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James Wasserman and Una Birch: Secret Societies: Illuminati, Freemasons, and the French Revolution
James Wasserman: The Mystery Traditions: Secret Symbols and Sacred Art
James Wasserman: Aleister Crowley and the Practice of the Magical Diary


Navigating Your Way through Secret Societies

A Lecture given on November 11, 2006

Copyright 2006 James Wasserman


Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Good afternoon. If I were attending a lecture like this, my first question would be: how can someone discuss secret societies in a publicly advertised forum? My second thought would be, how can someone “share his insights” as a member of a secret society? Don’t be alarmed, I’m as confused as you are!

Actually, the first question here might be: what is a secret society? I like to think of it as a special interest group. For example, if I want to study zoology, it would be distracting and counterproductive to join up with a bunch of people discussing psychology or marketing. I would seek an environment in which zoology would be the subject matter that all participants would want to either learn or teach. Psychologists and marketers might attend, but they would be zoology students first and foremost for the purposes of the group.

This may help to explain why secret societies can be found on the internet, or list their addresses when publishing books, or in a case like this, invite the public to share their doctrines and experiences for a limited amount of time. It also helps explain how a person can join a secret society. Remember if such a group were really secret, it could never bring in new members.

There are various types of secret societies. Some, like the O.T.O. or the Golden Dawn, are spiritual in nature. There are also secret societies that are political such as the Council on Foreign Relations. There are criminal secret societies like the Mafia or Tong society. And there are martial secret societies such as ninja or elite special forces.

In each of these cases, there will be hidden knowledge, specialized techniques, and some form of recognition system that will allow a person to ascertain whether the other is a real member or not. There are also various penalties associated with breaking obligations. For example, in a criminal organization or revolutionary political conspiracy such as the Aryan Nation or al-Qaeda, death might be the consequence of either betraying secrets or plans of the group, the identity of other members, or even wishing to resign one’s membership.

This is not the case with modern spiritual secret societies, at least not the kind with which I am familiar. However, there is something called a “destructive cult”— such as the People’s Temple of Jim Jones or other apocalyptic sects such as Charles Manson’s Family—in which severe punishment, even death, might result from disobedience or lack of allegiance to the group. During the medieval period in Europe, when death by the Inquisition was the penalty for belonging to an alternate belief system, penalties for disobedience were necessarily more rigidly enforced by group members, who would be considered part of a criminal conspiracy by authorities.

Many of you here have read or heard about Masonic type oaths in which a candidate will pledge during his or her initiation or advancement to keep secret certain information. I have heard some self-described authorities pooh-pooh these oaths, and claim they are an antiquated form of play acting, as if they really knew what that robed lunatic sitting in the corner was thinking! I might suggest a different interpretation. If one is serious about making a spiritual promise, or if a group has a real spiritual connection with Higher Intelligence, it is quite possible that the penalties of one’s vows will be exacted even if not by other members. Thus someone who swore not to reveal something and invoked the penalty of having his “heart torn from his breast” if he betrayed the oath, might experience a heart attack or some such incident to make real the words spoken in a spiritually charged context.

Now this brings up the meaning of a spiritually charged context. Let’s leave the CFR, the Carbonari, the Weathermen, Mafia, Navy SEALS, and our zoologists aside and focus solely on spiritual secret societies.

What, if anything, is the source of their power?

Let’s first decide if there is a source of power. How would you know? Well, believe it or not, you’ll have to take it on faith at first. I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the society I serve has a source of power so far beyond my own comprehension and limited perception that I remain more in awe of it after thirty years than when I first began to sense it. Many others have written about these powers and I highly recommend you read the novels of Dion Fortune, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Aleister Crowley, Elizabeth Haich, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, and many others who share my opinion.

Spiritual secret societies are generally founded by adepts to promulgate their teachings and techniques. These teachings and techniques are essentially descriptions and methods by which one may have personal experience of altered states of consciousness. Such altered states will include contact with Higher Intelligences. These Intelligences are often described as having enlisted or chosen the adept in question to teach their system. Such is certainly the case with Aleister Crowley, who explained his entire life’s work as an attempt to understand and promulgate the Book of the Law, an inspired text he penned in 1904.

Dion Fortune was a younger contemporary of Crowley. While she was not a disciple of his, she formed a group known as the Society of the Inner Light to share her teachings on the nature of the spiritual hierarchy she served, and the methods by which one may come into contact with it.

We seem to have left Kansas Dorothy. Returning to the analogy of special interest group, you can see that people interested exclusively in discussing baseball scores or stock market activity might not be attracted to this subject. And conversely, the amount of attention one would need to devote to internalizing such lofty ideas might lead you to seek the company of others equally serious.

Now here’s a thought. Crowley taught doctrines in O.T.O. and A.’.A.’. that differed from those of Dion Fortune in the Society of Inner Light. Which one was right? For me, Crowley was. On the other hand I respect Fortune. Furthermore, if someone were as serious about her teaching as I am about Crowley’s, I would conclude that the Powers she served would have chosen that person as one of their disciples, while the Powers Crowley served had chosen me. Whoosh!

Let’s come down a notch or two and discuss the nature of Truth. Initiation is individual. I cannot make progress along the spiritual path for you. You have to do it by and for yourself. Each complex of your psyche must be explored and mastered. Each defect of your character acknowledged and corrected. The mind must be stilled, and the body eliminated as a conscious distraction. Energy must be directed to flow in unobstructed channels, and the nervous system must learn to conduct greater and greater levels of power. The will must become single.

More experienced practitioners can help direct you in these efforts. They can share their experiences with the founding adept’s techniques. They can comment on subtleties of your behavior that you might not notice yourself. They can test you on your progress. But they cannot do the work for you.

If you are the type of person who will be attracted to a spiritual secret society, you will first study various teachers in their books. One of these will stand out to your spiritual intuition and you will explore more of his or her writing. As the certainty grows that you are “in that teacher’s camp,” you will look for contacts. You may write to an address published in the book, or find representatives of that teacher on the internet, learn of a public event sponsored by the group such as this one, or simply meet others through perhaps unlikely channels who will bring you closer to the source.

Undoubtedly, you will feel that you have been led to the group. In my opinion, you have been. However, this is the time to look around. Let’s say that you have been led to the group to test whether you are fit to recognize the truth. What if the group is not a real representative of the source of power you seek? This is a good time to find out.

Observe the dynamics. Is there a flow of information? Do members seem happy? Do you detect any compulsion? How “friendly” are people? Are they overly friendly? Do they seem to know what they are talking about, or do they seem to be repeating formularized phrases? Do members have careers and families? Do most of them seem well-integrated into society? Are they independent of the group when not attending its events? Do you detect any Power?

If you are satisfied with your observations, and have mediated on the rightness of your actions you may proceed.

Most Western secret societies confer membership by a process of Initiation. In a real secret society, this is designed to complete a spiritual circuitry between yourself and the inner sources of the teaching to which you aspire. It is beyond the context of this lecture to explain what happens in an Initiation, as if anyone could. But the main value of joining a real secret society is to gain Initiation. Think of it as being plugged into a moderated current. The Powers behind the society accomplish their work by bringing souls to help with the Mission. Thus they will be guiding the Initiation process in such a manner that people will be spiritually advanced with a measure of safety and the possibility of success. While the history of Magick and Initiation is strewn with the wreckage of many failed candidates, the process does work for those willing and able to do the Work, and whose aspirations are deemed pure.

If you are joining a true secret society, you will get neither too much “amperage” from the Initiation nor too little. However, psychic energies will be stimulated that often bring turmoil. This is all part of the process. Crowley speaks of the waters of the soul being stirred and the mud of ignorance making things murky as a result. Purity of self is an essential component of being able to raise and channel spiritual Power.

When you link your psyche to a spiritual secret society, you are invoking purification upon yourself. Courage is your armor. And persistence. And prayer. Remember the Gods you serve have invited you to feast at their table. But you cannot enter their presence covered in the filthy rags of the undisciplined senses. As Crowley says, each tangle of imperfection must be combed out of the hair of the Bride by her Lover, the Angel, in preparation for the nuptials.

But this brings up a whole different issue. If I am confused, and I am going through mysterious personal experiences, and my world seems topsy-turvy, and I have entered a very different psychological state than any with which I have previously been familiar, how can I make rational judgments? Interesting question.

The answer is that you can make judgments because you are the one doing the work in the first place. This is an individual Path. You may be sharing it in the company of others, but it is your own self that is being initiated by your own HGA or Holy Guardian Angel. I will not discuss how many Thelemites or Holy Guardian Angels can dance on the head of a pin. Perhaps, in the end, all our HGAs are the same and we are all One in some great big cosmic Beatles song. But for now, let’s erect the wall of separation between you and me. My Angel can beat up your Angel … that kind of thing.

If anything seems seriously out of place with the group, even after you have been initiated, get out. Don’t let the door hit you in the behind. Don’t squawk, don’t violate the Oaths you swore, don’t make a federal case out of anything, just depart in peace. By the way, if you joined a destructive cult by accident, you’re in big trouble now! (Only kidding. You determined it wasn’t a destructive cult much earlier by making all those observations, right?)

But don’t quit precipitously. Maybe you are experiencing an Ordeal. Can you tell the difference between being in a misguided or false secret society and experiencing an ordeal? Here are some clues.

Are you being asked for large sums of money? Every group has expenses. Everyone will be expected to contribute to those expenses. Pay your fair share. Does it seem you are being asked for too much? Does the group practice “tithing” or seek a percentage of your income? That would worry me. Do all members pay their share or does it seem only new people are being hit up for money? This is very bad if it is happening. In the O.T.O. for example, the higher you go, the more you pay. Now that might not be pleasant for someone in my position, but it is spiritually correct.

Are you being manipulated by someone in a position of leadership? Do you observe knowing winks, a certain self-righteous arrogance, the hint of secret knowledge or hidden power, a kind of omniscience that a lowly mortal such as yourself cannot comprehend. Remember even the higher initiates in your group have egos. They may be more advanced on the Path than you are, however this means the nature of their battle with their egos may be more severe because it is more subtle.

This is a complex matter because most spiritual secret societies in the Western tradition are hierarchically organized. Part of the learning process involves the discipline of following orders, and older wiser members are generally consulted in spiritual matters. There must be a certain trust in the hierarchical process. Use your own intuition and judgment.

No one has the right to tell you to do anything you don’t want to do. If you are given instructions that seem to violate your integrity, stop and examine the issue in total. Wait it out. Seek inner guidance. Do not allow yourself to be forced into anything. If the leader will not give you sufficient time to wrestle through the problem in your own manner, that person is probably wrong. After sufficient reflection, on the other hand, you may find yourself changing your earlier opinion. A true secret society will challenge you but never dominate you.

In my experience, one of the biggest problems in spiritual secret societies is what I fondly refer to as the sexual predator. Male or female, this person will assure you of great wisdom if you will only give in to their sexual charms. If such a person is the leader of your group, I would suggest again that you quit. It will be very difficult for you to make progress when you are under the enforced leadership of an ass. Furthermore, it does not speak well of your karma with the group that such a leader has not been detected and removed before you got there. If it is another member, inform the leader. He or she can usually help put an end to such behavior. Generally, sexual predators are known to leadership and most are, or should be, on a very short leash leading to the termination of their membership.

I, who make few guarantees in life, will guarantee that sleeping with someone to whom you are not attracted, because they promise you spiritual wisdom, will not result in spiritual wisdom.

Lesser problems common to spiritual secret societies include the phenomenon of group ego. We used to joke about ourselves walking together in the street after rituals as “hordes of Adepts.” That good-natured banter allows people involved in the Great Work not to take ourselves too seriously. On the other hand, the notion that you are on the vanguard of spiritual illumination and the pursuit of Truth can allow you to forget that you are hanging by the thread of your aspiration to the Angel, and that the Lord has been known to lop off the heads of those who think themselves mighty.

What is the dividing line between spiritual work and intense socializing? I think a certain amount of socializing is a positive thing for members of a secret society. However, I have seen a great deal of time wasted by those who mistake Good Company for the Great Work. I believe most individual spiritual progress occurs when people are alone. I would guess that one could better integrate the energies of a successful group ritual by going home to meditate afterwards, rather than loading up on dinner and drinks with other ritualists. People can get sloppy and Magick is a Fastidious pursuit.

But enough for the downside of such societies. What about the benefits? Here you will find a group of strangers who have felt the same urgings that have motivated you for so long. You may have felt isolated and alone. If you didn’t hide your interest in spiritual topics from your associates before, they may have thought you weird. Some may have learned of your practice of Magick and considered you evil, or about to be possessed, or some other form of derogatory concern. Now you will find a group of people who speak your language. You will have a sounding board for your most cherished ideals. You will have the possibly of learning from others more advanced, as well as contributing your special insights to others who care as deeply about these matters as you do. You will be stimulated by the group dynamic to study more. Can’t be found wanting in your reading or your practices! Conversations will revolve around the very topics that motivated you to join the group in the first place. Instead of needing to hide or feel uneasy about your interests, you will be challenged, stimulated, and encouraged to hone your skills and increase your knowledge.

I have always maintained that the real purpose of secret societies is group ritual. I have said repeatedly that meditation and individual ritual is a personal pursuit. There is no need for groups in a person’s individual spiritual practices. So what is the purpose of belonging to a spiritual group? I believe group ritual is the answer. Here you harness the individual magical efforts of a number of people and join them together for a specific purpose, for a limited period of time, to accomplish a single result. You cannot substitute group ritual for individual ritual. But you can build on your own individual progress by participation in group ritual.

At first, you will learn how more experienced people design ritual. You will be called upon to prepare yourself for an assigned part. You will have the social pressure and the guidance to learn how to do your best. In time, you will take greater and greater roles in such rituals until the day when you are in charge of originating the ritual. You will determine its purpose, design it, write it, assign parts to fellow ritualists, and take responsibility for scheduling, practice, props, and performance.

After you finish, you will go back to your own individual work in the privacy of your own mind and Temple.

It is impossible to communicate the power of a group ritual to someone who has never participated in one — just as it is impossible to describe a sneeze to someone without a nose. Tried and tested allies are crucial because there is a level of Power that will be augmented by the strength of the other minds involved. In other words, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Group ritual is a time tested means to enlarge the boundaries of individual work.

* * * * *

Before we conclude, I would like to summarize some key points:

Number One is that you must rely on your own judgment when making the decision to join or remain in a secret society.

Number Two is that imperfect people exist in all walks of life including secret societies. Just because a leader has personal failings does not mean you cannot learn valuable information from him or her. You are not perfect either.

Number Three is no one has the right to demand your time or money or compliance without your willing assent.

Number Four is that sex is a private matter between consenting adults, and that anyone who tries to manipulate you into bed without mutual attraction should be shunned.

Number Five is that if you value your time, and use it to build your spiritual life, you won’t waste it. Video games and television are not the only way to waste time. Be careful about over-socializing.

Number Six is that this is your individual Great Work. No one can tell you what to do. No one can sit in your meditation for you. No one can invoke your Holy Guardian Angel. You are the master of your life and you bear the responsibility for your decisions. You are the only one to be congratulated. You are the only one to blame.

Finally: I have been a member of a secret society for some thirty years. I have raised two children in this environment. My eldest surprised me by joining the group at age twenty-four. My wife is a member. I met her through the group. Most of my closest friends are members.

I believe my participation in this society has made an enormously valuable contribution to my life. I hope I have reciprocated in some measure. Despite whatever difficulties I have experienced within the group, I would not change the fact of my membership nor the inclination of my incarnation.

Should you choose to join, or are a member of, a spiritual secret society, I wish you the best, and hope you will be as fulfilled as I have been by your experience.

Love is the law, love under will.