November 2002 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
Diwali - India’s
Festival of Lights!
The Misty Sisters of the Pleiades Star Cluster
What Is A
Spiritual Path?
Part 3
Canterbury Manor
Writing Contest
November Star Watch
Conscious Community
Interactive Calendar
Newsletter committee, writers, & contact info
Index of All Articles
Volume 1, Number 3

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

What Is a Spiritual Path?

by Gregory Ellison

Development is evolution; evolution is transcendence; and transcendence has as its final goal Atman, or ultimate Unity Consciousness in only God ... if human beings have come up from amoebas, then they are ultimately on their way towards God, but in the meantime they are under the sway of the incredible halfway-house known as the Atman-project.

- Ken Wilber, The Atman Project

What transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber calls “the Atman-project” - the gradual upliftment of human consciousness toward God-consciousness - is what many consider to be a “spiritual path.” Spiritual because it reaches toward God or spirit; and path because it is not random movement but a directed sequence of steps all leading toward a specific destination.

But there are many paths up the mountain, all leading toward that same peak of union with God/spirit/higher s-Elf. If Wilber’s thesis is correct that this is the direction of evolution itself, then we are all walking at least one spiritual path merely by being alive: we are all students in the school of life, learning our lessons (or not) however they come, and drifting slowly but surely toward that infinite ocean into which the great river of life must ultimately empty.

My own intuition is that this is an accurate picture, and that sooner or later we will all reach that distant shore that mystics long for and hard-headed materialists scoff at. However, in keeping with the “conscious evolutionary” theme of this website, I also believe there are spiritual paths we can consciously choose to walk, that aim toward spiritual enlightenment by specific intent, paths that follow the footsteps of spiritual pioneers who went before us to guide our way up that mountain more directly than the wandering twists and turns of life might otherwise lead us. I believe that such directed effort consciously chosen is especially important at this particular point in human evolution, as it is precisely the conscious (volitional) element that is new to human evolution at this time. No longer will we evolve blindly where nature and environment lead us; for the first time we must consciously participate in our own evolutionary choices.

Since before the dawn of recorded history such spiritual paths have existed ... the earliest written words of humankind refer to their origin in a distant past. The oldest of these paths appear in three distinct traditions originating in different parts of the world, all dating back to at least 3000 B.C. These are:

  1. The ancient Sanskrit Vedas,
  2. The Sumerian/Babylonian/Egyptian Mystery Schools,
  3. The Chinese I Ching.

There is also evidence that a parallel tradition may have existed in the New World in the same time frame, although physical evidence of the Aztec/Mayan Calendar and its related spiritual tradition does not appear historically until about 500 B.C.

At least two themes are common to all of these most ancient spiritual paths - specifically, astrology and numerology - along with a metaphysical framework that is remarkably similar, considering that these ancient cultures were thought to have had little if any contact with each other in their earliest forms.

Over the course of the centuries, these great traditions were gradually refined and synthesized in various schools of thought. Most notable are the Hebrew Kabbalah (thought to have originated around 1500 B.C. when the Hebrew alphabet emerged from the older Phoenician language) and the Pythagorean Mysteries of ancient Greece, recorded around 450 B.C. In the western world, this wisdom tradition went largely underground during the centuries of militant Church repression of “heretical” beliefs, although it was kept alive in some Christian mystical practices and in various secret brotherhoods. It emerged again in the late medieval and early Renaissance years as a great esoteric revival in the fields of alchemy, astrology and Hermetic philosophy, including much scholarship and study of the Tarot and the Kabbalah.

Let’s look briefly at some of the commonalities among all these spiritual paths:

  • All of these systems postulate that reality is “cyclic” on a vast scale, holding that existence is a process in which an ultimate Divine principle “descends” from a level of Oneness and pure Spirit to a state of separation and materiality, followed by a balancing movement in which the separated aspects “ascend” from separation and materiality back to Oneness.
  • All of these systems postulate a law of “polarity,” in which the fundamental nature of the manifested world is seen to be two complementary opposites, which give rise to a third unifying or synthesizing force. In the Hindu terminology, for example, this trinity is seen as Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). In the Chinese cosmology it is seen as Yin, Yang and the Tao. In the Egyptian pantheon, the best known example of the Middle Eastern Mystery Schools, it is seen as Isis (mother), Osiris (father) and Horus (son).
  • All of these systems postulate a system of “archetypes,” which are basic patterns of reality that describe an orderly process of change or unfoldment that applies to everything. These archetypes are described in many ways, but all of the traditional systems have at least three sets of “correspondences” for understanding them: words, numbers, and natural phenomena. In all of the ancient languages of the world, including Cuneiform and Hieroglyphics, Sanskrit, Chinese, Chaldean, Hebrew, Greek and so forth, each letter or glyph represents a basic idea, a number, and an astrological association (sign or planet).
  • All of these systems postulate a life force, or “vital energy,” and present various teachings for balancing and controlling it. In the Vedic traditions, for example, this energy is called Prana, and its control is described in great detail in the various schools of yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. In the Chinese traditions it is called Ch’I, and its control is detailed in the study of Taoist alchemy and physical culture, traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture) and T’ai Chi.
  • All of these systems postulate definite methods or “practices” by means of which an aspirant can consciously and deliberately pierce the veil of illusion that obscures a clear vision of reality on this material plane, and advance along the path of ascension toward higher states of awareness. These practices typically include 1) specific knowledge to be mastered, 2) exercises to strengthen and develop the mind, will, imagination and concentration, and 3) exercises to develop and strengthen control over the vital energy, physical health and well-being.

With the advent of the “New Age” culture in the second half of the 20th century, many of these ancient paths were rediscovered or brought again into popular awareness. Linda Goodman, of course, had an enormous impact in bringing astrology “out of the closet” and into popular mass culture, along with her teachings on numerology, color and vibration, Lexigrams and other metaphysical teachings ... all drawn from the wisdom of these ancient spiritual paths.

Such sudden popularity of subjects jealously guarded and passed along in secret for thousands of years is a good thing, of course ... and all the evidence points to the conclusion that this underground wisdom emerged into the light of day at just the right moment in history. Today, humanity needs this spiritual understanding to make a collective leap of consciousness into the Aquarian Age, before our materialistic, competitive consciousness brings about the collapse of civilization through war, repression, and tampering with the ecological balance of Mother Earth.

Even so, the rapid exposure of these ideas to the world of mass-marketing, media hype and pop-culture trendiness carries its own risks ... among them a difficulty in discerning true spiritual paths among a rapidly multiplying array of products, seminars, fashions, fads, buzzwords, gurus and lifestyle accessories available to us as “new-age consumers.” Today the new age is a measurable market demographic, a segment of the population that can be profitably targeted for the sale of books, tapes, candles, incense, jewelry, crystals, clothing and other items. Thousands of people identify themselves with the new-age “lifestyle,” with very little in the way of specific spiritual direction or belief beyond a general affinity for the ideas of peace, love and “good vibes,” perhaps with a smattering of astrology and karma tossed into the mix!

There are lots of practices that we might call spiritual, ranging from simple prayer to elaborate rituals, an alphabet soup of spiritual practices ranging from Astrology to Zen and everything in between - with a large proportion of newly-minted teachings, techniques and ideas freely intermingled with the traditional wisdom teachings. So what do we do when we’re ready to embark on a spiritual path? Reach for the spiritual yellow pages?

In the sense I am using it here a spiritual path is considerably more than a lifestyle choice, in that it fulfills the basic requirements of the great spiritual traditions outlined above. Indeed, we will find that most if not all of the pursuits we can meaningfully call spiritual paths in this sense are either continuations or direct descendants of those same ancient traditions.

It’s also important to remember that the same thing can be used in ways that make it a spiritual path - and in ways that don’t. Astrology, for example, can be used as a powerful tool for understanding personality and character, or purely for entertainment, without being used as a spiritual path at all. The same can be said for numerology, the I Ching or the Tarot. Nor is there anything “wrong” with using such tools in this way, any more than there’s anything wrong with using an egg-beater without studying to become a master chef. It is simply a different use, and that’s worth keeping in mind.

Here’s a small sampling of the activities that might meaningfully be called spiritual paths today:

Astrology, the “queen” of the esoteric arts. Approached as a key to understanding the wholeness and harmony of life, astrology is without peer as a spiritual path. Approached as a way of second-guessing whether your blind date who is a Cancer with Leo rising might be “Mr. Right,” it is likely to be little more than an amusing pastime. With astrology, the choices of content and curriculum are now so varied and numerous that the choice of approach and purpose is entirely the responsibility of the student. Whatever you earnestly seek, you will probably find.

Alchemy, the art of transmutation. Although many think of alchemy as an archaic art no longer practiced, it has actually undergone a huge revival in recent years, especially in the form called spiritual alchemy, where the object is the transmutation of leaden qualities of ego and materialism into the spiritual Gold of enlightenment. The ultimate goal of alchemists ancient and modern is the “chemical wedding” - a union of male and female qualities (symbolizing all polar opposites) into “the Divine androgyne,” a spiritual state of Oneness that sees beyond all duality.

Kabbalah. Based on the Hebrew alphabet, the Kabbalah existed for a thousand years or more as an oral tradition before being set down in the Sephir Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation,” around 200 C.E. Based on an esoteric diagram called the Tree of Life, along with the Hebrew alphabet itself, the Kabbalah may be the most widely studied esoteric system in the world, after astrology. There are a number of good Kabbalah schools in existence, and many esoterically oriented Rabbis conduct classes and study groups.

Numerology. One of the “three pillars” of esoteric thought (along with astrology and word/alphabet studies), numerology occupies a place of central importance in all ancient spiritual paths. Unfortunately it is often treated as a parlor game or purely as a divinatory art in modern times, so it is more difficult to encounter it as a true spiritual path on its own. Kabbalistic studies place a great emphasis on numerology concepts in the form of gematria (the “decoding” of the hidden meanings of words by means of analyzing their numerical correspondences). The original numerological science used the Chaldean or equivalent Hebrew alphabet for its letter/number correspondences, but the later Pythagorean system substituted a method of sequential numbering that is very popular today.

Natural Healing. Almost too broad to be considered a specific path in itself, nearly all the natural healing arts spring from the concepts originally set forth in one or more of the ancient traditions. Ayurvedic medicine, from the Vedas, and acupuncture/chi kung energy therapies, from the Chinese I-Ching/Taoist tradition, are among the most profound and effective healing arts that are firmly embedded in spiritual paths. Even modern western medicine had its origins in herbal healing concepts mainly from the Middle Eastern Mystery Schools, handed down through the Pythagorean tradition. (Unfortunately, the traditional knowledge survives only in fragments within the atomistic/mechanical scientific method of the post-Renaissance world.) Natural healing is an excellent spiritual path, if approached in the proper spirit, because of its emphasis on the “whole person” functioning as a harmonious system rather than a collection of isolated parts and functions. These systems also reflect an understanding that man is a microcosm of the Universe as a whole.

Yoga. Originating in the Vedic traditions, yoga, in its various forms, may be the most widely practiced spiritual path in the world today. Embraced as a mainly physical discipline (Hatha Yoga), it is a wonderful practice for health and longevity but not really a spiritual path on its own. With the addition of the spiritual aspects described in the ancient Vedic teachings (such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) yoga encompasses breathing, meditation and a comprehensive metaphysical framework for attaining higher states of consciousness.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Literally “supreme ultimate boxing,” or “spiritual boxing,” T’ai Chi enjoys the paradoxical distinction of being both a powerful fighting art and a path of peace and spiritual liberation. Based on the Yin-Yang polarity concepts of the I Ching and the Taoist vital energy cultivation methods, T’ai Chi embodies the concept of strength through nonresistance. This seemingly physical approach to spiritual growth is actually quite effective, because it bypasses the analytical mind that wants to question and dissect everything (often a great stumbling block to spiritual progress). When you learn with your body how to reconcile opposites and neutralize hostile attacks without countering force with force, you have learned a profound spiritual truth that is difficult to learn in words.

Shamanism. One of the really positive things to come out of the new-age focus on alternate spiritual practices (in my humble opinion) is the vastly increased knowledge of traditional shamanic beliefs and practices, as well as the public emergence of genuine shamanic teachers willing to share their traditions with “outsiders.” Shamans are a type of medicine man or woman, often from cultures we think of as “primitive,” whose methods often include the use of journeys to hidden worlds otherwise mainly known through myth, dream, and near-death experiences. Books, lectures and personal courses and workshops conducted by shamans from a great many traditional cultures are now relatively accessible. Although shamanic traditions stand outside the principal “wisdom traditions” outlined earlier in this article, their insights relate to the same spiritual realities and can be considered true spiritual paths.

I Ching. Next to the Vedic Hymns, the I Ching (or Chinese “Book of Change”) is probably the oldest surviving spiritual tradition that exists in original written form, and it has been continuously studied and refined for thousands of years. Built on the concepts of Yin and Yang and the “nameless Tao” that contains them both, the I Ching is a collection of 64 hexagrams (6-line diagrams) designed to illustrate in archetypal form the entire structure of the Universe and the immutable laws of change, showing how events evolve and unfold over time. Often used on a superficial level as an oracle for divination or “fortune-telling,” the I Ching actually embodies a highly sophisticated cosmology along with a wisdom teaching designed to instruct the student in how to attain a state of perfect balance - mental, physical, emotional and spiritual - a state that is described in the book’s colloquial language as “the superior man.” Like the spiritual state aimed for in the other great wisdom traditions, this amounts to no less than a harmonious union with the Tao (Spirit, God, Divine Oneness).

Tarot. No one knows for sure when or where the Tarot first originated, although it is generally agreed that it was designed as a concealed “book of spiritual knowledge” to preserve the esoteric teachings of the Mystery Schools through the long dark ages of religious suppression. The first historical reference to the Tarot is in a 13th-century Church decree banning the use of the cards ... a ban so effective that not another word about the deck appears until the 16th century, when popular Tarot decks began to appear in Italy and slowly spread throughout Europe. The Tarot distills the essence of the Mystery Schools’ alphabetic, numerical and astrological correspondences, and portrays the soul’s evolutionary descent into matter / ascent into spirit as the allegorical “Journey of the Fool.” Like the I Ching, the Tarot can be (and often is) used for divination and “fortune telling,” but it also has been used as the foundation for some of the most profound metaphysical schools and teachings, including the Rosicrucians and other secret “occult” brotherhoods. Many of the Tarot books and courses available focus only on the surface level of divination, but schools presenting it as the spiritual path it really is can be found if you look for them.

Bodywork. In the past few decades various schools and techniques for “bodywork” have gained great popularity in new-age circles, approaching the integration of mind/body/spirit through the avenue of the physical body (much like T’ai Chi or some schools of Yoga). Some of these approaches, such as Reiki, are genuine spiritual paths embodying a holistic theory of energy and spirit, while others are more narrowly focused on the body.

Religion. No discussion of spiritual paths would be complete without considering religion, humanity’s major organized approach to questions of the spirit. Here we should include not only the widely established religions of the world such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Taoism, but also many of the newer religions, new-age religious practices, and modern revivals of ancient religions such as Wicca, Goddess religions and many more. Again, there is a distinction between religion as a “belief” and as a spiritual path. While most religions began as spiritual paths, it is by no means the case that every believer is on such a path. Christianity has its contemplative traditions; Judaism has the Kabbalah, gematria and other spiritual paths; Islam has its mystical Sufi teachings, and so on. Even within mainstream religious practice it is possible to approach the practice either as a “community of the faithful” or as a pathway for raising our own spiritual awareness ... or both!

0bviously, this list is far from exhaustive, and you may have noticed many popular studies and practices of the new age missing here (such as channeling, meditation, astral projection, reincarnation, crystals, angels and others). In most cases, such practices can best be considered common elements of a spiritual path rather than spiritual paths in themselves. Almost every spiritual path, for example, contains a meditative practice, a belief in reincarnation or persistence of life after death, techniques for “astral projection” or consciously exploring the spiritual realms, and so on. Again, the emphasis here is on the idea of a spiritual path as a “curriculum” for spiritual growth rather than a specific technique or belief.

Why is this important?

Simply put, because humanity is at a turning point in its collective evolution. At this stage, we must choose as a species either to take the great leap to a higher stage of spiritual awareness or face the consequences of living in a world that is no longer equipped to happily and securely maintain human life, organized around the rational/egoic/competitive state of consciousness that has characterized human society for the past several thousand years. In a more literal sense than is comfortable to contemplate, we are faced with the imperative, “evolve or perish.” A society or a species is a “whole,” and like all wholes, it is composed of parts and reflects on a higher level the qualities of those parts. The parts of the planetary consciousness in question are us individual human beings. The only meaningful way we can help humanity take this crucial leap of conscious evolution is to take it ourselves. And to do that, we need more than a lifestyle or belief ... we need a spiritual path, a definite curriculum for spiritual growth that will carry us individually to a higher stage of awareness. Until we do, we will not get there as a species. And, failing that, no amount of technology, social reorganization, political or economic reform will keep us afloat. Only a planetary shift in consciousness, a global change in awareness and priorities, can do that now. And only we, as individual cells in the “body” of the world, can bring about that change!


The facts, opinions and interpretations in this article are entirely those of the author, based on over 30 years of research into spiritual paths and esoteric systems.