A Global Shift in Consciousness? The Myth of Progress in Modern Spirituality

Journalist Chris Hedges has observed the “myth of progress” in the moral and political sphere. His bitterness is come by honestly; he has been embedded with military units in multiple international conflicts, seen the systemic injustice of our supposedly just nation, and reported with due urgency on the rapid feudalization of 21st century America. In sum, Hedges shows his reader that the progress of “Progressive Liberalism” is a castle built on a cloud.

This is not an illusion exclusive to politics. Today’s spiritual scene has its own form of progressivism, defined by the belief that we are on the cusp of a new Golden Age, the transition to which will be characterized by a sudden explosion of enlightenment among the world’s population, an increase in social peace, an end to bigotry, and other such solutions to global scale problems. The history of this notion helps to demonstrate its emptiness.


It is a point of New Age dogma, today, but does not originate with the hippy movement. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society held idiosyncratic interpretations of the Hindu cosmological notion of the yugas, or world ages, which indicated that the transition from one age to the next involved a global or even cosmic catastrophe which would leave the world ripe for repopulation by the “enlightened” minority who would be the only survivors. By contrast, Aleister Crowley envisaged his “Aeon of Horus” as a dawning age in which unrepentant libertines would rule over the “slaves” who maintain any sort of ethical code. Finally, the Age of Aquarius―originating with multiple occult orders and transmitting to popular consciousness by way of the New Age movement―is supposed to be an age of intellectual and spiritual freedom which will bring an ill-defined enlightenment in its wake.

Crowley’s vision was entirely his own, with no source but his supposed “channeled communications” with a being purporting to be his holy guardian angel. It has since become less a spiritual rallying cry and more a means of false empowerment on the part of those who cannot find a sense of freedom otherwise. Blavatsky mixed a literalist apocalypticism with a vague understanding of the Hindu and Buddhist cyclical cosmology, resulting in a scheme which could only be comforting to somebody confident in their own “salvation”, much like beliefs about the Rapture. In any case, the traditional view of the yugas is more to do with how far the social environment of the time conduce to living a spiritual life. And the Age of Aquarius has been equally misinterpreted. It is based on the procession of the equinoxes, specifically the transition from Pisces to Aquarius. The contention is that Aquarius represents freedom of thought. But speaking in terms of astrology, we must remember that Aquarius is ruled by Saturn before making any interpretations.

Aquarius certainly does, in part, symbolize such intellectual freedom, but mostly as far as the material sciences go. Saturn rules the intellect, but he also rules melancholy, materialism, and ignorance. Depending upon the aspect he shows, Saturn may either encourage the capacity of discrimination between truth and delusion, or else close the curtain on such vision. In Aquarius, he tends toward the latter. An entire “age” of Aquarius, then, bodes a strong focus on the merely rational and the veiling of the intellectual and intuitive. As skeptical as I am of global predictions, this does seem a more accurate description of our present culture than the New Age “universal peace, love, and enlightenment” iteration.

The main trouble with this “global shift in consciousness”, whatever the particular predictions
may be, is not the hope of enlightenment, but the twin delusions of enlightenment without effort, and collective spirituality. So many popular spiritual teachers of all stripes like to tell us that we’re all already enlightened, if only we’d realize it. There is certainly imprimatur on this notion, though the modern apprehension of it is quite different from the traditional one.

For one thing, the spiritual disciplines of Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta—two living traditions which include the idea of preexisting inner perfection—acknowledge that bringing this perfection out to realization is not as simple as reading a motivational book, going to a weekend retreat, or repeating affirmations in the mirror; it takes sometimes painful introspection, and the application of psychological tools which clear away that which obscures the inner Light. In short, work and self-awareness are irreducible requirements.
Moreover, history proves as decisively as we could wish that spiritual illumination is only ever individual. There have been times and places which allowed for greater freedom in philosophical research, metaphysical speculation, and spiritual practice, but none of the conditions which made these things possible could make them inevitable. The Himalayas have had their fair share of completely prosaic concerns, military excursions, and murders, and Alexandria was known for brutal politicking just as much as intellectual sharing. Likewise, even under the most spiritually oppressive conditions—America’s terminal stage case of imperialistic capitalism at the dawning of the age of Aquarius comes to mind—there will always be individuals who find their way to a sacramental life.

The belief, however, in such a large scale enlightenment is itself an obstacle to genuine spiritual progress. The systematic models cited above are problematic enough, given either the promise of effortless enlightenment, or else the special survivor status provided by Blavatsky. These issues are only exacerbated by the modern—perhaps, rather, post-modern—lack of any model at all. At least Theosophy, for instance, encouraged various occult methods to improve oneself and, by extension, one’s chance of making it through the transition to the “new age”. But today’s versions of the “global consciousness shift” always manifest something like the “2012” phenomenon of two years ago. That is to say that they produce a great deal of hope or anxiety over an entirely ambiguous supposed inevitable outcome. I have never been able to get a real answer when I have asked “global consciousness shift” enthusiasts, then as now, what exactly they expect to happen, and how it will come to pass.

All of this is a sideline, of course. And that’s just the point: hoping after a collective enlightenment is a way of avoiding the need for effort on the part of the individual. The world does not need more clubs or societies devoted to speeding along “the New Age”, but it does need more fellowships and lodges intended to support the work of sincere students. Even more than that, it needs more of those sincere students, individuals who are characterized by the six inner treasures of peacefulness, self-control, isolation from external influences, forbearance, humility, and introspection. The cultivation of these is already the work of a lifetime! But they are indispensable, and cannot be had if we’re busy waiting on a Second Coming at the expense of our own Resurrection.

purnacandra-sivarupaPurnacandra Sivarupa is a Western-born Saiva Tantrika and freelance arcanist. He can be found at inpeaceprofound.com where he shares more writing on esoteric and occult topics.

5 Comment

  1. A very interesting article. I do think that to brush aside Crowley and Blavatsky’s personal visions as being ‘entirely [their] own’ or being inspired by a limited knowledge of Eastern sources is a bit too simplistic away of getting rid of the complex and sometimes contradictory notions held by these thinkers. Crowley cannot be understood if he’s not firmly set in his socio-cultural background: we have Social Darwinism, Nietzschean Will to Power, the decline of Christian Protestant grip over Great Britain, a personal ‘boyhood in hell’ as a member of a fundamentalist Christian movement, a Golden Dawn curriculum which places him firmly in a Western Rosicrucian tradition which goes all the way back to Johan Valentin Andreae. Limiting Crowley’s ideas to a notion of ‘unrepentant libertines’ ruling over slaves is akin to saying that to foilow Buddha you just have to wait until you’re 35, camp under a tree, and you’ll reach enlightenment. The same argument I used for Crowley, of course, could be used about Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and many others. As always, context is paramount.

  2. Thank you, Chris. Agreed, the background to figures such as Blavatsky and Crowley are important (and, of course, essential to any study of them), but Purnacandra’s observations are nonetheless entirely relevant, I believe. Although Crowley, for example, may be more complex — and absolutely essential to understanding the modern Western occult tradition — his holy book, Liber Al vel Legis, does state that, “the slaves shall serve.”

    One might counter my point by asserting that the book needs to be read esoterically, and not taken literally — and I would largely agree with that assessment. But Crowley did have a tendency of treating his disciples, if not as slaves per se, then at least as lesser beings who could be physically and mentally abused, allegedly to help them to overcome limitations (the most famous case being that of Victor Neuburg).

    Regarding the article above, it should also be said that it is not primarily about Crowley or Blavatsky, but, rather, about a trend that exists in our own time, but which has its roots in the spiritual movements and thinkers of yesterday — the belief that progress is moving humanity ever upward and that we will soon witness the collective elevation of humankind’s consciousness.

    One of the problems with this, as Purnacandra notes, is that significant abuses can occur even as we believe we are moving swiftly toward enlightenment. Of course they can occur at other times, but the belief that humanity is moving collectively up a scale opens people up to accept abuses of those deemed to be lagging behind, whether it is of individuals or entire nations, etc.

    Best regards,

    Angel Millar

  3. Chris, thank you for your astute comment. Angel said most of what I would say in response, so I will be brief.

    You’re absolutely right that the named figures are more nuanced than may be taken from my article. I couldn’t really get into detail in this short piece. I have no doubt, for instance, that Blavatsky was sincere and authentic. But, as pointed out in Gary Lachman’s profile of her (found in his book “Revolutionaries of the Soul”, 2014 Quest Books), she was also caught up in the trends of her day. She wrote “Isis Unveiled” when “Egyptian wisdom” was the hot commodity, and “The Secret Doctrine” when Western occultists became more enamored of India and Tibet. Her context is important, for certain, but it says just as much about what she got wrong as what she got right.

    As to Crowley, I have already covered this topic in another article on my website: http://inpeaceprofound.com/2014/09/25/aleister-crowley-an-assessment/

  4. thank you for your responses, gentlemen.

    1. Thank you, Chris. You’re comment is much appreciated.

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