One of the books that I keep coming back to over the years of exploration is Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. Now anyone who has had a go at engaging with this book’s densely typed 400 pages knows that it is hardly easy reading. Not only do we have Ouspensky’s own vivid struggle to develop a relationship with his teacher/ anti-hero G.I. Gurdjieff, but we also have to wrestle with the detailed explanation/obscuration of their rather “out there” Gnostic cosmology.
Part of the reason that I keep returning both to this challenging tome and the “4th Way” teachings that it describes, is the way in which they seek to grapple with the nature of what awakening might mean and also how we do this collectively. I have already written on this blog about my take on the 4th way work’s depiction of how the “Sly Man” seeks to actualize body, mind and emotions HERE and thought it would be helpful to reflect on Gurdjieff’s perspective on the importance of collective endeavour.
As in most things Gurdjieff is refreshingly unapologetic in insisting on the importance of needing to have a “school” or group in order to make real progress in esoteric work:
“The point is that a “group” is the beginning of everything. One man can do nothing, can attain nothing. A group with a real leader can do more. A group of people can do what one man can never do.” Pg. 30
For Gurdjieff the School provided an essential reflective environment in which the spiritual progress of an individual could be plotted against a more impersonal/transpersonal measure. Whatever the benefits of close personal friendship and its value in enriching our lives, the concept of the school or Order ideally provides a context where the “work” of initiatory endeavour can be framed by principles and boundaries that hope to minimize the unpredictability of whimsy and clashes of ego.
For many this will sound like a pipedream and such idealisation raises real concerns about the potential misuses of hierarchy and authority. In recent decades many magical practitioners have wanted to challenge the received wisdom concerning the necessity and desirability of needing such pyramidal structures. Some argue that they play into our consumerist tendency to quantify advancement in terms of elaborate titles and the acquisition of magical bling. In trying to evolve different approaches, people have began to seek looser, more tribal arrangements that aim to encourage growth and fraternity while avoiding the “stuckness” that can plague minority orthodoxies and magical hegemonies.
Recent discussions with friends regarding these dilemmas have considered the potential contrast between the qabalistically informed hierarchy of “Freemasonic” structures and the more “flattened” polyarchical dynamics of Rosicrucian fraternities. As someone who currently belongs to both a formal magical order and a number of more informal working collectives, I felt that I’d share some of what I consider to be the potential benefits and pitfalls of both models.
Personally speaking, being part of a more formal magical Order has provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn. While undertaking any deep spiritual work will inevitably lead to the forming of close relationships with others, one of the strengths of an order is that they usually have a solid corpus of techniques and perspectives to engage with. Even if I might not agree with some of what’s being proposed, the content and structure of such systems provide me with something solid to bash up against and thus refine my own initiatory understanding. The pursuit of grades and curricula may become yet another form of “spiritual materialism”, but at best they can fulfil our need for structure and a way of mapping our development especially in the early to intermediate stages of training.
Working with others can be tricky. In traditions that involve hermetic, magical or tantric perspectives there is a certain inevitability that we will need to challenge existing values and certainties. While they will never be perfect in their execution, many Orders out of necessity, have had to spend time reflecting on how they provide boundaries and guidance to ensure that ethical standards are understood and respected. Such learning often takes decades of shared work to develop maturity. Groups will always make mistakes in the doing of the great work, but what feels critical is that they have mechanisms for feedback and reflection so that the inevitable mistakes are learnt from.
The desire to evolve more informal groupings of practitioners working together is hardly a new impulse. Such sodalities are often the beginnings of many formal orders, and are also the primary modus operandi for many covens and hearths. These smaller “circles” of practitioners often rely on a fair degree of pre-existing magical competence and a shared focus on working with a specific theme or group of deities. My own experience is that they can provide a great arena for magical experimentation, but that they inevitably have to manage the issues of who sets the agenda and the necessary grounds for inclusion/exclusion. It’s probable that most groups evolve a basic leadership and initiatory structure in response to emergent dynamics within the life of such groups. Often issues of power and direction need to be brought “above ground” in order to reduce their disruptive potential should they remain at an unconscious or shadow level. We may wish to work hard in minimising the negative aspects of hierarchy, but equally most of us don’t enjoy sailing in a rudderless ship!
Each of us has different learning styles and political sensitivities that will shape the type of magical environment that will be most conducive to our development. We may stick with one style of group process or we may feel the need for necessary diversification or counter-balance. For some, the realities of geographical distance may mean that relationships are primarily reliant on cyber-interactions as a means of deepening engagement. What feels critical to me is that we retain the insight that the Great Work is an act of both doing and connection that can only be understood in attempting its undertaking and in receiving support and feedback from others. As necessary as our theologies and ideologies might be, their true value only becomes clear when we pressure test them in the forge of praxis and weigh them according to the extent to which they expand our humanity.