The heart of “esotericism” has long been centred around the belief that certain spiritual (or religious) teachings are best transmitted to others only after sufficient preparation and initiatic training. Such preparations are regarded as requiring long periods of discipline and often special empowerment rituals.
Historically, such knowledge has not been accessible in popular formats nor readily available for study without membership in a relatively small circle of usually male practitioners. Further, esoteric traditions have tended to develop often in contrast to more orthodox and “external” paternal religions whose orthodox members have tended to regard esotericism with some suspicion and, at times, have attacked such societies with strategies of repression.
Such tactics suggest an additional layer of meaning in the concept of “esoteric” as teachings or practices that resist orthodox interpretations and are “hidden” because of issues of political or religious persecution. A third meaning of the term stems from an extrapolation of this tension between the “known” or commonly accepted orthodoxy of a religious tradition and the “unknown” (or institutionally unrecognised) teachings or practices of various esoteric groups within that religious tradition. The status or such groups is often marginalised by the refusal of the parent religion to recognise the legitimacy of various non-conventional interpretations or practices. In the third sense, esoteric means “unsanctioned” or “unrecognised” by majority practitioners of a local conventional religious tradition.
Often these three aspects of esotericism intersect, creating a group mentality that is hierarchical (thus initiations are given in stages, from masters to disciples), socially secretive (because of disruptive pressures from more orthodox factions of a related major tradition) and relatively unknown or marginalised by a conservative majority.
Another aspect of esotericism is the problem of “elitism” or the tendency for esoteric schools to emphasise adherence to core doctrines that are intellectually sophisticated but requisite for advancement into the “advanced” circles of that school. In turn, this tends to reinforce tensions between in-group and out-group members who do or do not conform to the intellectual or emotional expectations of the core membership.
The authoritative structures of esotericism have revolved around the experiences of the founder, the elaboration of teachings and practices based on foundational experience presented in a “graded” advancement, the sanctioning of advanced members who have reduplicated the requisite experiences, the training of members in various types of arcane lore, and the conferring of status titles on those considered to have mastered the full teachings of the school. Thus esotericism may be defined in terms of either its external social relations and tensions with parent religious traditions, its place within a larger cultural context often ignorant or dismissive of esoteric concerns, or its internal sanctioning processes by which members become fully fledged masters of their school.
The issue of experience is crucial to many esoteric traditions, particularly those whose emphasis has been on the affirmation of mystical forms of spirituality. For example, in Islam, many schools of Sufism fit the above descriptions of esotericism. While outwardly, Islam has been a highly structured religious tradition, orthodox divisions, both Sunni and Shi’ite, have exhibited tension and conflict with many schools of Sufism, including the persecution of Sufi teachers.
Similar observations can be made as well for Christianity and the persecution of mystics and members of esoteric societies by Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant clergies. There is tension between Orthodox or Conservative Judaism and followers of Jewish Kabbalah or Hasidism. These tensions often revolve around the question of authority and who has the right to sanction or recognise the validity of any member’s religious experiences.
Many esoteric traditions have embraced processes of internalisation by which external religious beliefs are broken down and revalidated through progressive experiences often of an emotional, symbolic, and visionary nature. In turn, this has often led to new esoteric formulations critical of existing institutional beliefs or traditional doctrines.
The tensions between intellectual beliefs (or faith) as defined by institutionalised traditional authorities and religious experiences of the individual as a member of an esoteric group are particularly acute when institutional religions are meshed with political authority.
In European esoteric traditions, the role of the Catholic church has been highly aggressive in resisting esoteric groups who sought to legitimise their spiritual practices through the internalization of non-traditional symbols, experiences, and alternative lines of initiatic authority. The Catholic destruction and violent persecution of the Cathars is a painful reminder of this process, as was the destruction of the Templars, sanctioned by the Church, or the many persons (and small groups) send to the stake for engaging in “esoteric” or “non-orthodox” beliefs or practices, often labelled as “pagan” or “heretical”.
From a “Western” historical perspective, the history of esotericism is inseparable from a history of persecution and mainstream institutional criticism by orthodox religionists (Catholics and Protestants, for example, writing against the Rosicrucians) who deny the value and importance of maintaining viable, non-orthodox spiritual views or alternative spiritual associations. Much of Western esotericism has been driven by a tense and often conflictual relationship with institutionalised religious authority.
Esotericism in such a context is not simply about spiritual or religious views or practices; it is also about the survival and maintenance of unique spiritual values in the face of conventional persecution or dismissal by orthodox religious thinkers. Another counterstream in this context is the rationalist embrace of materialism and technoscience as another “orthodoxy” antagonistic to “esoteric spirituality” which does not fit current models of sceptical, atheistic humanism or biocognitive “epiphenomenal” theories of mind or consciousness. In such a context, individuals who pursue alternative visions of spiritual empowerment through esoteric means must often resist cross currents that would dismiss or deny the validity of all or any type of esoteric spirituality.
Tightly woven traditions of intellectual esotericism, as well as more loosely woven strands of popular esotericism, have successfully resisted various kinds of social orthodoxy but often at the cost of severing themselves from a broader, global and international perspective of spirituality. In turn, this has resulted in a widening gap between traditional religious institutions and alternative spiritual communities or associations which often have no connection with any traditional religion.
Other models for understanding esoteric spirituality abound in Eastern religious traditions that are increasingly penetrating into Western social and cultural environments. Many of these “Eastern” models are being adapted to Euro-American cultural and social environments, resulting in the emergence of new forms of esotericism, neither conventionally Eastern or Western. And religious models within Christianity are also impacting Eastern religions and opening the doors for emergent forms of esotericism no longer bound by ethnocentric histories of persecution or intellectual dismissal.
This rich, fertile exchange of spiritual perspectives has resulted in a broadening of the concept of esotericism to increasingly embrace a multispiritual pluralism whose roots connect with religious traditions on a global basis.
Buddhism can no longer be confined to Tibet, Japan, or Southeast Asia but is increasingly part of Euro-American religious thought. Various forms of Christian spirituality have begun to embrace Eastern religious ideas and practices, for example, the teachings of the Christian-yogic guru Bede Griffiths or the yogic-Gnosticism of Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet, while devotees of the Indian God Krishna can be found in major American and European cities.
In this context esotericism takes on a whole new dimension of meaning no longer connected to parent religious traditions in a local sense. The increasingly rapid exchange of views, the sharing of knowledge on a global basis (aided by electronic technologies) has increased the accessibility of esoteric texts and facilitated the formation of emergent global networks dedicated to esoteric studies.
But esoteric in what sense? In the headlong rush to communicate, much is in danger of being lost at the very same time that new horizons are opening through increased accessibility and sharing. Yet the older core of esotericism, stripped of its political and conflictual tensions with parent religious traditions and no longer burdened by gender discriminations, still offers several key structural contents for more recent esotericism.
First, there is a concern to unfold a spiritual teaching in a progressive, step by step manner (even where spontaneity is emphasised) that leads to new insights and awareness. The “esoteric” dimension of that process is elaborated in a series of gradual revelation, or progressive insights, leading to desired realisations of spiritual truth.
In order to facilitate this process, sometimes elaborate rituals, ceremonial initiations, moral and ethical training, physical disciplines, and inner development techniques are taught over a sustained period of learning as preparatory to attaining the goals of the group. This is certainly true for AMORC, OTO, Masons, and contemporary Rosicrucians but it is also true for various schools of Tibetan Tantra, Zen, Hindu Vedanta, New Light Taoism, a variety of martial arts such as T’ai Chi and Aikido, as well as for a large number of Western Yoga schools, all of which claim to offer esoteric spiritual direction for human development. All these are readily available in the contemporary European and American cultural scene and they are here as long term expressions of age-old traditions.
Another key structural aspect of contemporary esotericism is the concept of “initiatic grace” or the transfer of power or special ability from a teacher to a student. This inner structural process of esoteric transmission of understanding occurs not only through the simply learning of intellectual ideas or the mastery of a certain vocabulary or external ritual behaviour.
The transmission is itself a medium of spiritual affirmation, an “awakening” by which the recipient comes to fully value the reality of that which is transmitted, subtly, silently, profoundly. This empowerment is seen as a psychic or soulful realisation of fluid currents and emanations that constitute a more illumined state of awareness or a more empowered state of being. Often these currents are related to cosmic entities, sometimes mythicized and sometimes not, whose value is expressed in symbols of unification or harmonic wholeness.
This kind of thinking and initiatic instruction can be seen not only in “Western and Eastern” traditions, as in Sufi, Hasidic, or Yogic circles, but also is very evident in many forms of tribal or indigenous religions. This contemporary expression in native traditions adds a rich vocabulary and technical expertise to the processes of “esotericism” as related to the natural world. In many contemporary indigenous circles, knowledge is transmitted through a direct “laying on of hands” or through other esoteric means, such as an eagle feather or ceremonial use of sacred cedar and sage.
A third key structural aspect of esotericism is found in its relationship to unique and special theologies whose cosmic dimensions are highly personalised. Contemporary esotericism certainly includes Neo-Paganism, Mother Goddess worship, various Wiccan and Magical ritual groups whose views of nature involve an often radical repersonalisation of the physical world.
Often, this repersonalisation goes hand in hand with a refeminization of the world as in the popular Gaia hypothesis or as in the rediscovery of Sophianic mystical presence uniquely expressed in concepts of the world-soul or the globalisation of consciousness.
Feminist influences have heightened the creative role of sexuality and a more woman-centred spirituality in such esoteric groups. In these groups, there is often a new communal spirit that is emphatically emotional and tied to a ceremonial gathering, musical expression and intensive communal participation. Certain indigenous rites are being freely incorporated into various esoteric communal rituals, for example, the sweat lodge or vision quest.
In turn, these gatherings act as a catalyst to challenge existing social roles, isolated individualism, and overly intellectualised and abstract cognitive approaches to spirituality. On a similar spectrum, Christian spiritualists, mediums, spirit-centered ecstatic communities and churches, like the Four Square Church, or the teaching of Christian esoteric masters such as Peter Deunov or his famous disciple, Mikhail Aivanhov, all have their own esoteric theories of what constitutes spiritual awakening in the modern world, often deeply influenced by Eastern religious traditions or nature traditions such as various aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism or Chinese Daoism.
A fourth structural principle in many esoteric circles is the incorporation of physical disciplines borrowed from various Yogic, Buddhist, and Tantric movement-visualization schools. Meditation, recitation of sacred names, the use of ritual implements and drawings, arcane gestures, combined with visualisation techniques has become very widespread in the European and American esoteric scene.
The Kundalini system from ancient Indian Shakti schools is pervasively used to symbolize internal transformations and the opening of various internal psychic centres that lead progressively toward higher states of illumination and various forms of occult knowledge.
Ancient Vedic technique of medicine and healing are offered as esoteric means for spiritual well being in highly popular formats. Literally, hundreds of volumes on Buddhist esotericism and Buddhist internal yoga, as well as works on “higher and lower” Tantra are now accessible and being taught in various Buddhist centers in the West as well as whole philosophies dedicated to healing all forms of “suffering” as understood from a Buddhist perspective.
Many of these teachings include a central emphasis on reincarnation (and the retributive influence of past actions on present events) that is restructuring the long-term efficacy of contemporary esoteric practices. Such theories are no longer being filtered through Western teachers but are increasingly being taught by highly advanced practitioners of the mainstream Eastern traditions.
Another structural aspect of contemporary esotericism is its recasting of cosmological perceptions and beliefs as impacted by theories in modern science. Physics, astronomy, medicine, and biological sciences have added whole new vocabularies to esoteric teachings.
These theories are infiltrating the thought world of many esoteric schools, radically revising older and more static cosmologies. Eastern spiritual teachers, with Western education like Sri Aurobindo, have had a powerful impact on this process, offering their own unique version of the intersection of yogic disciplines, higher consciousness and human evolution.
Research in altered states of consciousness and transpersonal healing has broadened the spectrum of possible states of cognition and mystical experience. Research in esoteric areas like lucid dreaming, out-of-body experience, life-after-death, have all added tremendous wealth and resources to esoteric schools of thought.
Chaos theory, quantum physics, new astronomical discoveries, an increasing awareness of the complexity of energetic order and multidimensionality of sub-atomic physics, and holographic models of creative process have all added to the complexity of esoteric thought.
Increasingly, syncretic works are being written that open new dialogues between spirituality, science, and esoteric traditions.