Dress-Up: The regalia, rituals, roles, and titles of esoteric systems and traditions can all be profoundly meaningful and useful. However, they can also become the focus of a game in which the pretense of performing great and important things becomes a substitute for actually doing them in real life. During such games, a group or individual might even go through the motions of practical inner work, such as an invocation or guided meditation, but there is little to no real shift in consciousness, or there is a lack of follow-through with inner work outside the event itself.
Tea Party: Many of us find great joy in social gatherings with esoteric atmospheres and themes. We can gather with kindred spirits, tell stories, sing, poke fun, laugh, share our latest quandaries and discoveries, and enjoy the good feelings and other benefits of relaxation, belonging, and togetherness. Even so, like Dress-Up, this kind of activity becomes more a game than a real benefit when it serves as a substitute for, or even a barrier to, our inner work rather than a source of motivation, encouragement, and support for actually doing it.
Connect the Dots: Every esotericist knows it can be helpful to study different systems, schools, traditions, authorities, and other sources of information. Our comparisons and contrasts often reveal possibilities of understanding we might have otherwise missed, give us a greater appreciation of the bigger picture of things, and can produce temporary feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. Yet this practice turns into a game as we addictively pursue those feelings, sacrificing more and more time that might have been spent in more productive inner work. It can also become a game of trivia when we begin relishing the acquisition of names, dates, events, and other details that we can recall and toss out at a moment’s notice.
Treasure Hunt: The process of initiation and transformation is very much a process of discovery, and frequently of things that are not easy to come by. A poor reflection of that process is the game of eagerly searching for that next obscure, rare, or highly guarded bit of information, ceremonial experience, meditation, or breathing technique. This is often done with hopes that the next find will somehow magically facilitate a significant realization, awakening, or illumination. But the game of Treasure Hunt becomes most apparent when one realizes that chasing after such things takes precedence over consistently making use of readily available time for inner work.
House of Cards: Keeping and displaying physical tokens and instruments of esotericism can provide inspiring reminders of one’s commitments and aids to actual practice. On the other hand, the accumulation of ceremonial paraphernalia, jewelry, relics, mementos, documents, books, artwork, and so forth, is the House of Cards game when these things are primarily used to support one’s self-image as an esotericist, or when the actual practice of inner work cannot be done in their absence.
Hide and Seek: Many esoteric traditions and teachers speak of the importance of practicing silence, discretion, and humility with regard to one’s inner work and other esoteric activities. The game of Hide and Seek manifests when we adopt attitudes and behaviors of circumspection, reserve, and aloofness in order to give the appearance of knowing and participating in esoteric things.
Why do we play such games?
One possibility is simply failing to recognize that the core of esotericism is the inner work of initiation and transformation. The portrayal of esotericism in popular media can easily give the impression that these games are esotericism. Even self-proclaimed esotericists may unknowingly assume this field is just a more exotic and intriguing form of social and intellectual engagement, and that terms like “inner work,” “initiation,” and “transformation” are just intriguing ways of talking about acquiring a peculiar category of concepts and social status.
There are deeper and more complex reasons for these games, and they are rooted in the fact that the prospect of transformation is inherently threatening to the ego, our personal self, how we know ourselves as unique human beings in this world. Hand in hand with the bright elevating symbolism of awakening, rebirth, peace, and joy, the dark specters of great tests, trials, and death are universally present in esoteric lore. And beneath our superficial thoughts of esotericism lurk powerful questions about who or what we really are, who or what we might become, and how transformation might shake up our lives and relationships. So, while our egos may be very attracted to grandiose visions and the pomp and circumstance of esotericism, there are also deep fears, often hidden from our conscious awareness, of the unknown challenges, demands, and losses we may face in true initiation and transformation.
Understandably, we may not feel up to the task, but our moth-like souls are still drawn to the esoteric light. We might, therefore, use these games to acquire what seem the next best things, which are the trappings, language, and imagery of esotericism, or the facades of initiation and transformation. Even when we recognize the essentialness of inner work, we may use these pastimes to distract and divert ourselves from it, semi-consciously creating the excuse of being too busy with all the other activities of esotericism. Furthermore, we can find opportunities to actually build up our egos through the games of esotericism, taking pride in the exercise of our intellects and comfort in the development of belonging and prestige within esoteric social groups. These positive strokes may reinforce our avoidance of the inner work, and to some degree, we may even convince ourselves that we really are undergoing transformation, when in fact there is more make-believe happening than anything else.
Finally, I’d like to say that catching oneself in these games is no justification for shame, guilt, or self-flagellation; those things can also become games. We’re all human, and we’re programmed, even hardwired, to protect and preserve our egos. Additionally, all of us carry insecurities, existential anxiety, and emotional vulnerability, even when we’re from the most loving and stable backgrounds. And, whatever our reasons might be, including simply being content with the fellowship, fun, and fascination of esotericism, there is no condemnation for choosing not to engage the inner work of initiation and transformation. It can be challenging enough to be honest with ourselves about what we really believe, what we really want, and what we really are or are not willing to do to get it. If the bright light at the core of esotericism is what really draws you, then perhaps you’re ready to stop some of the games and fly closer to the flame of transformation.