The Western Tradition of Spirituality
by Stephen Cottee

Religion vs Spirituality
Each great civilization has not only its religion but also its initiatic spiritual science. It is this esoteric tradition of mystical knowledge that holds the keys to meditation, self-transformation and ultimately, enlightenment. Religions often sprang out of the mystical knowledge as popular cultural forms and moral guides for the masses. A popular myth for the public as opposed to a science of consciousness and spirituality for those with a desire for spiritual awakening.
Religions may fight over who has the ‘true’ myth, and even interpret their spiritual texts in fundamental, literal terms but the true spiritual initiate can see through the metaphors of all religions to discover the universal truths contained within them all.

The Yogic Tradition
The civilization of ancient India was home to the spiritual tradition of yoga (the popular religion being Hinduism). In the West we often think of yoga as being about stretches and postures. This is only one small part of the yogic system. These exercises are known as asanas.
Within the yogic tradition of ancient India can be found:

  • asana – system of physical exercise
  • pranayama – a science of breathing techniques
  • concentration and meditation
  • ayurveda – a whole system of medicine, including diagnosis, herbal medicine, diet, surgery, anatomy and physiology and more
  • sacred dance, music, art, architecture, mathematics
  • sanskrit – a sacred alphabet and language
  • a spiritual philosophy
  • cosmology, cosmogony and esoteric history
  • divination, including vedic astrology (gyotish), palm reading and more
  • ritual

Ancient China, including the Shaolin Temple, was also home to a rich spiritual tradition. Some elements of martial arts and Chinese medicine and astrology have become popular in the West.
Within the Chinese tradition can be found:

  • soft martial arts including tai chi, chi kung and wu shu. Breath and movement for health.
  • hard martial arts – kung fu. Practical fighting styles.
  • concentration and meditation
  • traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, diagnosis, surgery, Chinese herbs, anatomy and physiology, and much more
  • sacred dance, music, art, architecture, mathematics
  • calligraphy
  • the tao – a profound philosophy
  • cosmology, cosmogony and esoteric history
  • the I Ching – a system of divination
  • ritual

Other great cultures, eg the Arab world, have their own esoteric traditions. The mystics of Islam are known as the Sufis (or ‘whirling dervishes’).

The Western Esoteric Tradition
Western culture has its own tradition! We could call this tradition the Hermetic Kabbalah. Have you heard of it? Not many of us have, although a fragment of it is becoming popularized through Madonna’s embrace of a Hollywood form of Jewish Kabbalah.
In the 1930s an initiate of the Western tradition named Dion Fortune described the Hermetic Kabbalah as “the yoga of the West”. By “yoga” she meant the whole system of ancient India, not just the physical exercises. Isn’t it peculiar that she attempted to explain our own tradition to our own people by using a term from ancient India?
Nowadays when Western people want to learn about meditation and spirituality outside the dogmatic confides of religion, they usually look to Eastern traditions such as Buddhist meditation, or Indian based meditation, or perhaps to the New Age movement. So much so that many people think meditation and spirituality were originally from the East.
Why is our own tradition so little well known? Why has there been such a void in our culture?

The Destruction and Suppression of the Western Tradition
In the early days of the church, the Roman Empire hijacked the foundling religion. There were many documents telling of Jesus – hundreds – but only four were carefully edited and assembled as official texts. These are the four gospels. All the other accounts, and all other branches of Christian thought and non-Christian thought were labeled as heresy and dangerous and were destroyed or suppressed. The vast heritage of antiquity was burnt and, on a whole, we in the West were denied our spiritual inheritance. The great libraries in Alexandria alone were said to contain over half a million works. It is reputed to have burnt for days.
As time progressed and the Christian influence spread throughout the ancient world, most of the pagan knowledge was lost or driven underground, as was classical thought, knowledge of the sciences, herbal medicine, meditation and other spiritual practices, etc. At its worst – the Dark Ages – even reading and writing itself was lost. It was only a few monks and scholars in isolated monasteries that kept the written word from being lost in the West. The Dark Ages are so named because so few historical records were kept (as noone could read or write) that there are hundreds of years when we have a very sketchy idea of what took place.
To display any sort of knowledge outside of the narrowest church canon was to be labeled a heretic, a witch and to be burnt at the stake or suffer some other grisly end.

It's Not Much Use Getting Upset About History
Please understand that I am not anti-Christian or anti-religion.
We must not make the mistake of thinking that all Christians are the same, or that the contemporary church condones the atrocities that were so frequently perpetrated in the name of Christ. There is much love, virtue and wisdom - as well as ignorance, intolerance and folly - in the Christian tradition, as in all major religions. We are dealing with groups of ordinary (unenlightened) human beings, after all!
By understanding the historical context we are operating in, we are hopefully able to exercise tolerance and understanding of others whilst liberating ourselves from the chains of the past. We are better able to remove those prejudices and misconceptions we have inherited from our cultural history (eg erroneous beliefs such as 'sex is dirty', 'money is bad' or 'pagans worship the devil').
Ultimately, the Tao governs the unfolding of all events and in the very largest view the perfect sequence of events is taking place for our eventual collective enlightenment. So there must be a reason for the oppression and persecutions which independent spiritual thinkers have had to endure over the last two millenia. Perhaps we had to lose our freedom in order to value it properly. Perhaps there were unenlightened aspects of the earlier age which had to be purified from the collective psyche.
Anyway, thank God it's only half as bad now! We might occasionally be mocked, feared or slandered for liberating our minds but we are rarely killed for our beliefs in the West at the moment.

The Tradition Survives
The Western tradition in general covers the breadth of Western civilization. The line of the tradition may be seen to follow a path of descent through history:

Atlantis (according to esoteric history our tradition came from Atlantis before the great flood)
ancient Egypt (including the mysteries of the sphinx and pyramids)
ancient Israel (Moses grew up in the court of the Pharaoh. By tradition it was he who wrote down the first five books of the Jewish torah – the start of the Bible – which forms the basis for the Jewish religion)
Christianity (in all its many aspects, not just the official church teachings. Christianity is one of the great world religions. As well as causing a lot of trouble it has also brought some wonderful things into the world, and holds profound truths concealed within its dogma)

The Western tradition survived in secret, passed on from master to disciple, in secret societies, and concealed within fairy tales and games.
In includes the Pagan mysteries – both of ancient Greece and Rome, and of the Celtic Pagans (the Druids), and of the ancient Norse religion (most of our days of the week are named after the Norse gods).

During the crusades the Knights Templar recovered some of our tradition from the Holy Land. These were passed on to the Rosicrucians and Freemasons and hence down to Hermetic orders which are still around today.

The Renaissance which followed the Dark Ages was in large part sparked by the rediscovery of the ancient world, with its classical architecture, art and literature. The works of Plato – which had been completely lost in the West – had been preserved by the Arabs. Plato returned to the Western world by being translated into Latin from Arabic, not the original Greek!
The resulting blossoming of Western culture as we were restored some of our heritage can still be seen in the great works of Renaissance art, architecture, philosophy and in the sciences.

The Knights Templar started the modern banking system. The United States, police state as it is fast becoming now, was actually founded on Rosicrucian and Freemasonic ideals. The French revolution was also informed by the same. Our modern ideals that ‘all men are born equal’, equality of the sexes and races, of democracy and human rights are based on teachings which came from the Western tradition.

Note: Most of the above historical account is no radical departure from generally accepted history and can be easily verified with even a little research - except for the account of Egypt inheriting its knowledge from the Atlanteans.

The Western Tradition
As mentioned above, each of the major civilizations have their spiritual traditions which underly the popular forms of the major religions. The examples of India and China are just two of these. Indigenous peoples have their own initiatic traditions and advanced knowledge.
Hermetic Kabbalah includes:

  • (exercise) – sadly it appears our exercise systems have been lost with the destruction of the ancient world. We have nothing to compare with the yoga exercises of ancient India. The closest I’ve found to a uniquely Western traditional system of exercise is gymnastics and acrobatics.
  • breathing exercises
  • concentration exercises
  • meditation – many different techniques
  • hermetic medicine – homeopathy and Bach flower essences are two modern forms of this. Alchemic medicine and western herbal medicine are older forms.
  • sacred dance, music, art, architecture, mathematics (refer to the works of Pythagoras, and of the Renaissance)
  • a number of sacred alphabets and languages – Greek, Hebrew, to a lesser extent Latin, and even English in a small way. One purely magickal language is Enochian.
  • a spiritual philosophy
  • cosmology, cosmogony and esoteric history
  • divination - Tarot, geomancy, scrying, astrology and more
  • ritual

So, in conclusion, we have our own Western tradition of spirituality which predates, encompasses, underlies and goes far beyond the confides of the Christian and Jewish religions. This tradition, which some call the Hermetic Kabbalah, forms the basis of much of Western civilization at all levels.

Because our culture is rooted in the Western tradition it comes most naturally to us. To enter into an Eastern tradition of spirituality we must try and step into another culture. Can we ever make sense of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, in the same way as a native Tibetan? Some individuals seem to be able to make this journey, learning the language, customs, values and way of thinking of a foreign culture in order to embrace their spiritual tradition. This particularly seems to be the case for those with past life incarnations within those cultures and traditions.
But for many Westerners the Eastern ideals of renouncing the world, giving up all family and worldly possessions, devoting to foreign gods and goddesses, meditating for long hours every day and withdrawing from the world – in order to escape the wheel of birth and death – seems anathema to our way. As Westerners we desire to experience life, to embrace love and passion, to master matter and the world. This is part of the Western mindset and part of our purpose for being born into our culture.
The Western tradition fits our cultural orientation, fits our Western world. Not only are the metaphors and stories familiar ones to us – Snow White and the 7 Dwarves, The Ugly Duckling, The Lion King, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Jesus and the 12 Disciples – but the practices are ones we can fit into busy, modern lives. Half an hour once or twice a day, even with a mind that thinks can produce enormous results over time, especially when working within a group setting. Many Eastern techniques requires hours and hours a day, over decades. This is not a problem for the Easterner but many Westerners want fast, powerful results that make sense to our understandings of psychology and our forms of common sense.

It is for these reasons that I believe the Western Tradition – the Hermetic Kabbalah – is the most suitable for the majority of Western minds, although ultimately the goal of ultimate enlightenment is the same however one arrives there.

    © 2005 The School of Life