Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Mystic and the Esoteric

I had mentioned in one of my posts earlier the categories “mystic” and “esoteric”, and that there is a distinct difference between them. I ran into this distinction in a really excellent book by Richard Smoley titled “Inner Christianity“. Since the distinction is his I’d best let him clarify it:

Esotericism is characterized by an interest in these different levels of consciousness and being. Mysticism is not quite so concerned with these intermediate states; it focuses on reaching God in the most direct and immediate way. The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way. Moreover, mysticism tends more toward passivity: a quiet “waiting upon God” rather than active investigation.

I had mentioned that Eckhart Tolle, for example, is a mystic, whereas I think Ken Wilber is more of an esotericist. Myself, I’ve wandered back and forth as the mood strikes me. This distinction is similar to Ken Wilber’s distinction of “ascending” vs. “descending” spiritual currents. The “ascenders” focus on finding God in the absolute, infinite unity of being. They often disdain the physical manifestations. This group includes such folks as most gnostics, particularly Manicheans. Also in this category would be the Christian contemplatives and practitioners of Raja yoga.

The “descenders” on the other hand, celebrate God in the infinite variety of physical manifestation. Most forms of wicca, paganism and shamanism fall into this category, along with tantric yoga and “social” Christianity. The descenders often seem somewhat unconcerned with higher reality as a goal.

Both currents of spirituality are important, because God exist equally as the infinite one, and as the infinite many. Perhaps this makes esotericism a sort of compromise, because it seeks the divine unity while making plenty of interesting tours of the infinite many on the way up.

What can be frustrating about esotericism is that the “facts” of the esoteric tend to vary somewhat from teacher to teacher and from school to school. One of my favorite topics, for example, is angeology. But although nearly every religion and every esoteric school agrees that there ARE angels, and that they are important – none agree about exactly what they are, what their nature is, or their names, activities and heirarchy.

The trick seems to be to pick a system and stick with it, while realizing that all esoteric systems are somewhat arbitrary – vehicles for focusing the efforts of the student as he or she progresses on the spiritual path.

How about you? Are you a mystic or an esoteric?

All-Quadrant Spirituality

As some of my readers know, I’ve been a reader for some time of philosopher Ken Wilber. While the level of detail in Wilber’s system can be annoying, I find it’s always good to check any new ideas against his criteria, because if you don’t – you’ve usually missed something.

One of the key components in Ken Wilber’s philosophy is the notion of quadrants, and what it says is this: Most things can be looked at in four different ways. They can be looked at either from an inner perspective or an outer perspective, and they can be looked at as individuals or as members of a group or system – giving four perspectives. Like this:


The left-hand side is the interior perspective, the right-hand side is the exterior perspective. The upper half is individual, the lower half is collective.

The easiest example of these perspectives is a human being. We can look at a human being and study him from the outside (upper right) and study his brain structure, his biology and its underlying chemistry. This will give us a great deal of insight into him. We can also study his environment and how his organism interacts with the atmosphere, the food supply, the traffic flow, etc. (the lower right). We now have a different set of insights, equally important.

But this leaves out an entire half of the picture. What is it like to be this person from the INSIDE? What are his thoughts and feelings? What meanings does he attach to things? What does he feel? These questions are all in the upper left quadrant. Finally, what is his relationship to other people, seem from within the group? What are the values and beliefs of his family, his community or his social group?

Our tendency as modern people is to focus on only one quadrant (often the upper right) to the exclusion of or devaluing of everything else. All quadrants are important, and none should be reduced or folded into another or important insight is lost.

Ok, after this overly-long introduction, how do we apply these principles to spirituality? Let’s analyze first the case of the fundamentalist. This person may believe that he or she is deriving all of their truth from the Bible or the Koran. But in fact, they are focused almost entirely in the bottom left quadrant – the inner social group. They are relying – not on the Bible, but on the meanings and values attached to the Bible by their group. The idea that another group can attach entirely different meanings to the same Bible is confusing to them.

They are also unwilling to actually examine the Bible externally in the right-hand quadrants. Objective examination of the texts would show evidence of copy errors, redactions and multiple sources. Objectively comparing the text with history and science would show evidence of historical and scientific errors or ignorance. These objective incongruities are all ignored or pushed aside in favor of the values and beliefs of the group.

Certain kinds of skeptics, on the other hand, privilege the other quadrants. They assume that the ONLY value the Bible can possess is objective factual value. That it can be a useful source of poetry, mysticism, meaning and value is ignored. That it can be a basis for community interaction,  and social solidarity – providing a literary and mythic vocabulary is likewise unimportant. Their focus is entirely on the right-hand quadrants, particularly the upper right.

Those of us attempting to live spiritually in a modern world had best be able to live in all the quadrants at once. We must be open to the mystical, the poetic and the metaphorical, and value inner spirituality. We must be aware of the prejudices and preconceptions our group mentality may lead us into. We must be willing to accept the insights of objective insights of history, science and textual scholarship without blindness. But we must also be aware of the potential blindness of those who try to live only in the upper-right quadrant of the individual externals.

Eckhart Tolle

My wife completely surprised me by becoming intensely interested in Oprah Winfrey’s recent webcasts in collaboration with Eckhart Tolle. What was puzzling is that up till now, she has not liked Oprah at all and has shown no interest in Eckhart! For some reason the combination “clicked” for her.

For those who aren’t aware of him, Eckhart Tolle is, in my opinion, the most direct, no-nonsense teacher on the subject of enlightenment walking around today. His teaching is generic and non-religious ,while using illustrations from several religions. His concepts are profound but simple. Eckhart is a true mystic as opposed to an esotericist (more on that later perhaps).

I enjoy both his books and his audio and visual seminars. I remember that it took me a few minutes to get used to his lecture style. Eckhart is not afraid of silence, and at several points I thought there was something wrong with my CD or that the lecture was over. My impatience for the next piece of information was very revealing.

I quickly came to enjoy the style he uses, and luxuriated in the intervals of silence. For the type “A”‘s out there who need a brisker pace, the Oprah webcasts mentioned above might be a good intro.

His first book is The Power of Now, and the follow up (the subject of the Oprah webcase) is A New Earth. If you haven’t been exposed to his work, I highly recommend it. Amazon has a nice page with all his work featured here. I’d be interested to know if anyone else is a Tolle fan (or critic) and what your thoughts are.

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