The following is excerpted from Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, available from Weiser Books.
Since the most ancient times on record, in every part of the world, a body
of traditional wisdom about the nature of the universe and of humanity has been
handed down from teacher to student.
This wisdom has taken diverse forms and has borrowed the language and
symbolism of many creeds and cultures.
In all its many forms, however, it deals with the deepest mysteries of
human existence: the nature,
origin, and destiny of the universe and of the human soul; the hidden powers
that lie concealed in humanity; and the practices by which these powers can be
awakened, trained, and put to constructive uses. This ancient wisdom has carried many names on its journey
down through the centuries; nowadays, in the modern industrial West, it is most
commonly known as the mystery teachings.
There is every reason to think that this ancient wisdom had already reached
its full richness and complexity long before the first cities emerged from
tribal villages and the habit of painting images on wood and cloth gave rise to
the first systems of writing.
Certainly the oldest forms of the mystery teachings that have come down
to us are every bit as rich and subtle as those in circulation today. Where and when the mystery teachings
began is a question no one can answer with any assurance. Legends from various corners of the
world make many different claims, none of which can be proven or
disproven. Still, we do know that
the wise men and women who passed down the oldest known mystery teachings were
careful students of nature, and it may be that the forgotten founders of the
mystery traditions drew their knowledge from the same source: learning the lessons that nature has to
teach, and phrasing them in whatever ways their students would be most likely
to learn and remember.
From ancient times straight through to the present, these mystery teachings
were the public face of the mystery schools themselves. A great deal of confusion and misinformation
has gathered around these schools in recent years. Some stories about them amount to little more than gaudy
fantasies about immortal masters with superhuman powers hidden away in
Himalayan fastnesses; others are equally gaudy horror tales about devil worship
or political conspiracy. The truth
is far simpler, and far more interesting.
The mystery schools are, first and foremost, schools. They have their teachers, who have
qualified for their positions through many years studying and practicing the
mystery teachings. They have their
students, who have qualified to enter the schools by passing certain tests of
character and willingness to learn, and who study and practice the teachings of
the school. They have their
curriculums, which include the study of symbolism, philosophy, and ethics, as
well as the practice of inner disciplines such as meditation, ritual, and
prayer. The studies are meant to
train the students to think clearly, to act wisely, and to make sense of the
experiences gained through the practices; the practices themselves are designed
to open up states of consciousness unfamiliar to most people outside the
mystery traditions, for it is in these states of consciousness that the hidden
powers of the human soul are awakened.
The mystery schools also confer ceremonies of initiation. A great deal of nonsense has been
spread about these ceremonies over the years by people who have never
experienced them. In reality,
initiation ceremonies are simply dramatic performances that present core insights of the mystery
teachings in symbolic form. In an
initiation ceremony, the candidate is shown the symbols and presented with the
teachings that are central to the grade of learning he or she is about to
enter, and makes a formal promise to accept the duties and pursue the studies
of that grade. The course of study
and practice that follows the initiation, not the mere fact of passing through
such a ceremony, confers whatever inner capacities the grade of initiation is
meant to develop in the student.
Even in ancient times, there were already several different mystery schools
in most nations, and some of the most famous initiates of those days won much
of their fame by traveling from one center of initiation to another, passing
through the courses of training offered by different mystery schools, and
mastering the studies and practices of each. Nowadays travel across long distances is easier and quicker
than it was in the days when it might take a month of travel on foot, and
another month or more on a sailing vessel, to go from the mystery temples of
Egypt to those of Greece. This has
created an even greater diversity of mystery schools in most modern countries. There is no central authority to which
the various mystery schools answer; they function independently of one another,
and present their own teachings to their own students in their own ways.
All this, at least in modern times, is done very quietly and with a minimum
of publicity. The work of the
mystery schools is carried on in small groups that meet in private homes or
rented offices, or by correspondence lessons circulated by mail or the
internet. The schools rarely
publicize themselves or their activities, though a determined student who seeks
training in the mysteries rarely has to search long before he or she finds a
source of instruction.
Now and again it becomes possible for a mystery school to establish a center
where the lessons can be taught and the rituals performed on a grander scale,
but this has always had certain risks.
Human ignorance, which always fears what it does not understand and
always tries to destroy what it fears, is a danger that the mysteries and their
initiates have always faced; and there is also the danger that a mystery school
that becomes too prominent will attract people more interested in status and
wealth than in the teachings themselves.
The costs of maintaining a large complex of buildings, staff, and the
like, is also not a small factor; in order to make their teachings available to
as many people as possible, mystery schools generally ask for money only to the
extent that is necessary to cover expenses, and thus only in very modest
amounts. Any organization that
demands substantial sums for teaching and initiation is engaged in the business
of making money, not in the work of the mysteries.
While the schools are usually private, or at most semipublic, their
introductory teachings have generally been made public whenever this has been
possible. One sign that mystery
schools are active and accepting students in any society is the appearance of
the basic mystery teachings in some publicly accessible form. These public teachings may use the
language of poetry, philosophy, or religion; they often borrow the commonplaces
of popular culture in the place and time where they appear, but they always
express a distinctive set of attitudes toward humanity and the universe, they
always hint at the existence of unrecognized powers lying dormant in the human
soul, which can be awakened by paths of discipline and devotion; and they
always provide some basic instruction in awakening those powers and pursuing
the path of the mysteries.
These public presentations of the basic teachings of the mysteries have a
dual purpose. Their obvious
purpose is to attract the attention of those who might be suited to the study
of the mysteries, to give them some basic instructions, and to encourage them
to seek the schools where further instruction can be obtained. Their less
obvious purpose is to place certain ideas in circulation in society at large,
to help remedy whatever imbalances have crept into the popular thinking of the
time, and to further the cause of public education and enlightenment.
In the Western world, during recent times, it has become a common practice
to present the core teachings of the mysteries in the form of seven clearly
defined laws or principles and then to expand on these principles by way of
commentary. While the number
of principles is fixed at seven for symbolic reasons, the principles themselves
vary from one presentation to another.
Every expression of the mystery teachings is shaped by the needs of the
time in which it finds its way into the public sphere, and must rely on the
resources of language and knowledge available to its authors and its audience.
These resources change with the passing years. Words lose and gain meanings over time, and ways of using
language that communicate clearly to one generation often seem difficult and
obscure to the generation that follows.
Nor will images drawn from the everyday life of one generation
necessarily make sense to those who live in a different age.
In ancient Greece, for example, chariots were an everyday part of life. Most people had either driven one or
ridden in one, and everyone knew what happened when the two horses who pulled a
chariot decided to go in two different directions at the same time. Plato, the Greek philosopher whose
writings presented the mystery teachings to the general reading public of his
country and time, could compare the soul to a chariot pulled by unruly horses,
and get instant understanding from his students and readers. That understanding comes harder to
people of our time, most of whom have never seen a chariot outside books or
Changes in knowledge and culture also play their part. In ancient Greece, geometry was a new
and exciting science, still being developed by some of the greatest minds of
the age, and most people in the Greek city-states had heard at least a little
about it. Plato deliberately made
use of this when he wrote about the mystery teachings, weaving geometrical
patterns into his dialogues and borrowing geometrical metaphors to make his
points more clear to his students and readers. At the time, it made his writings accessible to his
readers; a few centuries later, another author, Theon of Smyrna, had to write a
book titled The Mathematics Necessary to Understand Plato, because times
had changed and ideas that were part of the common currency of thought in
Plato's time were no longer familiar.
In the early twentieth century,
when most versions of the mystery teachings that are in common
circulation nowadays were written, psychology was the new and exciting science
about which most people had heard a little, and so the authors of these later
presentations organized their works according to psychological principles and
borrowed psychological examples to pass on the same teachings as Plato's, in new and more easily accessible
forms, to their students and readers.
With the passing of time, in turn, many of the psychological references
in these writings have become much less familiar than they were, though no
Theon of Smyrna has yet emerged to write The Psychology Necessary to
Understand The Kybalion.
Today, however, ecology — the science
of whole systems in nature — occupies the same cutting-edge position that
psychology had a century ago and geometry had in Plato's time, and most people
know at least a little about it.
Ecology is also the most necessary of all sciences today. The survival of our civilization,
and possibly of our species as well, depends on how well we can learn to live
in harmony with nature at this point in history, and the science of ecology
offers crucial guidance in that quest.
As a way of talking about the mystery teachings, furthermore, ecology has a
special advantage, because the mystery teachings themselves are a science of
whole systems. It is not going too
far to call the mystery teachings an ecology of the spirit, just as the science
of ecology could well be called the mystery teachings of nature. One consequence of this pattern of
parallel meanings is that the teachings of the mysteries can be clarified, and
mistakes in understanding them put right, by comparing them to the ways that
whole systems function in the world of nature, where the relationships between whole systems and
their parts can be clearly seen and measured.
This allows a clarity that the last generation of presentations of the
mystery teachings did not always allow.
Those presentations, as already mentioned, drew their structure and
symbolism from the science of psychology.
That was a wise decision at the time, for popular ideas at the beginning
of the twentieth century had come to treat the human mind as little more than a
machine, and the mystery schools of that time found it necessary to give their
students a higher and more accurate sense of the mind's potentials. Over the years that followed, however,
misunderstandings crept in, subtle distinctions were lost, and ideas were embraced
in a one-sided way; the important teaching that the mind participates in the
creation of the reality it experiences, for example, was thus distorted into
the half-truth that "you create your own reality."
This process of distortion is a familiar reality for students of the
mysteries. It happens every
century or two and gives rise to confusions of a sort that can be found all
through popular spirituality today.
People are always eager for teachings that tell them what they already
want to hear, and in an age obsessed by the craving for material wealth, it was
inevitable that those scraps of the mystery teachings that seem to promise the
fulfillment of every material want would be taken out of context, reshaped to
fit the ordinary habits of the unawakened mind, and pasted together into a set
of ideas that essentially treat the cosmos as though it was some sort of
infinite internet store that never gets around to sending the bill.
The gap between the resulting teachings and those of the authentic mysteries
can be measured by the roles of greed and fear, the two great rulers of the
unawakened consciousness. Those
teachings that fixate on finding ways to get material wealth without earning it
show the presence of greed; those teachings that insist that the normal and
inevitable human experiences of suffering and death are unreal or unnatural
betray the presence of fear. It is
useful to compare both these traits with authentic mystery teachings, which
recognize that the pursuit of material wealth becomes an obstacle to
spirituality when taken beyond the point of meeting one's basic needs and
serving the common good, and which also recognize that suffering and death are
among the greatest initiations of human existence and are to be accepted by the
awakening soul. In this light the gap between much of today's popular
spirituality and the mystery teachings that these belief systems imitate is
hard to miss.
It is also important to understand, however, that these garbled echoes of
the mystery teachings are not simple falsehoods. They have their own truth; it is just that these are partial
and unbalanced truths. It is both
true and important, for example, that many of us prevent ourselves from making
the best use of the opportunities we encounter in life because our assumptions
and attitudes get in the way.
Convince yourself that you are certain to fail, and you will generally
be right; convince yourself that you are certain to succeed, and the confidence
and energy that comes from that belief can lead to remarkable successes. Thus the belief that you create your
own reality can sometimes make it possible to accomplish things that more
restrictive ways of thinking can prevent.
The difficulties creep in because the belief that you create your own
reality is a partial truth, not a complete one. It needs to be balanced with its opposite, which is that
your reality — the reality of the universe that was here before you came into
being, and will be here long after you are gone — created you, and continues to
create you at each moment.
Furthermore, the self and the rest of the universe join together at each
moment to create the reality you will experience in the future. Thus there are things you can
accomplish and things that no amount of tinkering with attitudes will allow you
to achieve, because they are contradicted by the momentum of greater processes
in the universe as a whole.
Equally, there are things that you might be able to achieve but should
not attempt, because the achievement will set patterns in motion in the
universe that will not be welcome to you.
These difficulties are best treated as an opportunity for learning. A century ago, in fact, many mystery
schools taught their students to believe that they create their own reality, as
a first exercise in exploring the power of thought. The students would be assigned this and left to their own
devices for a month or so. Very
often they would return to their classes or write back to their tutors in a
state of fair bewilderment, because some things that seemed almost impossible
to them had happened easily, and other things that seemed easy had not happened
at all. The teachers or tutors
would smile and say, "Good. Now that we have your attention, we can start making
sense of what the mind can do, and what it cannot."
The present article thus could just as well have been
titled Now That I Have Your Attention. For those who have experimented with the power of the mind
to change circumstances, and are puzzled by their successes as well as their
failures, the ideas covered in the chapters ahead offer a next step in
understanding. In the process,
this book inevitably challenges many of the popular teachings of our time, and
may prove upsetting to those who have become emotionally committed to those
teachings. Still, that cannot be
There are many ways to make sense of the teachings of the mysteries, some
more relevant to the present age than others. Perhaps the most useful of all just now, as already
suggested, is to trace the ecological laws that govern whole systems in nature,
where they can be experienced directly with the senses. One of the core mystery teachings
explains that the macrocosm (literally "the great universe," the universe around
us) and the microcosm (the "little universe," the universe within us) are
mirror images of one another.
Thus we can look to the world of nature around us for help in understanding
our own nature, recognizing that if a theory about the nature of the universe
proves to be a mistake when tested against the world around us, it will also
prove to be a mistake when applied to the world within us. As the great 19th century teacher of
the mysteries Eliphas Lévi put it, the core doctrine of the mystery teachings
is that "the visible is for us the measure of the invisible."
Teaser image by mckaysavage, courtesy of Creative Commons license.