Alchemical transformation is another metaphor from the mystery schools. Alchemical traditions originate in Hermetic texts from Alexandria in Hellenized Egypt, dated to the first and second centuries AD but containing much older authentic ancient Egyptian traditions related to the god Thoth. European mystery schools picked up on and elaborated the Hermetic alchemical traditions. Isaac Newton, who discovered the basic laws of physics and helped bring about the scientific revolution, was also a devoted alchemist and reader of Hermetic texts. There is also another East Asian alchemical
tradition, found in Taoism.
Figure 6. Gurdjieff’s Enneagram symbolizes the steps of alchemical transformation.
Alchemy often speaks of transmuting lead into gold. While some alchemists are simply trying to get rich, and others pursue actual chemical lab work as a spiritual practice or ritual, most often the alchemical terms are treated as a metaphor for the inner transformation. The chemical reactions are changes in our subtle energies brought about by the special conditions created in schools. Spiritual work is understood as being material, rather than being a change in ideas or beliefs. The intensity of practice is captured in the image of metals being melted in red-hot crucible. The use of chemical symbols for inner spiritual realities is explained as a secret code to protect the mystery schools from persecution, and also as a magical procedure in which the manipulation of external objects produces inner conscious evolution. Of course, no merely mechanical manipulation or procedure can produce consciousness. The mystery schools are trying to help us to locate and magnify the seed of longing for the divine that is buried inside our hearts. In this spirit, modern mystery schools apply detailed and accurate alchemical knowledge that is most helpful in initiating and maintaining the natural process of spiritual transformation. Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff brought ancient alchemical teachings to Europe in the early 20th century which detailed the mechanisms of alchemical transformation and their relation to initiation which made ancient teachings accessible to Westerners.
Figure 7. Buddha turned the Wheel of the Dharma – the way to liberation through yogic meditation.
Some ancient mystery schools emphasized philosophy. Awakening to original nature, or finding our true identity, is a more philosophical way of describing and navigating the path to enlightenment. The true nature of things was the topic of Neo-Platonism, an important philosophical movement of late antiquity associated with mystery schools. Such a path can also be combined with psychological self-study and emotional healing as we unravel the onion-skins of our apparent identity to discover our true self.
Buddha taught that our belief in a false self was the root of our suffering. Above the entrance to the temple of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece was written the dictum gnothe seauton, know thyself. Finding out who we really are is, strangely enough, one of the most challenging and rewarding of treasure hunts.
What do people do in a mystery school?
The student in the mystery school might participate in many different activities, including theater, meditation, chakra clearing, balancing of centers, service to the community, martial arts, hatha yoga, etc. Mystery schools often emphasize the value of artistic creativity such as painting, pottery, writing, music and dance. Students might fast, feast, have solitary retreats, hold parties, garden, put on plays, have relationships, raise children, spend time with nature, pursue careers, and read and discuss literature. The school is a place to explore deep, supportive friendships and practice compassion and understanding; it also provides a context where interpersonal friction is an aid to healing and transformation instead of an obstacle. All activities of life can be used by a school as fields of practice.
Many of the activities of the school have the form of play. This includes theater, dance, hiking, martial arts, art, music, etc. Some people study mathematics to sharpen their minds. Students work on psychological self-study and psychological transformation with an array of techniques including affirmations. Martial arts and physical exercise are important practices in the school. Many different types of meditation are taught, and the great wisdom traditions are studied. Sometimes students are asked to make what are called “super-efforts”, which means efforts beyond what a student would normally consider her limit. The right super-efforts at the right time can help students to access certain reserves of extraordinary energy, strength and ability which, while mostly untapped in conventional life, are necessary for inner transformation. The school also emphasizes the path of service; doing everything just for personal benefit can reinforce the illusion of separation.
Students are shown how to pursue vibrant health through diet and exercise. The school offers assistance with conscious relationship and conscious sex. Some students explore their psychic abilities and learn to give readings. Others start conscious businesses..
Students are encouraged to embrace life in all its aspects and transcend through mastery. Simply living life fully with one’s whole being is a powerful practice itself.
Will I get enlightened by a mystery school?
Unfortunately, no teaching can magically relieve us of our limitations and suffering for the simple reason that we are, unconsciously, imposing these on ourselves. Like anything else, either you are both lucky and freakishly talented, or you have to rely on perseverance and hard work. Getting the best advice, training and support vastly increases the value of our efforts, but this is still basically a do-it-yourself job.
No teaching can produce instant or mechanical paint-by-number enlightenment in us because ultimate reality is, on the one hand, uncaused and hence not resulting from anything we do, and, on the other hand, already present as our true nature and fundamental condition. It’s a reverse catch 22- you can’t get it because you already have it. On the one hand, this paradox of an impossible ignorance is bewildering and confusing, on the other hand, it means the goal is closer than we think. Since we are producing our own confusion, knowing ourselves is a powerful key to conscious evolution. By removing the wrong data, the false ideas we have about the world and project onto it as if they were reality itself, we can gradually reveal our true nature, at all levels from the psychological to the cosmic.
Students try to see themselves as they are through various processes, including self-study and feedback from others. As we discover the truth about ourselves as we are, we often become extremely eager to change. We may find that we need to confront our inner fears or limitations in order transform them. This takes great courage but it is a necessary part of the healing process, which takes place on many levels. Facing this deep, repressed pain puts us on the path of awakening, but breakdown often precedes breakthrough, and if we want to change profoundly we may need to be prepared to face the “long dark night of the soul”; although often the long dark tea-time of the soul is sufficient.
The school reminds us, encourages us, and inspires us to make our best efforts to attain the goals we have set ourselves. Above all, it encourages an easeful practice based on relaxation and enjoyment.
Private consultations are one way of getting guidance and instruction. Group programs of different lengths are held throughout the year. Programs are held in different locations and sometimes include international travel and sight-seeing. There is much to be learned and practiced in different environments such as Stonehenge, Hawaii, Athens or Paris.
Anyone reading this will have their own reasons for being interested in a mystery school- what they hope to gain from one. A mystery school will support them in these aims.
However, people who wish to identify with their social persona, pursue the aims of mass consciousness and avoid any discomfort are not advised to seek participation in a real school. Comfort and lack of challenge do not encourage people to change.
Another question, though, is the school’s reason for having students- what is the purpose of the school? Is it just to serve the students, or can it also have another purpose as well? As students, are we only interested in our own gain, or would we really like to help others too? We all know what it is like to want to stop and help an animal hurt by the side of the road, we have all experienced a naturally arising wish to help another. The school exists not just to serve its students but to benefit others as well.
“Does it take a lot of time?”
People sometimes feel that they don’t want to be part of a spiritual school because it is too limiting. They don’t want to surrender their individuality, autonomy or independence; they feel that life itself is already the natural expression of spirituality. They are busy just living life and don’t want to be restricted by participation in a school.
In a genuine mystery school individuality is prized; the goal of practice is individuation and escape from conformity. People, quite often, have already confined themselves to a very small box without windows; they think that this box, with its limited thoughts, feelings, perceptions and actions, represents the whole of what life has to offer them. The box is very narrow and claustrophobic; usually, life in a narrow box is unsatisfying or even painful and depressing. Yet it is familiar and safe, and everyone they know lives in a box. They don’t believe there is anything outside of the box- they are absolutely convinced that it is the whole universe.
When people do come across a doorway out of their tiny box, they can have several reactions. One is fear of the unknown. Another is to confuse the doorway itself for the world outside the box. The doorway itself may appear smaller and more limiting than the box, but in reality it is the exit into the freedom of the whole universe.
Only those with the good fortune to have tasted freedom, even for an instant, will know how much it is worth pursuing, even at the cost of temporary inconvenience. Besides, shamanic adventure travel is fun and exciting.
A mystery school has no conflict with anyone’s religious affiliation or belief, or lack of affiliation or belief. A mystery school is not a religion but a place of study and practice. Each person is welcome to participate in the school at their own pace and level of intensity and with their own goals. Each person has their own way to follow.
“What can I look forward to from a mystery school?”
Travel, excitement, adventure; good friends and companions; magic and mystery; the journey of creativity; support and guidance in dealing with life’s problems, the profoundest teachings on the meaning of life, the universe and everything; not to mention the long dark tea-time of the soul and eventual Liberation into the Clear Light of Non-Duality.