Today, I was very honored to be interviewed by Edward Reib and Joe Shantz for the Esoterinerd Podcast!   It was a real blast, and it was wonderful to reconnect with them after so many years. We were able to traverse our collective experiences, contrast with what we've been doing recently (in some of my writings) and even discuss some short but salient points in our magical practices as well.

I, for one, will be flying my Esoterinerd flag high for a long time to come.  Take a listen and I sincerely hope you enjoy!

The First Matter

Once again, the Wheel of the Year has turned, and we find ourselves in the newest Leap Year.  Traditionally, the New Year is a time for resolutions and new beginnings.  But Mercury is now in retrograde, and as such is in the midst of its three-week do-si-do across the Capricorn-Aquarius cusp.  So presently, I would argue that it is a more optimal time for introspection and contemplation, so that you would have well-crafted plans to launch around the time the Sun moves into Aquarius.

Perhaps part of your contemplation includes seeking out an esoteric group, organization or Order.  In fact, I have seen a number of inquiries as of late on public forums alluding to exactly that.  Usually, the seeker states their interest in a particular spiritual path, but laments that there are no such groups in his/her area.  Respondents do their best to assist or sympathize, but easy answers are usually at a premium.  Still, I think it is still necessary for the seeker – any seeker – to do one’s level best to help oneself.

When it comes to esoteric Orders, most of my time is spent advising people what to look out for and what to avoid.  Here, I would endeavor instead to advise seekers what to look for and what to do to be successful in their endeavor.

With the ubiquity of the Internet, it is all too easy to jump into social media, ask a question and expect easy answers.  We as a society have all but taken this for granted in the 21st century.  So at risk of sounding trite, I find myself forced to start my consultation with the most basic of questions.

Question #1: “Did you look?” 

When I was first seeking out Golden Dawn Orders in 1997, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon AvatarSearch.  It billed itself as the search engine of the occult Internet.  It folded a dozen years later, but it was the tool that got me to the threshold of the organized Golden Dawn community.

Nowadays, Google is your friend, and many well-known organizations out there will have websites, set up with pages displaying all of their locations.  Setup and hosting of a website is extremely easy and cheap these days, more especially with WordPress, so even the smallest, most isolated group out there can have a public face.

The ease of Internet publicity is a boon for most every esoteric group, but it could also be a stumbling block for seekers as well.  It means that any charlatan can present him/herself as a spiritual guru.  Even some of the larger esoteric groups out there use their websites as a huge marketing ploy instead of a channel for the Light, and they will be more than happy to trumpet their locations world-wide to bring you in.  Remember that spiritual groups identify themselves as esoteric for a reason; they are supposed to value the virtues of privacy, secrecy and proper discretion.

Question #2:  “Did you ask?”

Search engines and social media are a great launching point, but they are not the be-all and end-all.  Your search for a spiritual life is a harbinger of actually living a spiritual life; you get out what you put in and you reap what you sow.  So if you are truly interested in esoteric spiritual groups that are actually spiritual and esoteric, you need to talk to those who are in the know.

Talking to experienced folks online will get you a better feel for spiritual paths and organizations in general.  However, if you are looking for local groups specifically, you will find such communications will give you scattershot results at best.  Besides, even if a person knows about a group, they may not have the relevant contact information at hand (or rather, the authority to divulge that information).

It is important, in this age of the Internet, to not forget the resources in your own neighborhood.  Remember that new age bookstore downtown?  More likely than not, it is struggling to keep its doors open, so go visit it.  Most of them have flyers plastering the walls, and maybe one of them has just the contact information you’re looking for.  If not, get to know the proprietors.  Part of this path is getting to know people of a like mind, is it not?  In fact, I would recommend you find the five closest occult stores nearest you and visit them all.  You will likely find that, by the time you get to the fifth closest, you won’t be within your city limits anymore.  This alone will give you an idea of the strength of the esoteric community around you (or at least its public face, anyways).

Question #3: “Did you do what was asked of you?”

Bear in mind that most any esoteric order with an operational history that goes back decades, or even centuries, is going to be a little “old school”.  Some will require you to fill out an application form, whereas others may ask you to send an inquiry via post with a self-addressed stamped envelope included.  You might be interviewed, or asked to write a short essay about why you would want to join their group.
This is another mark of a good esoteric group, because it shows that they are circumspect and their tradition is for the select few.  Dues might come into play, but they are much more interested in your dedication and zeal than your money.  Their tradition is important to them, and they are going to respect it by not only walking the path themselves, but also by bringing in people who are serious about walking it as well.
So if you’re not willing to fulfill the requests made of you as a candidate, that’s just an indication to them that you are not going to put in the time and effort in their tradition, and you simply won’t find yourself becoming one of their initiates.   There is a reason why this quest is called the Great Work; it takes a great deal of work to achieve it.  Your spiritual life is too important to TL;DR.

Question #4: “Is your priority enlightenment or convenience?”

So far, I have addressed the “I’m looking to join an esoteric group” part of the goal, and it is true that most seekers will spend most of their time considering what spiritual path seems best for them at the time.  But what is often left glossed over is the “but there are no groups in my area” portion.  When a seeker hits this very common initial obstacle, they will often drop their aims and wander off for something less than ideal but closer to home.

Success in your spiritual journey is more than just picking the right path for you.  It is also about following the right guides and walking the path with the right companions.  Even in this modern day, esotericists are few and far between, and good people are hard to find in any age, so why would you think that you would find them in your own backyard?

When all is said and done, proximity is one of the worst reasons to join an esoteric group.

The fact of the matter is, unless you are extremely lucky, you are going to have to travel to get initiated.  More often than not, you will have to cross borders, whether they be state, province or country.  Many groups have attendance and participation requirements of their members, so you will be expected to travel as such on a somewhat regular basis.  As you progress through your group’s degrees, the pool of members will become shallower, and you will probably need to travel even farther for higher level initiations, perhaps even overseas.

None of this should come as any surprise.  The fanciful notion of the young seeker traveling leagues to find his or her spiritual guru is practically iconic.  Yet when it comes to the seekers of today, few seem to realize that they need to get out of their armchairs in order to go off on a spiritual adventure. 

When you started looking for the Light of Occult Knowledge, what part of that gave you the impression that any of this was meant to be convenient?

Since time immemorial, those esoteric few who hear that call to be more than human go to the Mountain of Initiation for enlightenment.  The Mountain does not come to you.

All this can really be boiled down to one very simple question: "Why?"  Why do you really want to join an esoteric group?  The answer to that simple question should end up being deep and complicated.  This is why the words “KNOW THYSELF” are inscribed in the pronaos of the Temple.  It is important, if not downright incumbent, to be completely honest with yourself as to what truly is compelling you to seek initiation, long before you ever approach the Temple.

You only have one opportunity to take your first step on your spiritual journey.  Make it sure-footed and true.

If we are to believe everything we read on the Internet, there was an event last Tuesday night which changed the world!  Not seen in over 2000 years, the "Star of Bethlehem" was reappearing in the Heavens! 

Dramatic!  Rare!  Magical!  Behold!

Ooh, shiny!

I jest, of course, but the clickbait just got to be too much. Also, when people get caught up in the good feelings of drama and fantasy, they tend to develop an acute allergy to reality and facts.

Jupiter and Venus conjoin every 13 months or so on the average, and their conjunction in 1988 was significantly closer. Furthermore, Venus goes retrograde between July 25 and September 6, so this conjunction is only the first one in a triple conjunction between the two planets. (Now that's a little more rare; it happens about once every ten years.)  The first encounter is the closest, however, and there is actually plenty of omens and portents in the Heavens overall at that moment which are worthy of inspection.

Starting with the focal matter at hand, we have the celestial tango of the Greater and Lesser Benefics under the solar spotlight in the Sign of Leo.  Love meets charity, beauty bonds with bounty.  In and of itself, aside from a very weak square to Saturn retrograde in Scorpio, there are no drawbacks here whatsoever.

Propping up this beatific conjunction are trines to Uranus in Aries and Luna in Sagittarius.  There is a strong impulse for sudden change here, change in an independent and perhaps unorthodox manner, coupled with idealistic optimism.  These three assemble a Grand Trine in the Fire signs, adding fuel, power and balance to this impetus.  The Grand Trine itself is somewhat transitory, as Luna forms one of its vertices, but it makes that snapshot in time all the more significant.

The only thing that would have made this conjunction more auspicious is if it were just a few degrees further along in the Zodiac.  Then it would have conjoined with the fixed star Regulus as well.  Regulus is Cor Leonis, the Heart of the Lion, one of the four Royal Stars of Persia, and the "kingmaker" among the stars.  In this case, however, Jupiter would hand over his sceptre to a new Cytherean Queen.  If one is looking more towards a spiritual omen, it would be more the case of "God is coming back and boy is she pissed!"  Despite the precise conjunction not really being there, the path of the triple conjunction does pass over Regulus, so I anticipate seeing more women rise to positions of power in the future.  This heralds a change in the governmental order of things, and Pluto hovering in Capricorn would back that up.  (The last time Pluto hung out in Capricorn, France and the American Colonies had their revolutions.)

The patriarchal structure will not go unopposed, literally, as a Sol-Mars conjunction in Cancer is trying to extinguish Luna's enthusiasm by fighting Fire with Fire.  That conjunction having a trine to Neptune retrograde in Pisces supports that resistance through belief systems and disinformation.  One can even see shades of the Emanuel AME and black church burnings in all of this.  As would be indicated by the outpouring of forgiveness from the victims and the subsequent "Hate Won't Win" campaign catching Fire, so to speak, the benefic conjunction supported by the Grand Trine prevails, with an assist from Pluto opposing the Sol-Mars conjunction. 

So this is indeed an auspicious snapshot of the Heavens, but the Star of Bethlehem it is not.  However, if you want to look for the next solid candidates to herald the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, look to the Grand Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius close to Winter Solstice 2020 and Spring Equinox 2080.  Their close encounters bring each other within 6 arc-minutes of one another, which is 4 times closer than this last Jupiter-Venus conjunction.

Just a few days ago, Nick Farrell posted a list of Ten Tips for Young Occultists on his blog.  Although replete with personal experience and insight, it was also controversial, and ruffled some feathers in the wider esoteric community.  They too had their own valid insights and counterpoints.  I think the most unfortunate part of the quibbling was that the delivery and tone overshadowed the message in almost every case.

I've already written a lot about being careful of toxic teachers in the esoteric arena, but so far, there has been a fundamental point left unexpressed.  It is the seeker, the student, that has just as much responsibility for the situations and relationships they get themselves into.  I cannot count the number of times newcomers read the Survival Guide articles, have them agree with every word, and then go back and do everything the articles told them not to do.  (Needless to say, these people do not become my students.)   So yes, there are toxic teachers, but there are toxic students as well.  They are the ones who will generate tons of drama focused upon themselves, suck up the vast majority of the group's time and energy, and when the teacher tries to set a healthy boundary, they run off screaming that they got spiritually and psychologically abused. 

It is my aim here to present the same types of tips, not just for the student, but also for the teacher.  I also hope to present them in a much more composed and philosophical manner, and in that spirit, I look to one of the greatest philosophers in history, Socrates.

For Students

Tip #1:  "All I know is that I know nothing."

This is the original Socratic Paradox.  The initial spark of true wisdom lies in recognizing one's own ignorance.  When you are in the position of the student, this is a tenet that is fundamental to embrace.  Keep an open mind.

Tip #2:  "If he who does not know kept silent, discord would cease."

Instead of this tip being about the value of a student's opinion, I suggest it should rather be about silence itself.  This is not about muzzling underlings.  It's about basic discipline and common courtesy.  Elementary school children are expected to exercise such restraint in the classroom.  Why shouldn't adult-aged esoteric students?

Tip #3:  "Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue – to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak."

As a student, are you there to learn the mysteries or to express yourself?  This doesn't mean you shouldn't question the teachings, but it does mean that you can't receive the teachings if you're spending all your time chattering.  For everything, there is a season.  Let that open mind act as a sponge.  There will be plenty of time to share later, when sharing has greater value.

Tip #4:  “There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.”

The Socratic Method has been used for millenia as an effective teaching tool which stimulates critical thinking (something woefully lacking in most new age circles).  Ask lots and lots of questions, but only ask relevant questions.  Be an active participant in your learning.  You, and you alone, are responsible for it!

Tip #5:  “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”1

Crowley said "Every man and woman is a star".  What he neglected to mention is that you're a single star in a galaxy 100,000 light-years wide, among 300 billion other stars.  You may be unique, but you're not all that.  On the other hand, you're not some cold, dead planet, either.  At least you have some light, so it's up to you how you want to shine.

Tip #6:  “My plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth.”

For being perhaps the greatest philosopher ever known, Socrates could get a little rough around the edges.  He didn't mince words when it came to children and their "bad manners", "contempt for authority" and the way they would "tyrannize their teachers".  Good teachers do not suffer fools gladly.  They will set you straight when you need it, and tell you the unvarnished truth when you don't want to hear it.  By all means, never tolerate abuse, but start developing a thicker skin sooner rather than later.  Because if you act like a dumb ass, you're going to get butthurt.  Suck it up, Buttercup.  You didn't think occultism was all unicorns and rainbows, did you?  If you got your wake-up call from your teacher instead of Andras, you got off light.

Tip #7:  “To be is to do.”

It is amazing how many students get their initiations and then do virtually nothing, as if joining is all there is.  If belonging isn't quite enough, they will tend to pull the group into becoming some social club with a casual interest in the mysteries.  Remember why you're there.  The only thing that matters is the Work.  You might make friends there, but you're not there to make friends, and the teacher is definitely not there to be your BFF.  Get your priorities straight, and don't waste people's time, either the teacher's or your own.

Tip #8:  “Socrates gave a lot of advice, and he was given hemlock to drink.” — Rose Kennedy

If the relationship has any tangible duration or depth, transference issues between student and teacher are practically inevitable.  Transference can either take a positive (attractive) or negative (repulsive) form, but either way, the teacher is always expected to gracefully deflect such things.  It doesn't always happen that way, and it's very easy and very human to cast aspersions.  Furthermore, if your opinion of your teacher swings suddenly from Angel on Earth to Demon from Hell, then the flaw is probably not on your teacher, but rather on your viewpoint.  This may come as a shock to new students, but teachers are human, too.  Instead, take the "more than human" approach, check your ego at the door and gain some introspection. 

Tip #9:  “Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

You didn't think that the Temple furniture and regalia just appeared out of thin air, or that the Temple was set up with a wave of the Hierophant's Wand, did you?  When you enjoyed the Mystic Repast, did you ever wonder where the rose and wine, bread and salt came from?  If you think traveling a couple hours to Temple once a month is such a hardship, instead try hosting that day and organizing the other thirty days of the month.  Stop taking your teachers and your Temples for granted.  Show your appreciation not just in words and dues but in deeds.  Bring something to the table.  If you don't know what, do what you do in the classroom: ASK.

Tip #10:  “I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”

Question everything and everyone, but do so discreetly and respectfully.  Learn that oftentimes, the delivery is just as important as the message.  Because Socrates also said, “To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul.”  If the adults in the room stop acting like adults, it could either be a knee-jerk reaction which will cool down in time, or it might be symptomatic of a more systemic problem.  If the issue is irreconcilable, then it might be time to part ways.  So when you as a student do the questioning, have a clear line to your teacher, but also have a clear path to the door.

For Teachers

(You might see a pattern here)

Tip #1:  "All I know is that I know nothing."

This is the original Socratic Paradox.  The perpetual spark of true wisdom lies in recognizing one's own ignorance.  The more you study a subject, the wider the field gets, and more you realize how uneducated you truly are.  When you are in the position of the teacher, this is a tenet that is fundamental to embrace.  Keep an open mind.

Tip #2:  "If he who does not know kept silent, discord would cease."

You don't know everything.  You don't even know everything about the tradition you're teaching.  Some teachers are so insecure that they feel they have to pad their knowledge where their education is thin.  You would be surprised how much respect you would get from your students if you didn't have the answer and honestly said "I don't know".  You're a teacher, not a bullshit artist.

Tip #3:  "Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue - to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak."

As a teacher, are you there to teach the mysteries or to grab the spotlight and show off?  This doesn't mean you shouldn't disseminate the teachings, but it does mean that the students ought to be able to play a role in their own learning.  Let that open mind act as a sounding board.  Any teacher who can't learn something from his/her students is no good teacher at all.

Tip #4:  “There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.”

The Socratic Method has been used for millenia as an effective teaching tool which stimulates critical thinking (something woefully lacking in most new age circles).  These are not just students you're teaching, but the next generation of teachers of your tradition!  Be an collaborative participant in your training.  You, and you alone, are responsible for it!

Tip #5:  “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

You may be well-educated in your tradition, but you're not all that.  You may have more light than your students, but the light you shine won't make a lick of difference if your students aren't engaged and their eyes are closed.  Foster a contemplative environment in your classes.

Tip #6:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

If your students are not sycophants (and you don't want them to be), they are going to be a little rough around the edges.  By all means, you do not have to suffer fools gladly, but don't forget that you once were them.  Set them straight when they need it.  Otherwise, first pass it through the Three Sieves of Socrates: Is it true, is it good, is it useful?  In other words, don't be a cunt.

Tip #7:  “To be is to do.”

For teachers, it's easy to talk the talk.  But teaching is more than pontificating, it's about leading by example, so you'd better be ready to walk the walk as well.  Because if you do not practice what you preach, you're not going to be a respected teacher, you're going to be just another hypocritical poseur.

Tip #8:  “Mankind is made of two kinds of people: wise people who know they're fools, and fools who think they are wise.”

If the relationship has any tangible duration or depth, transference issues between teacher and student are practically inevitable.  Transference can either take a positive (attractive) or negative (repulsive) form, but either way, the teacher is always expected to gracefully deflect such things.  It doesn't always happen that way, and it's very easy and very human to cast aspersions.  Furthermore, if your opinion of your student swings suddenly from Angel on Earth to Demon from Hell, then the flaw is probably not on your student, but rather on your viewpoint.  New students are raw and haven't been refined in the fires of the alchemical furnace yet.  Take the "more than human" approach like you're supposed to, check your ego at the door and gain some introspection.

Tip #9:  “Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

You didn't think that these students appeared out of thin air to put you on a pedestal and wait on you hand and foot, did you?  The relationship is teacher and student, not master and servant.  Stop viewing your students as underlings.  Show some appreciation for their participation and enthusiasm.  Everyone brings something to the table.  If you don't know what that is, open your eyes and stop looking down your nose.

Tip #10:  “I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”

As a leader in the esoteric community, you are going to be questioned mercilessly, misrepresented constantly and judged harshly.  It's not going to matter what you do or say, so you might as well do and say the right things.  If the children in the room act up and act out, it could either be a knee-jerk reaction which will cool down in time, or it might be symptomatic of a more systemic problem.  If the issue is irreconcilable, then it might be time to part ways.  So when a student questions you, let him question you directly, but if he crosses the line, don't hesitate to show him the door.

For Students Who Think They Don't Need Teachers

Tip #1:  “Experience is the best teacher, but a fool will learn from no other.” — Benjamin Franklin

Enough said.

1May be misattributed

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

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