The "Great Work"

Nick Sandberg


In this piece I'm going to try and relate a little of the spirit and content of what I believe the so-called "Great Work" of the occultists to be all about. And also look at how this "Holy Grail" of the esoteric traditions may remain relevant to both our day-to-day life and future as a race.

And in writing I was presented with one major problem. Namely, that none of the bodies involved in the "Great Work" - the various esoteric and "mystery" schools still active in the East and West - actually write directly about it as it applies to the future of the human race. Instead, they write about it, in heavily cloaked symbolism, as it applies to the individual. And from this the discernerning student may draw understanding of its significance within the wider framework.

It should therefore be born in mind that this whole piece is primarily intuitive. And the reader should feel absolutely free to accept or reject it, in whole or in part, as he or she sees fit. I derived the greater part of my knowledge of the subject matter through studying the writings of Paul Foster Case, a highly-regarded US esotericist of the first half of the twentieth century, well connected with major Western groups of the period. All references to "occult thought", "esoteric belief" or similar should be regarded as being my interpretation of his ideas and writings.

The Great Work

"Nature unaided always fails" - occult maxim

The so-called "Great Work" of the occultists is at the heart of all esoteric activities in both the East and the West. And the "completion" of this "Great Work" is alluded to via a multiplicity of euphemisms scattered across numerous fields. It is the "Grail" of classical mythology. It is the "Philosphers Stone" of alchemy. It is the "Wish-fulfilling jewel" of classical Buddhism. And it is the "reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" of the Bible, to name but a few.

"Completing the Great Work" is the goal of all serious esoteric endeavour. And there are two related but distinct fields in which activities to this end are undertaken.

Firstly, the microcosm - the human body. Completing the Great Work in the microcosm is the supreme accomplishment of the individual magical practitioner. Here, having completed the Great Work means that one is freed from the constant need to die and reincarnate. He or she in future exists as a "God-realised" immortal soul in a dimension above the physical. Great powers of healing are granted to the individual who has completed the Great Work for the remainder of their earthly existence.

And, secondly, the macrocosm - the world. The completion of the Great Work is here seen as being the Divine goal of the human species. And, indeed, of the aterial world itself. Occultists regard the current level of human evolution as being only part-complete, the human mind being the area that is still lacking. And that in order to finish the job, it is believed that great effort will be required. This need for individual effort, and especially the correct management of resources, (as opposed to just sitting back and letting it happen), is referred to in an maxim found at the heart of the occult traditions - "Nature unaided always fails."

In attempting to impart just how important these traditions regard the completion of their task to be, readers should note that the believed impact of this next phase of human evolution will not be restricted to our species. But instead apply to the whole of the material world, the whole of creation. For, to occultists, (and many modern physicists), how the world is relates to our average evolved ability to perceive it. Thus, as our mind evolves beyond its current level, so will follow all of creation. Things exist in the way they do because that is the way we perceive them.

And this statement gives allusion to the true meaning of the word "completion", as here used. Occultists believe that the cycle of the descent of Spirit into matter is completed with the return of matter to Spirit. And that it is human consciousness that will effect the final transformation and thus complete the so-called "path of return".

Spirit, matter and consciousness

In order to comprehend the significance of the Great Work and to put its completion into perspective, it will be necessary to briefly look at some aspects of occult cosmology.

In esoteric traditions, the existence of a "primordial substance" is recognised and referred to by various names such as "prakriti", or "prima materia". Here we shall call it "primal matter".

Primal matter is what matter is prior to it being observed. When it is looked at, it takes on the appearance of what we call "matter".

The occult orders that I have looked at believe that, at the inception of our universe, primal matter descended from the Divine domain in a spontaneous act of creation, as referred to in the book of Genesis. And, simultaneously, began to seek its return. In traditional religious literature, the domain of the Divine is often referred to as "heaven", and the domain of primal matter as "earth". These two are sometimes pictured as being like the earth and sky in a child's painting. And flowing between the Divine and the primal matter is "Spirit". When Spirit first strikes the primal matter, after the act of creation, primal matter is so captivated by the experience that it immediately begins to seek a means by which it can be intensified. And in order for primal matter to experience more intensely this spiritual presence, it needs to form itself into structures that can focus Spirit upon it.

These structures are living organisms. The act of being conscious, of being aware of ones surroundings, to the occultist, is the act of focussing Spirit onto primal matter. The primal matter therefore begins to lust after consciousness. For, the more consciousness there is, the more it experiences its Divine source. Having developed itself into primitive "vessels of consciousness" such as plants, primal matter then learns to evolve further into animals, and finally into human form. From this perspective, the human being therefore represents the best effort thus far that primal matter has come up with to experience its Divine source.

And, as the world only looks the way it does because of our level of consciousness, so the act of being conscious not only allows primal matter to experience its source, but also transmutes it back toward its origin. In relation to the Great Work, therefore, humans are simply highly evolved vessels of consciousness, driven into existence by the underlying desire of primal matter to know its creator. In esoteric terms, this is the true force behind the evolutionary process.

The World around us.

The material world that appears to us when we open our eyes may thus be regarded as fundamentally a product of the reaction between Spirit and two aspects of primal matter - the human being and its surroundings. The world is thus seen as essentially an interface that spontaneously arises when Spirit acting through primal matter as human consciousness interacts with primal matter in a less evolved state.

The process is vaguely analogous to that by which a graphical user interface, such as Windows 95, arrives on our computer screen when we switch the power on. Spirit is represented by the electricity, primal matter as human consciousness by the software, and less evolved primal matter by the hardware. The result being the creation of a simulatory environment that we can manipulate to perform information processing.

Occult thought holds that our world is similar. And that it became manifest by a similar procedure. Western esoteric orders, for instance, believe that, at the inception of our universe, a series of elementary processes sequentially unfolded and "locked" together creating a set of field harmonic intervals that ultimately took the form of a three dimensional environment into which a higher aspect of the unfolding process, a "soul", could take physical form and interact with other souls and part-evolved aspects of primal matter, (the environment). And, within this interactive framework, the action of being aware transmutes the raw primal matter into whatever it is perceived as.

At our current state of mental evolution, we convert primal matter into a highly objective series of apparently external "objects" that we can manipulate, and that we typically term the "material world". But, occultists believe, as the evolution of consciousness proceeds, so we will begin to experience "reality" quite differently. Hints at what this "new reality" will be like are found in the mystical texts of the East.

Higher States

To understand the significance of the occult perspective on evolution within the world of today, it is necessary to look a little at what undertaking the "Great Work" means in the microcosm - the individual human being.

Progress in the Great Work means, as we have seen, evolutionary progress. Particularly evolution of the mind. This process is believed to occur via the action of one, concentrated aspect of Spirit known in the East as kundalini. Perhaps the best term we have in the West for this powerful subtle energy is "libido"

Kundalini, it is believed, is an subtle energy form that is produced in the intestine, from the assimilation of food, and accumulates in the reproductive system of an individual. Here it is initially experienced and released from the body as a sexual energy. But, when certain physical and mental practices are diligently pursued, occultists believe this energy can be diverted from its usual route of dissipation and driven upwards. Specifically, driven up the spine into the head, where it causes certain, specific changes in brain physiology. These changes, amongst them the development of the pineal gland, are seen as the changes in brain "hardware" needed to bring about the evolution of consciousness and afford the individual access to mystical states of consciousness.

As an individual practitioner proceeds with the "Great Work" in the microcosm, he or she becomes a more evolved "vessel of consciousness", and can thus better allow primal matter to "know" its Divine source - better transmute it into Divine, source material. And a key part in this process of "raising kundalini" takes place once sufficient brain hardware is available to allow the individual access to mystical states of consciousness.

Once enough kundalini has been raised to cause a certain level of development to the pineal and related organs of the brain, the individual will begin to periodically experience a mystical state of consciousness known in the East as "samadhi". The state of samadhi is typically characterised by feelings of "ecstatic union with the Divine", "oneness", and the transcendence of space, time and separation. Experiencing this state for brief periods, usually in deep meditation, has the effect of vastly increasing the rate at which kundalini energy is produced and drawn up the subtle energy channels in the spine.

As the point of completion is finally approached the individual will find themselves spending more and more time in enlightened states of consciousness and less and less in ordinary awareness. The sense of separation between apparent objects will begin to diffuse and the world will cease to appear as "here" and "there", and become simply a unified state of Divine awareness.

The World

"Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust" - Isaiah 26:19

The sequence of events of the Great Work in the macrocosm is pretty much the same as that in the microcosm.

The driving force behind the desire of primal matter to return to its source is Spirit. It is Spirit, this emanation of the Divine, that drives primal matter to evolve itself into vessels of consciousness. And it is Spirit, in a particularly concentrated aspect, that manifests itself within living organisms as the evolutionary energy, kundalini.

And, just as the human body is "bootstrapped" towards the final stage of its evolution once the individual begins to experience the mystical state of samadhi, so the return of primal matter to its source was greatly accelerated by the evolution of creatures that had self-consciousness - human beings. Human beings, by the simple act of being aware of their surroundings, transmute primal matter into whatever form it takes before their eyes. And once a critical number of people can simultaneously enter the state of samadhi so the whole of physical creation will spontaneously return to its Divine source.

This is what occultists believe the final destiny of mankind, and the physical universe, is - the return of matter to spirit via the action of evolved consciousness. Once a threshold level of consciousness is reached, the process spontaneously commences.

Evolution has thus taken place solely with the intent of allowing primal matter to both know and return to its source. Our physical evolution has been directed by this overwhelming desire of primal matter to know its creator since time and space first unfolded in the spontaneous primal act of creation we know as the Big Bang. We have bodies because bodies are the support system for consciousness. We reproduce and we die because this is the only means by which the physical body can progressively develop into a better transmuter of primal matter. And we have no ultimate need for any form of physical sustenance, (air, food, water, etc), because in the God-realised state all is identified with divinity.

And now we can begin to look at why the various esoteric and mystery schools involved in the Great Work are so obsessed with secrecy.

The Fall

The period commonly known as the Fall, in Biblical terms, represents the point in time when consciousness in humans became sufficiently developed for individuals to comprehend the concepts of "good" and "evil". Plants and animals have, to the best of our knowledge, no comprehension of these concepts because they are insufficiently aware. But as Man developed from his primate background and continued to evolve so there came a time when there was sufficient consciousness for people to become aware of moral concepts and thus commenced the period known as The Fall.

And as we became aware of Good and Evil, so we simultaneously developed the capacity to further the causes of Good or Evil. And herein lay a problem for those ancient adept individuals who, aeons ago, were aware of Man's Divine destiny and purpose. How to guide and direct Man's cultural and physical development without allowing him to become aware of the immense powers locked up within. Particularly as his average level of conscious awareness, and thus curiosity, developed over time. Two aspects of this problem are revealed in a well-known text dealing with the problems of spiritual awakening:

"And this is the record of John when the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask him, 'Who art thou?' And he confessed, and denied not, but confessed, 'I am not the Christ.' And they asked him, 'What then? Art thou Elijah?' And he saith, 'I am not.' 'Art thou that prophet?' And he answered, 'No.' Then they said unto him, 'Who art thou? That we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?' He said, 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord', as said the prophet Isaiah" - John 1:19-23

One esoteric interpretation of the Gospel of John reveals it to be a description of the correct unfolding of spiritual awakening in the individual - the microcosm. In the above early scene, the priests and Levites represent the voices of the ego who, intrigued and disturbed by the new, spiritual presence they find amongst them, begin to question it in order to better comprehend its nature. The presence states emphatically that it is not the Christ, thus telling the individual undergoing the opening stages of a spiritual awakening that they should not identify themselves with the messiah. It then further reveals that it is in fact the voice of the Higher Self, installed in the undeveloped heart, and tells the individual not to divert from the spiritual path.

These two pieces of information given to the individual undergoing spiritual awakening - not to believe themselves to be the Messiah and not to be drawn into material concerns - can of course also be understood with respect to the macrocosm, and the projected mass unfolding of higher consciousness. And it is this notion, the restriction of our cultural development over the last 2,100 odd years - the so-called Piscean Era - that I will endeavour to examine in the next piece in this series.

Nick Sandberg, 2000


The Tarot, Paul Foster Case.
The Book of Tokens, Paul Foster Case
Bible Mystery, Bible Meaning, Thomas Troward
The Tower of Alchemy, David Goddard.
The Kabbalistic Universe, Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi HOME

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