the big questions

Modern Mystery School

It has been quite a while since I last wrote here. This is because I have been focusing on creating a modern mystery school. This needs a little explanation!

I use this term simply as a shorthand, because what Graham and I are setting up will resemble the ancient mystery schools in two significant ways. First, it will provide a whole person training – education in its original sense, if you like. You could call this “a modern spiritual training”. And second, it will facilitate the process of the whole person exploring the whole world. You could call this “an extended science”. I will say a few words about each of these.

In the world today, education has largely been replaced by its opposite – schooling. Confusingly, it is still called “education”, when it is clearly not what education should be, or used to be. Schooling differs from education in two important respects. First, it rarely develops the whole person. It focuses mainly on the intellectual and the physical. (As we shall see, this has striking parallels in science). And second, it is not designed to “lead out” the best and uniqueness of each individual, which is what true education does. On the contrary, it is designed to tell people what to think, what to believe, and how to behave. Schooling is therefore a recipe for conformity, because it tends to stifle creativity and individuality. Although the ancient mystery schools differed from place to place, they were united in their belief that the whole human being should be developed, and not just the intellectual and physical parts.

The ancient schools were also united in another sense. They knew how important it is to use the whole of ourselves to explore the world, rather than just the physical and intellectual parts, which is what usually happens today, particularly in the sciences. Science today relies almost exclusively on two modalities to explore the world – our five physical senses (and extensions to these senses, such as microscopes and telescopes), and our intellect. It should come as no surprise that the world responds accordingly, and reveals to us only its physical and intellectual aspects. We call these aspects “scientific knowledge”. The problem is that many people make the mistake of assuming that this is knowledge about all aspects of the world.

When we combine the fact that schooling, not education, is the norm today with the fact that the dominant form of knowledge (science) is based almost exclusively on the physical/intellectual way of exploring, we get two serious consequences. First, people are not being allowed or encouraged to reach their potential. They often remain pale versions of who they could be. Just to be clear, we are not speaking about “success” or anything like that. When we say “potential”, we mean the potential to be fully human. Because they are schooled, rather than educated, most people are not as intelligent as they could be, and this is reflected in the state of the world. It is a world in which the “most intelligent species” causes all the problems! Second, given its way of exploring the world, science gives us only a partial, one-sided picture of the world – the physical/material picture. Our understanding of what the world is and who we are therefore remains very limited. We believe that this, more than anything else, underpins the materialistic values and behaviour that pervade the world today.

The ancient mystery schools explicitly went beyond the limits of the physical, because they recognised the importance of exploring and understanding the non-physical aspects of the world and of the human being. (Some people call these the “spiritual aspects”.) To be able to do this, they had to develop certain forms of consciousness that are largely unknown today. What the mystery schools offered to their students was a rigorous training to awaken and develop “organs of perception” that enabled direct experience of the non-physical aspects of the world. These organs of perception can usefully be thought of as “inner senses”, to distinguish them from our five physical senses, the ones that give us direct experience of the physical aspects of the world. The knowledge they gained is usually called “esoteric knowledge”, indicating that it was available only to those few people who had developed their inner senses. We believe that a training in the inner senses is an important component of a modern spiritual training. And it is the inner senses that make an extended science possible. It is “science of the whole”.

We recognise that great changes that have taken place in the millennia since the mystery schools thrived. These can be captured in three words – knowledge, technology, consciousness. We have much more knowledge today, about the world and ourselves, than our ancestors did at the time of the mystery schools. That much is clear. However, against this, we have to weigh two things – the fact that much of what we know today is knowledge of the physical aspects of the world and ourselves, as well as the fact that the teachers and students in the mystery schools knew much about the non-physical aspects of the world and the human being. Nonetheless, our much wider, more detailed knowledge means that the mystery schools of the 21st Century will be different, in some significant respects, from the ancient ones.

The modern mystery schools will be different, not just because our knowledge has changed, but also because we have changed. There are compelling reasons for believing that human consciousness today is not what it was two or three thousand years ago. Although it can sometimes seem otherwise, we are more conscious today, individually and collectively. The best account of this that we know is The Secret History of Consciousness, by Gary Lachman. When thinking about a mystery school for our times, we also have to factor in these changes in consciousness.

Last but not least, we have modern technology, with all that this implies. It implies, for example, that students and teachers do not always need to be in the same physical space. Much can be done on online, and this modality is likely to become much more functional, not least because of the restrictions ushered in by the current pandemic.

One last thought – if education is about leading out the best and uniqueness from each individual, then the corollary of this is surely that each of us contributes our best and our uniqueness back to the world. We all have something unique to say and to contribute. And we should all give our best. This comes only when we give the whole of ourselves to the world. Our modern mystery school is designed to help people do just this.

These are early days, and there is still much thinking to be done, and many conversations to be had. To find out more, please contact us.


Chris Thomson  

Graham Stewart

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