Alresford, Hampshire, U.K.: Axis Mundi, 2018. 219 pp., paper, $23.95.
What is an esoteric group? Often it consists of a collection of people sitting around and discussing a standard text like The Secret Doctrine. This can be a useful activity—at the worst it is harmless—but one wonders if esoteric groups have greater possibilities than this..
Cyrus Ryan’s Living on the Inner Edge provides a welcome perspective on this question. The book is about some esoteric practitioners who gathered initially at the TS lodge in Toronto. They began to pursue group work under a man named only as RN, whom the author first encountered as “a short, round oriental gentleman in a sports jacket and tie.” Ryan and a small collection of other students pursued work under RN’s direction for over thirty years until his death in 2011. Its sources were diverse: “Our Work follows the Sanatana Dharma, Ageless Wisdom, or the Esoteric Traditions that have existed for ages, only trimmed down and made applicable for the Western world. Along with the teachings of the Master D.K. as presented by Alice A. Bailey, we studied different schools of Hinduism and Buddhism, plus Kabala, Sufism, Western traditions and the teachings of Gurdjieff as given out and explained primarily through the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and Maurice Nicole [sic].”
The group had higher contacts as well: “We were contacted by one of the Masters to see what would happen to a group of Western aspirants subjected to various spiritual energies and events. We were contacted by one of the Masters in 1978. It was not at all as we would have imagined. . . . The Master didn’t magically send letters through space as they did with H.P. Blavatsky, nor did the Master appear and dictate lessons as in the case of Alice A. Bailey. . . . The contact was very short without any explanation. The Master gave us a ‘word of power,’ a mantra with a particular tune, rhythm, and focus. . . . This word of power was like a seed and in time, through trial and error, grew into a tree of knowledge.”
RN focused on the Fourth Way approach of Gurdjieff, because it takes place in and through ordinary life, without retreat or isolation. Nevertheless, Gurdjieff’s teaching is skimpy on love and compassion, so the group turned to other teachings as well. Ryan says, “Our group was a blend of Theosophical knowledge and Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism.” The book features a number of esoteric diagrams which show the influence of Gurdjieff, the Kabbalah, yoga, and Buddhism.
Ryan’s account, both accessible and fascinating, takes us through the group’s adventures, including inner practices (“Our chanting was creating a ‘cone of fire’ which not only protected the group, but also allowed for the downpour of energy from the higher planes”); journeys to India and Tibet; and the dynamics of relations among the members. Ryan discusses “elemental” attachments to the sexual center by describing the relationship of one member, Samantha, to another, Frank. “They went out for some time and Samantha was definitely ready to settle down and hope for marriage. Frank . . . had an elemental in his 5th [sex] center. He liked to keep women hanging, he couldn’t make a commitment. RN gave him a special discipline so he could truly face the force of the center, learn to observe the thoughts and feelings it created and then counter it. But it was very powerful and one night we found him rolling on the floor yelling like he was in pain, but it was the elemental force causing this. This elemental, as all elementals, didn’t want to be made visible. Once it was seen, then the process of detaching from it and overcoming it was possible.”
As this suggests, the work was often laborious and painful. Finally, though, “by early 2000, the group had become very tight and close knit in an occult sense. Each individual knew what they had to do, both for themselves as aspiring souls and for the group. Each group member knew every other group member in an Essence intimacy, the beginning of true brotherhood, disciple relating to disciple. The Work became more esoteric and intense in discipline, to the point that we really couldn’t discuss what we were doing with outsiders, even other spiritual people.”
I myself don’t know any of the participants, so my only knowledge of this group comes from this book. Nevertheless, it has an authentic ring to it. It resembles certain esoteric groups that I have known: small; eclectic; led by one teacher who was, however, not a guru; willing to take knowledge where they could find it; and indifferent to publicity. I believe that groups of this sort represent the best possibility for spiritual development today.
This book also fills a real gap in esoteric literature, which has tended to pass over group work. Indeed the only other book I would recommend in this area is School of the Soul (originally published as School of Kabbalah) by the British Kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi. But Halevi’s work is a manual for practice: it does not describe the history of any particular group. Living on the Inner Edge is a fascinating, persuasive, and inspiring account of how collection of spiritual seekers have tried to lift themselves up by one another’s bootstraps.