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Esoteric Healing

Esoteric Healing

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Published by: Witchtopia Realm on Nov 23, 2012
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 Jeff Levin, PhD, MPH
This paper presents, for the first time, a comprehensive schol-arly examination of the history and principles of major tradi-tions of esoteric healing. After a brief conceptual overview of esoteric religion and healing, summaries are provided of eightmajor esoteric traditions, including descriptions of beliefs andpractices related to health, healing, and medicine. These includewhat are termed the kabbalistic tradition, the mystery schooltradition, the gnostic tradition, the brotherhoods tradition, theEastern mystical tradition, the Western mystical tradition, theshamanic tradition, and the new age tradition. Next, common-alities across these traditions are summarized with respect tobeliefs and practices related to anatomy and physiology; no-sology and etiology; pathophysiology; and therapeutic mo-dalities. Finally, the implications of this survey of esoterichealing are discussed for clinicians, biomedical researchers,and medical educators.
Key words:
Healing, religion, spirituality, pathophysiology,treatment, health, medicine
(Explore 2008; 4:101-112. © Elsevier Inc. 2008)
The purpose of this article is to provide a general overview of thehistory and principles of major esoteric healing traditions, withan emphasis on their commonalities. By esoteric healing,” whatis meant are those systems of beliefs, practices, and teachings onhealth, healing, and medicine that are associated with ancient,hidden, initiatory, and/or extant but nonmainstream spiritualpaths and metaphysical traditions that preserve secret wisdomon transcendental themes. Naturally, this covers an immenseamount of territory; to do this topic justice would require abook-length manuscript. This article intends simply to offer aconcise survey of the health-related features of major esotericsystems, from ancient initiatory traditions of East and West tothe new age movement of the past quarter century.
Healthcareproviders will benefit from a basic level of familiarity with thesephenomena, as their concomitant beliefs and practices—espe-ciallyofthenewagevariety—havebecomeincreasinglyacceptedand adopted by a growing segment of the healthcare-consumingpublic, especially in regard to diagnosis and treatment.
More-over, as will be discussed, many concepts derived from esoterichealing traditions are interwoven throughout the main currentsof complementary and alternative medicine.This article comprises four sections. First, a brief conceptualoverview is provided of the esoteric realm. This includes a defi-nition of terms and a discussion of the connections and corre-spondences of beliefs and practices within respective esotericsystemsofhealingandreligion.Second,majorclassesofesotericsystems are reviewed, with an emphasis on the role of medicineand healing within these systems’ core teachings. These systemsare discussed within eight general categories: the kabbalistic tra-dition, the mystery school tradition, the gnostic tradition, thebrotherhoodstradition,theEasternmysticaltradition,theWest-ern mystical tradition, the shamanic tradition, and the new agetradition. Third, a description is provided of where these healingtraditions converge in terms of characteristic features of their beliefs and practices. This discussion focuses on issues related toanatomy and physiology; nosology and etiology; pathophysiol-ogy; and therapeutic modalities. Finally, implications of thissurvey of esoteric healing are discussed. These include specificimplications for clinicians, biomedical researchers, and medicaleducators.
Contemporary religious scholars typically differentiate two gen-eral types of religious expression. One, the outer or exotericpath, comprises forms of expression associated with formal reli-gious institutions and publicly known belief systems. The be-liefs, practices, and trappings of the historic religions and de-nominations constitute exoteric religion. The exoteric is thereligion of Roman Catholic popes, Jewish
, theMuslim
, the Hindu
, the Jain
, the Ti-betan Buddhist lineages, organized worship liturgies, congrega-tional prayers and rituals, religious holidays and festivals, dog-mas and doctrines, theological seminaries—in short, the publicface of religion.By contrast, the inner or esoteric religious path represents themystical, symbolic, hidden, or initiatory way of connecting withGod or the cosmos. Esoteric religion is the stuff of meditation,gnosis, arcane and secretive teachings, gurus, initiation, physicalausterities and exercises, and concomitant mystical, transcen-dent, or unitive states of consciousness. A common observationof both scholars and mystics is that although exoteric religionsmay differ dramatically in their expressions of spirituality acrossthe many “dimensions of the sacred”
—that is, in terms of ritualpractices, beliefs, historical myths, cultic activities, sanctionedexperiences, liturgy, sacred architecture, and polity—features of their respective esoteric, or inner, paths converge along a com-mon core path. This underlying esoteric meta-path has beendenoted with a variety of terms: the “primordial tradition,”
1 Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC#
Corresponding Author.
© 2008 by Elsevier Inc. Printed in the United States. All Rights Reserved
EXPLORE March/April 2008, Vol. 4, No. 2
ISSN 1550-8307/08/$34.00 doi:10.1016/j.explore.2007.12.003
“secret wisdom,”
the “forgotten truth,”
the “ancient theology,”
the “ageless wisdom,”
and “the Path.”
Although most (but not all) exoteric religions seem to possessan esoteric counterpart, not all esoteric paths have an identifi-able exoteric counterpart—either now or historically. Esotericspiritual paths do, however, typically have associated with themparticular beliefs and practices related to health, healing, andmedicine. The near universality of this observation perhapsspeaks to the inextricable connection of body, mind, and spiritand a rejection of the modern tendency to conceive of humanbeings strictly in mechanistic terms.
Moreover, just as re-spective exoteric religious and medical traditions appear cor-related (eg, the individual-oriented, demystified, rationalizedmaterialism of both mainline Protestantism and allopathicbiomedicine; the nondualism of both contemplative Hinduismand A
yurveda), so too do respective esoteric cosmological andhealing systems go hand in hand. Further, just as there appearsto be a “perennial philosophy”—a common esoteric spiritualtradition—so it stands to reason that esoteric healing traditionsexhibit common elements. This is explored in the third sectionof this article.The section that follows briefly outlines the health- and med-ical-relatedbeliefsandpracticesespousedbyseveralcategoriesof esoterictraditions.Thesecategoriesarebynecessityratherbroad(eg, the brotherhoods, shamanic, and new age traditions), andwithin each category passing reference may be made to multipleesoteric systems, which may or may not be historically con-nected. The objective here is not to provide encyclopedic detail,but rather a concise overview of key facts and features, withcitation of helpful sources.
As noted earlier, the term esoteric covers a lot of conceptualground. Several distinct esoteric traditions, or classes of esotericsystems, can be identified. Although in their respective beliefsand concomitant practices and rituals these traditions are notentirely discrete (ie, there is considerable overlap in both historyandcontent),theytendtoself-identifyasuniquegatewaystothehypothetical esoteric realms. This section provides a brief sum-mary overview of the history and most basic principles of thesystems of healing propounded by these major esoteric tradi-tions.
 The Kabbalistic Tradition
The Hebrew word
means “tradition” and refers to themystical tradition within Judaism.
The kabbalistic traditioncomprises key literary works, such as the
, an esoteric com-mentary on the Hebrew Bible, and the
Sefer Y’tzirah
, a discourseon metaphysical and numerological features of creation, energy,matter, and higher consciousness, as well as other works bymedieval Jewish mystics. Kabbalah encompasses two mainbranches. Speculative or theoretical kabbalah is concerned withthe nature of God, man, and the universe. This dimension of kabbalistic exploration is responsible for many esoteric conceptswell known outside of strictly kabbalistic circles: the
etz chayyim
,or tree of life; the
, or spherical energy centers connectingthe transcendent to the manifested world; the four worlds or planes of manifestation (known as
, and
and corresponding, roughly, to the familiar causal, men-tal, astral, and physical planes of Theosophy); the
, or divine presence; the
ein sof  
, or infinite void that preceded cre-ation; and the art of 
, or scriptural interpretation basedupon the numerological identity of the Hebrew letters. Practicalkabbalah emphasizes spiritual practices such as meditation asmeans of mystical union with God. The principles of practicalkabbalah also inform the magickal work of Western occultistsseeking to control and harness the energies of the universe for ritualpurposes.AlthoughmodernJewishscholarsgenerallycon-sider popular writing on the latter as a lurid distortion of kabbal-istic teachings, even “practically worthless,”
it has reached thepublic eye in recent years through the activities of assorted rock stars and Hollywood celebrities and has contributed to currentmisperceptions of kabbalah.Concurrent with the development of practical kabbalah over the past millennium—and possibly predating it, if traditionalsources are correct—there has risen a stream of Jewish folk med-icinebasedonequalpartsBiblicalandrabbinicteachings,ontheone hand, and speculative kabbalah, on the other. The encyclo-pedic
Biblical and Talmudic Medicine 
for example, reads like acomprehensive medical textbook, outlining etiologic, patho-physiological, and therapeutic information culled from the To-rah and from Talmudic and Midrashic sources. Contemporaryscholars have taken this material and, armed with insights fromkabbalistic mysticism, have written treatises expounding on hu-mananatomy,
and describing the diagnostic or therapeutic efficacyofphenomenasuchasdivination
Muchofthismaterial is attributed to rabbinic scholars, sages, and mystics,including Jewish medieval philosopher-physician Moses benMaimonides, who wrote at length on medical topics.
Kabbal-istic insights into health, disease, and healing are also accessibleto individuals armed with the requisite knowledge of 
toenable identification of the hidden meaning of Biblical texts.
Kabbalistic beliefs about health and illness and approaches tohealing are central to what Epstein has termed the “Westernspiritual medical tradition.”
Among the seminal contributionsof this ancient system of “Hebraic medicine,” according to Ep-stein,
istheideaof“thebodymindunity”—theinseparabilityof bodyandmind.Onecannotevenspeakofcauseandeffectwhendescribing their interconnection. This is in contrast to other morerecentlyemergentsystemsofholistichealingthatacknowl-edge linkages between body and mind and attribute illness andhealing to mental or emotional agency, yet still view body andmind as distinct, if connected, entities. This perspective on theessential oneness of body and mind is clearly informed by kab-balistic principles, such as the idea that all manifestation anddifferentiation are the result of a common identity as “sparks”emanating from the Creator.
 The Mystery School Tradition
In the few centuries preceding the Common Era, secret cults of initiation flowered in the Greco-Roman world, including Egyptand much of Asia Minor. These societies, led by hierophants,
EXPLORE March/April 2008, Vol. 4, No. 2 Esoteric Healing Traditions
offered graded instruction in the divine mysteries that governedboth cosmogony—the creation and origins of the universe—andthe spiritual evolution and self-actualization of individual seek-ers. Among the most celebrated schools were those preservingand ceremonializing the Eleusinian, Orphic, and Dionysianmysterieswithcommunalactivities,rites,andfestivals.
Acom-mon theme of mystery school teachings was that divine revela-tion is accessible to sufficiently prepared and initiated suppli-cants or students. Among the most lasting and influentialsources of such revelation was the god-man Hermes Trismegis-tus, a hybrid of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. TheHermetic school was founded to pass along revelations on oc-cult and scientific matters to initiates.
In Angus’ classic and authoritative work,
The Mystery-Reli-  gions
mystery schools are described as arcane religions charac-terized by emphases on symbolism, redemption, gnosis, emo-tion-inducing sacramental drama, eschatology, personal rebirth,and cosmic interest. For the individual seeking reception by arespectiveschool,candidacycomprisedthreestages:
,or preparation and probation, including the swearing of secretvows;
, or initiation and communion, for purposes of beginning the process of regeneration; and
, or experi-ence of an epiphany or theophany, leading to blessedness andsalvation, or even immortality. Initiation was the central act inthis drama, from the individual’s perspective, and the fulcrumby which any subsequent knowledge or experience was gained.Specifically, initiation into the mysteries sought “to ‘open theimmortal eyes of man inwards’: exalt his powers of perceptionuntil they could receive the messages of a higher degree of real-ity.”
In practice, this consisted of experiencing a ritual death of the physical body and subsequent resurrection into a new bodywith new capabilities of drawing down gnosis, or secret wisdom,often regarding the functioning of the body itself .
Much of the information received by initiates thus spoke tomatters related to normal and pathological physiology and tothe salutogenic process by which pathophysiological statescould be reversed. Nearly all of the ancient civilizations thatsponsored mystery schools (Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Phoeni-cia, India, Iran, Greece, and Rome) also hosted a pantheon of deities accessible to oracles, priests, and initiates for purposes of facilitating healing.
Through associated norms and rituals gov-erning interaction and communion with these sources of gnosis,the beliefs and practices promulgated by the mysteries, as far asmedicine was concerned, were ubiquitous and widespread.Across schools, deep fonts of revealed wisdom were availableconcerninghowtounderstandandapproachhealthone’sown,thatofanotherperson,andintheory—andhowtoeffectphysicalhealing.
Within the Greek healing cult of Aesclepius, for ex-ample, initiated priest-physicians oversaw great healing templesand shrines, operated medicinal springs, diagnosed and treateddisease through interpreting patients’ dreams, and marshaled atherapeutic armamentarium that correlates with what todaywould be termed natural hygiene: fresh air, clean water, sounddiet, and wholesome personal habits. The most famous Aes-clepian initiate was Hippocrates, whose reforms hastened theevolution of medicine from metaphysical to scientific disci-pline.
 The Gnostic Tradition
In the couple of centuries before and after the time of Jesus, apair of sectarian religious traditions respectively flourished inthe Holy Land. The Essenes, a minor branch of Judaism, andthe gnostics, a name much later given to a class of Christianheresies, were distinctive and mostly unrelated movements.But they were similar in certain respects and shared somecommon influences. In contradistinction to the nascent rab-binic Judaism of the day, the Essenes were monastic, oftencelibate, communal, pacifistic, and vegetarian. According tothe first-century writings of Josephus, they were believers infate and in the immortality of the soul, stressed the impor-tance of personal righteousness, and “live the same kind of life as do those whom the Greeks call Pythagoreans,”
one of the mystery schools of antiquity. The Dead Sea Scrolls, acache of manuscripts uncovered between 1947 and 1956, pro-vide a glimpse into the religious and secular life of theQumra
n community, believed to be Essene.Contemporaneously, the discovery in 1945 of about a dozenCoptic codices in Nag Hammâdi, Egypt, provided access to thebeliefs and practices of various groups of early Christians whoseheterodox views about God, Jesus, and the nature of the worldandofhumanbeingssetthemapartfromthehegemonicRomanchurch.
Like the Essenes, the gnostics were typically monasticand ascetic, they were contemplative, and they affirmed thepossibility of mystical insight into man’s higher nature and thenatureofGodandcreation,agnosisthattheearlychurchfatherscould not tolerate.
Both Essenes and gnostics were character-ized by dualistic beliefs—in heaven and hell, good and evil, lightand darkness, body and soul—possibly through exposure to Zo-roastrianinfluences.
Thecombinationofmystical,ascetic,anddualistic ideations, especially with respect to the human body,promulgated a vaguely shared perspective on the maintenanceof health and on healing.A possible link between the Essenes and gnostics may bethe Therapeutae, a monastic order of healers famously de-scribed by Philo in his
De Vita Contemplativa 
The Thera-peutae are thought to be an offshoot of the Essenes who later established themselves near Alexandria, Egypt. Philo’s writingpostdated the demise of the sect, and much of what is popu-larly believed about the Therapeutae, especially derived fromcontemporary writings of modern neo-Essene groups, is likelyspeculative at best or apochryphal.
According to Philo, theTherapeutae resorted to fasting and prayer, were “devotedwholly to meditation and to the practice of virtue,” and,significantly, “process an art of medicine more excellent thanthat in general use in cities (for that only heals bodies, but theother heals souls).”
They were more contemplative than thepractical Essenes, and their monastic self-reflection is specu-lated to be an influence on the gnostics, whose own sacredwritings contain references to healing that are resonant withpsychodynamic theories and the kinds of inner work charac-teristic of transpersonal and humanistic therapies. The Gos-pel of Thomas, for example, attributes to Jesus the following:“If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will saveyou. If you do not have that within you, what you do not havewithin you will kill you” (Saying 70).
Esoteric Healing Traditions EXPLORE March/April 2008, Vol. 4, No. 2

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