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

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