esoteric path places upon beginners: hard work. Esoteric spirituality does offer the hope of attaining exceptional capacities, but you won’t be able to achieve them without making exceptional demands on yourself. … Nearly all traditions speak in terms of “overcoming yourself.” You can only accomplish such a thing by enormous work and struggle. G.I Gurdjieff even went as far as to say that in esoteric work “only super efforts count.”
… While most of the traditions we would be exploring no longer require efforts we would consider to be dangerous or extreme (Sioux warriors, Jesus in the desert, etc.) Demands are still made, but they appear in subtler forms. For most people today, the challenge will probably lie, for a long time at least, not in enduring pain and privation, but in somehow managing to carry out a spiritual practice during the course of a busy life. Such efforts will probably include study and meditation, as well as certain physical, or emotional disciplines. If you are really serious, at the outset you should probably plan to devote thirty minutes a day to some kind of practice, as well as one evening a week to a group meeting …
Discernment, decency and hard work are the basic requirements … Unless you can satisfy these criteria, you probably won’t get far.
Extracted from the Introduction to the book, Hidden Wisdom