by Karl Schlotterbeck, M.A., C.A.S.
This article describes the psychological power of mystery schools, with examples of how their practices and beliefs affect intrapsychic dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and spiritual development in later lives. Their ideal of integrated and holistic schooling is contrasted with the observed dysfunctional effects when some of their principles are carried over unconsciously and indiscriminately — into broader social contexts in subsequent incarnations.
I know of few things that can excite the imagination as much as the mystery schools of bygone times. The very thought of them evokes images of robed candidates and initiates in their cells or courtyards or libraries, preparing for initiation or seeking illumination.
If you could image yourself as one of these postulants, you might well be awed by the revelations that must be kept from the profane. You might also be apprehensive about the trials that will test your readiness and worthiness to receive those ancient secrets, yet hopeful that the passing of these trials will lead to a more profound connection with the divine.
As you turn from such reveries, you might be tempted to attribute them to the influence of romantic books and movies. Or you might (as I would) find in them some of your own buried memories, calling to you from depths within yourself.
Much of the sacred knowledge of the mystery schools has been lost to us because of the stern prohibitions against revealing it to the inept, the unscrupulous, or the otherwise profane — prohibitions often accompanied by threats of exile or even death. This may help to explain my interest in the memories reported by my clients as part of our past-life therapy sessions.
The Hero’s Journey
The purpose of the initiatory and mystery schools is to investigate the deeper meanings of life’s passages — birth, coming of age, changes of consciousness and social status, death, and life itself — and then to teach and apply their findings. In their quest to delineate man’s place in the universe, they carry a set of implicit values and behavioral expectations.
Modern organizations that meet these criteria might include meditation groups, covens, guru-centered groups, religious orders, religious communities, spiritual communes and the like, as well as organizations that actually call themselves mystery schools. To my mind, true mystery schools not only teach their student initiates, but create experiences for them with the intention of altering their consciousness and their perspective on life.
Initiation is often a formal and ritualized aspect of entry into the mystery school or passage through its stages (often called degrees). In all cases, it marks a transition in life. It is a formal transition of identity, which gives new meaning to what has preceded, as well as to what is expected to follow. A ritual initiation will have both emotional and cognitive impact. Some taste of the symbolic or secret knowledge might be offered — a password given that helps to define the boundary between the in-group and the out-group, or an experience that dramatizes the group purpose at a deeper (I’m tempted to say “archetypal”) level.
Past-life therapy itself is a quest for hidden knowledge. In our sessions we enter a special place where secrets of the inner mind may be revealed to us. In so doing, we initiate our clients — and sometimes ourselves — into a new level of consciousness.
There is often a temptation to over-romanticize the mystery schools, projecting onto them our own ideals of balance, completeness, and centeredness, forgetting that their successes were limited by the simpler methods and languages of their cultures. Yet their striving for growth is surely worthy of our regard. After all, mystery school initiates were asked to leave their secure worlds to experience and internalize the unknown in themselves and the universe around them. That is truly a hero’s journey.
A case involving such a mystery school — more elitist than esoteric — is detailed in my book, (Ballantine, 1987). In his current life, my client found himself in a complicated set of relationships that traced to the overwhelming impact of a previous life he had shared with several of his friends.
In that incarnation, Hale, as he was then named, began his studies with military strategy and then moved into the spiritual realm. His education included all aspects of sexuality, with the idea of equipping him not only to experience personal satisfaction, but to transcend the personal. There was just one overriding rule: On pain of death, teacher and student were forbidden to fall in love with each other. But Hale, the student, and Rachel, the teacher, violated that taboo.
The school authorities, who had never expected this prohibition to be tested, now faced an ugly imperative: the rules required that Hale and Rachel be executed. In his last moments Hale raged over the irony that love was held in such high esteem but was punishable by death.
The executions resulted in the closing of the school by political authorities.
In better times, however, this mystery school was oriented more toward spiritual integration than to suppression and control. This integration was sought through learning about love, the study of astrology, a knowledge of the deities and how to summon them, and, finally, a kind of psychological inventory of each student’s limitations and motivations.
In sum, the basic principles of these mystery schools were: to understand the function of sexual energy so that higher expressions of love could be realized; to experience the unifying power of that energy; to be able to move in harmony with the cosmos and recognize our place in it; to understand and maintain our relationships with the deities and with humankind, and to understand our limitations in order to transcend them in a practical way.
Another client, Shelley, went through a somewhat similar experience in a previous lifetime as a male. In her present life as a hypnotherapist, Shelley was finding it difficult to accept money for her services. In her regression, she found herself, a boy of 13, kneeling in a white marble temple where he had been taken in after spontaneously healing his father’s arm.
Here he was advised to “give thanks for your poverty” and was told that his healing power would leave him if he ever accepted money for his gift. “A gift is that: a gift,” it was explained. “When you give of your gift, you are blessed of the gods.”
The young man was sent out among the masses to teach and to heal, with this further admonition from the Master of Teaching: “The more humble you are, the higher your consciousness rises and the more you are able to do God’s work.” The young healer took these words as coming directly from God and was thus conditioned to believe it was God’s wish that he live in poverty and self-abnegation, lest he lose the gift he had neither sought nor wanted.
Nevertheless, loneliness and unfulfilled personal desires led him to fall from grace and accept a relationship with a woman. When this was discovered, his shame shut down his healing power and carried out the self-fulfilling prophecy. He became a beggar and was eventually murdered in his sleep for his few belongings.
Shelley’s story explains why many devotees of mystic groups find it so difficult to leave the fold and reestablish their personal power. In fact, it required considerable effort to draw her away from her deep-seated belief that accepting money violated the very word of God, and to help her realize that this unmerciful ruling came from the priests. But at the end of our session she said, “The true gift is the knowing [that comes] from your own self.”
Mystery school experiences may profoundly affect personal relationships in subsequent lifetimes, as in the case of Alicia. An attractive 40-year-old woman, Alicia told me that whenever a man came into her life, she would exaggerate his attributes and seek an unrealistically blissful relationship with him. Yet she would invariably find a way to pull him down from the pedestal on which she, herself, had placed him. The last thing she could tolerate in a man was ordinariness. Yet that was what she would always end up with.
In regression, Alicia found herself with a man in an enclosed swimming pool. From within the building came the sound of women laughing. As more memories surfaced, we learned that she had entered this mystery school at a very young age to learn “piercing knowledge, clairvoyance and godly clarity.” The girls here were completely isolated from the world beyond the temple walls. It was impressed on them that the “ordinary” world out there was a dusty place and of no importance. The goal of their spiritual development, they were told, was to “reflect the receptivity” of the Goddess-Moon.
Into the temple, now and then, would come some man from the ordinary world, and Alicia would go into the pool with him. This was where the ordinary men would come to have sexual union with representatives of the goddess; through these women, the goddess would touch them. It always thrilled Alicia to make contact with an ordinary man — to share in his vitality, his simplicity and his childlike lack of understanding. In his company she could feel her body’s connection with the spirit.
In addition, there were some extraordinary men who were connected with the temple. For them, sexual congress was accomplished with a feeling not of the body but of the spirit. Their union with the temple women was the culmination of a mystical event that began with gentle touching and a ritual dance to raise their energies. The times of the full moon were reserved for such union.
The women sought to remain cleansed and purified, free of the contamination of the outside world. They were told that it did not matter who the man was, ordinary or otherwise. Still, Alicia felt a loneliness, for the ordinary men showed her, despite the taboo, a part of life she felt she needed. And when she died, it was with longing for one of the ordinary men she had encountered in the pool.
Her conditioning in the temple had taught Alicia that there was an irreconcilable division between the ordinary and the extraordinary worlds, and that the individual man was of no consequence. Men were to be enjoyed and used for transcendence, but not for themselves.
In her current life, she has sought to bring both poles together, seeing in each man first his specialness and then his ordinariness. In doing so, she also repeats her temple contacts with the ordinary man: He is to be enjoyed for the moment and then discarded before any personal relationship can develop.
Alicia’s story shows the effect of the temple experience on her general attitude toward relationships. However, mystery schools can also have a profound impact on a specific relationship between two people. To understand this fully, it must be realized that past lives are preceded by other past lives. From a temple school of long ago comes the drama of a relationship that has followed one couple all the way into their present life.
Alex and Cheryl were students at a temple school that accepted candidates of both sexes but banned any individual contact between them. The regulation was breached, however, by the mutual attraction of this 14-year-old girl and the young man who was a few years her senior. Their interest in each other was known and monitored, and they were admonished to set aside personal desires so as to be of service to the people and the temple.
Admonitions notwithstanding, Alex found ways to be near Cheryl and eventually managed to meet her in a garden. As he looked into her eyes, he found something hauntingly familiar about them — yet the face seemed not to be her face. Buried in his unconscious was the memory of a previous life in which he and Cheryl had been husband and wife. They had lived happily with their seven children until he died prematurely in an accident. The pressure of these happy but unconscious memories had driven him to seek her out. Thus, when he looked into her eyes, he saw with an inner eye the face that had once brought him such happiness.
They were seen talking together. While their attraction was not judged to be wrongful, it was considered out of place in the temple. Since he was a little older than she, Alex was sent out of the temple on his own. Cheryl might have gone with him, but her desire to serve unselfishly was strong. Besides, in her unconscious was the memory of having to carry on without him after his premature death in their earlier life together. It was a script she had learned well.
With a small bag of belongings, Alex wandered the land from temple to temple, trying to put physical and emotional distance between himself and his beloved. Cheryl remained in the temple and continued her work, specializing in healing both people and plants. She particularly liked working with the children — perhaps because some of the children may have once been hers.
Although she had a good life in the temple, Cheryl was haunted constantly by the pain she had seen in Alex’s eyes as he turned to leave her. No matter how far away he might be, she could still feel his suffering. She would gladly have done anything to avoid hurting him, but the temple had taught her that fulfillment of such a desire had no place in her life of service.
For centuries, Alex carried the pain of rejection and abandonment. It was always with him, like a dissonant background noise, so constant that it never quite intruded into consciousness — until he saw her again.
In their current life, they met at the healing temple of Imhotep at Sakkara, Egypt. They were part of the same tour party and enjoyed each other’s company for nearly two weeks. During this time, Alex became aware of his pain by its sudden absence in Cheryl’s presence. At the end of the tour, he once more walked away with that pain in his eyes, resolved to return to his marriage and do the best he could there. On her part, Cheryl returned to her own marriage and family, determined to remain loyal in her actions, if not in her heart. The parallels between the temple life and this one were remarkable indeed.
Alex was no sooner back with his wife when she, although she knew nothing of the events in Sakkara, demanded her freedom and filed for divorce, leaving him to drift emotionally, with no real home for body or soul. He carried within him the constant echoes of the ecstasy of his happy life with Cheryl in the temple and the pain of their separation.
Even when Cheryl’s marriage broke up two years later, Alex, carrying the old script inside him, had virtually no hope for a reunion. In fact, she remained half a continent away, feeling obligated to keep her son and his father in contact with each other.
Sometimes the secret training of the mystery schools can be usefully integrated into the larger society. In her current life, Carrie had shown a natural facility for hypnosis, as well as other forms of healing which involve the manipulation of subtle energies. She came to me in hopes of finding out about her spiritual and metaphysical origins.
In a previous life, she had been brought into the temple as a child, and felt honored to be there, even though she knew she would miss her parents. She was impressed by the big pillars and high ceilings.
In her adolescence, Carrie learned “The Dance.” Its movements were simple enough for anyone to master, but a certain esoteric knowledge set Carrie’s dancing apart. “It’s what I do in my head,” she explained. “I can use this dance to bring the energy up.”
The dance served as a means of centering. It began with a movement in the hips — “like starting a fire that burns higher and higher,” was the way she described it to me. When she performed before a male audience, her graceful and sensual movements were hypnotic, drawing everybody into the dance. She could feel their energy level rising. She drew that energy into herself and used it to raise her own even higher. As it rose, she glided into an altered state, shaping the energy with movements of her hands. She was in total control of all present. Eventually, she lost all awareness of her audience, intent only on raising the energy in the room.
When she felt the time was right, she moved toward a man lying nearby. Stationing herself behind him, she put her hands near his head and channeled into him the energy she had drawn from the others. It was an act of healing.
Carrie’s story demonstrates the successful transfer of esoteric learning from one life to another. Her training was limited to a select few. Ordinary observers see only the sensuous aspects of her dancing — and that is precisely what she needed to carry out her task. She is still carrying it out.
Esoteric knowledge is not always that well socially integrated. We have regression memories of times when the mystery schools were feared by those in power — memories of ultra-secret meetings, passwords to sort friend from executioner, and a constant sense of imminent danger from tyrannical governments or fearful common folk. But the mystery schools were sometimes quite successful in protecting their advanced students with a safe space for spiritual and psychic activity apart from public contact.
There were also times when a better balance was achieved between the human and the ideal. One of my clients regressed to such a time after we had accessed several traumatic periods in her past lives.
We found her dressed in an off-white toga tied with a brown rope. At 13 or 14, she had been taken into the temple after becoming aware of her healing gifts. While regressed, she reported that in the healing process, she was able to connect with the third eye of her patient, see the illness, contact it, tell the illness how to release itself, and then tell the mind how to let go of it.
Although members had joined the temple for the purpose of healing people, the secrets of healing that they learned there were shared only with others of the group. Everyone seemed to have a specialty, and each specialist chose a protégé to carry on the learning.
Not confined to the temple, members could come and go as they pleased. But outside the temple walls, they traveled in pairs. Some engaged in love affairs, and these were not discouraged as long as they caused no scandals. Nor was marriage downgraded; it was seen as the beginning of a new life.
Thus, this temple navigated expertly between the preservation and the application of its secrets, as well as between organizational survival and the fulfillment of human needs.
The psychological impact of the mystery schools on their initiates is of particular interest to therapists, since its effects may last for centuries, spill into present life, and finally show up in our offices. Clearly, participation in a mystery school must answer certain intrapsychic needs, whether for survival, for belonging, for validation, for self-esteem or for an orientation to life.
Conditioning begins with seclusion or separation from other social bonds. A boundary is marked by psychological or physical barriers between the initiate and the profane. The old identity dies. Penalties for deviance reinforce the boundary, motivating the initiate to stay focused on the task at hand (as defined by the mystery school). To explore alternative paths would result in loss of privilege, status, social bonding, or even life.
One factor that makes this conditioning so hard to dislodge is that the mystery schools do provide genuine psychological rewards: self-esteem at having been “chosen,” a sense of achievement at having overcome the initiation trials, a feeling of purpose and meaning in life. Initiates may also receive acceptance from others in places of power who can help them survive socially or physically. In monastic situations, there is the assurance of food, clothing, shelter and a safe environment.
The rewarding nature of genuine spiritual experiences cannot be overestimated. Unfortunately, the spiritual experience may be identified more with the organization than with the individual’s inner source.
Mythic dramas, including initiation, ideology and ritual, can have such a powerful impact on the initiate that to give up any trauma related to the mystery school experience might be equated with giving up the real truths that were found there.
My personal belief is that the true health and spiritual maturity of mystery schools shows in the way they move their members toward self-realization and personal empowerment as opposed to mindless absorption and personal suppression. Such schools, ideally, represent the protector and nurturer, holding within their sheltering womb the highest knowledge of society.