My immediate reaction on being handed The Inner Light to review was that this was a book that could go in one of two very different directions. The title and subtitle, together with the packaging and the cover blurb’s description of the author as a ‘transpersonal therapist’ and ‘transformation workshop facilitator,’ awakened all my prejudices against the New Age, that woolly-minded and smugly narcissistic ransacker of spiritual and esoteric traditions which it dilutes beyond homeopathic levels, removing any genuine wisdom and insight in order to blend it into a bland, homogeneous belief system. On the other hand, the proclamation that this path to self-realisation is based on the traditions of the West, which are so often given mere lip service by the New Age, held out some promise. But which way would it go?
Thankfully, it is the latter. Canadian P.T. Mistlberger sets out to reclaim the Western esoteric tradition as a valid and productive basis for self development. This results from a personal epiphany. Like most in his line, Mistlberger was, in his words, ‘heavily oriented’ towards Eastern philosophies and metaphysics. But in 2006, during a period of depression following personal losses, he found them unable to help. He found the way out of his ‘mental funk’ through practices derived instead from Western traditions. This led him to a new appreciation of those traditions and the realisation that, because of their emphasis on practicality and creativity, they chime better with the Western psyche than spiritual paths imported from the East.
Coupled with this is the recognition that there is a fundamental difference between the Western and Eastern psyche, at the root of which are the differing cultural conceptions of time: whereas the Eastern mind sees history as cyclical, the Western perceives it as evolutionary. (‘We are participating in a grand unfolding of the universe, redeeming the world as we redeem ourselves.’)
Another crucial difference is the emphasis that the West places on the intellect. Throughout the book, there is the implicit message that we Westerners shouldn’t be ashamed of our elevation of intellectualism and rationalism – provided it is tempered with an awareness that it is only one way of approaching reality.
Consequently, Mistlberger emphasises the need to understand the history and development of the various components of the Western esoteric tradition, stressing, in statements that had me mentally punching the air, that ‘scholarly accuracy is not antithetical to practical inner work’ and that ‘conceptual clarity… provides the important foundation for deeper avenues of wisdom.’ He defines his book as ‘an attempt to synthesize historical research with esoteric theory and practical inner work – a combination not typically seen.’ You can say that again!
Mistlberger’s definition of ‘inner transformation’ - sharper and more meaningful than your average New Age workshop facilitator – is that is finding ways to live up to one’s full potential. And – another air-punching moment – he stresses that this process requires intellectual effort, writing that ‘it is common in fluffier (“feel-good”) New Age or personal growth communities to develop anti-intellectualism, by confusing pre-rational states with trans-rational, and thereby assuming that any non-rational state must be spiritual – even though many non-rational states are actually highly egocentric or narcissistic.’
Again in contrast to the usual New Age approach, Mistlberger stresses that, because it involves the human psyche, which has its dark side, there are dangers on the path to enlightenment. He points out that, although he has chosen the title The Inner Light, this ‘does not mean that matters of darkness are not addressed.’ Indeed, he warns sagely, ‘Arguably this element is as strong, or stronger, in so-called spiritual seekers, because the very striving for “the light” carries the risk of bringing about an imbalance resulting from the denial of impulse and darkness.’
The book is divided into three parts. The first is theory, taking a historical approach to the various strands that make up the Western esoteric tradition. It has chapters on the expected subjects such as alchemy (specifically spiritual alchemy, i.e. as a psycho-spiritual discipline as opposed to proto-chemistry), the Kabbalah, and Western sex magick traditions (‘as rich and potent as their Eastern parallels’).
But Mistlberger includes more modern fields of study within the Western esoteric tradition. There is psychotherapy, in particular Depth Psychology, on the grounds that it shares much with the esoteric philosophies, both essentially seeking to bring unconscious material into consciousness, and with the psychotherapist occupying the role in today’s society that the shaman, priest and magician did in earlier times. In the chapter ‘Angels, Demons and the Abyss’, devoted to the ‘shadow psychology’ found within the Western esoteric tradition, he explores the common ground between demonology and psychotherapy (which, as he shows, developed from the former).
Mistlberger also brings Western philosophy into the picture, because of the major influence that philosophical ideas – particularly those of Kant and the German idealists – had on 19th century esotericism. He considers the major Western philosophers the equal of Eastern mystics, even though they derived their ideas from the intellect.
He emphasises the role of the Romantic movement (‘Most occultists of the nineteenth century were essentially Romantics with an esoteric focus’) that, drawing on Hermetic philosophy, had a great influence on nineteenth-century Transcendentalism which was, via the ‘New Thought’ movement (which brought in Eastern spiritual ideas), the direct ancestor of the New Age. I found the chapter tracing this development a particularly fascinating one.
The book’s second part, delightfully entitled ‘The Technology of Transformation’, applies the theory, with practical discussions of such areas as meditation, the use of magic to alter reality, and ‘inner planes work’ (lucid dreaming and astral travel), with exercises to develop these faculties and abilities.
The third and final part, entitled ‘Lore’ and described by Mistlberger as dealing with ‘the more “fringe” areas of the esoteric and occult,’ is a bit of a miscellany. There’s a chapter on the ‘Body of Light’, which is really a discussion, using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an allegory, of the apparent duality between spirit and matter (or consciousness and perception) and the problems and dangers that arise from it, both in everyday life and when on the initiatory path. In ‘A Brief History of Witchcraft’, Mistlberger challenges the perception that the medieval witch persecutions were nothing but the product of Christian dogmatism and misogyny – and that witchcraft in the accepted sense even existed. Part Three ends with a chapter on ‘Lycanthropy, Shapeshifting, and the Assumption of God-forms.’
Finally there are appendices dealing with aspects of the Tradition in more detail, such as ‘The Fall of Man according to Eight Traditions’ and ‘The Chief Grimoires of Magic’. The book ends with useful suggestions for further reading – most of which, thankfully, are about the history of the various traditions – and 35 pages of notes and references.
Of course, even given the book’s length – nearly 600 pages – such a sweeping survey of this multi-faceted subject will leave some thinking that not all aspects have been given their due weight.
Mistlberger himself acknowledges that astrology is ‘the most glaring omission’ from his book, even though it is the ‘oldest of all “occult arts”’. He pleads limitations of space, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. (There are a couple of pages on ‘experiential astrology’ in one of the appendices.)
Although Neoplatonic philosophy is one of the binding elements of the Western esoteric tradition, it is defined and described in the ‘practical’ part of the book (as part of the chapter ‘Magic and Manifestation’), whereas it might have been better in the ‘theory’ part. Similarly, a related core part of the tradition, Hermeticism, together with its important offshoot Rosicrucianism, is relegated to an appendix.
These criticisms aside, The Inner Light successfully achieves what it sets out to. Above all, it demonstrates that there is a solid intellectual and historical basis for the Western traditions, and that they provide insights into human life that give them real merit in terms of self-development. Mistlberger often leaves it for the individual reader to decide whether the concepts involved are objectively real or simply useful metaphors and symbols (as in the discussion of demons), arguing that the outcome is the same either way.
His writing is lucid, concise and lively. Throughout he explains complex ideas – such as German idealist philosophy and theological concepts of good and evil – clearly.
Mistlberger states that The Inner Light is aimed at ‘those spiritual seekers who desire some historical rigor and background theory’, as well as ‘academics or intellectually oriented students of the esoteric paths who desire to undertake some practical “inner work”’ and ‘the curious general reader or serious student of inner work.’ It’s a very broad target audience, but all of these groups should find the book of value, although some might be put off by its New Age look.
But Mistlberger’s overriding aim is clearly to knock some sense into the New Age. Let’s hope he succeeds. – Clive Prince.