Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Claims to Fame, or the Question of Esoteric Grades

By now, if you’ve chosen to interact with a good Order which does not automatically accept anyone with a credit card, you will likely find yourself at a point where you’re in front of an interview panel, whether it be a conference call or face-to-face.  Most of these kinds of interviews consist of the panel drilling the candidate with all sorts of questions, and the interviewee finds himself navigating a veritable minefield.  Any aspirant would likely feel anxious at such a prospect, and that is completely understandable.

However, such an occurrence need not be a one-way street.  It is an opportunity, not only for them to judge if you’re right for them, but for you to judge whether or not their Order is right for you.  You shouldn’t be the only person on the hot seat in an interview like this.  Furthermore, if you are denied candidacy because you asked too many incisive or uncomfortable questions, then they’re not the people you want to join anyways.

Below is a fairly comprehensive list of questions you could potentially ask during your interview.  You are not going to get answers to all of them, nor should you.  Esoteric Orders should have some level of privacy for their members and their information.  If they let it all out for you, then you can be reasonably sure what will happen with information about you as well.  What may be even more valuable, however, are the things that are not said, or what information is to be gleaned from reading between the lines.

As a part of my initiation, will I be expected to swear an oath?

Such obligations are commonplace among esoteric Orders.  Depending on your faith, though, undertaking an obligation in such a manner might be in transgression with your religious doctrines.

Is there any clause contained in the oath which may conflict with my civil, moral, religious or familial duties?

Most Orders which are Freemasonic in nature, or are descended in some way from Freemasonry, will assure you, right in the Initiation ceremony, that this will not be the case.  However, there are some Orders which, in their higher grades, contain Oaths which obligate you to put the Order before your family.  This is a cultish practice and should be avoided at all costs.

Is there anything in the oath which may require me to swear an obligation to a person?

See above.  If you want a quick and easy litmus test to determine whether or not an organization is a cult, this is it.

Does your organization have written and ratified articles of incorporation, ordinances and/or by-laws?

Orders are called Orders for a reason.  They run on structure, rules and regulations.  The “house not built by hands” is instead built on principles.  If you are in a sizeable group that has no written by-laws and is led by a singular head who rules by fiat, you are not in an Order, you are in a cult.  Furthermore, a spiritual organization must also be ruled by the spirit of its laws.  If the leaders of the group leverage the by-laws to their advantage, or twist the letter of their by-laws to use against their members, then there is a different sort of power and control issue in the group, despite it not being a cult.

What is the history and origin of your organization?

For this answer, you’ll want to be reading between the lines as much as listening to the information given.  Truth be told, for the vast majority of esoteric groups out there, their origins are humble and their histories relatively short.  There is no dishonor in this, and for those who willingly admit it, credit them for the virtues of honesty and humility.  On the flip side, if the alleged history is long and their origins shrouded in antiquity and secrecy, that simply means that the tale is tall and there is much more cause to spend time in the efforts of busting the myth.  (Odds are it won’t be too difficult.)

Does your organization have a Charter, or Warrant of Constitution?

For any larger or self-declared worldwide orders, this is basically a follow-up question to the above.  Any well-established order worth its salt is going to issue some sort of writ of authority for their lodges to operate under their auspices within their tradition.  The important information upon such a document would be its date of issue and those whose hand had bestowed the warrant.  Witnessing but a single signature upon a charter may prove cautionary, as it could indicate there is only one person at the Order’s head.

How many Chiefs are there in this organization?  What are their grades?  How did they achieve them?

Similar to the previous question, you’re looking here for a cooperative group of leaders who spent years upon years working hard in their tradition and taking their lumps for their honors.  Spiritual growth, like alchemy, takes time, attention, care, and most of all, perseverance.  A solitary chief claiming a grandiose title because he performed a single ritual and “crossed the Abyss” is nothing but an alchemical flash in the pan.

Are there dues and/or initiation fees?

Few and far between are the Orders which run completely pro gratis, and they are to be cherished.  In reality, however, they are typically taken for granted, which usually lends them to either begin assessing dues or fold altogether.  Good organizations then will have some sort of stipulation in case of poverty, so that no sincere seeker of the Light will be turned away simply based on the inability to pay dues.

What do the monies pay for?

Spiritual organizations will always have expenditures for consumable supplies, such as candles, incense, charcoal, and esculent items for eucharistic rites or mystical repasts.  Temple furniture and regalia are also common expenses and, although they are more durable goods, they too need to be repaired or replaced from time to time.  Some groups also have regular expenses related to the rental of a hall or lodge for their meetings.  This is the kind of answer you will likely get.

The information you are poking around for, however, is to try and find out if the head of the Order is getting any financial recompense, simply for holding the position.  Such begs the following question.

Are the financial books open?

In a healthy organization, the finances of an organization are managed by a treasurer and audited by some sort of governing board.  In such a case, the books may legitimately be closed to the overall populace.  Yet oftentimes, the person holding the purse strings is also holding the reins of power.  This may be necessary in a small spiritual circle, but remember that the two slipperiest slopes to corruption come in the form of money and power.

With whom will my personal information be shared?

If a secret society expects itself to remain secret, it is only right to expect that same kind of courtesy extended back to the people who wish to join it.  If such an Order has a formal application process, the information you provide should only be shared with the membership coordinator, the Chiefs of the Order, and the leaders of its closest affiliated group.

How many active members are there in your group, and how far is the next closest group?

Members of many Orders are oath-bound not to reveal the personal information of any individual member, but asking not who, but how many, should be a reasonable enough question to answer.  Some Orders are secretive about where their groups are located.  Some publish them prominently on their website.

By and large, size and distance, as well as the locations of an Order’s groups, are relative.  Its importance comes in when you’re considering joining an Order which claims to be international and flourishing.  Even then, having the next closest group be 500 or so miles away from you is actually rather close in the grand scheme of things.

Will I have a full Initiation team?

This is not to suggest that a small Initiation team is by default less effective.  It again goes back to verifying extravagant claims of Orders with worldwide temples brimming at the top with magical members.  Typically, by the time you arrive at the temple door and find your Initiation team is two people, out of a temple of two people, your application fee and dues money have already been long past spent.

Is there any portion of the Initiation, or any subsequent Initiations, ceremonies or rituals, which contain elements of any physical abuse to the flesh?

Ritual bloodletting was not an uncommon facet of Initiations in antiquity.  Some organizations carry on that ancient tradition.  Others consider such a practice to be barbaric and anathema.  Either way, this is something every Initiate should know up front.  Furthermore, regardless how you feel about such a practice, you would do well to remember that we live in the era of bloodborne pathogens.  The magical path is perilous enough without having to willingly open up a vein.

Will I be given a magical name or motto?

Being given a nickname among your friends is fine, but when it comes to your magical identity, the only person determining that should be you.  There is a Talmudic tenet that states that declaring your identity is a way of determining your destiny, and no person other than you should establish the aims, goals or destiny of your magical life.

What are the criteria for determining advancement within the organization?

Whatever the answer may be, you’re looking here for consistency and uniformity across the board.  Things like quizzing, testing and performance evaluations are good methods for this.  Naturally, exceptions can and should be made, but again, Orders are built on rules.  If the head of a group gets to decide free and clear who advances and who doesn’t, then fairness ends up being strictly optional.

Has anyone been blocked from advancing for any arbitrary reason and how often does that happen?

Sometimes, a head of an Order needs to take things into his own hands.  Still, such cases should be rare and, as much as possible, in accordance with the by-laws of the organization.  If the arbitrary cases are the norm rather than the exception, then the Chief is capricious at best and autocratic at worst.

The other thing you’re trying to root out here is any trace of prejudice among the leadership.  Granted, certain organizations exclude categories of people, and some of this is entirely reasonable.  For example, members must be of legal age, or Satanists are barred admittance from a Christian Mystical Order.  This should be spelled out up front, and only you can decide if such discrimination is acceptable to you.  However, if you start hearing insensitive or snide comments about people based on their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or something similar, chances are the Order does not solely judge its members on their merits alone.

Will I be denied answers to questions that are technically above my grade level?

This is going to be a matter of preference from group to group.  Personally, I’ve just found such a practice to be little more than a source of pretentiousness.

Can I study individually outside my Order studies?
Again, only you should get to decide how you want to live your spiritual life.  If a mentor or Chief outright forbids it, then there are significant control issues in the organization.

Will I be assigned a personal mentor, and what grade will he be?

A single Chief can’t be expected to mentor everyone in the group, so commonly, mentors are assigned to new Initiates.  Typically, your assigned mentor should be a fairly high grade, or at very least, a couple full grades ahead of you.  Anything less may be an indication of mismanagement of the group or some other issues.  On the flip side, if a large group only has its head as its teacher, you may need to be careful that what you would be receiving is in fact teaching and not indoctrination.

Are there any mentor-student relationships that are more than just mentor and student?

Relationships in occult circles are notoriously common.  This should be no surprise when unusual people share similarly unusual interests.  What you’re looking for here is any indication of favoritism.  Most of the better Orders out there do not allow people in a relationship to be a mentor and student, so as to not give off the slightest illusion of impropriety.  On the other hand, I know of one Order whose Chief started bringing his Neophyte girlfriend into Inner Order meetings, and that was one of many reasons which caused a major schism.

How do mentors, and especially the Chiefs, handle questioning and criticism, constructive or otherwise?

The one thing that is certain is that the spiritual path is not smooth, and those who tread upon it will have moments of disagreement with other such seekers.  What should be expected at these times is that the mentors and Chiefs should act like the adults in the room.  If they are able to listen much more than they speak, and approach conflict with composure, and even compromise, then these are the people you want to follow.  If the attitude of their leadership is to expect their students to fall in line, and to be seen and not heard, then the students are not the only ones who have some growing up to do.

How much influence will they have over my personal life?

Chances are the answer you get will be “none”, but this is something you will need to check against time and time again.  Such meddling begins slowly, like making backhanded comments about people with which you associate.  Before long, you may be cautioned to stay away from ex-members who have “fallen from the path”.  You may even face disciplinary action or be ostracized if you keep those lines of communication open.  That kind of peer pressure may be found in high school, but should never be found in esoteric schools.  Furthermore, if such control tactics are used heavily and frequently, you might just be in a cult.

How do I report any misconduct, and is there an appeals process?

It would seem that very few esoteric organizations have any sort of formal process for transgressions, ethical or otherwise.  Appeals, if any, usually go to a Chief, if so allowed.  What you’re really looking for here though is a feel for how an organization treats its whistleblowers.  The best Orders out there will perform due diligence of the claims from the lowest Neophyte, without fear or favor, and if found to have merit, even a Chief may topple.  The worst will punish the whistleblower, if not outright expel him, and circle the wagons of the power base in order to save face.

When was the last time you had to expel someone and why?

This is a follow up from the previous question.  Chances are you won’t get a lot of details here, if any, but perhaps you can at least get a time frame.  If an Order has a lot of expulsions, there is one thing that all those expulsions have in common, the Chief who did the expelling, and that is precisely where the true problem lies.  The most solid and stable Orders have a strong egregore, and such currents have a way of cleansing themselves.  Either way, rare should be the times that a head of an Order should have to oust a fellow by fiat.  Any expulsion is an indication of a categorical failure, and the ex-member, the leader, the group and the Order all have their own share of the blame.

When was the last time the head of the Order apologized for something?

The initial reaction you will probably get here is anything from a pregnant pause to stunned silence.  Upon first glance, one might think that a Chief who apologizes too much would be weak, but nothing could be further from the truth.  He who is exalted is humble, and should be able to admit mistakes when he makes them.  Those Chiefs who cannot bring themselves to admit their own wrongdoings are guilty of spiritual pride, the very vice of the Adept.  Those organizations which prop up their Chiefs as unquestionable and infallible are not esoteric Orders, they are cults, plain and simple.  So if you get an answer to this question that drifts away from a direct answer and turns into a two-minute hagiography of the head of their Order, you too should take a turn, as in simply turn around and walk away.

Next Chapter:  A Quick Reference Guide to Logical Fallacies

Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter:  Claims to Fame, or the Question of Esoteric Grades

Of all the outlandish claims made by self-proclaimed esoteric leaders, there are none so prolific as those made to exalted, even celestial, levels of mystical knowledge and attainment.  False claims of Adepthood are fairly commonplace, so in order to make an impact and separate oneself from the commons, the fraudulent declaration of Magehood often rises up.  Although each of these assertions is markedly different and should be addressed as such, they both have one important quality in common.  Both smack of spiritual pride, which is a dangerous quality for any human being to possess, spiritual leader or not.

Although grade structures in various esoteric traditions run the full spectrum of possibilities, one of the most common is the architecture of the Qabalistic Tree of Life.  It is a framework deeply rooted in the Western Esoteric Tradition, the most common version of the glyph used having been taken from Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus published in 1652.  Furthermore, the idea of “climbing” the Tree from the Earth in order to return to the Divine Source fits the concept of esoteric grading hand-in-glove.

The basic framework behind the Tree of Life is the concept that the Divine One manifests itself in ten distinct and discrete stages, from the most ineffable Light all the way down to the material Universe.  Mapped to these stages are numerous qualities and attributes, including Names of God, Archangels, Angelic Orders, Classical Elements, geometric figures and many other things.  As seekers of the Light, this symbolic structure is a veritable Jacob’s Ladder for us to climb our way back to the Source.

It is common practice for an esoteric student to undertake the regimen of the Four Classical Elements, then equilibrate and consolidate them under the presidency of the Spirit or Quintessence.  When this process has been completed, the student is then elevated to a more sublime degree, where he is risen in the Light of the Sun as an Adept.  Typically, out of a pool of a hundred initiates, only a scant few ever make it to the Adept grade, though, you wouldn’t think this to be the case with so many people claiming to be Adepti out there.  However, there are ways to separate the legitimate Adepti from the impostors, if you know the characteristics of the grade to which they claim.

After making his way through the Elements, which correspond to the lower four levels of the Tree of Life, a new Adept (or Adeptus Minor) enters into the fifth level, which is known as Tiphareth, or “Beauty”.  Tiphareth has a planetary association with the Sun, and many Solar deities have certain qualities in common.  When contemplating gods such as Osiris, Christ, Mithras, Apollo, Lugh, and Baldur, you find the traits of self-sacrifice, rebirth, light, prophecy, healing, life, love and compassion.  The virtue of Tiphareth is said to be devotion to the Great Work, and a quality Adept will have that dedication, along with a healthy helping of the aforementioned attributions.  On the flip side, the vice of Tiphareth is pride and self-centeredness.  To this extent, if you interact with someone who’s selfish, insensitive, derisive, short-sighted, resentful, or even a bit narcissistic, you’re either dealing with an Adeptus Minor whose struggling with his grade, or, more likely, he’s not an Adept at all.

The next step up the Tree is the sixth level, known as Geburah, or “Strength”.  This is the realm of the advanced Adept, or Adeptus Major.  Geburah is associated with the planet Mars, and gods of war and combat, such as Ares, Horus, Sekhmet and Tyr, figure predominantly here.  Their qualities include such things as power, vitality, fortitude, might, combat and vengeance, sometimes even to the point of bloodlust.  That is part of the reason why Geburah has alternate titles, such as “Judgment” and “Fear”.  Along the same lines, it stands to reason that the virtues of Geburah are energy and courage, while its vices are destruction and cruelty.  

Peculiarly, it seems to be the nature of this grade that next to nobody ever claims it.  For some, the mere mystique of attaining the lesser grade of Adeptus Minor leaves them crowing about it.  For those whose shine on that golden dubloon has worn off, claims of Adeptus Exemptus, or even Magister levels, fill that void of vanity.  Those who actually are of the Adeptus Major grade typically are wise enough to keep their mouths hermetically sealed about it.  Despite the traditionally listed virtues, this grade seems to be strongly attuned to discipline, which most noticeably manifests itself in the form of Tacere, “To Keep Silent”, which is one of the Four Powers of the Sphinx.  This is one of many reasons why they have little to no desire to take on students. They are at a stage in their development in which they do not suffer fools gladly, not to mention that their bestowal of tough love would leave most students with thinner skins running for the door.

Typically, the illustrious grade to which most Chiefs or Order heads lay claim is the pinnacle of Adept degrees, known as Adeptus Exemptus.  This corresponds to the seventh level on the Tree, commonly referred to as Chesed, or “Mercy”.  That level is associated with the planet Jupiter, and a wide variety of deities such as Zeus, Jove, Odin, Thor, Marduk and Ma’at.  Common qualities among them include authority, majesty, electricity, ministry, beneficence, magnanimity, righteousness, justice, cosmic order, patriarchy and fatherly love.  Subsequently, the virtues of Chesed are humility and obedience, while its vices are qualities such as tyranny and hypocrisy.

Whether the person is of such a grade or not, if you find a mentor who acts as a nurturing father figure who gently guides with one hand and metes out justice with kindness and without favor, it would be hard to go wrong.  Furthermore, such a person, in the act of potentially harsh scrutiny, would always err on the side of mercy.  If you meet a so-called Adeptus Exemptus who has knee-jerk reactions and makes rash, irrevocable decisions, like expulsions, out of anger or frustration or just to save face, chances are he doesn’t meet the measure of the degree.  I once knew of an alleged Adeptus Exemptus who, when faced with a lawsuit, planned to retaliate by doing everything in his power to make the other party destitute and homeless.  Such a person should be ashamed to even don a white robe, much less claim the mantle of Chesed.

Yet, the debate as to the higher degrees of Adept really should be a rather moot point.  Israel Regardie, an Adept in his own right, once wrote:

“…it is impossible for the ordinary individual to understand those [grades] above the grade of Adeptus Minor, and individuals who lay claim openly to such exalted grades, by that very act place a gigantic question mark against the validity of their attainment.  He that is exalted is humble.”

Here, Regardie gives a picture perfect rule of thumb for any aspiring esotericist seeking mentorship.  Every potential mentor should be subjected to a significant amount of scrutiny.  For every grade above Adeptus Minor those mentors claim, that scrutiny should be, as very least, ratcheted up another order of magnitude.

This then brings us to the threshold of the most exorbitant esoteric claim to fame out there, that of having “crossed the Abyss”.  In the most rudimentary terms, the Abyss is an unfathomable gap in the Tree of Life, separating the top three tiers from the lower seven.  Those who claim to have made this insurmountable leap get to declare even higher grades, such as Magister and Magus!  They might say that their mindsets exist in a totally different reality, and I would agree, but absolutely not in a good way.  The top three levels of the Tree are so transcendent as to be indiscrete, and only the most arrogant and delusional egos would dare claim to go there and back again and survive in an individuated state.  (Yes, I’m looking at you, too, Mr. Crowley.)  Frederich Nietzche once said “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”  How would anyone be able to objectively describe such an event?  Would the words even exist?  These are the things you need to think about whenever someone makes such declarations about themselves and their achievements.

Lastly, regardless of how high up the Tree these people say they’ve climbed, it is of paramount importance to find out how these people got there.  Ideally, every mentor out there has studied under a viable master and received their initiations over a period of decades.  In reality, one does not always find such a systematic approach taken by the heads of esoteric Orders.  There are some Chiefs, “Grandmasters” even, who claim Magister level grades, but have never been initiated into anything in their lives.  In fact, there is an Order out there run by a person who claims he’s an Ipsissimus (the highest rung on the Tree!), because he completed something called the “Enochian Apocalypse Working Ritual”.  I can barely keep a straight face after writing that sentence.  By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that the method in which they received their grades is secret or none of your business.   The moment they started bragging about their grade, they made it your business!

When all is said and done, the claims to fame and the names of the grades are barely worth the words which annotate them.  Remember, by their fruits, ye shall know them.  If the esoteric community at large would spend more time focusing on the qualities of its leaders rather than their titles, it would be a much, much better place.

Next Chapter:  Un-FAQ's, or Questions Not Frequently Asked

Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Making First Contact

In the last article, I said to not blame the spiritual Path for the followers treading upon it. However, because we are dealing with esoteric Orders here, there is one stark exception to that rule, and that is in the case of the spiritual leaders of those Orders. In a very real sense, the Chief is the heart through which the life blood of an Order flows. Each tradition has its own egregore, and every Chief puts his imprint on that egregore, which gives his Order its own distinct tincture.

You may just dipping your toe in the vast oceans of various and sundry traditions right now, but in actuality, you are setting in motion the first step of the rest of your spiritual life. With all the Orders and covens and circles out there to choose from, you might feel like you’re walking through an esoteric job fair. What you really need to be thinking about, however, is finding the right launchpad for your magical career. In short, you should be in this for the long haul.

If that is indeed the case, then you need to be thinking about the various stages of your magical life as well. The word “neophyte” comes from the Greek for “newly planted”, and you haven’t even buried your seed in the ground yet. Right now, your needs as a spiritual sapling are to be first and foremost. Yet, you must consider what you want your esoteric realm to be and look like when you are the mightiest oak in the grove.

This is why observing the Chiefs of a magical Order is so important, even before you begin to think about joining it. If you get a good mentor, act as a good student, and move up the ladder over a period of years, you will indubitably end up working with a Chief of the Order. You may have had the best mentor on the planet for years, but then find out that his beatitude doubled as a mask in enabling a toxic spiritual leader. It is far better to find that out now than to invest several years walking down a path that you will have to abandon out of sheer necessity.

The challenge comes in, however, at attempting to actually check these Chiefs out. Order leaders are going to be busy with their own students and mentoring their mentors, not to mention the day to day drudgery of their own administrivia. You might see a ping on Facebook here, a blip on a blog there. However, if the Order you are inspecting has a Chief who presents a conspicuous public presence, that is both a warning and an opportunity. For one thing, it begs the question why the leader of a secret society would flaunt himself in public in the first place. More importantly, it allows you to scrutinize, at very least, how he chooses to present himself to the vast, uninitiated masses.

Now, when newcomers to the esoteric community first gaze upon the principal of a magical Order, they envision an idealized notion of an accomplished, equilibrated, serene, even beatific magical master who is engaged in perpetual gnosis and communication with his Holy Guardian Angel. I will be the first to admit that there are spiritual leaders out there that experience brief flashes of such apotheosis. That said, it is critical to remember and comprehend that spiritual leaders are human beings and must be scrutinized as human beings first and foremost.

Everything that was said about investigating fly-by-night mentors should go tenfold for examining Order Chiefs. Such people are assuming the position of the highest in their Orders, over and above their Adepti and mentors, with lofty titles (and likely over-inflated egos) to match. If they are going to stand on such a pedestal and claim a level above, then they should be held to that much of a higher standard.

These Chiefs may likely have social profiles for their own personal benefit, but you will know they are overtly displaying a public presence if they just so happen to have set up a blog devoted to their tradition and Order. For your reckoning, analyze such a presence as a bit of a hybrid of a social profile and the home page for a website.

That being the criteria, the most cursory examination should reveal the true purpose of the blog. If it is primarily for the dissemination of information on the tradition, read on! You might learn something. If the language has its origin in marketing, then you will have learned one important thing. It is meant to draw you in solely as a recruiting tool. Lastly, if the content is primarily lengthy, exhausting diatribes about other people, Orders or traditions, then it is a home for gossip at best, propaganda at worst. Again, “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people”.

Some of the worst offenses involve the disparaging of other significant groups or prominent people in their tradition. For example, if a High Priestess of a large coven starts publicly denouncing other groves and circles as “McWiccans”, she is probably not a person whom you would wish to emulate, much less follow. Some Order leaders go so far as to ridicule others by giving them belittling sobriquets and portray them with images of cartoon characters. It seems absurd that the bar should be set so low for spiritual leaders when it comes to basic maturity levels. Then again, if a so-called Chief cannot help himself but to trip over that particular hurdle, you know you’re dealing with an inimitable fraud.

Also beware those who, from time to time, decide to air other peoples’ dirty laundry out in public. This happens mostly in the context of ex-members who left the Order on less-than-friendly terms, or outright schismed en masse. Esoteric Orders are supposed to keep their internal proceedings private. For some reason, however, that principle has a tendency to fly out the window once such a Chief becomes displeased. Some alleged spiritual leaders can’t even muster enough grace to write a requiem for an ex-member who has passed through the Veil without kicking him in the grave. In the end, you may never know which side is right, but you can rest assured that, in such an Order, the dirty laundry that gets hung out to dry may very well be your own someday.

There is so much to cover in this particular area, but one more critically fundamental point needs to be made. If a Chief starts publicly announcing haughty and fanciful claims, such as being guided by the invisible hands of discarnate entities or being the reincarnation of some preeminent magus, do everything in your power to discern whether or not this person is delusional. That is not to say that any and all of these things are impossible. It is saying that such preposterous declarations have been made way too often for all of them to be valid!

Although you may find yourself disappointed by the behaviors of certain spiritual leaders after this phase, try not to abandon the tradition now. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” All heads of spiritual organizations possess power, but not all of them handle it responsibly, with temperance, wisdom and rectitude. Such esoteric leaders are best avoided, as they are a danger, not only to those around them, but to themselves as well.

Next Chapter:  The Claims to Fame

Making First Contact

Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Fly-By-Night Mentors

Now that you’ve chosen a small group of community members to interact with, and a few who have chosen to interact with you, you can start asking questions of them. At last! Maybe now you can get the answers you’re looking for! Maybe so, but what you really want is more than answers. You also want to know how those questions are answered. There is plenty of information about the person with whom you’re interacting, if you take enough time to read between the informational lines.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people”. For your benefit, you are going to want to talk about all of those things with your prospective mentors. This is not to say that you want, say, a small-minded person for a mentor. What you are looking for is a person who has been around long enough to have tackled all these things and, hopefully, has done it with a certain level of grace and dignity.

Although spiritual Orders are supposed to exist to be a channel to reach for the Higher, they are still comprised of human beings, who by their very nature are imperfect. Squabbles between different circles are commonplace, but even within groups of spiritual brothers and sisters, wherever two or more are gathered, politics is there in their midst. This is not a sad commentary on the state of esoteric Orders; it is simply a factor of the human condition. Do not blame the spiritual Path for the followers who are treading upon it.

The question then arises as to how much time and attention is given to such activities such as inter-Order politics. The more they quagmire themselves in such mundane trifles, the less focus they have on the actual Work. In litigious struggles, online skirmishes and witch wars, some may get ahead, but when all is said and done, no one really wins. Spiritual traditions and their communities end up diminishing themselves and their reputations. Yet again, there are those who stay out of the fray altogether, or actually conduct themselves with aplomb. It is those people who can rise above such things that have the most potential to be good mentors.

You may wish to withhold questions about community members until later, though. You want your first impression to be that of a light-seeker, not a gossip-monger. That said, give some thought to the initial questions you want to ask your group of potential mentors. This again comes back around to first impressions. If you ask a question whose answer is easily and readily found on the Web, there may be variable results, but none of them will be good. To the more unscrupulous mentors out there, you will be setting yourself up as an easy mark. The standup community members, however, are likely busy with projects in the magical, literary and mundane realms. To them, you will be wasting their time. No worthwhile mentor is going to take on a student who can’t do his own homework.

Once you get your answers, of course, check and cross-check them to see if they are valid, or at least consonant with the tradition at hand. For example, if a prospective mentor teaches you that the sign of Libra is ruled by the “esoteric planet” Atlantis, you’re not getting a lesson in astrology, you’re getting a bucket of hogwash. That’s not to say that there isn’t any room for innovation in a tradition. Many modern astrologers assign the planet Pluto as ruler over the sign of Scorpio, for instance. However, when it comes down to tradition versus innovation, consistency must rule the day. If a teacher proclaims to be a traditional astrologer in one breath and then spouts off about Ophiuchus being the 13th sign of the Zodiac in the next, he’s feeding you a line.

What’s happening here is these mentors are trying to be all things to all people to make their Orders look enticing, as if they have an edge on all the other groups out there. What that really makes, though, is not a good tradition nor a good Order, but just good recruiting, and nothing more. You’ll find that most especially in Orders which smash together a bunch of disparate traditions. Yes, syncretism is found at the very heart of the Western Esoteric Tradition, but again, coherence is the key to an intelligible magical system. A Thelemic Rosicrucian Order of Mystic Knights might sound really swank and exclusive, but more than likely, once inside, you’ll be served up a “garbage plate special” of cryptic tripe instead of sound arcane knowledge.

All that said, the other critical thing you need to pay attention to is how your questions are answered. Any teacher worth his salt is going to answer the question in a language the student is going to be able to understand. Anyone who answers in a grandiloquent fashion, all the while denigrating alternate views, is an instructor to avoid. A good mentor doesn’t need to beat others down in order to raise himself up. A great mentor doesn’t need to raise himself up at all.

This leads then to the question of the character of the mentors with which you are now interacting. A spiritual teacher could hold the keys to the mysteries of the universe. However, all that information is going to be of no use to his students if the teacher treats them in such a manner as to leave them spiritually and psychologically broken.

Knowledgeable mentors are those who have spent years working a magical system through and through. Oftentimes, though, such magical achievements yield a certain inflation of the ego, sometimes even leading to a level of self-adulation. They may treat your basic questions with an air of haughtiness or even a hint of derision. A telltale sign would be when such a mentor doesn’t know the answer to a question you might have but responds nonetheless. If the response smacks of rhetorical sophistry rather than pertinent information, then he’s being dishonest with both you and himself.

On the other hand, wise mentors are those who have allowed their magic to work on them as well. They understand the nature and importance of spiritual alchemy and the psychological transformation that it yields. These people will not have forgotten the steps on their path up the mountain, so they would answer your questions sincerely, on the level, and at your level. They would also have the proper balance of self-assurance and integrity to actually say “I don’t know” to questions outside their sphere of expertise. The best types of mentors will go so far as to make you think for yourself, rather than spoon-feed you answers from their font of knowledge.

Again, it would be wise to spend a number of weeks sifting through your short list of community members and filtering them out according to their proficiency in the tradition, their prowess in tutoring, and the quality of their rectitude as a spiritual advisor. Once this is done, now is the time to ask your key advisors about their affiliations and recommendations when it comes to esoteric Orders. Listen to them carefully and take their guidance in this regard seriously. Armed with their well-informed insight, you can now endeavor to make first contact with those esoteric Orders which would be the best fit for you.

Next Chapter:  Observing the Chiefs (If You Can)

Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Engaging the Community

During your initial communication and interaction phase, you may notice that some members start to correspond with you more than others. They may send you a friend request, which of course you happily accept. You want to be part of the community now, right? They may even start to instant message you outside the discussion group and strike up a conversation. Wow! This guy seems super-smart and really important, and he’s taking a shine to me! Isn’t that great?

Uhh, no. Not necessarily. There are scores of bogus, self-exalted mentors out there who use discussion forums, not for deliberation on the tradition or the development of its community, but as a pool of unwary potential candidates for their esoteric Orders. These mountebanks put on a performance in front of the incognizant, luring them in with saccharine dialogue and the pretense of the grandeur of their Order. (I like to call this “candi-bait”, a portmanteau of “candidate bait”.)

Speaking of plays on words, using the term “fly-by-night” is a deliberate pun. On modern terms, the phrase refers to something transitory or someone who’s unreliable at best, shady at worst. Originally, it was a slang term, conceived in the late 18th century, to refer to a woman of reproach, suggesting that she might be a witch! How scandalous an accusation for someone in that time! But I digress.

Returning to the whole aura and idea around grandeur, keep in mind that, as it often goes, the more magnificent the title, the more bloated the ego. Furthermore, if someone introduces himself to you as the Chief of a multi-national Order with temples world-wide, there is probably something amiss with that Chief or that Order. Why would the spiritual leader of a global convocation of seekers be trawling the Web for the next single seeker? Maybe the Order is not really so multi-national or the membership is not nearly so flush with members. Even if so, then the Chief is putting new recruits over his existing associates, and with that kind of dereliction of duty, his order may not be world-wide nor populous for very long!

Regardless of position or title, once you’ve been “friended”, you can glean quite a bit from a person’s social media profile. Although you want to avoid sweeping generalizations, you will be able to catch glimpses of the person’s mindset, character, and even intelligence. If a mentor doesn’t have a good grasp of his native language, why in the world would you want that person to teach you spellcraft if he can’t even spell? “Grimoire” comes from an Old French word meaning “grammar”, after all. Someone who passes along sensational news or informational memes that are easily debunked by a five-second Google search clearly lacks critical thinking skills. Esoteric mentors should have a discriminating eye for the truth. Even with setting spirituality aside, would you expect anything less from any other teacher?

Whether it be on one’s profile, or in discussion, also take particular notice to assure yourself that the person is consistent and, preferably, balanced. For example, it is a fairly common thing to find mystics using psychedelic substances to achieve altered states of consciousness. However, a mentor who practically glorifies drug culture is likely to not function well in the mundane world, or worse, may not be able to separate fantasy from reality. Being a weapons enthusiast is entirely within one’s rights, but when a leader of a group of “white lighters” publicly advocates “second amendment solutions” to societal problems, things just don’t add up. Defending one’s rights is admirable, and fighting for others’ rights is honorable, but if a person voices opinions sympathetic to certain cultural or racial “pride” groups, don’t expect them to play nice with people that are different from them, especially if they’re “untermensch”.

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone is a hypocrite to some degree. Cognitive dissonance and unenlightened self-interest are virtually the forces that spin the globe. That said, it should be reasonable to expect that a spiritual advisor should be something better than that. “More than human” is the term Israel Regardie used. Bear in mind though, that “more than human” is still always going to be less than perfect.

On the flip side, let’s say you engage in conversation with a person who has some very strong opinions and even a little bit of inside information. Once friended, however, the person’s social profile seems to be conspicuously thin. He has very few other friends on his profile, no one else seems to know this person, and after a second glance, you notice that the profile was set up only a few days ago. Chances are this profile is a sockpuppet, designed to advocate and attract people to (or scare them away from) a particular Order, while disguising the person’s true identity. For some reason, this seems to be a favorite practice of some of the worst Order leaders out there. These sockpuppets, and the people behind them, deserve nothing more than your silence.

Sockpuppets aside, if a tangible tutor’s public profile is a total turn-off, that doesn’t mean you can’t have cordial conversations. Having an interest in the occult is a rare thing, so finding people who share that interest is something to treasure. Just be clear in your interactions that, if pressed, you prefer a peer-to-peer rapport, and not a mentor-to-student relationship. Furthermore, if that pressure takes on the characteristics of a hard sell, especially if there are consequences included for not acting soon, you should probably think twice about having that person as a mentor. The path that you take and the choices about it that you make need to be directed by you and only you. This is your path. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated in any manner that steers you away from that.

When it comes right down to it, there’s no simple litmus test for occult tutors, so you’re going to have to do your esoteric background check all by yourself. By all means, you want to establish a level of trust with the people with whom you are choosing to interact. However, if one of those people can’t find a kind word to say about anyone else, all the while exalting himself above all others, he is trying to isolate you. Don’t be afraid, therefore, to ask your little circle of potential mentors about others in the community, most of all about the other mentors! Most of the community stalwarts are going to be kind about others, yet you will be surprised at some of the things they have witnessed and the stories they will tell. You will never know until you ask. Then, of course, always verify the information that you hear. You might be surprised to find, though, that some of the more outlandish rumors that you’re told, which you might normally reject as utterly ludicrous, are actually true. That said, it is a basic rule of thumb that the more discreet whisperings from the veterans of the tradition are going to have greater veracity than those you will find lingering about on slander sites littering the Web.

You also have to be on the lookout for the soft sell as well. Many of the fly-by-night mentors are very well practiced in the fine art of the schmooze. Some of them will try to fawn all over you, to try and ingratiate themselves to you, in order to bring you into the fold. The more seasoned ones are a little craftier. They will tell you exactly what you want to hear and just a little bit extra to whet your intrigue. Remember where you are at this moment. You’re not married to an Order, and you’re not engaged by an Initiation. You’re still on the esoteric dating scene, trying to connect on occult OKCupid. The smooth operators out there are going to tell you how wonderful you are and, if you just hook up with them, you’ll find all the resplendent brilliance and power of your dreams. Truth be told, however, they just want to get into your robes.

Again, if the question of tutelage comes up, don’t be moved. Really, the subject should be broached by you and on your timeline. Certainly, you can’t expect an esoteric suitor to hang around forever, but if he leaves at the first indication that you won’t be his pupil, then that will tell you what his intentions were all along. Same goes if the person gets impatient or pushy. That shows you his priorities, and he’s putting his over yours. Establish healthy boundaries now, because you may have to do it again, even after you’ve been a long-standing member of an esoteric Order.

Next Chapter:  Making First Contact

Engaging the Community

Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Orders in the Age of the Internet

After doing a bunch of internet searches and web surfing, you probably have a pretty good idea of which type of tradition is calling to you.  Whether it be Wicca, Thelema, Golden Dawn, OTO, Rosicrucianism, Paganism, Shamanism, Hellenic Reconstruction or what have you, there are going to be plenty of options to reach out and connect with people of a like mind.  Yet, the goal of this endeavor is not to just meet up and chat online (although, of course, you want to do that, too).  What you’re really looking for is to uncover the information about the esoteric Orders you researched that doesn’t show up on their websites.

Due to the dynamic and rapidly changing nature of the Internet, the locations and level of activity of these online discussion groups changes over time.  Back in the 80’s, it was USENET and groups like alt.magick.  At the turn of the century, Yahoo groups were all the rage.  In the early teens of the 21st century, most discussions seem to be through Facebook groups.  There are still websites out there set up as discussion groups, but they are becoming the exception rather than the rule.  Regardless, finding an online group that addresses your target tradition should not be that hard to do.

If you want to introduce yourself as a newcomer to the group, go right ahead.  If you want your initial message to be a little more substantive, ask for a list of good books on the tradition to read.  Jumping right in head first and asking every question you have on the top of your head, however, is not going to yield you the most effective results.  If the first thing you do once you get into a discussion group is ask what people think about Order XYZ, you will get flooded with opinions strewn across the full spectrum, heavily seasoned by all kinds of group politics.  You’re not going to know which opinions are coming from wizened members of the community and which are coming from propagandists, predators and delusional “true believers”.

The best thing you can do at this point is observe.  Dip your toe in the environment of the forum and get an idea of how feels intuitively.  If there’s too much time spent on petty bickering or the forum owners are using it as a soapbox for their political screeds or publicity stunts, find a different venue with a better signal-to-noise ratio.  Also, don’t assume that one discussion group, or a small subset of people in such a group, speak for an entire community.  For every loudmouth on the Internet, there are a hundred good seekers of the Light doing the Work in silence.

This phase of observation should not be rushed over a period of mere days.  This is about observing over a period of weeks, maybe even months.  Intertwine this observation phase with reading a couple good books focused on your chosen tradition.  I know you have a lot of questions. I know you want answers to those questions.  However, when it comes to those answers, you don’t want quantity, you want quality.  You, being a newcomer to the community and the tradition, likely will not recognize quality answers when you see them!  That is why it is so important to first observe.

Spend a fairly significant amount of time to read through the message archives or scroll through the timeline of the forum.  It shouldn’t take you very long to figure out the people to avoid.  You can easily discard those who seem to post about everything except the forum topic or tradition at hand.    They are not there to benefit the community; they are there to benefit themselves.  Steer clear of anyone who asks questions or makes comments that smack of radical pseudoscience, or worse, conspiracy theory.  They are a special amalgam of instant gratification and willful ignorance.  Bypass the ones who ask the most questions, or ask questions whose answers are easily found with a Google search.  They’re either looking for raw entertainment or quick, spoon-fed fixes, not the actual Work.  Also shy away from those people who generate the greatest amount of chatter.  For them, the discussion is more about their social circle than it is their magickal circle.  Remember, you want quality, not quantity.

By now, you’ve filtered out a vast majority of the participants, have gotten through a large chunk of your books, answered most of your own questions and generated a few new ones.  This is the time to start asking questions, but ask those questions which show that you've started doing your own research and homework.  As a rule of thumb, higher quality questions get higher quality answers from higher quality people.  Besides, by now, you will have observed enough to figure out, to some degree, which responses (and responders) can be dismissed out of hand.

As you continue to participate in the discussion group, start looking for a select few forum participants who share certain admirable qualities.  They would be the ones who listen much more than they speak.  They present themselves as knowledgeable without being pretentious or disparaging.  They are mature enough to not have to have the last word all the time.  Those qualities of character are of paramount importance, but just as important is their level of experience and longevity in the tradition.  You want to be able to talk to those people who are community builders but have been around for decades and witnessed the worst flaws of their society with their own eyes.

These are the people to which you want to ask the more sensitive, incisive questions.  Again, don’t jump right in and inundate them with your questions about the Orders out there and which one to pick.  These folks are usually extremely busy with rituals or writing or some other such community project.  They place a great value on their time and do not suffer fools gladly.  However, if you approach them with dignity and respect, and establish a rapport with them first, most of them will be more than happy to hold their Lamp of Knowledge out for you, so that you might find the Path that’s right for you.

Next Chapter:  Fly-By-Night Mentors

Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Section I: Introduction

Back at the turn of the 19th century, if you wanted to get involved in an esoteric Order, you needed to know somebody. Secret societies were, well, still secret back then, for the most part. On rare occasion, one might see an editorial, or even rarer, an advertisement in a fringe magazine, with contact information through postal mail, if one was lucky.

How much things have changed in a century and a quarter.

When I was initially looking for the Golden Dawn in 1997, I stumbled upon AvatarSearch one night, which billed itself as the search engine for the occult Internet. Although it’s already been gone for a few years, it did a pretty good job in its day. I remember typing in “Golden Dawn” and immediately getting half a dozen solid hits. Before I knew it, it was 3 AM, my eyes were glazed over, and so was my mind from all the information that had been thrown at it. I started out excited, and ended up inundated.  Nearly two decades later, in a World Wide Web where “Google” has become a verb, a newcomer would only get more overwhelmed.

Solid, principled esoteric Orders have to walk an interesting tightrope in the 21st century. Tradition holds that they operate under a veil of secrecy. They have their oaths to preserve and their heritage to protect. Contemporary society, however, almost demands that they present some sort of public presence. This typically rubs raw against Orders’ oaths of secrecy, but it also provides them a powerful benefit, as they also have the responsibility of their egregore to perpetuate. Finding that balance is a difficult exercise, but one that they should not shrink away from, as good Orders are all about proper equilibrium, for their members and themselves.

Because of this, websites of responsible esoteric Orders are going to be predominantly for educational and informational purposes.  If their tradition already has a rich and protracted history, plenty of space will be devoted to it.  If the Order is a variation on a tradition, or an entirely new incarnation, expect there to be some sort of founding statement or manifesto, defining itself and its raison d'ĂȘtre.

Every half-decent website is going to have a fairly sizeable section devoted to resources, including such things as references, articles, images, historical letters, art, news, and event announcements.  Information pertaining to the Order's teachings, even if it has been published for decades, should be significantly excised, simply out of respect to the tradition and its oaths.  However, you can get an idea of the group's mindset and center of attention from the resources they provide.  If their materials adhere closely to their own tradition, you can expect the Order to be focused and devoted to that tradition.  However, if their information spans widely across a number of different doctrines and practices, it could be evidence of a hazy concentration on, or worse, a fundamental lack of understanding of, their own tradition.

Since these sites are primarily about information, and because these Orders are still semi-secret, don’t be surprised if they make it a little difficult to find out anything about how to become a member.  In fact, you should count on it.  You might find a reference on a remote page to a post office box or an email address.  At most, there may be an online form to fill out for serious inquiries only.  Many Orders, including ones with groups, circles or temples world-wide, shy away from publishing their locations.  After all, a good Order is going to, first and foremost, be discreet.

The more dubious Orders out there do not suffer this conundrum.  In this day and age, anyone with a little pocket change and time on their hands can register a domain name and set up a slick website, replete with fluffy bunny affirmations, surrounded by lots of eye candy.  In this sense, the Internet is the “Wild Wild Web” when it comes to trying to make heads or tails of legitimate esoteric Orders.

Those types of groups, more especially the smaller ones, are more than ready to let you know how widespread they are.  The thing is, finding out that an Order has multitudinous temples across the globe really doesn’t tell you much.  When newcomers see the word “temple”, they think of a free-standing building with dozens of people participating.  Truth be told, many of the “temples” out there are a couple people running things out of their spare bedroom, if you’re lucky.

The same goes for any references to membership brought up by the website.  Simply put, the earlier there is mention of the ease, and especially the cost, of joining their Order, the sooner you know what their focus is truly on.  If the information on the main page of the website reads like the script of a bad infomercial, then it is highly likely that they are trying to sell you something.  That’s fine if you’re looking to buy a pentacle necklace, a cool talisman or some other pretty bauble, but we’re talking about the first step on a new spiritual life here.  Think about it.  If a website claims to be the elite Order of its tradition, would it be so indiscriminate of its applicants as to allow anyone with a credit card and a button click to become a member?

Along the same vein, if an Order claims that they have all the tools and tricks to make your newly-founded spiritual life instantly powerful and easy, then they are trying to take you to the cleaners.  There are many reasons why the endeavor is called “The Great Work”.  It’s because it takes a Great deal of Work to achieve it.  Any good writer can give easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions for rituals and ceremonies.  Knowledge, however, falls considerably short of gnosis, and won’t get you even near the threshold of understanding or wisdom.  Spiritual growth requires a great deal of personal introspection, admission of hard truths about yourself, and significant psychological change.  There are no short cuts.  You will not hold dominion over your own personal world until you first know thyselfAs above, so below.  As within, so without.

Remember that this is but your very first step in finding the spiritual path that is right for you at this very moment.  Surfing the web is a good opportunity to get a glimpse of what’s available out there.  However, just because certain statements and claims are out there on the Internet, that doesn’t make them true.

If you want to find the right esoteric Order, you are going to need to do more than scratch the surface.  You are going to need to crack the veneer.  There are plenty of people out there, also accessible through the Internet, who have been underneath the candy-coated shell.  You can glean a great deal of valuable information from them, if you next choose to seek them out and engage them properly.

Next Chapter:  Engaging the Community

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