Knowledge of reality is ascertained by perceiving the material construct before us so as to better understand the effects, relations, characteristics, and properties of existence and thus more adequately formulate our own mental schema. Experiencing this knowledge firsthand, if sufficiently understood in its full completeness (good luck!), would then serve as the necessary approach in penetrating that part of reality which can only be inferred, intuited, or altogether idealized—what transcends our physical sensory perception and dwells within the realm of the Spirit. Assuming this to be the case, it is only reasonable that the internal journey into our own Psyches would therefore provide realistic insight into the source from which Being itself springs, and of course, that which it gives rise to in turn. Thus, knowledge of self should inevitably lead to knowledge of Self, as our association with what we know to be real, that is, our own existence, allows for a sincere understanding of what is initially beyond our very comprehension. In this way, we are able to establish laws based on relationships between the phenomena of perceivable existence so as to enhance our ontological conception of the separate planes of existence—material, psychological, and spiritual—characterized by those traditions that have historically attempted to answer such questions while simultaneously detailing a coherent map and worldview to contextualize our own place in (what appears to be) time and space.
Esotericism in the West is the eclectic grouping of these spiritual understandings, fused together by certain characteristics whose varieties blend into one common, alternative spirituality. Smoley (2006) writes that while religion attempts to foster religious experience in order to commune with the divine and cementing the structure of society to uphold common values, too often personal experience is divorced from accepted theologies as the faith of society ultimately suppresses the personal knowledge constituting spiritual awareness. Yet virtually every esoteric movement stresses analogous criteria, namely an emphasis on gnosis, knowledge, and experience of the divine, inner illumination, or personal enlightenment in general. Moreover, the idea that one’s perception is merely a filtered or illusory reality resonates with members of these various esoteric sects, apparent in their recognition of Archons and other intermediaries acting as the veil behind which true spiritual power is to be found and known.
Concerning the notion of gnosis, philosopher Roberts Avens (2006) offers three essential qualities that distinguish gnostic worldviews from exoteric ones. The first element of gnosticism is in the act of imaginative questioning and the understanding that knowing and Being are one and the same. This idea is reflected in the alchemical adage “As above, so below.” Gnostics understand that true reality or Being can only be approached when one’s ways of knowing correlates with what there actually is. Imaginative questioning refers to the ability to be open to the act of seeking rather than blindly pursuing facts (Avens, 2006). Ever dissatisfied with the material world, gnostics are given to the pursuit of spirit over body (Smoley, 2006), of the unanswerable question over the material answer.
Secondly, gnosticism is concerned with the cultivation of the inner world in the form of the soul. While Smoley (2006) argues that soul is inferior to spirit and labels it as a quality of the exoteric faithful, Avens (2006) understands it to be the personal mediary between the earthly world and the unseen deity or spirit, unifying each rather than favoring one over the other. Smoley (2006) makes the case for the rejection of the earthly in ancient gnosticism, yet Avens’ (2006) postmodern conception of gnosticism sees the value in heavenly and earthly aspects of reality, each embodied in the soul. Thus, cultivation of the soul opens the pathways to a life that is more connected both to the perceptual world and that which lies beyond its veil.
Lastly, gnosticism is concerned with the redemptive transformation of the soul. Psychologies of the Archetype see the soul not as belonging to the isolated individual but to an entire macrocosm known as the anima mundi, or the soul of the world. By redeeming one’s own personal soul, the macrocosm is similarly redeemed. While this may seem like a contemporary notion, it is foundational to Kabbalah and the romantic philosophy of Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson. One does not seek gnosis for personal gain alone, but in hopes of actualizing the unseen deity through gnostic understanding.
The etymology of Esotericism brings together the words "opposition" and "inside." Perhaps this alludes to the tradition of personal struggle for divine wisdom, since, as Needleman (1992) writes, we are struggling with what at first glance are themes diametrically opposed--the Sacred and Profane. However, once we are able to unify in our consciousness the inner and outer worlds (always firstly on a personal level before it is diffused into society), perhaps this new Worldview will emerge so that Truth can be known explicitly as we connect to our own inner experiences, enabling and verifying direct knowledge of all levels of reality, and so, informing our sense of how to live and act accordingly.
It seems almost obvious that such an understanding would be dangerous to and thus periodically suppressed to the point of extinction within a social milieu unappreciative of a self-knowledge constantly challenging established norms. The power and freedom to think was venerated in early gnostic groups (and earlier) even while the encompassing social order had developed to ruthlessly persecute its detractors. The same can be said of later traditions based upon similar belief systems, for instance the Cathars who ran up against the Church, or the Rosicrucians who aimed to revitalize the political climate in Europe, as well as the Freemasons in America, each group offering a way to combat the relevant malignant social order through sustained belief and practice. These Esoteric sects, while perhaps differing in specific traits or activities, are united throughout the ages in their effort to cast off authorized accounts of what is "right" (eventually systematized to induce collective behavior) so they might find in themselves the understanding necessary for spiritual apotheosis and salvation, as opposed to subjecting themselves to the body of knowledge outside and apart from them, the exoteric vein from which hierarchy, privilege, and subjugation to doctrine arise.
It is also important to note that while concepts such as esotericisim and gnosticism are most often applied to religious orientations, they are easily found in philosophic and psychological works dating at least as far back as Plato and Pythagoras (Smoley, 2006). It may actually be easier to understand these pathways of action if they are not bracketed as religious trends. Encounters with the unknown, whether spiritual or otherwise, cause enough anxiety so that humans are encouraged to seek refuge through identification with a particular community. However, deference to a group restricts available meanings in what is understood within the group’s structure. Any group cut of from new and fresh meanings would necessarily reach a point of chaos in which the esoteric impulse crops up once again, thereby encouraging a cultivation of new meanings, a wider identity, and a deeper world soul. In these instances, man is given the unique opportunity to choose whether to strive towards knowing fully the nature of reality or merely having faith that it exists—the difference being the composition of God-like authority within oneself or simply reverting to established interpretations of an instituted external authority concerning all matters of import.