Self-Actualization Through Hierarchy: Risks and Rewards

I find myself caught between the tension of rejecting top-down societal constraints imposed by an old, privileged classes bent on control and the desire to preserve ancient principles grown up out of cultural traditions that have a long track record for developing notable individual achievement.

Hierarchy and regimentation is not something I’m a big fan of in most cases. In fact, playing by the rules and being obedient are concepts I have spent my entire life rebelling against. The thought of bowing down to an authority figure gives me the creeps. Nowhere do I feel more strongly about this dynamic of human interaction more so then in the realm of politics. The very notion of an individual or small group of powerful elites enacting a monolithic standard of ethics and moral law is the epitome of unnatural subversion against free people. It truly makes my stomach churn. These abusive and liberty corroding control systems play out in any number of other social arenas such as can be found in education, law enforcement, workplaces and within the family unit.

Patterns of hierarchical control and concentrations of power have been a part of human history for so long it’s easy to understand why we more or less accept such arrangements as perfectly natural and downright necessary. Without an elite cast to look out for the interests of the lesser masses, we imagine wide outbreaks of famine, chaos and violence spreading like a plague from coast to coast. It becomes incredibly difficult to make a strong case for abolishing hierarchy in favor of horizontal networks of cooperation when history has so few examples of successful free societies to offer. The lust for power and control looms like a dark shadow across all cultures of our world – quick to snuff out even a whiff of transgression against the authority of the state.

When educated and free-spirited people appear with anarchistic models of freedom that attempt to work out in reasonable ways how we can operate outside of the triangular paradigm of trickle-down liberty, it brings about a real crisis of conscience as to what sorts of social arrangements are most harmonious to our fundamental humanity. Do we need to be ruled by the “strong,” the “learned,” or the “exceptional?” Or should we be completely free, only answering to ourselves, disregarding titles or ranks? Is there a legitimate place and function for hierarchy, or is it as a rule, a manifestation of a corrupt dark side of the psyche that has fallen for the seduction of power?

I don’t have any simple or quick answers to satisfy the depth and breadth such a topic deserves. What I would like to explore are the arenas in my own experience in which I have found hierarchy and a limited role of authority not only acceptable but an attractive path for personal development and growth. The teacher-student relationships that characterize many fields of specialized learning and training have provided a level of accessible engagement for most of us entering unfamiliar and complex fields of study to such an extent that I’m hard-pressed to believe that personal mastery of such arts and crafts are attainable without some degree of acceptance of such a relationship.

While I favor the dismantling of hierarchical political power to better free the individual and honor the God-given principle of sovereignty, I favor small-scale and localized models of hierarchy for the dispersal of self-empowering tools of wisdom and skill crafts. Under those conditions, we will have individuals who are in a much better physical, spiritual and mental conditioning to thrive in a more horizontally deconstructed political climate.

Graded systems of learning go back centuries, with Rome’s Cult of Mithras serving as one example. In the Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda there is an entry “Mithras”, which states “no one was permitted to be initiated into them (the mysteries of Mithras), until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests.” We can see many more of these schools extending forward in history from the Rosicrucian orders to the lodges of Freemasonry. In the Middle Ages we find the establishment of an organized system for the training and development of knights, based on longstanding relationships between young aspirants and their senior mentors.

These days there are many self-styled gurus and masters of the occult or martial arts just to name a few examples. Self-taught practitioners who have trained with YouTube videos and books in their own living rooms have tried to convince others that entry into a school or temple of learning has become irrelevant due to advances in technology. These are people who scoff at tradition or the notion of lineage. Honoring past masters and paths of wisdom tracing back hundreds of years means nothing to them. The idea of ancestor devotion or paying respects is beneath them or simply a superstition at best. Perhaps I would buy into the same post-modern individualism if for not having my own direct contact with entering into such schools and temples to be able to compare my results and comprehension there against the limited gains I’ve acquired working alone.

Many really great practitioners across a wide variety of fields often do retain a teacher even after decades of study. It is however possible that one may not always need a direct teacher. Sometimes an individual can naturally outgrow their master and need to branch out on their own to continue to grow. On the flipside, an impatient or ego driven person will break off to gain the position and stature of being a teacher themselves while offering a less than coherent path to their future adherents. How often do we see new schools of martial arts, yoga studios or spiritual temples open up only to discover a muddled hodge-podge of teachings repackaged and presented as something new?

The temptation to claim personal titles of our own devising is strong. The urge for status or the harnessing of social influence exists in the fields of self-development as much as they do in the realm of the political. We expect a greater purity and idealism from people who dwell in spirit work, but experience shows us the pitfalls of power, are all too commonplace there too.

That being the case, why should I not advocate solitary practice as a skeptical rule? There are a few factors that I find compelling enough to endorse wadding through potentially dangerous waters in the hopes of finding authentic teachers. An authentic and inspiring teacher fulfills a role that I believe still has a place in our culture as it had in ancient China, India or Africa. The Wise Man, Shaman, Sifu, Priest, Mage or Guru have become symbolic archetypes across the world for a reason. These are experienced and disciplined men and women who have risen to a place of mastery through decades of their own study and practice, more often than not, under the tutelage from their own teachers. They do not hold perfect knowledge but their insights are hard earned.

When a teacher is humble and filled with a genuine desire to transmit what they have learned in order to keep a tradition or experience alive, their students can rise up and amass tools and skills that have been battle tested and proven over time. Of course, nothing can replace personal exploration of such techniques to test whether or not they are suitable for the given individual. This is quite a natural outcome of taking on any skilled tradition or practical system.

A true teacher understands that not all people learn or adopt tools in the exact same way. No art is meant to be as rigid as a cookie-cutter. However, I have found mentor models to be invaluable for getting any practice going, whether it is creative design, ritual magick or martial art. Tiered and level based training provides a framework for basic operation and advancement. I have never worked with a teacher that didn’t also advocate for personalization or evolution to any system, once their student has gone through the trouble of internalizing the basic fundamentals.

The trouble as I see it is in the mentality of skipping over completely the humbling process of trying, failing and persevering through a coherent system of development under the misguided and naïve presumption that anything they think of doing is just as valid as material that has been honed and refined over centuries of labor.

Everybody wants a quick fix, a fast track or instant credentials. Otherwise, why bother? In the digital age, all learning and knowledge seems easily accessible. The confusion comes from believing accessibility leads to actual ability. As far as I know, there are no shortcuts in the realms of spiritual, creative or physical excellence. This is precisely the value I find in ancient teachings and practices. Personally, I find that they act as some measure of counterbalance to the unnatural demands the digital-age mind has come to make in an era of instant gratification. Fewer people are bothering to take the time to learn in the flesh due to the perception that we can all know anything with just a few clicks. As an experiment, simply face off a self-taught, Internet novice of martial arts against a student trained under a master in real-time at a physical dojo. It will be obvious which path leads to effective results. (The Internet is an invaluable tool, to be used for certain, most effectively in conjunction with some face-to-face interactivity.)

Honest spiritual wisdom is much harder to outwardly gauge, but spending time listening to what a person has to say and offer goes a long way in alerting our intuitions to hollow claims. Internet gurus set off all kinds of alarm bells when they claim to be able to transmit the secrets of the ages for a nominal digital currency transaction. Unfortunately, our intuitions don’t function without error, even when we met an alleged teacher in the flesh. Many a masterful con artist has swindled large numbers of people out of time, money and mental space. This does happen and we can only do our best to vet our potential teachers as well as we can before making any commitments to enter into a relationship with them. It is incumbent upon the student to exercise common sense and have a healthy skepticism about whether or not a person lives up to the task of being a legitimate and honest advisor.

There is a real danger when a person enters this territory coming from a place of desperation or blind-faith. Often times this is a necessary phase of growth where we come to realize the risks in uncritically submitting ourselves to an unworthy guru who prays upon the weakness of the lost and vulnerable. This happens quite often in spiritual self-realization scenarios, but is just as likely to happen to someone in a martial arts environment. Unhealthy expectations paired with a lack of healthy self-esteem and personal identity can lead to disaster with consequences ranging from brainwashed delusion, financial ruin or in the worse case, death. We only need to recall cults like Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown or the Order of the Solar Temple to see how tragic it is when thoughtless devotion is given over to a teacher who has gone off the rails.

As Manly P. Hall brought to attention in his text, Words to the Wise: A Practical Guide to the Esoteric Sciences, “The legitimate schools of the ancient wisdom, and the legitimate teachers of the doctrine offer spirituality to no one. They merely indicate a path of action, which, if followed with consecration and intelligence over a long period of years, will result in certain improvement of character and knowledge.”

Proceeding with caution is a must but I do advise walking out the journey – messy as it can be. Keeping one’s wits is imperative. With the right amount of discernment, we are able to find life-altering spaces and relationships for boundless inner-growth. It must also be noted that through finding a quality teacher, we can then become connected with typically high-quality peers that end up being just as valuable to our progression and commitment as the teacher. Our contemporaries working alongside us on the arduous road often fill in many gaps left by the teacher. No teacher is flawless or suited to cover every nuance that will be faced by wide ranges of unique individuals. A teacher worthy of the title wants nothing to do with being placed on a pedestal of idolization.

While centralizing information and curriculum can lead to abuse, there are very practical reasons for dividing and segmenting lessons. In a healthily functioning environment whether it be a Freemasonic lodge, magical order or dojo; the graded dispersal of teaching is for the benefit of the student. Growing the students inner and outer powers without providing checks and balances against arrogance and recklessness is considered irresponsible in traditional disciplines. I think we can all agree it would be in bad form to dispense incredibly powerful physical and mental tools to the wrong sort of character. This has and is a long-standing rationale for keeping these secret teachings guarded and protected for the sake of our society at large.

In the classic book, Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams explained the teacher-student relationship this way – “The martial arts sensei is very much like the Zen master; he has not sought out the student, nor does he prevent him from leaving. If the student wants guidance in climbing the steep path to expertise, the instructor is willing to act as a guide – on the condition that the student be prepared to take care of himself along the way. The instructor’s function is to delegate to the student exactly those tasks which he is capable of mastering, and then leave him as much as possible to himself and his inner abilities. The student may follow in the footsteps of his guide or choose an alternative path – the choice is his.”

When entered into on a voluntary basis, hierarchy in this context is a mark of emotional and mental maturity on the part of the aspirant. It’s not a sign of old-fashioned hang-ups from a Victorian age, but one of being rooted in timeless principles of humility, reverence, and earnestness. The freedom to leave a system to pursue another is critical. In this sense we clearly see the marked difference between soul-crushing and destructive hierarchies and the varieties that lead to soul enrichment and liberation.

We are all students for a lifetime. An abandonment of this attitude strikes me as a mark of a culture that has lost its philosophical footing and risks sacrificing the development of excellence moving into the next generation for the sake of chasing fads or appealing to a consumer mindset. Beware of the frauds and predators but don’t isolate yourself from a teacher or system that can present a genuine path that that is incomparably marked by rubbing shoulders with other breathing and thinking beings. That, I would argue is the truly revolutionary action to take.

Jeff Wolfe is a practitioner of Okinawan Shidokan Shorin Ryu Karate and the artist/writer of the blog, Secret Transmissions.

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