The funny thing about spiritual work is that, generally, if you are working within an established current of practice, you tend to acquire spiritual benefits regardless of changes in your awareness. This is one of the values of simple faith and devotion. It is a little bit like having work done on your car–you don’t always know exactly what gets done under the hood, but the car runs better afterward.
A lot of folks these days are pretty uncomfortable with that, but I don’t think you can do any meaningful spiritual work without some modicum of faith. Every person I respect as a spiritual authority accords a wide horizon of grace and mystery to their work. They may be more or less uncomfortable with that, but it’s reality and presence in their work remains visible.
There is more than a little that can be accomplished by faith and devotions alone. Occultism, with its gnostic bent, doesn’t rest in faith (though occultism without faith tends to remain/become unmoored). The parallels between faith and occultism alone merit some consideration. The way in which faith and devotion engage and discipline the person with symbols, concepts, and atmosphere parallel the tools the occultist uses. They also both derive some of their potency from their relationship to spiritual forces.
(Aside: There are advantages, too, for one who operates by faith to consider the parallel from the other direction. The occultist is engaged in spiritual work much like the faithful, albeit in ways that are more personal than social. That personal dimension isn’t absent from faith, though, and in maintaining a touch of the occult sensibility, the faithful can see more clearly the personal dimensions of devotion and their responsibility and freedom within it.)
Those parallels aside, if you aren’t going to turn occultism into some clumsily aped version of faith (which happens often enough), you need to be able to get a look under the not-quite-metaphorical hood. There is a lot of macho talk that crops up around this point about rending the veil, mastering the illusory nature of the world, and reorienting yourself toward a more potent truth. This is all well and good (seriously, not meant sarcastically), but it isn’t the only way, and even when it is the way, it usually needs to be accompanied by less drastic measures.
Portions of the occult reorientation must be undertaken gently, through subtle shifts rather than high drama. Relying on dramatic methods to approach occult matters, getting too far out of your head too quickly, can leave you with a sense of helplessness; the wide chasm between spiritual awareness and everyday consciousness becomes clear enough but without a bridge between them. It can leave you feeling reliant on the jarring highs of drama, drugs, visions, and gurus.
A course of study becomes valuable here, especially where faith is weakest. Study provides structure and stability, the lineaments of the bridge. Problems can arise when the study course ill-suits the spiritual work being done or is being done in rote fashion without a complement of spiritual work. ‘Ill-suiting’ is an unfortunately fuzzy term, but that fuzziness suits the many and overlapping ways for a course of study to pinch and stifle. It can:
- contain work which runs counter to the spiritual process unfolding in your life
- be over-precious and twee, fostering too-narrow conceptions of your spiritual life (idolatry large and small)
- proceed at a pace that is out of synch with your spiritual development
- be rooted in signs and rites that poorly engage your attention
A good teacher ameliorates these problems, but they aren’t a cure-all. In much the same way that a course of study can be troublesome, so too can a teacher be troublesome. Finding a good course of study and a good teacher requires taking some responsibility for the interaction between your own spiritual practice and the study that grows it. Sometimes, the thoughtful search for such a teacher and course allows you to make that course for yourself. Not always, sometimes.
A course of study sounds humble enough, but when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong. There are some real perfect storm horror stories out there. Peak experiences that come with the work can be manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally, to give the illusion of progress and lead you toward intensities your are ill-prepared for. The lucky slip past with a good fright and a hard lesson, the unlucky get dashed into the rocks and left struggling to find themselves. Which, I guess, is one way of saying that if you are going to proceed into occultism, you should appreciate that it isn’t an easy road and requires some boldness on your part. It isn’t always safe, though you should take your safety and the safety of others seriously.
Let’s set aside the storms and tragedies and instead focus on the problem of excessive narrowness. Any course of study ought to narrow your spiritual life, providing you with the sort of understanding that allows you to focus on what matters most to your spiritual work. That spiritual work has its foundation in the invisible world(s) and study is just one more apparatus that should aid in integrating the visible with the invisible. The apparatus is just that, apparatus. It is a visible world tool for getting at the invisible dimensions of your life.
The horizon of your spiritual life opens toward the spiritual life of every other spiritual thing. Be careful that you don’t too quickly turn away from that into a fascination with various visible world apparatuses. Keep in your awareness the contingency of your course of study and consider how the very things you approach through it are being described and approached in other courses of study. That allows you to grow out of one course of study without abandoning the spiritual work that animated it.
It also allows you to appreciate what it means to engage other people wherever they are at in their studies. Sometimes, that allows us to encourage them where they are to change how they approach their spiritual situation. More often, it means doing neither and just learning to talk sensibly to each other. That opens the door toward something beyond either course of study that is still firmly fixed within the horizon of spiritual work.
Especially in times like these where folks have the opportunity to secure fiscal prosperity through offering courses of study through the internet, it is very important to maintain responsibility for your engagement with those courses, because the distance inherent in the medium will necessarily skew such courses toward the teacher’s and not the student’s spiritual work.
It isn’t just a matter of teachers charging for courses, but also of people putting themselves out there as authorities or getting mistaken as authorities because they are prolific or charismatic or writing about something interesting. The risks of working someone else’s occult lessons are often mild, but real. If you aren’t actively attempting to lay hands on your own spiritual work, the risks escalate.While only a few will be actively harmed by that lack of awareness, a good number more will get more lost than is necessary.