The Basic Premises of Esoteric Spiritual Philosophy



The purpose of this essay is to make a number of generalisations regarding the paradigms which underpin esoteric philosophy. For the sake of clarity, the terms metaphysics, ethics and practice will be used to structure this first section of the discussion. There is a clear hierarchical relationship between these three.

In its broadest sense, our metaphysics is a set of assumptions and beliefs which form a conceptual framework, and which we use to ‘make sense’ of the world. Fundamental to all metaphysical frameworks is that they are matters of faith to which we are attracted at a pre-rational level, and that they provide us with some kind of goal or purpose. Thus Capitalism, Marxism, Darwinism and atheism provide metaphysical frameworks as much as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam do. Metaphysical frameworks may be simple or elaborate, consciously thought through or unconsciously lived out. But we each have one. And we each live according to it, whether we are aware of it or not.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ can only exist within an assumed conceptual framework. Therefore our ethics derives from the goal provided by our metaphysics. For a Christian the metaphysical goal is to enter heaven after death. Belief in Jesus helps an individual achieve this goal and therefore is ‘good’, while not believing sends an individual to the other place and is consequently ‘bad’. For a capitalist who believes that minimal government and a free market will create social progress, anything which facilitates minimal government and a free market is ‘good’, while whatever does the opposite is ‘bad’. Conversely, if for a Marxist the goal is social equality, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are dependent on progress towards, or retreat from, class eradication and the promotion of equality. In each case an ethical evaluation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is contingent on the goal provided by the assumed metaphysical framework.

Practice is necessary because we live in the world and therefore we have to act. But in order to act we have to decide which actions are acceptable to us and which are not. Our ethics provides us with a yardstick by which we choose which actions to carry out. And our ethics, as just argued, are referenced back to our metaphysics. Of course, in practice goals and motives, ends and means, are frequently unclear. Sometimes we do what we think is ‘good’, but it turns out to take us from our goal, and therefore is in reality ‘bad’. In addition, there is often a disjunction between what people say or think their goals are, and what they actually do, revealing that their practice and beliefs are out of sync. Practice brings out any such discrepancy, because actions test our ethics, challenge our metaphysical framework, and therefore help us to discern what our underlying philosophy really is.

Having broadly defined these three terms, we’ll now examine each from the perspective of esoteric thought.


Metaphysics

Fundamental to esoteric metaphysics is the law of one. This law derives from the perception of esoteric thinkers that an unmanifest vibration underlies all existence. Different thinkers and cultures, at various times in history, have named this unmanifest vibration God, Brahman, Tao, The Absolute, The One Over All, The Monad, The Good, The Ineffable and His Endlessness - among many others.

Following from this perception, esoteric thinkers next saw that the cosmos is a manifestation of the underlying unmanifest vibration. This means that the manifest cosmos does not exist separately from the underlying unmanifest vibration. Thus on one level esoteric thinkers consider that the unmanifest transcends the manifest cosmos. But on another they see that because the manifest has come out of the unmanifest, and because it continues to exist within, and be sustained by, it, the manifest cosmos cannot be differentiated from the underlying unmanifest vibration. Accordingly they have concluded that existence has three fundamental aspects: the manifest (the cosmos), the unmanifest (the underlying unmanifest vibration), and unity (these two together). Esoteric thinkers perceived that it is all three together which constitute the law of one. In deliberating on the implications of this law, esoteric thinkers have deduced five points.

The first point is that the unmanifest vibration is not a personal being in the manner proposed by traditional religions. The unmanifest has no sex, no body, no form. It doesn’t sit in heaven surrounded by angels, arbitrarily choosing or not choosing to interfere in human activity. Neither does it reward or punish people according to any kind of decree, ancient or otherwise. Nor is it concerned with what books people read, what beliefs they profess, what rituals they engage in. Rather, the unmanifest is a force which, rather than being personalised or deified, may best be described as an impersonal vibration.

The second point is that the unmanifest created modulations in its vibration in order to manifest the cosmos. Esoteric thinkers are agreed that there were three aspects to this initial modulation. Accordingly, it is called the law of three. It is also known as the law of creation. The law of three operates on many different levels. Its action is seen in the way an atom contains proton, electron and neutron; the way electricity consists of positive, negative and earth; the way a triangle is the simplest rigid geometric shape. Esoteric thinkers consider that the law of three is fundamental to the way the cosmos is constructed, and to its on-going creative pulse.

Third, esoteric thinkers then related the law of three to being. During the Neolithic era, when the concept of the Earth Goddess dominated human thought, the three levels of being were virgin, mother and crone. In later mythological times the three levels were conceptualised as Father, Mother and Son, or as heaven, earth and underworld. In our current cultural context the three levels of being may be defined as the fifth, fourth and third dimensions. The fifth dimension is the realm of the unmanifest; the fourth dimension is time, space and thought; and the third dimension is the world of physical bodies, matter and sense experience.

Seeing this led esoteric thinkers to the fourth point, that in human beings their unmanifest fifth dimensional aspect is excluded from their everyday activities in the manifest third and fourth dimensional world. Instead, human attention is caught up with bodies, particularly with their own, to the extent that the body’s sense experiences dominate human perception. This results in thought, humanity’s fourth dimensional aspect, being overwhelmed by third dimensional body’s desires and needs, and its fifth dimensional unmanifest aspect not being part of daily experience at all. In reality, the fifth dimension manifested, and continues to sustain, the fourth and third dimensions. But because human beings give priority to the third dimension over the fifth dimension our experience is inverted and human perception is therefore incorrect.

This led esoteric thinkers to the fifth and concluding point: that human beings need to engage in practice which rights the inversion of their being experience. The practices which enable humanity to achieve this are those which promote balance and harmony. Balance consists of re-arranging the manifest and unmanifest aspects of the human being into a non-inverted relationship. To establish a balanced being, humanity has to rearrange its third dimensional body, fourth dimensional thought, and fifth dimensional consciousness so that they exist in a correct hierarchical relationship to one another, reflecting the way the cosmos is actually constructed and functions. Harmony consists of living in accordance with fifth dimensional laws. The ultimate metaphysical goal for esoteric thinkers, then, is that the separate manifest and unmanifest aspects of the human being merge into a unity. United, humanity then becomes a living aspect of the law of one. Balance and harmony are the means by which this goal may be achieved.

Accordingly, it can be seen that the esoteric world view is fundamentally developmental, centred on the need for each individual to realise the being possibilities which are intrinsic to what he or she is.


Ethics

Out of this developmental metaphysical outlook, esoteric thinkers then derived an ethical scale. The first principle of this scale they named conscience.

From the esoteric perspective conscience is an impulse which manifests from the fifth dimension into the fourth, through which it deflects into the third. This is an important point. Conscience is a fifth dimensional vibration; it is neither a fourth dimensional thought nor third dimensional feeling, even though the force of its activity is experienced by humanity in one of these two lower dimensions. The function of conscience is to provide guidance for human beings in their struggle to balance their being and live in harmony with fifth dimensional laws. Just as the sun sends out light constantly, so this impulse unceasingly emanates from the fifth dimension. Unfortunately, due to being caught up in bodies, material activities and sense objects, humanity responds to this impulse inconsistently, or not at all. However, if we do respond to it, conscience will then provide guidance to assist the process of rising above third dimensional circumstances and fourth dimensional concepts and realising our fifth dimensional consciousness.

The second major ethical principle is morality. Esoteric thinkers have identified two types of morality: subjective and objective. Subjective morality is based on arbitrary concepts. Arbitrary concepts result from thought dominated by the body, material activities and sense experience. Examples of arbitrary conceptions are: the idea that the body will be resurrected at the end of time; the idea that the ‘good’ go to heaven and the ‘bad’ to hell; the assumption that God is a personal being, complete with some kind of body, rewarding and punishing humanity according to ancient prescriptions; and societal laws which define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ within a specific cultural context, but which change over time, and are contradicted by other societies’ laws, or by their own at a later time. Examples of subjective morality are the argument Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding picking and eating corn on the Sabbath, the imprisonment of Quakers in eighteenth century England for refusing to doff their hats in public, and the idea that God might back one country when it is at war with another. These incidents illustrate suppressive subjective morality based on arbitrary concepts.

In contrast, objective morality derives from the conscience, and defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of human progress towards or away from unity. Thus ‘good’ is whatever helps an individual become more balanced and harmonised, whereas ‘bad’ is whatever makes that individual more unbalanced and inharmonious. Another way of describing the difference between subjective and objective morality is that subjective morality is horizontal in action, being concerned with controlling fourth dimensional thought and third dimensional actions, while objective morality is vertical, being concerned with the movement of human awareness from the third dimension through the fourth and into the fifth dimension.

Directly involved in the issue of morality is the third principle, motive. Motives are a fourth dimensional interface between fifth dimensional consciousness and third dimensional action. Subjective morality is concerned only with what the body does, and therefore the motive behind the action is rarely taken into account. But objective morality considers that third dimensional action comes out of fourth dimensional motive, and therefore motive is of fundamental importance when discerning an action’s ethical content. For example, a person may donate money to a charity which supports cancer victims. From the perspective of subjective morality this action is a ‘good’ which helps others. But objective morality considers the motive behind the action. The motive may be a selfless act of giving. Alternatively, it may be motivated by vanity, by a desire to be liked, to do what others do, or by fear or self-pity. Thus objective morality considers that in order to evaluate an action’s moral content both the action and the motive behind the action must be examined.

Consideration of motives leads to the fourth principle, psychology. Esoteric metaphysics is developmental, based on the premise that human beings can rise above their limitations and realise their potential. Esoteric psychology is a tool to help analyse motives, which then have to be changed. Esoteric thinkers have concluded that motives are the result of psychological traits which are either negative, hindering progress towards balance and harmony, or are positive, aiding progress. For being development to occur negative traits have to be replaced with positive traits. And to achieve this each individual has to confront his or her own actions and thoughts. This is a complex, long-term task.

Overcoming negative psychological traits introduces the fifth ethical principle, purity. Esoteric purity is inner-oriented, being aimed at purifying the individual’s fourth dimensional being, including motives and psychological traits, and in eliminating limiting third dimensional habits, so that the impulse and guidance emanating from conscience may be heard and the seeker’s fifth dimensional aspects realised.

In summary, then, esoteric ethics is predicated on the developmental goal provided by esoteric metaphysics of requiring the individual to balance the third, fourth and fifth dimensional levels of being and harmonise the manifest self with the unmanifest. Esoteric ethics thus requires the individual to be open to the impulses for progress emanating from the conscience; to embrace the dictates of objective morality; and to purify motives by struggling against negative psychological traits emanating from the lower levels of being. If any one of these steps is missing, development, from the esoteric perspective, will at best be partial, or will not occur at all.


Practice

Over the millennia esoteric thinkers have developed many forms of practice, according to the social, cultural and religious contexts in which they lived. Zen monks, yogis, Sufis, American Indian shamans and Taoists (among many spiritual traditions) each engage in practices designed for use in a particular cultural environment. As such, these practices are not interchangeable. Nonetheless, a number of general comments can be made about esoteric spiritual practices.

The first is that esoteric thought is practical. It isn’t enough just to think about or emote over metaphysical and ethical concepts. They have to be acted on.

The second is the need to engage in right practice. Right practice is practice that is necessary for the individual to develop. Just as different esoteric traditions have evolved practices for specific cultural contexts, and these practices do not necessarily translate into other contexts, so esoteric thinkers are adamant that each seeker has to engage in practice which is appropriate to his or her individual situation and psychological nature. This means it may not be appropriate to copy what another seeker is doing now, or has done in the past. Because what is right and worked for one person isn’t necessarily right nor will it work for another.

In order to engage in right practice the individual therefore needs discernment. If the seeker doesn’t seriously think about what he or she is doing, and why, mistakes will be made and progress impaired. In the early stages of self-cultivation esoteric thinkers consider it is permissible to rely on the discernment of a teacher. But each seeker ultimately has to develop personal discernment by drawing on his or her own inner resources.

Fourth, esoteric thinkers emphasise the need to maintain a balanced outlook. Balancing the fifth, fourth and third dimensions within the seeker’s own being is fundamental. But the seeker also has to balance esoteric self-cultivation with the requirements of everyday life. Exclusive engagement with, and pouring energy into, everyday life stifles self-cultivation. But too much concentration on esoteric practice can breed a self-involved, neurotic outlook, and similarly hinder self-cultivation. One of the great arts in the esoteric quest is finding the right balance between practice and fulfilling the obligations and requirements of everyday life.

Finally, esoteric practice requires the seeker to maintain the right attitude. What has to be achieved is an attitude which is actively passive. That is, the individual needs to be actively and consistently engaged in appropriate practices. But he or she must also be sufficiently passive within to be open to impulses from the conscience and to guidance from the teacher.


Summary

The goal of esoteric thought is to help individuals develop their being potential by balancing the three dimensions in which humanity exists, then to harmonise that balanced being with the laws of the cosmos. It is practical in orientation. Esoteric thinkers consider that if an action or thought doesn’t contribute to a seeker’s self-cultivation, it is useless. Thus metaphysical and ethical concepts exist not as independent units of speculation, but to support practice, giving it context, depth and breadth.

Secondly, esoteric thought and practice can also be described as spiritual - given that esoteric thinkers define spirituality as engagement with the unmanifest vibration which exists in the fifth dimension, and a realisation that the fourth and third dimensions are manifestations of that vibration.

Finally, esoteric thought is not a religion or belief system. It is not predicated on ritual or dogma. Rather, it is a practice which comes out of the direct perception and experiences of many individuals who have themselves engaged in self-cultivation. Based on their experiences, they have established certain metaphysical, ethical and practical paradigms which they have set up as signposts and guidance for those who similarly wish to practice self-cultivation. This means that because of the effort required to emulate their achievement, esoteric self-cultivation cannot be limited to occasional practice, but must impact on every aspect of the seeker’s life.


Copyright Keith Hill 2006