The Secret Teachers of the Western World by Gary Lachman
Reviewed by Nicholas Colloff
An apocryphal story has Picasso confronted on a train by a man waving a photograph of his wife under his nose declaiming, “Why do you not paint things as they are? Like this’’. “You mean small, square and rather flat,” responds Picasso! Different minds perceive differently but what if our own, apparently single mind, has two distinct modes of behaviour? The one, like Picasso, seeing intuitively, things as a whole and the patterns that connect; and, the second, like the man, in precise yet fragmented, mechanically sequenced parts, of high utility but reduced depth or meaning. This, in a compressed nutshell, was the thesis of Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Mastery and His Emissary’ that explored in a renewing way the discussion of ‘right and left brain asymmetry’ and suggested that the emissary, the utilitarian, reductionist if practical brain, had usurped its place and become the dominant mode of perception. We have come to know much of value in the process but drained life of meaning and purpose.
The Western esoteric traditions are in essence pathways to meaning that aim to transform our way of seeing who and where we are, not an accidental part in a meaningless universe, but as a living being connected, enfolded within a cosmic order that is sacred. Could our understanding, Lachman asks in this accomplished book, of those traditions be enriched by looking at them through a lens borrowed from McGilchrist? As practices for replenishing and repositioning the relationship between our two minds, of restoring them to balance?
With this question in mind, Lachman takes us on a tour through the multiple pathways, convergent and divergent, that comprise the Western esoteric tradition, secret sometimes out of necessity either to guard knowledge from the ignorant or hide it from the persecutors but primarily because though culturally profoundly important and creative, mostly unacknowledged especially since we entered Yeats’ ‘the three provincial centuries’ of ‘left brain dominance’. It is all deftly handled, with sufficient space devoted to the key figures and contexts, so that you emerge with a sense of their contribution and their significance to the whole, often with a desire to know more; and, you recognise that the motif of double mindedness does run through the traditions.
You notice too how difficult it is to maintain a sense of balance betwixt the two minds – what Lachman describes as ‘the Goldilocks’ moment’ where each finds its appropriate balance, place, and they enrich rather than confront one another. This is partly, as Lachman notes, the apparent violence of the utilitarian left brain that reaches for the constant security of the certain, the complete, even at the expense of the whole, extinguishing vulnerability to the felt, the emergent, the unknowable. While there is a necessary truth in this, what if one imagines it from the other side? The emissary has tasks to perform, a life to run and secure, all important but so often little acknowledged or praised. Is it akin to being the elder brother of the prodigal son whose service is too easily taken for granted? Tripping into the imaginal, the cosmic, the ‘ungrund’ is transformative but to what purpose if not practised here and now, in each and every encounter within the life that we are given?
This brings us to the importance of Lachman’s second lens – does our consciousness change over time in a way that creates grounds for hope that this dichotomy between minds will find, if not ‘a solution’, a newly conscious way of being lived out? One possible answer is in the work of the Swiss German philosopher, Jean Gebser, who, in his magnum opus, ‘The Ever Present Origin’ sets out a masterful case for how human consciousness has evolved through specific, describable stages from magical to mythical to mental-rational to now the possibility of the integral. At the heart of this possibility is the invitation to live ‘ego-free’, not it must be seen ‘ego-less’. ‘Ego-free’ is where each preceding structure of consciousness is enfolded within the new, recognised as valuable but transformed by being seen from within the new structure; and, this structure is itself illuminated by the Origin with a renewing transparency. Perhaps the master and the emissary can finally become friends rather than master and servant?
Likewise with McGilchrist, this is an accompanying lens through which we follow the esoteric traditions as they unfold. Each tradition wants to transform us but each must speak into, and reckon with, the place it finds itself with regard to our presiding ‘structure of consciousness’. Our brains are, as Bergson suggested, limiting devices so that we can be both open out to but also critically bear consciousness, they are what we navigate with and at different times navigation may require different maps. One way of reading Lachman’s book is to see each tradition seeking to create the necessary map required at the time to find one’s way to transformation – no map is ever redundant, one can learn from all of them, but no map is ever complete and new one’s may add features not before noticed as necessary because the demands of consciousness have changed.
The book can also be read, more simply, as a treasure trove of lucid exposition. My own favorites were the passages on Plotinus that allow you to taste what it might mean to navigate the One; a compelling description of the ‘Imaginal’ through the eyes of Surawardi and his inspiration for Henri Corbin to coin the term; and, on why Dante is an esoteric thinker as well as a great poet.
Meanwhile, neither lens is wielded in a way that tends towards reductionism – we may have two brains because consciousness is structured that way, not the reverse, and accepting neither lens as ‘true’ is necessary in order to profit from the book. The beauty of the book is indeed in the faithful, sensitive rendition of the essences of the traditions themselves whilst continuing to pose the question to all of them: where and how do we find the right balance between whole and part, transcendence into meaning and practice into life? There can be no more important question.
Nicholas Colloff studied philosophy, psychology and theology at London and Oxford. He is the executive director of the Argidius Foundation.