It is very much easier to work towards a spiritual goal, such as God- or Self-Realization, if you have the fellowship and support of a community, then if you are struggling alone, an alien in the world (Gnosticism) and a stranger in a strange land (Heinlein).
Such a collective make take the form of an internet group, ashram, esoteric society, an intentional community, or anything else.
Such a community may be
A Secret Society. Initiatory occult or esoteric secret society, for example the Pythagoreans or Knights Templar of old, traditional and more recent Taoist societies, or Sant Mat or Hermetic Kabbalah from the 19th century onwards have traditionally been part of the esoteric path. But in these days of global communications and selfless and altruistic open source dissemination of information, they look increasingly anchronistic. Also, while technically Esoteric/Gnostic, these groups may and indeed probably for the most part are still be limitred by traditional thoughtforms or religious institutions or beliefs. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as you know this is the map, not the territory. e,.g. the Golden Dawn system, or Tibatan Tantra, each provides a wonderful system of mental formulation for self-transformation through visualisation and deity identification, but these should not be confused with Reality in Itself.
An Ashram or other spiritual organisation. Throughout the history of civilization, reformers, idealists, revolutionaries, spirituals, mystics, and gnostics have sort out like-minded souls, or gethered at the feet of a Master, in order to further progress towards God- or Self-Realization. In contrast to secret Societies, the Realised Master has always been accessible to whoever would approach Him or Her. Of course, not every Guru or Teacher is authentically realised or competent; in fact, , very few are, and in many cases such individuals do more harm than good. Nevertheless, organizations centered around a charismatic guru or spiritual instructor, such as for example, the various Eastern Gurus to the West (beginning with Vivekananda and Yogananda) and their Western and New Age imitators are common, and an important part of the New Age movement. The way these organisations differ from those of the past is that now they often include lay disciples in addition to the monastic/communal/ashram element . As with all such movements, the religosity can be stiffling. And even in the case of those true Realisers who reject religious dogmatism, after their passing the same old patterns form.
A grass-roots organisation or social or activist movement. These are centered around particular ideals rather than a single charismatic but too often flawed individual, and thus avoid the perils of the previous group. They may include for example feminist, environmental, third-world or indigenous justice, animal welfare or animal liberation, or other such movements. These Reformist/ Pluralistic/(R)Evolutionary movements have very high and admirable ideals of social reform, but are limited only to a single issue. Despite their excellent and admirable ideals I find them claustrophobic both because of the single issue emphasis and even more so the totally exoteric/non-gnostic consciousness.
The single issue problam can be avoided through adopting a general ideology, which is not limited to only cause but includes all. This is found in the Cultural Creative, New Paradigm/New Consciousness and Participatory / Peer to Peer movements.
Exploring new technologies and approaches; e.g. Arcosanti. I haven't had any direct experience with these sort of groups. Arcosanti has always interested me because of its futuristic elements. A friend however who is interested in spiritual communities has visited it and was pretty dissapointed to find it was like everywhere else. In otehr words, this is the same problem of outer transformation without inner transformation.
Esoteric, Theosophical, or New Age, movements, have a mesoteric intellectual orientation, which follow a particular teaching rather than a charismatic personality like the guru movements, although they were originally established by such a personality - e.g. Blavatsky with Theosophy, Steriner with Anthroposophy, and are unable to go beyond that. There also seems to be an excessively limited reliance on the personality of the Founder. For that reason, such groups, while addressing spiritual, esoteric, and occult topics (or not, as in the case of the Integral Movement, which is more exoteric) tend to be very intellectually limited. Exactly the same problems are found in broad-based religious/secular and spiritual reform movements that is based again on a single charismatic individual or teaching; e.g. Baha'ulla's Baha'i faith, Vladimir Megre's Anastasia movement, Sarker's Ananda Marga or Wilber's Integral community (all of these latter would seem to be at the "holistic" stage.
Alternative or back to the land communities which may be based on a single teaching (Twelve Tribes (Christian), or Anastasia) or they may be generic New Age/Alternative Lifestyle. If the former, too dogmatic (the Osho communities are probably the best); if the latter, too mired in drug use (marijuana) (I found this latter in the case of the Australian Alternative scene, such as ConFests and Nimbin; and I expect it is the same worldwide). These communities very much embody a holistic/pop New Age stage of consciousness. A few very radical New Age centers like Findhorne, Lindisfarne, Auroville, and Mirapuri may be able to break away from these limitations, and attain a mesoteric or even esoteric degree of consciousness and transformation.
No doubt many other categories could be included as well (if you have any suggestions let me know! :-)
While there is certain benefit and support in being a part of such groups; and it is often easier to progress (at least for a while) than it is to be on one's own. But it is also harder to transform such groups, if they are not aligned with your own principles or creative initiative. Almost all these groups and communities (there may be a few exceptions) tend to be very conservative, entrenched in their ways, and under the sway of a political leadership, complete with byzantine politics.
So whereas it is much easier to be a member of a group, ashram, or intentional community then it is to be on one's own, it is also very much harder to be a catalyst for transformation in such communities or groups. I have been told by a friend who visited two of what I consider the most innovative groups, Findhorn and Auroville, that they were totally political. In all these cases then, there is very little scope for transformation, as the group will tend to conservatively follow a single teaching, that of the charismatic founder or originator.
At their best such groups can be empowering and inspiring. At their worst conservative, rigid, and bound to the dead letter of the past, or the personality and mental limitations of the guru. There are many groups in the world today working to bring about a change in society, or even a totally new and more progressive society (the cultural creative / postmaterialistic revolution). But so far, there has been no such group higher than Esoteric-Gnostic grade.
The best groups are those in which the founder or founders were themselves working for global and integral transformation, and in which the current membership, while recognising their imperfections, are still working to the best of their ability to bring about change and evolution. But other than that, what is the point against fighting against a community which doesn't share your values?
The following represents a simplistic mapping of Group transformation, from negative to positive, in terms of stages, hypostasis, Plane of Existence, and Influences
Delusional. Extremist religion, destructive and self-destructive cults, hate groups, who have totally lost all contact with larger reality. Puppets of adverse forces.
Egocentric/Selfish. Egocentric-exploitive groups, cults, gangs etc dominated by lack of empathy and Ego-shadow (us and them) psychological dynamics. Under the influence of adverse forces.
"Ethnocentric"/Dualistic. Ordinary society, status quo, most social interactions, Socialized Consciousness, "Good citizens", Conservatism, limited consciousness rather than bad or exploitative. Mix of selfish and altruistic: Some higher influences, but also under the sway of adverse forces, can go either way.
Reformist/ Pluralistic/(R)Evolutionary. Included here are various Social Reform groups, Worldcentric, "Aquarian", revolutionary, Postmaterialistic, Cultural Creatives. Inspired by ideational plane pure ideas, but mixed with lower influences. However, a force for good. Fight with Selfish ideologies for the heart and soul of the "Ethnocentric"/Dualistic mainstream.
Holistic/Systems/New Paradigm/Integral Alternative and New Age and New Paradigm groups, holistic healing, Transpersonal Psychology, Consciousness Studies, Integral community/movement, alternative communities, progressive religion, ashrams, etc. Commercial and pop New Age. Progressive academia. Ideational and higher emotional plane, pure ideas and empathy, some Inner experiences, but also mixed with some negative.
Mesoteric/pre-gnosis Included here are various authentic New Age groups, Earth Changes, ascension, Lightworking, progressive communities (e.g. Findhorn, Auroville), Theosophical and Anthroposophical study groups (where there is esoteric knowledge but not yet gnosis), ashrams around sincere and selfless leadership (in which disciples, if receptive and sincere, may be elevated to the esotreric level), and so on. Guidance here would seem to come from spiritual hierarchies, Inner subtle physical/astral/spiritual realms
Esoteric/Gnostic. Esotericism is very much a personal path. Although there are ashrams and occult and esoteric societies, the influences here may be distorted by entrenched thoughtforms or religious institutions or beliefs. Ultimately these can only be partial guides, as the true Guru and Guide is within.
Partial and Complete Realisation and above. Becoming transparent to Reality Itself. Up until now there have been many avatars, Realisers, buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc, who have attained Realisation, but this state has not yet actualised collectively. There are no known groups of Realised beings only, apart from New Age mythology - e.g. Babaji and 18 Siddhas ( Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition
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