Across the entrance to the Oracles at Delphi was written the words ‘Know Yourself’, a quest that mankind has been seeking since the very dawn of time, as indeed has God. The irony is that God and man are of course one and the same, and this is the essence of the ancient Mystery Schools. The knowledge that they sought was self-knowledge, or Gnosis as it has come to be called, and this is the origin of the term Gnosticism. The term covers a school of thought rather than a religion, although branches of some of the organised religions include many of these concepts in their teachings.
Most religious and philosophical belief systems recognise, in one way or another, that the world is imperfect. Where they differ however, is what should be done about it, and who is at fault. As with Buddhism, Gnosticism recognises that earthly life is filled with suffering. In order to nourish and perpetuate themselves, all life forms must feed off each other, thereby causing pain, fear and death. In addition to this, so called natural catastrophes, such as earthquakes, floods and fires also occur, bringing further suffering.
Christianity teaches that we are to blame for the problems, and our fall from grace is due to us having eaten from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Gnosticism however teaches that the world is flawed, not because we have done anything, but because that is the way in which it was created. As monotheistic religions see God as the creator, this belief has often been interpreted as blasphemous, the Gnostics did not believe that God did create the universe by Himself. In the same way that a property developer employs builders and architects, much of the responsibility was delegated to helpers. We refer to these as Angels, but the Gnostics called them Archons (Greek for petty rulers). Chief amongst these were the Demiurge, the only Angels to have been given free will.
The Gnostic view teaches that since experience is relative, in order to experience one particular thing, you must first have another opposite experience from which to draw a comparison. You cannot for example experience love, without experiencing hatred, as you have to have something to compare with. As God is limitless, He realised that in order to know Himself, and his limitlessness, He would also need to know what He was not, in other words to experience limitation.
He therefore broke off a part of Himself, so that He could then look back and experience Himself from the viewpoint of the separated piece. This piece became known as Sophia, meaning wisdom, and is usually portrayed as feminine in nature. Having seen a great light in the distance, and believing this to be an emanation of God, her father, Sophia
descends into the abyss. The further she descends, the further from the light she goes, until eventually she is stopped by a power known as the Limit, or Horus. At this point, her spirit journeys back to God, while her physical, lower self remains in isolation. In her confused state, Sophia struggles and grieves, as she longs to be reunited with her father. In her struggle, she gives birth to, the Demiurge, who having no other frame of reference, designs his own kingdom, based on all that he knows about himself. The Demiurge then is portrayed as more ignorant than evil.
The struggles, and fall of Sophia can be seen as symbolic of the struggle we all face in our journey through physicality. The Gnostics viewed physical, material world as an illusion, designed to distract us away from our true selves, the part of us which is Divine. The only way to escape this illusion, was to raise one’s consciousness away from the physical, material world, to higher realms of spiritual consciousness, where the soul could once again find unity with God.
The Gnostics viewed the human being as having three aspects, known as mind, soul and spirit, or as they are more popularly known today, mind, body and spirit. To explain this analogy they used the image of a circle, with the circumference representing the body, the radius representing the mind, or lower self, and the centre representing the spirit. The body and mind were seen as transient, while the spirit was seen as eternal and everlasting, as it was part of God.
The Gnostics recognised that we are not merely bodies, but rather spirits, or consciousness that are having a bodily experience. The ultimate source of our experience is what they referred to as the dazzling darkness, or the One. The modern term for this would be The Void, the sleeping consciousness that existed before time and limitation, which ultimately gave birth to the Divine.
The Gnostics called our apparent identity the Eidolon. This means image, although of course this is not who we really are, but merely an outer reflection. The modern term for this would be ego. The ultimate aim of Gnosis is the transcendence of the ego, whose role it is to preserve the illusion of who we believe we are.
The Eidolon’s opposite number, our true identity, was referred to as the Daemon. This is the immortal spirit which is part of, and links us to God, known in modern spiritual circles as the Higher Self. Gnostic sages, such as Valentinus taught that we receive Gnosis from our guardian angels, which are in fact projections of the Daemon. The Daemon and Eidolon were known as the heavenly twins, as they represent both light and dark aspects of our being.
The quest for self-knowledge followed a path with three parts, known as Hylics, Psychics and Pneumatics, ultimately leading to Gnosis. The Hylics, or more accurately materialists, associated themselves very much with the body, believing as many people do today, that that is what they were. To all intents and purposes they were, and are, spiritually dead.
The Psychics, the second stage initiates, identified themselves more with the mind, or personality, while the Pneumatics were aware of themselves as pure consciousness, or God. The Psychic stage is about coming to know and love all the aspects of ourselves, both light and dark, and integrating them into one complete whole. The primary purpose of this is to lessen our identification with the ego, that part of us that tries to sabotage our growth.
This process began with what the Gnostics termed ‘metanoi’, which has traditionally been translated as repentance, although it had nothing to do with apologising to God for our misdeeds, for if God does not judge, there is nothing to apologise for. The real meaning of this term is simply a change of heart, or the acknowledgement that our belief patterns no longer serve us, and a change is needed, a shift away from our ego centred view of the world. Sooner or later we all reach this point. It is usually also at this stage that we begin to ask questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here, surely there must be more to life than this?’ It is the aching loneliness that I term divine discontent.
The difference between Pneumatics and Gnostics may at first glance seem somewhat obscure, but it is really quite simple. The Pneumatics knew conceptually that they were consciousness, or God, whereas the Gnostics really knew, for they had direct experience of it. Indeed, the word Gnostic has often been translated as knower.
The four stages of initiation, or levels of awareness were each symbolised by one of the four elements – earth, water, air and fire. The initiations that marked the transition from one level to the next were each marked by a form of baptism, as symbolised by the element to which they were linked. Thus baptism by water was said to symbolise the transition from Hylic to Psychic, or identification with the mind, or personality, as opposed to the body. The transition from Psychic to Pneumatic was marked by baptism by air, or breath, while baptism by fire, or smoke represents the final stage, when the initiates receive Gnosis, and have direct experience of the nature of who they really are.
During this process, the initiates would learn to completely disengage from the mind, or logical thinking self, instead training themselves to simply observe with a state of detachment. When we are able to do this, we find, as Shakespeare said, ‘that all the world’s a stage, and we are merely players.’ Most of us go through life acting out a series of roles, such as the girlfriend, the mother, the sister, the writer, etc, etc, without really knowing the essence of who we are. Having said this, before we can lose ourselves, we must first have known ourselves.
This is the same journey of awakenment that today’s so called New Agers are also on. I hesitate to use the term New Agers because of the negative connotations that have come to be associated with this term. People always ridicule and fear that which they do not understand, and that threatens the status quo, and the image of themselves that the ego has created. This is the same reason why the Church labelled most Gnostic groups, such as the Cathars as heretics, and massacred them in there thousands. The Church leaders were acting with their egos, or solar plexus rather than their hearts, for everything that they believed about themselves was being threatened. The heretics were merely reflecting their fears and insecurities back to them.
For many people, this journey is really more a process of remembrance than learning. A Course in Miracles says that enlightenment, or Gnosis is becoming aware, not of change, but rather of that that cannot be changed. The essence of who we are is changeless, and infinite, and in order to become enlightened all we need to do it realise that we already are.
Once we can learn to detach ourselves from our experiences, then we realise that the experience and the experiencer are two totally different things. This is also the basis for the first part of the teachings of the Beloved Community and A Course in Miracles, and is also taught in modern philosophy. The workbook of A Course in Miracles is divided into 365 lessons, the first half of the which are designed to unpick the results of our inappropriate thinking, or perception, while the second half aims to bring about a shift in perception, enabling us to see ourselves, and the world around us as it really is.
As consciousness we understand ourselves for what we are, but when the ego comes into play we learn to associate ourselves with our outer experiences, rather than the inner. We know that we are consciousness, but we do not really know.
On the surface at least, we would appear to be our physical bodies, but the body too is an illusion. We are not the solid beings that we appear to be, as science is now beginning to discover. We are actually made up of a series of fast moving electrical impulses that form the illusion of our physical form. The Yogis and Indian Holy men know this, and this is how they are able to put swords through themselves without drawing a single drop of blood, or feeling any pain. I am not of course suggesting that you should try this.
Consciousness ultimately lies at the heart, or core of every living thing, be it animal, vegetable, mineral, or human. No matter how much the ego might try to persuade us otherwise, this one fundamental truth can never change.
The path for self-knowledge can also be seen as a path to God, for ultimately that is who, and what we are. The aim of the Mystery Schools was to help us to realise and understand this, as is the aim of the Beloved Community and A Course in Miracles, which have been described as modern versions of these Schools. Perhaps a more accurate way of describing these would be Un-mystery Schools. The transformation is no longer limited to a select few, but is open to everyone, as the world is now ready to integrate these truths more fully.
The words used to describe the experience of Gnosis are always inadequate, for words are the least effective way of describing our experiences, as they are merely symbols that are used to describe our thoughts and feelings. The irony is that we have placed so much emphasis on the word of God, when it is the experience that matters. What we are in effect doing is describing the opposite of what we have been taught we are, in other words, love.
Love is a concept that is incredibly difficult to define, as it is such a personal experience. By attempting to define it, we are in effect confining it, but love by its very nature cannot be confined, as in its purest form it is limitless. It is interesting, and frustrating to note that the Inuits have many words to describe snow, whereas we have only one word to describe love.
Love is the essence of who, and what we are. The teachings of Jesus were all based around this one precept. Love is the greatest force in the universe (apart from change). It has the power to unite all of humanity in a way that nothing else can.
True love, when given from the heart is unconditional, and knows no boundaries. The closest thing that most people ever get to this is the love that they feel for their children. Yet if love is all that we are, we should feel this love for everyone, and everything that we encounter. The reason we don’t is, in short the ego.
Ultimately the only way to transcend the ego (darkness) is to embrace it. This does not mean that we must ignore our light side and work only for the dark, for all this does is create a state of further imbalance. What it does mean however, is acknowledging that it exists, for by failing to acknowledge that part of ourselves, we are merely giving it more energy. In the moment that we stop fighting and surrender, real miracles can
Gnosis in short then is the realisation, experimentally, that we are all one, and are not out bodies. In realising this, it does not mean to say that we will suddenly all become floaty sunbeams, hanging around with big smiles on our faces. Rather, it enables us to simply view the World from a different perspective, to change our perception of who we are, and what we see around us. The world will not suddenly disappear in a big puff of smoke, and neither will we, but we will be aware of the true nature of our reality. Another way of putting this is that we will awake from the dream that we have been having.