One of the quarantine activities I picked up was Zooming a Monday a month with the Universal Co-Masons about various and sundry interesting topics. You don’t have to be a Mason of any type to attend and, well, it’s more smart and dedicated people to talk to so I can keep my pointy head pointy. And they are nice folks for letting me hang with them.
This month the host offered the discussion topic on whether esoteric teachings should remain exclusive.
Now this was a cooker of a talk. Lots of cool insights here. But it did start with actually defining the terms “exoteric”, “esoteric” and “occult” with regard to knowledge. I’m a big fan of making sure that definitions of terms are clear, but I also know that word definitions are fungible and malleable depending on the context they sit in and the discipline they address. So, hearing how my co-conversants’ approaches to these definitions — especially distinguishing between esoteric and occult — was useful; too often those words are conflated (largely to keep audiences uncomfortable with the word “occult” calm). It was a good exercise. Naturally, I spoke of my research and my past college course on the occult I taught in grad school. We also had examples of what is exoteric, esoteric and occult knowledge in everything from the US Navy, to woodworking, to physics and, well, Masonry.
Exoteric knowledge is what is meant for the general public and accessible with a minimum amount of training or education. That, in religious terms, can be public church services, being able to buy a Bible at Half Price books and reading it yourself, and a community at its widest and most general. Exoteric rituals include Mass, Shabbat, fasting during Ramadan, bhakti yoga, singing, preaching, scripture, holidays — basically if everyone is welcome and can do it, it’s exoteric.
But what about the esoteric and the occult — and what actually is the difference between the two?
That’s where things got creative — because, really, how do you speak about what’s essentially not for everyone to understand, or may even be unspeakable?
And is it unspeakable because it’s forbidden to discuss, or because the nature of the knowledge acquired can’t be captured in words?
And why when you say, that’s a secret I can’t discuss — people get so damned crazy upset?
I proffered that there is nothing quite so subversive as a secret. Especially today. We could look to the histories of all sorts of cultural groups under oppression and see why secrecy was so life-and-death necessary; we like to think we don’t need that anymore. We have people puking their lives all over social media (and then forgetting what they put out until somebody finds it years later and calls it out) and thinking that they have business being in everybody’s business. We insist on transparency, and in being sure of what we know, and being able to know things on demand.
So, when you engage in secret keeping… Man. Pisses people off.
Well, we keep secrets because we have the right to. We have a right to know things and not feel compelled to share, or admit we aren’t able to share.
And no one likes it when you know something that they don’t.
The suggestion that one of the conversants made was that esoteric knowledge was attainable for whoever was interested, but it required time, study, training, practice of an intensive amount — so that truly, only some people will actually be able to attain it. The hindrance to esoteric knowing appears only to be a matter of effort. Some will argue at this point that to put in the effort, you have to be smarter, more dedicated, more persistent, or be in a social position of privilege to have the ability to put all this time and effort and brainpower into learning it all. It’s why it’s so rare for working-class folks to make it to medical school, for example; it’s why frequently wealthy and upperclass folks do make it, and make it through. They can afford it. (Before this degrades into accusations of classism, let me simply point out the sociological fact of why so many doctors and professors come from families that have doctors and professors in them. You hear of the occasional med school student whose parents were poor and despite that, they made it on their merit… but that simply isn’t what what’s verifiably common.)
The acquisition of occult knowledge– of the hidden and unspeakable type — isn’t necessarily one of academic study or training. Frequently, what is occult is sensory, embodied, emotional and psychologically transformative. Occult understanding is what is known but unexplainable. You see what most don’t see, not because you’ve studied in preparation to see it, but because your experience has taught you a different way to look. You are aware of phenomenon that others are not aware of, not because you’ve memorized or analyzed how to do so, but because your living-through-it has changed your awareness. (Or, in some cultural contexts, you are born with a different awareness.) The word used in religious studies is gnosis; deeply personal, deeply known, deeply transformative understanding of one’s existence and its meaning.
With that definition comes notions that those who are occult-wise are… different. Not of this world. Strange. Spooky. Maybe imbalanced. Sensitive. Powerful. Incapable of moral certainty. Foolhardy and risky. (I like… unafraid.)
Thus, you can have esotericists who are brilliant but not interested in the occult portions of their discipline. You can have occultists who aren’t into what’s esoteric. And you can have folks who are both.
One of the conversants said esotericism is in the library and sacred scriptures and temples. Occultism is when you walk out of those places and trust your own experiences.
Well, naturally, I don’t think the distinction is that simple or clear. (I live in the discipline of messy boundaries.) But it does explain why sometimes the most studious of magical and metaphysical seekers are energetic bricks, or mistrustful of unverifiable spiritual living, and why those gifted in occult metaphysics can sometimes be ding-a-lings. Obviously, striking a balance between these two would be desirable… and having an exoteric community and practice as the third leg of the knowledge stool will be ideal.
There is a teacher of ceremonial magic in the UK — in Dion Fortune’s lineage, I believe — who requires all of his dedicants to not only engage in esoteric study and occult practice, but to also attend church services in their community every Sunday.
It’s true. A community, not just of fellow esotericists and occultists, but of the general population, keeps you balanced. It doesn’t matter if you’re introverted and antisocial and shy; you need exotericism just as much as all the specialized knowledge. Everyone thinks that most people don’t have the wherewithal to be an occcultist; it’s been my observation that it’s tougher to get someone who is comfortable in esoteric and occult pathmaking to get among the people and create relationships and knowledge categories there. You aren’t lowering yourself to hang with the plebes; you are in service to them.
Who do you think all this occult and esoteric knowledge you are cultivating is for, anyway?… You??
So… about esoteric teachings being exclusive or not…