Would love to hear your thoughts on the difficulties Elders are having in passing on their traditions, John. Any chance you could use that as your next topic?
Over the years in the course of conversations with people I respect from the Teacher/Author/Elder segment of our community, I have often found the subject of our discussion turning to the shift they are witnessing in the mindset of the general student population. The first time was with my own Teacher some 30+ years ago, the most recent was in a conversation with an old friend just a few months past. These discussions are not of the “students were different back in the good old days” genre, but rather focus on observed changes in the average student’s expectations regarding the learning process.
The Public’s interest has varied greatly over the last few centuries with respect to studying subjects typically labeled as Metaphysical, Arcane, or the Occult (not the Hollywood version). More recent additions to this area of interest have been labeled as Paganism, Wiccan, Goddess Religion, or New Age.
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, for an individual to be open at all about having an interest in any of these areas would be hazardous to them socially, and could put them personally at risk with the local authorities and/or religious organizations. Under these circumstances an individual persistent enough to seek out a teacher or an organization where learning was available was a personage who took the entire process seriously, one who was willing to perform whatever level of exertion was required in order to acquire access to these teachings.
In the United States the Spiritualist Movement, which began with the Fox sisters in 1848, launched the general public’s more tolerant acceptance of people’s interests in these subjects. By the Civil War, just a decade and a half later, Mary Todd Lincoln was hosting séances in the White House. Organizations began to appear that were open to the public, albeit with some membership restrictions, whose purpose was to promote the study and practice of Eastern and Occult Philosophies. Progenies of two such organizations of the period are still in operation today, The Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875 in New York City, and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1888 in London.
From this point on, and lasting through the first half of the 20th Century, there was a steady growth of organizations throughout the Western World that provided access to learning within a wide range of subjects related to the Mystery Traditions. The focus of these organizations varied widely, but they all had a common approach to learning, the student was expected to do all the work. What I mean by that is the Teachers and Elders in the organizations were there to assist the student as much as possible, directing them to the texts they needed to study, helping them to learn exercises that would aid them in their personal development, and teaching them the traditions of their particular belief system, etc., but the student was expected to do the reading of the texts, to learn and to practice the exercises and the traditions, and to process the information personally and internally. Although there were initiations for the student at various levels of attainments that would provide an occasional boost for the novice, all accomplishment came as the result of personal participation and accomplishments.
The novice started with access to the exoteric form of the tradition, learning what was available to pretty much anyone who was willing to search for books and writings on the subjects. But in order to gain access to the esoteric portion of the teachings, those held from the general public to prevent their misuse, the student had to show that they had acquired a sufficient level of the basics in knowledge and principles. They also had to demonstrate that they possessed a work ethic that would make it possible for them to stick with a learning process that could at times be daunting.
The section that follows is not meant to be an evaluation of the merits or failings of the changes that will be discussed, nor an endorsement or a criticism of them; rather in order to understand how we got to where we are today, and to speculate upon where we are going in the future, the time period considered will be discussed in terms of “cause and effect”.
With roots that started in the 1950’s, and clearly visible in the 1960’s, we saw a major paradigm shift in the West whose influence was most predominant among the younger members of society. In every culture you looked at, the existing values of the “Elders” were suddenly being brought into question. As many of the traditional values were rejected, new ways of viewing the world and interacting with others were sought out. At the time, these changes were viewed as a positive thing for our community. Interest in numerous Magickal, Pagan and Wiccan Traditions increased, as well as in the traditions of the East, particularly those originating in India. The upsurge in attraction for studying these areas saw a measured but consistent rate of growth from the mid-sixties up through the mid-eighties.
Then, in February of 1987, a mini-series appeared on TV based on Shirley MacLaine’s book Out On A Limb and the New Age Movement took off.
Overnight the demand for classes in crystals, healing, meditation, and yoga snowballed. Additionally, during the decade following there was an upsurge in interest in all things Pagan, Wiccan, Magick and Goddess oriented, followed very quickly by Angels and Fairies. The demand was so great that it almost immediately exceeded the supply of experienced teachers and Elders.
Where demand exceeds supply there will always be some who will step forward to fill the gap. Soon we had new teachers teaching the classes that they had just taken themselves. The new scholars did not see any problem with this lack of breadth in their teacher’s range of knowledge, because most of them only had an interest in the one subject being covered in the particular class that they were enrolled in.
Some of these new teachers from two plus decades ago went on to expand their breadth of knowledge, found Elders to study under, become successful authors, and are now becoming Elders themselves. Others went on to become “personalities” and became a Westernized version of the Eastern Guru.
For most of the new members of the community the paradigm shift in the culture alluded to earlier, coupled with the new student’s realization that much of the time they found themselves taking instruction from individuals less knowledgeable about the subject at hand than they were, produced an attitude that experience in a teacher was not to be valued all that much, and Traditions that outlined a specific way of living or of practicing ritual were not all that necessary either.
The word Eclectic entered the community and became a code for one who preferred to not limit themselves to a single Tradition or belief system. The Eclectic chose their Gods, Goddesses, meditation practices, rituals and tools from whatever Tradition they came across, making their selections like choosing from a menu in a restaurant. An Eclectic did not need an Elder, nor saw any need to follow an established Tradition. Instead, groups of Eclectics that had made similar choices from the menu began to form their own, new, Traditions. Most of these groups had very short life spans, soon breaking up with the former members gravitating to other new Traditions, until those too dissolved.
In any culture when the need for a position in that culture fades, the position itself also vanishes. I grew up on the Northern edge of the Missouri Ozarks which had a rich tradition of folk healers and herbalists up through the first half of the twentieth century. When conventional medical care became more widely available in the rural areas of the state in the 1950’s, the use of the services of the folk healers and herbalists disappeared, as did with time, the folk healers and herbalists themselves.
Our community has become part of the cultural mainstream. You can now buy your books, tools and jewelry at any large department store. There is no longer a perceived need for a specialty shop or learning center. Nor is there a perceived need in the majority of the community for an Elder to pass on a Tradition, and because of that, soon the younger members of the community may not be able to find an Elder to study under, even if they decide they want to.
Interest in the extensive range of topics that fall under the headings of New Age, Paganism and Wicca continues to expand, at least on the surface. And I think that that is a good thing. My observation and concern though, is that most of the interest seems to be more social oriented, than spiritual. I’m certainly not opposed to a teacher doing whatever they can to maximize attendance, teachers have bills to pay just like everyone else, but when I see group rituals being scheduled for the nearest weekend preceding an occasion such as a solstice, rather than for the actual date of the event to maximize attendance, I can’t help but wonder if anyone involved really understands why the ancients performed their rites on specific days?
The “purpose” for the ritual celebration on a specific date originally was so that the ritual would have access to the maximum amount of natural energy possible, which could then be tapped into to facilitate the bringing about of a desired result for the individual and/or the community. In the case of a Solstice Celebration, the “purpose” of the ritual was to bring about the most favorable conditions possible for the survival of the tribal group for the next six months.
The “purpose” today for many for the enactment of a ritual celebration is simply a social gathering and becomes an end unto itself. The timing becomes inconsequential. To choose convenience over substance contributes to the growing superficial approach to these subjects, an approach that also contributes to the perceived lack of need for experienced teachers and Elders. It is not so much a case of the students not trusting in the wisdom of the Elders as much as it is that the average student today does not know what an Elder is, or the function or value of having an Elder within a cultural system.
The title of this piece is the opening line from the book of Ecclesiastes in the King James Version of the Old Testament, Chapter III: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. It may be that the surge in interest in all things mystical by mainstream culture has resulted in the mystical becoming mundane. The study of the Metaphysical and Occult has been a core element of human growth for as long as there have been humans. Occult means hidden, and so too was its study up to 150 years ago. Perhaps the “season” for its in-depth study being readily available to all is coming to a close, and the cycle is returning once more to where the knowledgeable teachers and Elders are not so easily accessible to the general public. To use terms from the period of the previous cycle, the public will still have open access to the “exoteric”, but only a few will have access to the “esoteric”, the real heart of the teachings.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant,
and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.