I have very much enjoyed esoteric studies in Freemasonry, but lately I’ve had a bit of a problem with the area. In struggling to understand what the issue was, I explored this a bit more deeply and came to a list of “sharp edges” that I’ve found in esoteric studies. I want to use this understanding to balance out what I see as the youthful enthusiasm many bring to the area.
The three sharp edges I want to cover here:
- Knowledge being distorted by the mandatory filter of culture and language.
- The tendency to create distant and reaching connections between things which can distract or mislead
- People harming themselves by applying knowledge at the wrong times and in the wrong ways: fundamentally knowledge is like fire.
The Language & Culture Filter
Esoterics typically makes heavy use of analogies to transfer meaning from one thing to another. We compare two things and say that they are similar in some way. In esoterics, it’s common to draw parallels between say, the teachings of Qabbalah and the experience in the Masonic degrees. Or we might compare the alchemical concept of the philosopher’s stone to a search for inner meaning and self-improvement. These comparisons, from something extremely abstract like personal improvement, to something very concrete, like an actual stone — are the language & culture filter at work.
I have noticed that there are many esoteric & spiritual teachers whose main draw is their facility with those language and cultural filters. Take Alan Watts as an example; who acted primarily as a translator for eastern cultural experience to a Western audience. Many of his lectures pair a playful personality with a cultural translation of ancient wisdom traditions, permitting knowledge in the west where there wasn’t before. Even when the wisdom itself is the same.
The sharp edge:
All communicated personal knowledge goes through a language and cultural filter that is mandatory. That filter may distort the knowledge, and must be understood and accounted for.
It’s All Connected – Well….
On the surface, with these comparisons we are connecting drastically different things. And yet, there really is something shared between them.
Many esoteric approaches do tend to start with the perspective that everything is connected in one way or another. From the hermetic principle of “as above, so below“, to the Buddhist concept of Indra’s Net, nothing stands totally independent. And yet the level of connectedness is different. We can see strong, tight connections between how we think & act, and the thoughts and actions of those close to us. Because all of these interactions form a web across the world, all of this does impact other people and far away events, but the connection is less strong, less specific, and less knowable.
In the same way, when we make esoteric connections, it can be simultaneously true that:
- Everything is connected and mutually influencing
- Some connections matter more than others, while other connections may be weak, distracting, or off the point
More humorously, this second point gets parodied quite a lot in “conspiracy thinking” like the Pepe Silva meme. One person sketches out a wild picture showing how everything is connected to everything, drawing a reasoning path that the other can’t follow, understand, or apply. While I don’t wish to make fun of esoteric studies, there is a real tendency in some practitioners to lapse into this kind of behavior, as they make big connections and jumps, without bringing others along about why the connections make sense, and why they’re true.
The sharp edge:
People may readily accept connection between esoteric ideas without understanding the nature of the connection for themselves. Some connections are reaching, or just not important. This can lead to unwise action.
The Fire Analogy
Imagine you were an early human who learned how to create fire. Having gained this knowledge, you might feel very pleased with yourself, and rush to use it in all kinds of practical ways like cooking food, warmth, and so on. But in the phase where the knowledge is new, you might not have a mature understanding of it, and in hasty over-application you might create a lot of damage, or even death. An early understanding of fire that includes only cooking things and warmth — it’s all correct, but it’s not complete.
A pattern I see in other people and myself in esoteric studies is the pattern of eagerness: you want to learn, explore, and apply. And you obtain good knowledge about a thing, but you never know where the bottom of the rabbit hole is, and that makes applying the knowledge very tricky, like an early human setting a new fire for his dinner, in the middle of a dry forest. If Socrates is to be believed, how do you apply esoteric knowledge at all?
It’s important to remember how dangerous knowledge in general is, as illustrated by the story of Prometheus, who suffers a penalty similar to a Masonic penalty, for bringing knowledge to humanity. To know something is to form another duality anyway of good and bad: if you know how to use a hammer to build a house, you also know how to break your hand with it.
I do not mean to say that esoterica is dangerous in the same way fire is, but it most definitely can be dangerous. There are people who are at very lost periods of their life, who can take esoteric ideas and use it to justify or further literally anything that they want to do. This process of justification is poisonous, and akin to the warming campfire lighting the dry forest.
The sharp edge:
People can apply esoteric knowledge at the wrong time of their lives, and in the wrong ways – and by doing so, create serious problems or further aggravate their dysfunctions.
An article for another time, but I have seen a fair bit of this in fundamental misunderstanding, mis-application, and wishful thinking surrounding topics like ritual magick.
The study of esoterics is deeply meaningful and worthwhile, but as with all things worthwhile, is not without its risks. One risk is simple nonsense – either via reaching connections, or by mis-translation across languages & cultures. Perhaps you might follow the path and find a tangle of poorly understood ideas that are difficult to apply. The other risk is mis-application – that you follow the path, but not that far, and end up damaging yourself in any number of ways.
All of these risks are avoidable, but I’m increasingly developing an appreciation for the need to tread carefully, rather than hurtle headlong down that path.