Within the Hermetic Sciences, the foundation of the Western Mystery Tradition, the two main branches are magic and alchemy.
Magic as a broad subject is far more widely studied, since reliable alchemical training is hard to find. The same is unfortunately true of magic, but there is so much more of it available in general, that Seekers are forced to slog through more trite than solid, useful information.
While true adepts that teach will usually have strong leanings more towards one than the other, both magic and alchemy are really composites of the same Hermetic Art. It cannot be said that one is internal and the other external, because in practice both have their subjective and objective processes. They do however form a sort of check and balance system when seeking to separate the true from the false, because it is in the overlap of these two branches, within properly instructed subjective (inner) training, that the deepest truth between them is to be discovered. This also leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Mastery of inner alchemical forces and the occult science that can be applied as a result is MAGIC, and is the foundation of true Initiation towards the journey to spiritual Illumination and completion of the Great Work.
The Mysteries are not so easily penetrated, however, so it is no small wonder that what is taught out in the world is predominantly a distraction from a functional higher path. Innumerable publications on the subject are nothing more than thinly disguised plagiarism based upon revivalist theory and offer nothing more than reinforcement of those mainstream magical beliefs. No matter how sincere the Seekers, it is a virtual guarantee that they will go in circles in the maze of insubstantial teaching until such time that they find their way out to a higher Understanding.
If we analyze the current prevalent mix of curious magical and alchemical beliefs in the occult mainstream, it can generally be said that:
- many neopagans practice revivalist religions but consider their allegorical rituals to be the authentic magic in and of itself.
- most ceremonial magicians talk about alchemy but have little to no demonstrable understanding of it on a practical laboratory level—i.e. Golden Dawn, Crowley, Regardie (until the end of his life), etc.
- most lab alchemists who do plant work are practicing a species of advanced herbalism and calling it alchemy, because they are not aware of the difference. Additionally, some lab alchemists believe there is no inner alchemy.
- spiritual (inner) alchemists think ‘real alchemy’ is only a psycho-spiritual process because they have never done real practical laboratory alchemy work—they do not understand it and so have decided it must not be real.
- most aspiring alchemists (lab and inner) trying to follow Hermetic principles as best they can do not have the correct understanding of spiritual (inner) work in the Western tradition. They end up relying upon imported fragments of other traditions, so their practices become an eclectic hodge podge further confusing paths to the Stone because the inner and outer practices cannot possibly correlate.
Although each of these branches do originally come from one central tree, the core/root magical initiatory teachings that allow access and enable their integrated Understanding have become obscured. This situation also makes it fairly certain that without instruction from someone who has received a degree of real knowledge and how to apply it productively, getting out of the maze is unlikely.
Those who are drawn to neopagan or occult revivalist traditions, generally have strong interest in their magical elements. Some of those elements are actually more useful, in their basic forms, than much of the complex ‘training’ in ceremonial forms, due to a distilled simplicity that has a common root with Old System Magic.
In most modern magical practice though, no matter what tradition, should actual materialized phenomena happen, most participants would be utterly surprised. This is because the rituals are usually enactments of religious allegories, essentially mystery plays, which are symbolic veils over the deeper meanings which were never or are no longer fully understood. So, after the fun part of being occultish wears off or is outgrown, often the participants have still not progressed in any truly useful initiatory way. This either leads to abandonment of the practice, or delving more deeply into study of many subjects that have become substitutes for actual magic, such as astrology, tarot, and herbology, which are promoted and passed off as ‘Secrets of the Wise’ because the deeper, real secrets are not actually known. These areas of study become interesting for a while, and they have their place, but they also fail to quench deep spiritual thirst because they are not paths in themselves.
In essence, it does not matter what tradition you practice… if the deep magic is not known there will only ever be partial success. With deep magic all religions (if they have some basis in Truth) become sources of illumination because one will instantly understand the allegories that they contain and teach within their written and oral traditions. The external form of religion is the package that speaks to one’s personality the most, and there is nothing wrong with having more affinity with esoteric paths instead of traditional religious paths, or vice versa… but there is much deeper magic to be had in either, once one resolves to find it and endeavor to Understand it.
The only thing that is of ultimate use (as far as being a truly evolutionary spiritual practice) is that which leads to permanent transfiguration.
In order to make progress with alchemy and deep magic, there is often quite a bit of reassessment and unlearning to be done in terms of what passes for current metaphysical and modern magical thought. There are all kinds of courses, workshops and supposed self-help books claiming things like reprogramming the subconscious mind is somehow the master key to solving problems. While there is a degree of half-truth to this, which is what hooks people into believing it, the last thing one wants to do, were it even possible, is reprogram one’s reality directly through the limited intelligence of the conscious thinking mind—the conscious mind cannot handle it. That is why there is a subconscious mind in the first place!
Those who are at least trying to learn something are subjected to a full range of pseudo-esoteric propaganda in lieu of anything more substantial, and there are no shortage of promoters to pander out-of-context information and workshops full of mental exercises that lead to very little, if any, actual transformation. They only serve to reinforce the emotionally-based belief that one is “really doing something.”
The problem is that none of that leads to spiritual development for the participants.
It is not the subconscious mind that is the problem, it is the conscious mind—specifically the barriers within the conscious mind that create separation from universal consciousness.
It may indeed be useful to apply some mental techniques to help deal with day to day life, tools are tools. But, make no mistake, reprogramming is simply that—rewriting one program over another. That process can only bring one so far. When it is all said and done one is still being run by programs. Of course, many people have realized this and in an attempt to feel less controlled by patterns and programs, try to adopt beliefs or practices to mediate their issues. Most of them are not useful for liberation but they satisfy the emotional need to feel that free will has indeed been utilized, and that one is still in control.
Running on programs is what allows more powerful archetypal forces to influence the habits and mind patterns that perpetuate cycles of programming and reprogramming to give the illusion of change. This maintains dependence upon a complex system of programs that give the feeling of autonomy while actually creating barriers that prevent it.
Admittedly some programs are good, useful, and operating in accordance with the balanced purpose for which they were created, such as the programs that are running continually without notice that keep the autonomic systems working properly. Others, however, were necessary and useful for a time but at a certain level of attainment still require being properly dismantled. This is not an accident, punishment, or aberration—it is part of a structural necessity in order for transfiguration to occur in sentient beings as they evolve to higher levels of consciousness.
It is required to become conscious enough of these barrier programs that direct perception of them is acquired, followed by an understanding of what exactly they are, and then acquiring the knowledge to allow for the safe dismantling of them. This is a puzzle created by Nature, the solving of which requires a certain kind of Understanding: One guarded by proper entrance into the Mysteries.
A simple worldly example of this can be found in the pouring of concrete steps. Wet concrete cannot be molded into perfectly formed steps—it requires a form, and a strong form at that. Solid lumber is used to create the boundary of the steps within a designed framework. Then the concrete is poured and when it sets, the new steps are ready. The framework is still there though… so what happens if no one ever dismantles the frame? The steps still work. They still function, and the frame does not really impede the basic use of the steps… after a while a frame not removed would just fade into the background and only seldom get noticed.
That is essentially what has happened in human evolution as the framework required for containing sentience during involution (the individuation process) was put into place. Many humans are just on the edge of becoming conscious of needing to take the framework down in order to make the evolutionary step into what we were designed with the potential to become.
Unfortunately, psychology is not capable of guiding us through that process because psychology is based upon an idea that mental health is what is normal, and ‘normal’ is what the average person is doing—and, at the moment the average person is not exactly pushing the evolutionary curve.
Seekers are cornered into a world that is ‘normal’ while trying to find their way to the world that would be normal were more people to awaken to the impulse to evolve.
Awakening to the impulse, however, is not the same as actually Awakening (although it is often discussed as though it is)… but the impulse leads to the pioneering creativity of the human spirit to create systems that are hoped will help to reach the new paradigm. This in turn leads to all kinds of experimental practices that eventually become codified into specialized systems and belief structures that at some point have to be surmounted in order to become independent of them. Often this framework is not seen as mere scaffolding and just becomes another program.
Since psychology cannot be of much assistance in the quest for what lies outside of normal, those who are more esoterically inclined are fortunate to have options discovered and preserved by ancient mystery traditions, at least in principle. Navigating the truth of it is another matter entirely, but if we are truly seeking, there we must go.
The genuine mystery traditions of the past as well as their modern revivalist reflections in the form of occult lodges and fraternities have long laid claim to possess the secrets of the universe and to guard the gates to the true Western Mystery Tradition. While it is true that many occult societies do have their own secrets, they do not seem to possess the capstone because that lies within the domain of practical alchemy. The processes of real alchemy and its natural magic were so protected that they were most often written in allegory, metaphor, or symbolism that cannot be interpreted according to the surface level of meaning. In this way alchemists made sure that their secrets would be kept. They succeeded indeed, because most of the turn of the century occultists that have most strongly affected what we now refer to as the Western Mystery Tradition were not able to penetrate its secrets. Thus, they determined that the alchemists were using chemical ciphers to conceal what were only spiritual processes to be done on an internal, psychic level and that the laboratory process was a blind to fool the ignorant.
Of this we can be certain because even the most well known occultists adopted this view, most probably heavily influenced by Jungian thought that was gaining a foothold in the early half of the century. The founders of what is referred to as the modern Hermetic Western Mystery Tradition up until Israel Regardie (until the latter part of his life) did not believe in the laboratory aspect of alchemy.
The ‘alchemy’ that most occult fraternities teach as their alchemical secrets have been largely derived from the copious writings of the modern magical revivalist founding fathers, particularly Aleister Crowley. Most are based on some curious ideas, notably that alchemy is based on sex magic and it is explored almost entirely through the biased filter of these ideas (being heavily influenced by prevailing Freudian thought of the day). Alchemical processes certainly do occur within the sexual nature, as they indeed occur in all things. However, what is commonly taught cannot possibly deliver on the promise of magical illumination; while true Alchemy can. Knowing how to separate Earth out of Fire (read the Emerald Tablet) and then bring about an alchemical conjunction through practical laboratory alchemy leads towards the formation of an alchemical Stone on the material level, and sheds light on the laws and processes required for greater spiritual attainment.
Practical alchemy is the most important facet of the Western Mystery Tradition because it reveals the occult operations needed for true Initiation, yet most occult organizations have elected to teach alchemy only as an inner spiritual process because they do not possess actual, demonstrable lab alchemy knowledge. This also means, unfortunately, that they most likely also lack reliable teaching for the inner alchemy, because they are indeed working composites. In the case of fraudulent fraternities that are just attempting to collect dues for their membership this affords them zero accountability for not actually possessing any secrets of real value. On the other hand, even within the truly spiritual occult organizations very little comprehension of alchemy exists, so whether duplicitous or not, the net effect is essentially the same: Magic being taught without the initiatory aspects of alchemy. It is certainly understandable how this has come to be. It is not meant as derision of those occult orders that do function with the best of intentions, yet good intentions cannot make up for the lack of knowledge of which they purport to be guardians.
Inductees into these various ‘traditions’ are expected to do the work assigned to them to make their way through grades, the passing of which are often referred to as initiations. The aspirants then have the mistaken notion that because they have received an ‘initiation’ in a magical order that they are now a spiritual Initiate. While not correct, this of course is emotionally satisfying and as long as there are ‘secrets’ forthcoming the membership within an organization is relatively stable.
The importance of being in an order claiming to have contact with secret masters (often highly suspect claims of dubious nature) is considered very important because part of the promise is that at a certain grade within the order the initiate is to be given instruction in the process to achieve independent personal contact. This entire process, basically The Book of Abramelin, was lifted from a badly translated version of a French document which was only a partial version of an original German document that was not available to the occult community until very recently. So, for the 100 years of the revived Hermetic Western Magical Tradition the document representing the climax of lodge work was as deeply inspiring as it was flawed. This does not render it completely useless, but it does cast a strong light on the ‘secrets’ of the orders and how they were obtained. Truly contacted adepti do not have to go outside of themselves to obtain initiatory information… so with a couple possible exceptions, very few of the headmasters of any revivalist order were actually contacted at all, much less being qualified to determine the nature of such contact.
Regarding further proof as to actual secrets of the Western Mystery Tradition being unknown, we can reach back just one century to the verifiable histories of the most well known modern revivalist fraternities. Basically, after a very short time in operation near the turn of the twentieth century, occult fraternities ran out of ‘secrets’ to disseminate to their members.
In order to fill the gap with mystical secrets, the heads of these orders explored the Orient in hopes of finding passable mysticism for their orders, as well as quench their own considerable thirst. These esoteric secrets that were imported wholesale into the Western schools gave ample material to keep everyone busy for a long time.
There was one huge problem that was not really known, and even today people find it difficult to acknowledge because so much has been invested into it: These imported ‘esoteric’ secrets were not actually esoteric. They were exotic enough that they seemed esoteric to Westerners, but within Eastern traditions they were for the most part merely exoteric information.
It has taken about 100 years for this insightful tidbit to come to light. The importers of this information were not genuinely instructed in the deeper Eastern esoteric teachings, but they had gathered enough exotic data to create their own versions. Oddly, over the last 100 years not much has changed within those types of organizations. What is currently expected to pass as the Western Mystery Tradition is a composite of bits and pieces of many cultures and religions, with the one truly Western tradition that could actually Illuminate the whole of the Initiatory teaching, practical alchemy, being conspicuously absent.
The Western Mystery Tradition has its own truly alchemical and magical secrets, the exploration of which is inexhaustible should one choose to focus on the Western path and stay the course to do the Work.
Dare to Do, and See It Through!